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Can the Internet save us from epidemics?


Kathleen Morrison, in News & Views (“Failure and how to avoid it” Nature 440, 752–754; 2006), notes that societies have often prevented collapse by adopting new technological strategies. In today's world, where one of the most-talked about prospects for collapse is an epidemic of infectious disease, it is worth remembering that perhaps we already have the technological strategy to avoid it — the Internet.

Remote working, made possible by the Internet (‘telepresence’), is already a key component of national and business pandemic plans. Telepresence can inhibit viral transmission by reducing human-to-human contact. Prepared organizations can leverage telepresence to allow continued productivity and functioning of supply chains during an outbreak.

Past societies often reacted to epidemics by bunching together, increasing density and transmission rates. In medieval Europe, for example, warring religious factions demonstrated solidarity in the face of a plague by marching together in the streets. And Native Americans expressed goodwill by gathering in the teepees of those infected with smallpox. But if we are well-prepared when an epidemic arrives, we can fluidly shift into a self-quarantined, telepresent society in which microbes fail by dint of host sparseness.

Whatever the social ills of increased isolation in our computer age, they may bode worse for the microbes than for us.

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Eagleman, D. Can the Internet save us from epidemics?. Nature 441, 574 (2006).

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