Why the "Civilized Internet" is Uncivilized

Ahead of the formal G8 summit this week in northern France, the world's technology visionaries are gathering in Paris to meet with the G8 leaders to discuss the future of the Internet. Jeff Bezos of Amazon will be there. Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook will be there. Eric Schmidt of Google will be there. But the topic of debate will not be how to open up the Internet to more voices and bring about greater personal freedom in the world in places like the Middle East and China. Instead, as mandated by host Nicolas Sarkozy, talk will be of a "Civilized Internet" that can be monitored, governed, controlled and (most imporantly) taxed.


You see, somehow the notion of the Internet as a medium of creativity and personal expression and democracy has been conflated with the notion of the Internet as the harbinger of a bad new world (to quote Sony's Howard Stringer) of cyber-crime, political lawlessness and the disrespect of creative institutions like copyright. In contrast to an "Uncivilized Internet" populated by rogues and outlaws, a "Civilized Internet" is a place where governments can control and monitor dangerous dissidents, where threats of cyber-terrorism can be quashed easily, and where large, deep-pocketed corporations no longer have to worry about disruptive innovation at their doorsteps.

How did we get to this place, where French intellectuals are determining the future direction of the Web? In some sense, the notion of a "Civilized Internet" is a failure by some of the smartest people in the world to understand that the Web was always intended to be a little bit messy, a place where small pieces loosely joined can accomplish amazing things that highly-architected, highly-regulated organizations never could. While Malcolm Gladwell may not agree, a highly distributed Web is also one of the most important tools that citizens have to democratize authoritarian regimes. Ask leaders in Tunisia or Egypt or Syria or Yemen.

Certainly, the notion of an e-G8 summit is a good idea if it brings together the world's top leaders to listen carefully to the needs and aspirations of Silicon Valley's top minds. For G8 leaders who have never sent out a status update or "Friended" another world leader, it will surely be invigorating to hear from Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook. And, surely some of these leaders are in need of an Internet primer - they may be able to understand the Internet from the perspective of a jobs creation machine, but they do not always understand the Internet from the perspective of a personal democracy machine.

In an op-ed piece for the New York Times last spring, French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner (echoing Voltaire) noted that the freedom of expression is the basis for all other freedoms. He gave voice to the notion that "the Internet is above all the most fantastic means of breaking down the walls that close us off from one another. For the oppressed peoples of the world, the Internet provides power beyond their wildest hopes." After the Arab Spring, his prescient words carry particular weight. As foreign dignitaries prepare to land in Normandy, worries about cyber-terrorism and cyber-dissent should not become the pretext for control and censorship of the Web.

[image: G8 Leaders Confer Together via Wikimedia Commons]

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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