Why The Net Matters: How the Internet Will Save Civilization. By David Eagleman, Canongate Books, 2010. (For iPad)
Reviewed by Seth Mnookin
Unless you landed at Download the Universe with the mistaken impression that it’s a new torrent aggregator, chances are you’re already familiar with David Eagleman, the 40-year-old Baylor College of Medicine neuroscientist/author/futurist. Perhaps you’re one of the millions of people around the world who was dazzled by Sum, Eagleman’s breathtaking, oftentimes brilliant, collection of short stories about the afterlife—or perhaps it was Incognito, Eagleman’s exploration of the unconscious, that caught your eye. (It’s not everyday, after all, that a pop-sci book pulls off the tricky balancing act of simultaneously appealing to the cognoscenti and the hoi polloi.)
Or maybe you haven’t read any of his books. Maybe you heard him on Radiolab, offering his interpretation for why time seems to slow down during moments of heightened awareness or explaining how walking can be understood as the transformation of falling into forward motion. Maybe you first encountered Eagleman in a recent profile, like the NOVA special that aired last February or the 9,000-word New Yorker piece that ran last April or the Houston Magazine spread in which Eagleman, decked out head-to-toe in Versace, was featured as one of 2011’s “Men of Style.”
If your enthusiasms tend more toward the musical realm, perhaps Eagleman first appeared on your radar when he and Brian Eno performed together st the Sydney Opera House; or, if you’re more a Black Flag than Talking Heads and U2 type of person, maybe it was the time he interviewed Henry Rollins about dreams at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City.
Or maybe you’re like me, and you can no longer remember when you first became aware of Eagleman and his work--you just know you’re curious about whatever it is he decides to tackle next because it will inevitably be interesting and erudite and thought-provoking and, in all likelihood, fun.
On the other hand, it just might not: In order to make his point, Eagleman either ignores or doesn’t bother to look for any evidence that might undercut it. The first of six “random access” chapters that make up the bulk of Why The Net Matters is devoted to “Sidestepping Epidemics,” like the smallpox outbreak that helped bring down the Aztec Empire. In the future, Eagleman writes, the “protective net,” in the form of telemedicine, telepresence (“the ability to work remotely via computer”), and sophisticated information tracking, will save us from these outbreaks. That all sounds lovely, but what of the fact that we’re currently experiencing a resurgence in vaccine-preventable diseases such as measles...a resurgence which is fueled in no small part by misinformation spread over that very same “protective net”?
A few chapters later, in a section celebrating the benefits of the hive mind, Eagleman invokes Soviet pseudoscientist Trofim Lysenko, a famed quack who took over the U.S.S.R.’s wheat production under Stalin. Because the Soviet Union spanned 13 time zones, Eagleman writes, “central rule-setting was disastrous for wheat production. … Part of the downfall of the USSR can be traced to this centralization of agricultural decisions.” That sounds nice, and might even be true—but it’s not a point that’s supported by Lysenko, whose main shortcoming was not that he believed in a one-size-fits-all approach; it was that he was a fraud.
Moving to the present day, Eagleman addresses wildfires that swept through Southern California in 2007, which, he writes, “brought into relief the relationship between natural disasters and the internet.”
At the beginning of the outbreak in October, Californians were glued to their television screens, hoping to determine if their own homes were in danger. But at some point they stopped watching the televisions and turned to other sources. A common suspicion arose that the news stations were most concerned with the fate of celebrity homes in Malibu and Hollywood; mansions that were consumed by the flames took up airtime in proportion to their square footage, which made for gripping video but a poor information source about which areas were in danger next. So people began to post on Twitter, upload geo-tagged cell phone photos to Flickr, and update Facebook.
I had been fairly obsessed with the wildfires, and since I didn’t remember this “common suspicion,” I decided to check the article Eagleman cites as the source of this info, which was a Wired blog post titled “Firsthand Reports from California Wildfires Pour Through Twitter.” It contained no references to a celebrity-obsessed news media; instead, the piece described how “the local media [was] overwhelmed.” It also talked about a San Diego resident who was “[a]cting as an ad hoc news aggregator of sorts” by “watching broadcast television news, listening to local radio reports and monitoring streaming video on the web” and then posting information, along with info gleaned from IMs, text messages, and e-mails, to his Twitter account.
One of the things that differentiates Eagleman from the hundreds of other brilliant scientists in the world is that he’s also a delightful writer, and there are a handful of passages here that demonstrate his abilities. (I particularly liked his reference to smallpox and bubonic plague as “invisible nihilists.”) But in Why The Net Matters, these felicitous turns of phrase are the exceptions. More typically, you end up noticing Eagleman’s prose because of his awkward constructions (How does a photograph “proudly capture” a subject? Is it only the “atavistic filing cabinets” that fill rooms “with their unnecessary gravity,” or do modernist ones have the same effect?), his use of clichés (In the future, wars will not be fought by soldiers but by “smart kids in their workout clothes...slamming energy drinks” and virtual offices will allow for an “underwear-clad army of net-based home-workers”) and his errors, be they of the copyediting (“DARPAnet quickly involved into the internet”) or factual (MIT is not, in fact, part of the Ivy League) variety.
Which brings us to the app itself—and Why The Net Matters disappoints here as well. It’s buggy: On two separate occasions over a four-day period, it fell into a crash-and-repeat death spiral that necessitated a total reinstall. There are some nice 3D models you can spin around with your finger, but ultimately, its use of graphics is uninspired: The vast majority of the illustrations that take up the top half of each page are static photos from stock image archives (a candle represents the risk that the “fires” of knowledge will flicker out; a shanty town in Brazil symbolizes the problem of “carrying capacity”). Some of these images are captioned, some are not; I wasn’t able to discern any pattern one way or another. When captions were used, they were as likely to distract as enlighten: I’ll have to trust Eagleman that a picture of Stalin showed him “look[ing] on in admiration” as a functionary delivered a speech, since those very words were obscuring the dictator’s face.
One innovation that seems to have potential is Eagleman’s incorporation of real-time web pages into the body of the book itself, but ultimately, even these highlighted a lack of follow-through more than anything else. One of the handful of pages Eagleman does link to is PubMed, which produces this message on an iPad: “We are sorry, but NCBI web applications do not support your browser, and may not function properly.” A section titled “Nectar From the Hive Mind” is illustrated by a live-load of CSTART.org, “an open-source development to get a manned craft to the moon.” This, Eagleman writes, is an example of how there are “no obvious limits to the reach and courage of crowdsourced goals.” The last time the site, or the organization’s Twitter feed, was updated was more than six months ago.
Finally, this is missing many of the killer apps that make traditional books—the kind printed on dead trees—such an enduring technology. There’s no index, so it’s impossible to search out sections of particular relevance. There’s no way to bookmark pages, no way to search for text, no way to create highlights or take notes. The effect is to make this feel less like a piece of work to be engaged with on a serious level than a piece of ephemera that neither the author, nor the reader, is expected to treat all that seriously.
When you reach the end of Why The Net Matters, a video recording of Eagleman begins without warning—and, as I discovered when it woke my wife up at 2am, no obvious way to stop it from playing. (Jabbing with your finger, the default method of stopping video on iOS machines, has no effect; you have to navigate to a different page to shut it off.) Here, finally, I got some insight into how this came into being, and some clue as to why it was published exclusively as an ebook. Why The Net Matters, which was released in late 2010, was not born as an app; it began as a 200-word letter Eagleman wrote to Nature (“Can the Internet Save Us From Epidemics?”), and was later adapted into a presentation for the Long Now Foundation (“Six Easy Steps To Avert the Collapse of Civlization”) and a 1,000-word article for Wired U.K. titled (“Six ways the Internet will save civilisation”).
Before Eagleman faded from view, he made one last grand statement: “I’m hoping this will portend well for the future of nonfiction reading and reading more generally.” Then, almost as an afterthought, he added one last sentence: “Another thing is that I’m going to keep updating the app so that the content keeps on staying fresh and current in the ever-evolving online landscape.” Like so much else in Why The Net Matters, that ends up being an empty promise: The version currently on sale is 1.01. It was last updated on December 21, 2010, two weeks after its initial release.
Seth Mnookin teaches science writing at MIT and blogs at the Public Library of Science. His most recent book, The Panic Virus: The Truth Story Behind the Vaccine-Autism Controversy, is a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Follow him on Twitter.