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What Comes After the Internet?


Given President Obama’s recent call for the FCC to pursue Internet Neutrality and the concomitant resistance of cable service providers and conservative politicians to such an idea, it seems like a good time for us to take a deep gaze into the future in order to get an idea of what life may be like after the Internet as-we-know-it

By “after the Internet, ” I mean a culture and a society that will exist above and beyond any TCP/IP protocol, a world not of smart objects and the “Internet of Things, ” and platform that is not merely Web 3.0 or 4.0 or “Web” anything.

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I’m talking about a mode of interconnectivity that can and will appear someday that could bypass URLs and servers entirely.

This can be hard to imagine, because our cybervisions of the future cannot help but partake in the residual certainties that inhere in our current conception of “the Internet.”

When broadcast television was ascendant, it was difficult for people to frame questions about the transmission of entertainment and news content in a world “after Television.” Concepts like the satellite transmission of content and online streaming did not yet exist. Likewise, when telephones hung on walls, users couldn’t conceive of cell tower networks and broadband WiFi.

What if the parties of the current debate over Internet Neutrality are stuck in a similar cognitive trap as they bicker over who will divide the ever-shrinking parcels of an obsolete and decaying slipstream?

When most futurists talk about our interconnected future, they assume that it will be based on faster and more capacious versions of our current processors, servers, and algorithms. But, like proponents of the continual refinement of internal combustion technologies in automobiles, they ignore the base-level commodity-consumption implications of their vision.

Servers use vast amounts of electric power. The production of microprocessors requires vast amounts of many resources beyond those required for needed electricity. There is no futurist curve steeper than the plot of these expanding needs.

In order for us to get beyond World Wide Web-era thinking, we have to pursue a technology that gets us off of the fossilized ARPANET grid. It’s hard to imagine plugging into something that doesn’t “get me to Google, ” but that’s exactly how we have to think in order to leave the Net behind.

The chemical computer is one of a few unconventional computing methods that have been developed (with little media attention) over time. In this sort of device, computations take place as chemical reactions in a “goo” composed of chemicals in different concentrations.

This process/device, called the BZ or Belousov-Zhabotinsky computer, can potentially handle billions (and billions) more computations than conventional computers because the waves that carry the signals though the solution move in almost countless directions in a non-linear fashion. This “goo” is not a wire or a circuit, so it doesn’t use electricity. The signals travel down gradients within the fluids under the influence of gravity, so little outside power is used.

Technologies such as this are experimental and presumably far from practical fruition, but they allow us to think about computing and connecting in a post-Internet world. We could expand our thinking to include anything in nature that works and acts on a gradient, like living cells and eroding river basins.

Inevitably, the inhabitants of a future society will look back at us and think “Why couldn’t they get out of that World Wide Web funk?”

The current battle over Net Neutrality will then seem as retrograde and small as the technology itself.

It’s important for us to remember that we need to stop thinking about the thing that connects us to the existing Web infrastructure, and begin thinking about a new infrastructure. Some of us will find it difficult to leave the old cyberspace, but the new pastures will be greener than we could ever have imagined.



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