David Eagleman challenges the definition of "book" with his latest: Why the NetMatters
While you all are playing with your Nooks and Kindles, I'm using a finger to spin a three-dimensional rendering of Yersinia Pestis, the "black death" bacterium that killed one third of Europe — just one of the cool things I can do while reading David Eagleman's new iPad app book Why the Net Matters, now available on iTunes. It's a good thing I got an iPad under the holiday shrub this year, because it's the only way to read this "book."
"It's the first of its kind," says Eagleman, who is at work on more iPad books, along with a long list of other scientific and artistic endeavors.
Eagleman holds joint appointments in the Departments of Neuroscience and Psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine, where he also heads up the Eagleman Lab for Perception and Action. He is the author of Sum: forty tales from the afterlives. His work on synesthesia, time and neurolaw is widely known, along with his numerous artistic collaborations with such artists as Brian Eno and Houston-based Divas World. Sum, his best-selling novel,was voted Best Book of the Year by Barnes and Noble, New Scientist, and the Chicago Tribune, and will be turned into an opera in 2012 at the Royal Opera House in London. Eagleman has also been a popular Tedx Houston and The Up Experience speaker.
The free-wheeling frontal cortex cowboy ventures out of his usual neuroscience territory to look at a wide overview of cultures and technology in his app book, covering everything from how the internet can contend with epidemics to natural disasters, tyranny and energy depletion. "Being a scientist means you need a broad view of everything, of the interconnectivity between fields," he says.
Why the Net Matters contains a generally hopeful message. After all, according to Eagleman, the net offers all kinds of innovations — from telemedicine to cultivating human capital. I especially appreciated the chapter "Nectar from the Hive Mind: 57,000 Micro-Collaborators," which chronicles the story of the website Fold it, famous for enlisting crowdsourcing to tackle the computationally difficult problem of protein folding.
The good news: Swarm intelligence works, and can be tapped for a variety of problems facing society. On a lighter note, a group mind helped Netflix develop an algorithm for suggesting recommendations based on previous rentals and ratings. (Leave it to a brain scientist to look at the power of many brains.) For history wonks, the author reaches backward to consider the loss of knowledge, touching on the burning of the library at Alexandria and the collapse of the Romans, Mayans and other long-gone societies.
Eagleman has his own reasons for choosing the app format, which should not be confused with an iBook. "It's true to the theme of the book, which is about the importance of moving bits instead of atoms," he says. "There's a whole chapter on what happens to civilization because of energy depletion and the de-materialization of goods."
Structured in eight random-access chapters, the reader is free to roam about and, even better, choose where to start. "I pose six separate arguments, which I phrase independently," he says. "It's a whole new way of navigating a non-fiction book. The app allows certain affordances not in a physical book. You can zoom in and out and interact with what's happening. The format enriches the text. Like any app, there will be updates. That's the beauty of this thing."
The app also takes you to live websites so you can snoop around, which can be dangerous for the attention-challenged, such as myself. But overall, I appreciate the circularity of the form. When it comes to the internet, a non-linear exploration may indeed work best. With a 3D image every 200 words, the app is also dynamic, and full of snazzy, eye-candy images. "I had to be a visual artist as well," Eagleman says. "For every image in the app, I considered at least 10."
The seed for the app came from an essay in the journal Nature, "Can the Internet save us from Epidemics," which lead to another exploration on The Edge called "Six Ways the Internet Can Save Civilization," which then evolved into a talk on the same subject at the Long Now Foundation. "The lecture went really well and became one of the most successful videos," remembers Eagleman. "I tapped into a wide interest on a topic that no one else has addressed in this format."
Eagleman has no plans to do away with plain old books, however. In fact, he's busy working on several right now. "It's not a replacement, but a new species of book," he says. "It's a great way to read a non-fiction book — not so much for a novel, where the reader's imagination is used in a different way." Eagleman realizes that not everyone has an iPad, and plans to release Why The Net Matters as a multiplatform ebook book later this year.
If all goes well, Eagleman plans two more iPad app books in the next year. His next book (the traditional kind), Incognito: The Brains Behind the Mind, slated for publication in May, focuses on all that we don't have access to when it comes to our faulty-but-fascinating gray matter. "It's a popular-science book aimed at a general audience. It's about all the stuff under the hood."
As for the apocalypse, move away from the kill switch — it's not coming. Our webbed life is here to stay. He writes in his epilogue, "Remember life before the Internet? Neither do I. The next time your co-worker laments about pervasive Internet addiction, instant messaging, and the diminishment of former values, you may want to suggest that this invention — even with all its flashy wastefulness — may just be the thing that saves us."
Eagleman on the Six Easy Steps to Avert the Collapse of Civilization:
Take a spin around Why the Net Matters with David Eagleman: