I recently finished reading Infinite Progress, a book that was published last year. Its author, Byron Reese, argues that the internet will soon allow us to get rid of ignorance, disease, poverty, hunger and war. No less. This claim is doubly stunning: First, can we really believe that these major problems of the world, which have existed for as long as life has existed on earth, will soon (within a century or less) disappear? Second, how could the internet possibly be in a position to eradicate disease, poverty, war and such? I was intrigued and the book came supported by some good blurbs, so I picked it up one day at an airport and I lately found some time to go through it.
The author makes a good, 300-page informative and entertaining presentation of his arguments. And while his optimism and extended reach do at times strain the reader’s open mind, quite often one finds the case being made, at least as far as ignorance and disease are concerned, quite persuasive. So how could the internet help us defeat those big problems? The main idea is that not only does the internet allow for unprecedented flow of information and communication between people, but it will soon allow us to store every little piece of information about each one of us and the analysis of this “big data” (more like “humongous data”) will allow researchers to extract solutions to every kind of problem, no matter how small or big.
Indeed, the author argues (quite convincingly) that until very recently, many discoveries, especially medical ones, were both unpredictable and assumed to apply widely. Researchers used to notice that some product seemed to work in a given condition or they tried many different possibilities and looked for the one that worked and from that they extracted a medication or remedy. The problem with this approach is two-fold: It is a blind man’s type of search and thus takes a long time to hit on a solution. Secondly, such cures almost invariably work only for some people not all and that too under certain circumstances or in combination with certain factors and not with others. The “big data” that we will construct from our individual experiences will find more solutions and show what works for whom and when, not what works in general.
Reese is aware that this whole scenario rests on our willingness to share what he calls our “digital echoes”, i.e. detailed information about us that can be useful to anyone else. We already do that to some extent, as when we purchase books on Amazon or post ratings and comments on hotels and services that other customers use to make their own decisions. What if we were willing to allow our cellphones to automatically post online every experience we go through in life — things ranging from what pain I felt this morning, what medicine I took and how things went after that, to my personal genome and family medical history and which medication works for me and which does not. Generalise this example in other areas and you get an idea of what the internet can do.
Reese regards the internet as the greatest human invention of all time. In barely two decades, it has become so essential to our lives and work that one cannot imagine doing almost anything without it. Indeed, in a book that comes out this week, a collection of essays titled ‘What Should We Be Worried About?’ by a hundred or so prime thinkers of the world, philosopher Daniel Dennett and historian of science and technology George Dyson consider the possible breakdown of the internet as the issue that they are most worried about.
There is no doubt that the internet is a major contender for the top spot of human inventions, but I am not sure it is the greatest. In fact, it is difficult to single out one or two products. Some will argue that antibiotics and vaccines, having saved tens or even hundreds of millions of lives and helped double life expectancy over the past century, deserve that top spot.
Call me biased if you will, but I like to look upward and zoom out of our earthly problems. I like to look at humanity and earth in the whole cosmic context. What is a century in the ‘big history’ of life, earth, the solar system and the universe, all of which are measured in billions of years?
My vote would go to the telescope, which allowed us to see far in space and (thus) back in time in a way that gives us an unprecedented view and understanding of our own existence. And in a few centuries, when we will have been able to send ambassadors to planets around other stars, we will consider the rocket (from its primitive to its advanced future form) as the greatest tool ever invented.
Nidhal Guessoum is a professor and associate dean at the American University of Sharjah. You can follow him on Twitter at: www.twitter.com/@NidhalGuessoum.