Let’s Decide the Future of the Internet Before It’s Decided for Us

The online experience is changing rapidly, explains Harvard Law professor Jonathan Zittrain, and not necessarily for the better. We should act to make sure certain norms such as web surfing persist as they are.

Jonathan Zittrain: The features of the Internet that we really want to make sure persist, and I don't count on inertia to do the job here, but these features include the fact that when we're surfing the web, that we're actually visiting lots of different places. The web of 1998, and sort of through the past 10 years or so, has been one where there's lots of baskets with eggs all over the place and by just clicking on a link you can visit that new basket and not even feel the burdens of the journey. It could be at a basement in Chappaqua, New York, the server you're going to; it could be at Amazon; it could be somewhere in Europe; you name it anywhere around the world. That I think has been less and less so, and part of the research I'm working on is to actually document and figure out if that hypothesis is true. I'm actually concerned that because of worries about things like denial of service attacks where websites might be brought down, what we'll see are websites huddling under the umbrella of just a handful of Internet service hosting providers.

So it might feel like you're going from one website to another, when in fact all you're doing is visiting one corner of the massive databanks at Amazon that offers commodity web hosting to the world. That puts all the eggs in one basket, which seems dangerous to me. If Amazon goes down everything goes down, not just your ability to one-click purchase a mousetrap. And it also means that there are regulatory changes made possible so that if a government of the world wants something taken down or dealt with, they only have one door to knock on. And depending on your view of how easily governments should be able to take stuff down, that's either a good thing or a bad thing. So having a distributed web with eggs across lots of baskets is one thing that I hope will persist.

The other thing is I hope the web will persist. You know the number of times you might find yourself living your digital life by running a browser and typing in a link and then from the trapeze going from one place to another visiting each site and clicking on links and typing stuff, that's starting to feel possibly very 2005. More and more the way in which we experience of the world are through apps. So if you were told you can still use your smartphone, but you just can't load up the browser you can only use apps, and those apps might have a browser quietly running in the background but the experience you'll get inside that app is so much more defined by the app maker. And you know, if you're looking at Facebook and you see the sponsored links you're getting importuning you to do something, almost always it's bottom line please install this app. Everybody wants you to install their app. And that's because that's putting you inside the bottle of a miniature universe that isn't necessarily connected web-like to the rest of things.

If you see something interesting inside an app and you want to share it, it will be under the terms of that app whether you can email the link or whether you can only tweet it or whether you can do anything with it. There's not a common URL, that bar at the top, that you can just copy and paste and share with a friend and then that friend can see what you see. So, as I look to the future, really thinking about the future of the web itself is something we ought to be doing. I don't take for granted that there will be a World Wide Web the way that there has been; it might be much more stovepiped and feel a little bit more like 1985 with an America (Online), CompuServe, Prodigy, and the source. Okay you've got your apps; those apps in turn are there at the sufferance of your mobile phone or your other platform vendor. It's a much more staid possibility and so much of the benefits of the Internet have come from unusual corners from not being so staid. I'd hate to think oh those were the early days; things have matured.

Now, there is a genuine worry about security that has it no longer seems so crazy, as it probably did. I think it did in say the year 2000; gee maybe before you run an app someone out there should vet it, should know who wrote it; should have their contact information on file the way that if you get into a taxicab, remember taxicabs, there'd be an identity marker. If you use an Uber or a Lyft, they have some way of knowing who the drivers are. They're registered. If that's the level of security you want when you drive three blocks, why wouldn't you want that for code to which you are entrusting your most intimate details? And more and more I think that's what we see happening. I don't know that that's terrible, but it does show a general trend in the name of security in having intermediaries be able to more tightly control the code that we can run, whether it's on our device or afar, and the content that we can see.

The online experience is changing rapidly, explains Harvard Law professor Jonathan Zittrain, and not necessarily for the better. We should act to make sure current norms such as web surfing remain unfettered as the Internet evolves. If not, we'll be allowing Internet powerbrokers to control how and through which means we access online information. Zittrain is author of the book The Future of the Internet -- And How to Stop It and writes for the blog of the same name.

China's "artificial sun" sets new record for fusion power

China has reached a new record for nuclear fusion at 120 million degrees Celsius.

Credit: STR via Getty Images
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.

China wants to build a mini-star on Earth and house it in a reactor. Many teams across the globe have this same bold goal --- which would create unlimited clean energy via nuclear fusion.

But according to Chinese state media, New Atlas reports, the team at the Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (EAST) has set a new world record: temperatures of 120 million degrees Celsius for 101 seconds.

Yeah, that's hot. So what? Nuclear fusion reactions require an insane amount of heat and pressure --- a temperature environment similar to the sun, which is approximately 150 million degrees C.

If scientists can essentially build a sun on Earth, they can create endless energy by mimicking how the sun does it.

If scientists can essentially build a sun on Earth, they can create endless energy by mimicking how the sun does it. In nuclear fusion, the extreme heat and pressure create a plasma. Then, within that plasma, two or more hydrogen nuclei crash together, merge into a heavier atom, and release a ton of energy in the process.

Nuclear fusion milestones: The team at EAST built a giant metal torus (similar in shape to a giant donut) with a series of magnetic coils. The coils hold hot plasma where the reactions occur. They've reached many milestones along the way.

According to New Atlas, in 2016, the scientists at EAST could heat hydrogen plasma to roughly 50 million degrees C for 102 seconds. Two years later, they reached 100 million degrees for 10 seconds.

The temperatures are impressive, but the short reaction times, and lack of pressure are another obstacle. Fusion is simple for the sun, because stars are massive and gravity provides even pressure all over the surface. The pressure squeezes hydrogen gas in the sun's core so immensely that several nuclei combine to form one atom, releasing energy.

But on Earth, we have to supply all of the pressure to keep the reaction going, and it has to be perfectly even. It's hard to do this for any length of time, and it uses a ton of energy. So the reactions usually fizzle out in minutes or seconds.

Still, the latest record of 120 million degrees and 101 seconds is one more step toward sustaining longer and hotter reactions.

Why does this matter? No one denies that humankind needs a clean, unlimited source of energy.

We all recognize that oil and gas are limited resources. But even wind and solar power --- renewable energies --- are fundamentally limited. They are dependent upon a breezy day or a cloudless sky, which we can't always count on.

Nuclear fusion is clean, safe, and environmentally sustainable --- its fuel is a nearly limitless resource since it is simply hydrogen (which can be easily made from water).

With each new milestone, we are creeping closer and closer to a breakthrough for unlimited, clean energy.

The science of sex, love, attraction, and obsession

The symbol for love is the heart, but the brain may be more accurate.

  • How love makes us feel can only be defined on an individual basis, but what it does to the body, specifically the brain, is now less abstract thanks to science.
  • One of the problems with early-stage attraction, according to anthropologist Helen Fisher, is that it activates parts of the brain that are linked to drive, craving, obsession, and motivation, while other regions that deal with decision-making shut down.
  • Dr. Fisher, professor Ted Fischer, and psychiatrist Gail Saltz explain the different types of love, explore the neuroscience of love and attraction, and share tips for sustaining relationships that are healthy and mutually beneficial.

Golden blood: The rarest blood in the world

We explore the history of blood types and how they are classified to find out what makes the Rh-null type important to science and dangerous for those who live with it.

Abid Katib/Getty Images
Surprising Science
  • Fewer than 50 people worldwide have 'golden blood' — or Rh-null.
  • Blood is considered Rh-null if it lacks all of the 61 possible antigens in the Rh system.
  • It's also very dangerous to live with this blood type, as so few people have it.
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There never was a male fertility crisis

A new study suggests that reports of the impending infertility of the human male are greatly exaggerated.

Sex & Relationships
  • A new review of a famous study on declining sperm counts finds several flaws.
  • The old report makes unfounded assumptions, has faulty data, and tends toward panic.
  • The new report does not rule out that sperm counts are going down, only that this could be quite normal.
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