What Keeps Jonathan Zittrain up at Night?
Jonathan Zittrain is a Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, Professor of Computer Science at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Vice Dean for Library and Information Resources for the Harvard Law School Library, and Co-Founder of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society. Previously, he was the Chair in Internet Governance and Regulation at Oxford University and a principal of the Oxford Internet Institute. He was also a visiting professor at the New York University School of Law and Stanford Law School.
Zittrain’s research interests include battles for control of digital property and content, cryptography, electronic privacy, the roles of intermediaries within Internet architecture, and the useful and unobtrusive deployment of technology in education.
He is also the author of The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It, as well as co-editor of the books, Access Denied (MIT Press, 2008), Access Controlled (MIT Press, 2010), and Access Contested (MIT Press, 2011).
Question: What keeps you up at night?
Jonathan Zittrain: What keeps me up late at night, in the sense of worry, I guess it’s innovation. It’s funny to be worried about it, because it’s a fair point that wow, look at the innovation we’ve seen over the past, not just 30 years, but over the past two years. But I also see ways in which the kind of truly revolutionary applications, like the world wide web, that have come about, kind of unsuspecting to the incumbents, whether government incumbents or corporate incumbents, like big Telcos or something, those get harder and harder to pull off as the devices and services people use are more controllable by a handful of vendors. It’s hard to try to be a canary in the coal mine here because right now we’re enjoying such innovation. But at the same time, we are truly in the midst of a sea change in how controllable the technology we use day by day is, and it is getting more and more controllable by a distinct group of entities, who may have our best interests in mind, at least at consumers right now, but they can change their minds or be regulated, forced to change their minds later.
So that keeps me up at night, and when I think of being kept up at night in a positive sense, I actually think about the possibilities behind so-called ad hoc mesh networking, the ability for these ubiquitous computers, little processors we have everywhere, whether a birthday card or a handheld phone, to talk to each other and like a bucket brigade, get bits moving from one place to another with no internet service provider having to be formally involved in many of the steps. The kinks haven’t been worked out on that yet, but if we had such a thing and could deploy such a thing, because there are enough reprogrammable devices in our hands, that you buy it to be a word processor on day one, but on day five, suddenly it’s got mesh networking, that means that if Hurricane Katrina hits and takes out most networks and power, or if the Chinese government decides to clamp down and try to cut off the internet, neither gets much in the way; because as long as you are near other people, bits are shuffling from one person to the next like hands across America out to drop points and exchange points. So that’s one of the most interesting pieces of basic research that I think is worth keeping an eye on that can transform this constant battle between cat and mouse and how regulable the internet can be.
Recorded on August 18, 2009
The Professor of Law reflects on the potential wonders and horrors of our techno-driven future.
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- A team at UMass Amherst recently sequenced the genome of the Canadian lynx.
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- Conservationists interested in the Canadian lynx have a new tool to work with.
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Artwork: Guillaume le Clerc / Wikimedia Commons
13th-century fantastical depiction of an elephant.
It is easy to see how one can look at 66,000 genomic sequences stored away as being the analogous equivalent of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. It is a potential tool for future conservationists.
But what are the practicalities of sequencing the genome of a lynx beyond engaging with broad bioethical questions? As the animal's habitat shrinks and Earth warms, the Canadian lynx is demonstrating less genetic diversity. Cross-breeding with bobcats in some portions of the lynx's habitat also represents a challenge to the lynx's genetic makeup. The two themselves are also linked: warming climates could drive Canadian lynxes to cross-breed with bobcats.
John Organ, chief of the U.S. Geological Survey's Cooperative Fish and Wildlife units, said to MassLive that the results of the sequencing "can help us look at land conservation strategies to help maintain lynx on the landscape."
What does DNA have to do with land conservation strategies? Consider the fact that the food found in a landscape, the toxins found in a landscape, or the exposure to drugs can have an impact on genetic activity. That potential change can be transmitted down the generative line. If you know exactly how a lynx's DNA is impacted by something, then the environment they occupy can be fine-tuned to meet the needs of the lynx and any other creature that happens to inhabit that particular portion of the earth.
Given that the Trump administration is considering withdrawing protection for the Canadian lynx, a move that caught scientists by surprise, it is worth having as much information on hand as possible for those who have an interest in preserving the health of this creature—all the way down to the building blocks of a lynx's life.
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