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Reflections: Driven to Distraction

Engineers created the problem of cellphones in cars, but they may not be able to solve it

3 min read

I used to feel that the ultimate aim of communications research was telepresence—creating the perfect illusion of being where you're not. However, now I'm thinking that we did too good a job of creating this illusion and that the law of unintended consequences is taking hold. Sometimes you need instead to enforce the perfect sense of being exactly where you are at the moment—like when you're behind the wheel of a car hurtling down the highway. Maybe instead of telepresence (distant presence) we need plesiopresence (near presence).

The problem is technological distraction. It's becoming serious, and there is no solution in sight. Laws against using phones in cars aren't working, because the problem isn't that you're putting a phone to your ear; it's that you're putting your brain somewhere else. So are we technologists helpless? Now that we've created technological distraction, can we create technological traction?

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Why the Internet Needs the InterPlanetary File System

Peer-to-peer file sharing would make the Internet far more efficient

12 min read
An illustration of a series
Carl De Torres

When the COVID-19 pandemic erupted in early 2020, the world made an unprecedented shift to remote work. As a precaution, some Internet providers scaled back service levels temporarily, although that probably wasn’t necessary for countries in Asia, Europe, and North America, which were generally able to cope with the surge in demand caused by people teleworking (and binge-watching Netflix). That’s because most of their networks were overprovisioned, with more capacity than they usually need. But in countries without the same level of investment in network infrastructure, the picture was less rosy: Internet service providers (ISPs) in South Africa and Venezuela, for instance, reported significant strain.

But is overprovisioning the only way to ensure resilience? We don’t think so. To understand the alternative approach we’re championing, though, you first need to recall how the Internet works.

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