Is the Web Dead or Is It Being Reborn?

Wired Magazine ran a dramatic cover story this September titled “The Web is Dead,” in which Chris Anderson and Michael Wolff voiced the concern that the open Web was becoming colonized by superpowers like Apple and Facebook. Do you go to first thing in the morning, or do you check your Facebook account, and click on news items your friends have posted? “Facebook is my only news source,” a friend recently told us proudly. Technology goliaths like Apple make life infinitely more convenient, the authors contend, so we use them more than Web browsers. What’s the big deal? Internet Explorer is a Microsoft product just like Safari and Chrome are Apple and Google babies. But apps for Android and Apple, and walled communities like Facebook are not like browsers: they can and do restrict access to content on the Web.

The death of the Web has been echoed in many circles. Tim Wu has written a book called Master Switch in which he argues that historically, information industries have eventually become consolidated with an oligarchy of powerful players. Telecommunications went through a similar route, and now the Internet is also moving to a stage where just a couple of dominant players will control the entire Web. This means that those little startups we all love to open in our garages will be as impossible as starting your own wireless service is in a world of AT&T and Verizon. (See this great interview with Wu in the New Yorker)

Anderson/Wolff and Wu take different routes to the same end result: access to information and democratization of content production is seriously threatened by ever more powerful companies like Google. Right now, it’s hard to make a convincing case for a universe of closed apps a la Wired magazine, but Wu’s analysis is compelling. Is the colonization of the wide-open World Wide Web inevitable? Not necessarily, says Wu. The government can make an effort to ensure Net Neutrality (equal and identical access to content for every single citizen). Or perhaps a new Internet protocol will be developed that transforms the decades old infrastructure of the Internet into something faster and better. Such a disruption could take us to the original Wild West days of the Internet, with room for everyone to participate, experiment and make money.

Technology Review thinks the disruption is inherent in the Web itself (the layer on top of the Internet). Its cover this month is titled “The Web is Reborn” in a direct rebuttal to the Wired story viewpoint. The cause for hope is HTML5, a new way to build websites and create videos (which will soon become the driver of the most traffic on the Internet according to Cisco). One of the examples they cite is the very impressive and fun interactive video called The Wildnerness Downtown (a must watch) in which a runner appears to run down your home street if you provide your address. “Only HTML5 could have pulled together data, photos, and video so smoothly from multiple sources. The message behind the experiment: the next-generation Web will be more open to artistry.”

Will HTML5 rejuvenate the Web? We’re not sure, but we sure hope so.

Ayesha and Parag Khanna explore human-technology co-evolution and its implications for society, business and politics at The Hybrid Reality Institute.

3D printing might save your life one day. It's transforming medicine and health care.

What can 3D printing do for medicine? The "sky is the limit," says Northwell Health researcher Dr. Todd Goldstein.

Northwell Health
Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • Medical professionals are currently using 3D printers to create prosthetics and patient-specific organ models that doctors can use to prepare for surgery.
  • Eventually, scientists hope to print patient-specific organs that can be transplanted safely into the human body.
  • Northwell Health, New York State's largest health care provider, is pioneering 3D printing in medicine in three key ways.
Keep reading Show less

Where do atoms come from? Billions of years of cosmic fireworks.

The periodic table was a lot simpler at the beginning of the universe.

Active ingredient in Roundup found in 95% of studied beers and wines

The controversial herbicide is everywhere, apparently.

Surprising Science
  • U.S. PIRG tested 20 beers and wines, including organics, and found Roundup's active ingredient in almost all of them.
  • A jury on August 2018 awarded a non-Hodgkin's lymphoma victim $289 million in Roundup damages.
  • Bayer/Monsanto says Roundup is totally safe. Others disagree.
Keep reading Show less

An organism found in dirt may lead to an anxiety vaccine, say scientists

Can dirt help us fight off stress? Groundbreaking new research shows how.

University of Colorado Boulder
Surprising Science
  • New research identifies a bacterium that helps block anxiety.
  • Scientists say this can lead to drugs for first responders and soldiers, preventing PTSD and other mental issues.
  • The finding builds on the hygiene hypothesis, first proposed in 1989.

Are modern societies trying too hard to be clean, at the detriment to public health? Scientists discovered that a microorganism living in dirt can actually be good for us, potentially helping the body to fight off stress. Harnessing its powers can lead to a "stress vaccine".

Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.

The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.

"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.