Food for thought: How your mindset can make healthy food more alluring on social media

Written by Ethan Pancer, St. Mary’s University, Matthew Philp, Toronto Metropolitan University and Theo Noseworthy, York University. Originally published in The Conversation. 

Social media posts featuring unhealthy foods get more likes and engagement. But there are ways to change that. Photo credit: Borzoo Moazami, Unsplash. 

In today’s world, our diets are often packed with fats and sugars. Our ancient instinct to crave calorie-rich foods, which once helped us survive, now leads to harmful health side-effects.

To counteract this, food content creators on social media have been trying to push healthy eating and healthy eating content.

But here’s the kicker — this content doesn’t get much engagement. Instead, posts that show unhealthy, high-calorie foods get more likes, shares and comments. This popularity of junk food online may tempt content creators and algorithms to show more of the same, tilting our view of “normal” eating habits towards unhealthy choices. In the long run, this could fuel the obesity epidemic.

So, the challenge is clear: How do we make healthy foods as click-worthy as their unhealthy counterparts?

In a recent paper published in the European Journal of Marketing, we wanted to see if we could change people’s natural tendency to avoid healthy food content. How? By tweaking the way they think. Could getting people to think more carefully before they see food posts make them engage more with healthy food on social media?

Food marketing on social media

Social media has become a billboard for food advertising. Food companies are everywhere online, but their focus is usually on calorie-packed products. They make these foods seem fun and shareable, even though many of us would be better off seeing more healthier options.

This mismatch between what food companies promote and what is good for consumers is glaring. Posts with unhealthy food get more love and are remembered, seen and shared more than posts featuring healthier foods.

This online popularity of junk food can then shape our ideas of what’s “normal” to eat and can sway our eating habits, especially in groups that are easily influenced by peers. So, if we can figure out why this happens, we could use that knowledge to make healthy foods shine on social media.

A woman eats at a table in a restaurant with friends
There’s a mismatch between what food companies promote and what’s actually good for us. Photo credit: Alex Haney, Unsplash.

Why we love junk: An evolutionary tale

Our brains have been wired over millennia to not only crave high-calorie foods, but feel good when simply seeing such foods — it’s a survival trick from our past.

Today, this means we naturally feel good and get excited when seeing calorie-packed foods. This same excitement simply does not occur when exposed to low-calorie alternatives, which we often see as less tasty, not as enjoyable and likely not satiating.

What if we could switch our minds to avoid the biased decisions we make when we rely on our feelings? The idea of using a more thoughtful mindset is a strategy that’s been shown to work on other food habits.

The potential here is huge: thinking more thoughtfully and analytically could reduce our biases for relying more on our feelings to make decisions, and this can make healthier, lower-calorie foods more attractive, leading to more likes and shares on social media.

In our research, we took a look at how people react to social media content about food. We found that people are usually less interested in posts about healthier, lower-calorie food, something that’s been shown in previous studies.

We used videos from Tasty, a popular food network, for our experiment.

In our experiment, people were more likely to engage with a video about making a burger than a salad. But when people take the time to think about what food they’re actually engaging with, they can appreciate the benefits of lower-calorie foods, potentially leading them to choose healthier options.

Actions for a healthier social media

As prior research has demonstrated, people are naturally drawn to social media posts of unhealthy food, leaving healthier options in the dust. The more engagement these calorie-packed posts get, the more similar content floods our feeds, creating a cycle that can potentially negatively affect our real-life eating habits.

But there’s hope! As our ongoing work demonstrates, there are plenty of ways to steer the mindset towards healthier choices. Think disclaimershealth star ratings or even colour-coded nudges.

A green salad with rapini on a stone countertop
It’s possible to steer our mindsets towards making healthier food decisions. Photo credit: Ella Olsson/Unsplash.

Short mindfulness exercises from programs like Noom or WeightWatchers can also help us pause and think before we eat.

Our research can inspire dietitians, health advocates, policymakers and content creators to use this mindset magic when they’re designing their products, services or social media posts. This could lead to more engagement with healthier food content on social media, making these healthier messages travel further.

Indigenous women in Northern Canada creating sustainable livelihoods through tourism

Written by Sonya Graci, Toronto Metropolitan University, and Yvette Rasmussen, Northern WE in Tourism Study. Photo credit: Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada, Author provided. Originally published in The Conversation

Sheila Flaherty, the Nunavut director of the Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada in Iqaluit, Nvt. Sustainable tourism connects people to the planet and their culture while providing them with livelihoods. 

In summer 2022, the Northern WE in Tourism study invited Indigenous women entrepreneurs from northern Newfoundland and Labrador, northern Québec, Nunavut, the Yukon and Northwest Territories to collaborate on an Indigenous-led and ally-supported research project.

In our conversations with Indigenous women entrepreneurs and the organizations that provide support to them, we learned that to create sustainable livelihoods, there should be “nothing about us without us.”

Using Two-Eyed Seeing to guide our journey, we focused one eye on Indigenous knowledge and the other on Western perspectives to find common ground and pathways to sustainable livelihoods.

Developed by Mi’kmaw Elder Albert Marshall in 2004, Two-Eyed Seeing is a practice that provides a way of bringing Indigenous and Western worldviews together.

Indigenous women perform at a powwow.
Anything that sustainably connects people to the planet and their culture by providing sustenance through entrepreneurship is tourism. Photo credit: Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada, Author provided.

Over shared stories of lived experiences and examples of best practices, participants discussed the barriers faced by Indigenous women entrepreneurs in the North and their colonial origins.

History of colonization

The Indian Act devastated the human rights of Indigenous Peoples. Government programs normalized public views of Indigenous people as inferior, advancing assimilation efforts to resolve Canada’s so-called “Indian Problem.”

With the government classifying Indigenous people as male persons with Indian blood, it further disenfranchised Indigenous women. If an Indigenous woman married outside her community, she lost her status. Her children were also denied their right to status, setting the foundation for intergenerational vulnerability and cultural alienation.

Today, Indigenous women are 3.5 times more likely to experience violence than their non-Indigenous counterparts.

Almost 1,200 missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls were identified by law enforcement between 1980 and 2012. The victim count grows to this day. Other compounding factors Indigenous women are faced with include racism, sexual identity, poverty and isolation.

The creation of Residential Schools attended by at least 150,000 Indigenous children, and the Sixties Scoop which saw tens of thousands of First Nations, Métis and Inuit children separated from their families, decimated Indigenous communities.

What does this have to do with sustainable livelihoods or this study? Everything.

Indigenous tourism

Anything that sustainably connects people to the planet and their culture by providing sustenance through entrepreneurship is tourism. This includes more conventional things like tours and visitor accommodations. It also includes less conventional things like authentic crafts, music and dance, food and healing, ceremony and storytelling.

A woman sitting at a work desk doing beadwork.
An Indigenous woman doing traditional beadwork. Tourism provides a gateway to entrepreneurship for Indigenous women. Photo credit: Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada, Author provided.

Inuvialuk fashion designer and social media influencer, Taalrumiq, explained:

“We lost so much of our culture, our language, and our identity due to colonization, so it’s important to create pieces that celebrate us, to remember where we come from, who we come from, and what we are capable of.”

Today, tourism training aligned with the Canadian education system and financial programs and the policies that govern them are predominantly developed by non-Indigenous people.

Non-Indigenous organizations determine who qualifies for training and financial support. These conventional systems are not designed to factor the lived realities of Indigenous women into their operations.

The complex challenges facing Indigenous women in Canada’s North cannot be resolved in isolation or at the discretion of the entities that created them.

Often lacking Western educational requirements, business experience or associated skill sets, Indigenous women experience significant bias in accessing support. Geographic location, infrastructure deficits and poverty compound barriers.

Taalrumiq was born in an Indian hospital and is part of the last generation of Residential School children from her community. The hardship of leaving home to attend a Western institution was too much for many of her peers who dropped out of school. Taalrumiq also said:

“The generations before us went through so much and worked so hard for us to have this space, make our voices heard, fight for justice — and we owe it to our children and future generations to continue this work. There is still much to be done.”

Effecting systemic change is the ultimate goal of reconciliation. And tourism provides a gateway to entrepreneurship for Indigenous women, serving as a catalyst capable of influencing societal behaviour on a broader scale.

Understanding success

It’s time to refocus our lens.

Success requires healing and understanding the impact of intergenerational trauma. Viewing success through this lens places value on equity, the concept of continuity of culture and Indigenous integration and stewardship of their lands.

Tents below the northern lights.
The northern lights seen above the Torngat Mountains in northern Newfoundland and Labrador. Photo credit: Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada, Author provided.

As Indigenous business owner Joella Hogan put it:

“I really try to lead my business with the values and teachings that I have been taught. Our Elders give us these teachings so we can be strong Northern Tutchone people and live our lives in a good way. I try to uphold these values in my daily life and in my relationships with people and with the land. For my business, everything comes back to this.”

Connecting women to sustainable livelihoods strengthens the probability of achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals that prioritize equity and inclusion. The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples provides a road map to advance the declaration and address injustices against Indigenous people.

As Murray Sinclair, former chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, said: “We have described for you a mountain. We have shown you the path to the top. We call upon you to do the climbing.”

It is time for Indigenous-led and ally-supported solutions to create pathways to well-being by dismantling the barriers that exclude Indigenous women from building sustainable livelihoods through tourism.

Gen Z goes retro: Why the younger generation is ditching smartphones for ‘dumb phones’

Written by Omar H. Fares, Toronto Metropolitan University. Photo credit: Shutterstock. Originally published in The Conversation.

Sales of so-called “dumb phones,” like flip and slide phones, are on the rise among the younger generation.

There is a growing movement among Gen Z to do away with smartphones and revert back to “less smart” phones like old-school flip and slide phones. Flip phones were popular in the mid-1990s and 2000s, but now seem to be making a comeback among younger people.

While this may seem like a counter-intuitive trend in our technology-reliant society, a Reddit forum dedicated to “dumb phones” is steadily gaining in popularity. According to a CNBC new report, flip phones sales are on the rise in the U.S.

Gen Z’s interest in flip phones is the latest in a series of obsessions young people are having with the aesthetic of the 1990s and 2000s. Y2K fashion has been steadily making a comeback over the past few years and the use of vintage technology, like disposable cameras, is on the rise.

There are a few reasons why, including nostalgia and yearning for an idealized version of the past, doing a “digital detox” and increasing privacy concerns.

The power of nostalgia

Nostalgia is a complex emotion that involves reconnecting with the happy emotions of an idealized past by recalling positive memories.

Over the years, marketers have realized that nostalgia is a powerful way to evoke positive emotions — so much so that nostalgia marketing has become a recognized marketing strategy. It leverages positive memories and feelings associated with the past to create an emotional connection with consumers.

A wealth of research shows that nostalgia can result in consumers being willing to pay more, enhance brand ties, increased purchase intention and increased digital brand engagement.

Nostalgia may be a driving factor behind people purchasing flip phones because they evoke memories of a previous era in mobile communication.

But nostalgia marketing doesn’t just target the younger generation — it’s also a powerful tool for advertising to those who grew up using older mobile devices. Nokia is an example of a company that understands this well.

A YouTube advertisement for Nokia’s 2720 V Flip shows how brands can use nostalgia marketing to appeal to customers and drive product sales.

A marketing video about the Nokia 2720 V Flip, a modern take on the flip phones from the 2000s.

When older generations speak about objects from the past, they usually hearken back to “the golden era” or “golden time.” The comment section of the Nokia video showcases this kind of thinking.

One comment reads: “My first phone was a Nokia 2760! It was also a flip phone. This brings back good memories.” Another says: “I am definitely getting this just for good old memories. When life was easy.”

Digital detox

Another reason why people might be purchasing flip phones is to do a digital detox and cut down on screen time. A digital detox refers to a period of time when a person refrains from using their electronic devices, like smartphones, to focus on social connections in the physical world and reduce stress.

In 2022, people in the U.S. spent more than 4.5 hours daily on their mobile devices. In Canada, adults self-reported spending about 3.2 hours per day in front of screens in 2022. Children and youth had about three hours of screen time per day in 2016 and 2017.

Excessive smartphone usage can result in a number of harmful side effects, such as sleep disruption. Just over 50 per cent of Canadians check their smartphones before they go to sleep.

The blue-light emitted from smartphones may suppress melatonin production, making it harder to sleep and causing physiological issues including reduced glucose tolerance, increased blood pressure and increased inflammatory markers.

A man looking at a smartphone while lying in bed
Just over 50 per cent of Canadians check their smartphones before they go to sleep. Photo credit: Shutterstock

The increased level of digital connectivity and the pressure to respond instantly, especially in a post-pandemic world where many people work remotely, can lead to increased levels of anxiety and stress. Being constantly online can also lead to reduced social connectivity and can negatively impact personal relationships and social skills.

The constant digital noise and multi-tasking nature of smartphones and apps like TikTok can lead to decreased attention spans. From my personal observations in the classroom, I’ve noticed students find it difficult to concentrate for prolonged periods of time.

condition known as text neck can also occur when a person spends extended periods of time looking down at an electronic device. The repetitive strain of holding the head forward and down can cause discomfort and pain in the neck.

As people become more aware of the potential side effects of excessive screen time and constant digital connectivity, some are choosing to digitally detox. Flip phones are a way people can limit their exposure to digital noise and build a healthier relationship with technology.

Privacy concerns

Smartphones have a long list of advanced features such as cameras, GPS and tons of mobile applications — all of which can store and access a significant list of personal data.

In some cases, personal data can be used for targeted advertisements, but in worst cases that information can be leaked as part of a data breach. More and more people are growing concerned with how their data is being collected, shared and used by companies and online platforms.

A handing holding a flip cellphone over a table covered with an assortment of smartphones.
The Motorola Razr was a type of flip phone that was extremely popular in the mid-2000s. Photo credit: Shutterstock

It’s natural to feel worried about the potential misuse of our personal information. That’s why some people are taking matters into their own hands and seeking out creative ways to limit the amount of data being collected about them.

Old-fashioned flip phones generally have fewer features that collect and store personal data compared to smartphones. That can make them a more attractive option for people concerned with privacy, data breaches or surveillance.

But this trend doesn’t mean smartphones are going out of style. There are still millions of smartphones being shipped worldwide every year. The trend may result in users opting to own both a smartphone and a flip phone, allowing users to digitally detox and reduce screen time without sacrificing the benefits of social media.

How environmental, social and governance (ESG) investing controversies can impact fossil fuels

Written by Sibo Chen, Toronto Metropolitan University. Photo credit: Shutterstock. Originally published in The Conversation.

The past few years have witnessed a surge in the popularity and momentum of environmental, social and governance (ESG) investing — a form of responsible investing that aligns financial returns with positive environmental and social ones.

Institutional investors and asset managers have been viewing ESG investing as a means to mitigate investment risks and increase long-term returns. The basic premise is that industries that effectively manage their environment, social and government-related risks will be less susceptible to changes in regulations or societal expectations. This will improve their performance over the long term.

In recent months, however, numerous news articles have highlighted the growing tensions and conflicts surrounding ESG investing. In February, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis pushed legislation to further restrict state investments involving ESG. Meanwhile, many ESG opponents have targeted BlackRock, the world’s largest funds manager and most prominent provider of ESG products and services.

ESG has received criticism from both ends of the ideological spectrum. Right-wing forces regard ESG as politically charged governance that advances “woke capitalism” led by corporations. In contrast, the left has expressed skepticism regarding ESG’s claims, arguing that its business- and market-friendly approaches to equity and sustainability are antithetical to the interests of the working class.

How can we make sense of the public debates surrounding ESG investing? As a scholar researching how issues like decarbonization are contested in the public sphere, I find these debates indicative of the growing polarization in the fossil fuel sector.

The politics of ESG investing

A closer look at the rising anti-ESG sentiment in the United States shows that attacks on environmental, social and governance investing are based on cultural, rather than economic grounds.

As noted in a Wall Street Journal analysis, the main goal of conservative activists is to turn the anti-ESG movement into “a rallying cry against woke capitalism, much the way critical race theory became shorthand for broader criticisms about how race is taught in schools.”

Meanwhile, the conservatives’ attacks on ESG investing call for anti-ESG legislation. This contradicts their belief that governments should not determine how capital is allocated and investment decisions are made.

The costs of making ESG investing a political issue are glaring. According to an analysis conducted by scholars at the Wharton School, a Texas law, prohibiting municipalities from doing business with banks that have ESG policies against fossil fuels and firearms, came at a price. This was because its issuers incurred $300 to $500 million in additional interest on the $31.8 billion borrowed in the eight months following the law’s enactment.

As exemplified by the Texas case, one of the main causes of rising anti-ESG sentiment among conservatives is the increasingly apparent existential crisis of the fossil fuel industry.

In May 2021, a landmark shareholder vote at ExxonMobil resulted in the ouster of three board members by Engine No. 1 — a small activist hedge fund pushing the oil giant to adopt a more aggressive climate strategy and reduce its carbon footprint.

Around the same time, Shell was mandated to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 45 per cent between 2019 and 2030 by a Dutch court in response to a lawsuit brought by environmental groups and activists. Such events raise serious questions about the future profitability and sustainability of carbon-intensive businesses.

Divergent views on ESG investing

The political disagreement over ESG investing can also be viewed as an ideological conflict over the role of capitalism in addressing societal problems like inequality and climate change.

This conflict encompasses three main ideas.

First, those advocating for ESG investing believe capitalism can be reformed and redirected to serve the common good by incorporating environmental and social criteria into financial decision-making and creating positive change incentives.

Second, conservative opponents of ESG are dismissive of ESG investing’s promotion of what they consider to be liberal causes.

Thirdly, progressive opponents of ESG accuse ESG investing of being a form of greenwashing — the deceptive practice of making a company or product appear to be more environmentally friendly than it actually is.

Independent assessments of ESG performance

ESG investing is still mired in controversy, and many believe it will play a significant role in the presidential election in the U.S. next year.

What are the implications of the controversy for Canada? Briefly speaking, while many Canadian corporations have expressed positive attitudes toward ESG, it is concerning that public narratives regarding the fate of bitumen have become increasingly polarized, which parallels the politicization of ESG investing in the U.S.

The public opinion on the profitability of the bitumen industry in comparison to the subsidies it receives from provincial and federal governments is becoming increasingly divergent. This has significant implications for the future of the bitumen industry and its relationship with the government. If the perception that the industry is not paying its fair share persists, political pressure to reduce or eliminate existing subsidies will rise.

We urgently require comprehensive and independent assessments of the compatibility of the Canadian fossil fuel industry with ESG criteria. This will allow us to make informed decisions about how Canada’s fossil fuel industry aligns with the global transition to a low-carbon economy in the future. By taking a proactive approach to ESG, we can create a more sustainable and equitable future for all.

Lowering carbon emissions by optimizing energy retrofits

Through construction and operational activities, buildings are one of Canada’s highest greenhouse gas contributors. Deep energy retrofits, especially those that focus on reducing the use of fossil fuels, could lower buildings’ carbon emissions substantially. As more government agencies recognize the importance of energy-efficient retrofitting, research that leads to optimal building performance and decreased environmental impact is essential.

To assess and identify the best retrofit practices for residential buildings regarding carbon emissions, Toronto Metropolitan Univerisity’s (TMU) Department of Architectural Science chair and professor Mark Gorgolewski and TMU graduate student ​​Fatma Osman partnered with Michael Singleton, executive director of Sustainable Buildings Canada (SBC). Their research examines commonly used retrofit strategies in Ontario using building Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) to identify low-carbon material selections and optimal retrofit approaches.

This research benefits the construction industry by providing designers with academic insights into low-carbon strategies to help in project planning and design. It will also allow SBC and other organizations to support the development of appropriate policies and procedures that result in low-carbon built environments.

Funding for this project by Mitacs. To learn more about how Mitacs supports groundbreaking research and innovation, visit the Mitacs website.

An emergency in the making: Ending pandemic prenatal health coverage for uninsured people is both costly and dangerous

Written by Manavi Handa, Toronto Metropolitan University. Photo credit: Shutterstock. Originally published in The Conversation.

Research shows that uninsured people are more likely to get care later in pregnancy, and less care overall. This increases risks for mothers and babies.

On March 31, 2023 the Ford government in Ontario ended the expanded health-care funding it put in place when the COVID-19 pandemic began in March 2020.

This funding allowed everyone in Ontario to access essential health care. For the hundreds of thousands of people living in the province without health insurance, this meant access to necessary surgeries, emergency care and labour and delivery services without thousands of dollars in hospital and physician bills.

As a midwife who has worked in Toronto for over 20 years, largely with uninsured populations, and an associate professor who has focused my research and activism on this issue, I am acutely aware of how these cuts will impact pregnant people and ultimately all Canadians.

Insurance status

There are many reasons someone may not have health insurance. These can include homelessness; mental health issues; addiction; having documents withheld by an abusive partner, landlord or employer; and, for a growing number of people who live and work across Canada, lack of legal immigration status.

Increasingly, people may spend years with precarious immigration status, all the while building a life here and eagerly waiting for applications to come through. For example, a student applying for a work permit may fall out of status while one application expires and another comes through.

Protesters holding signs reading 'Québec, Canada is our home now' and 'We're Canadian by heart'
People take part in a demonstration in Montréal in November 2020, calling on the Québec government to give permanent residency status to all migrant workers and asylum seekers. Photo credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

Research shows that uninsured people are more likely to get care later in pregnancy and less care overall. It is well accepted across medicine that prenatal care is linked to healthier outcomes for pregnant people and babies. In particular, prenatal care is associated with dramatically lower rates of preterm birth and low birth weight babies.

Health-care costs for babies born too small and too early are among the highest of all health-care expenditures. It’s estimated that Canada spends about $8 billion per year in health costs related to preterm babies. Babies born too small and too early are also among the most likely to have lifelong health issues, including profound cognitive and physical impairment.

There is a simple bottom line argument here: prenatal care is cheap and sick babies are very expensive.

Refugees in all but name

With increasing global health and economic disparities, we are seeing more people cross and/or stay within our borders to work and live. Like many others who work with these populations, I can say that many who do not have refugee status are refugees in all but name: escaping impossible conditions and trying to build a future here.

A person with two children wearing winter clothing
Asylum seekers cross the border at Roxham Road from New York into Canada on March 24, 2023. The irregular border crossing has been permanently closed. Photo credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

The same week the Ontario government discontinued its expanded health-care coverage, eight people drowned trying to cross the St. Lawrence River in Québec while trying to escape deportation. These are the acts of desperate people.

While hospitals are not going to turn people away in emergencies, many pregnant people need access to hospital-based care before there is an emergency, and in fact to avoid an emergency. For example, someone who needs a caesarean section because labour would be too risky, may be required to pay $6,000 or even more before they can access a provider.

For some people, this could mean deciding between rent, feeding their children or getting basic health care.

Inevitable emergencies

It is inevitable that many people will not have access to prenatal care and will wind up in an emergency department, where the hospital will be ethically required to provide care anyway. Hospitals requiring advance payment does not make people less pregnant, less high-risk or less in need of a caesarean. It means people going without care and coming to the hospital in need of emergency surgery, which has the highest cost and risks of any birth.

Adding another layer of complexity to this puzzle is that, as global caesarean section rates skyrocket, more and more undocumented migrants in Canada have had a previous caesarean section. For many, this means the safest option for delivery is a repeat caesarean section.

Putting all the pieces together, discontinuing expanded health-care funding means higher numbers of already marginalized people having less prenatal care, more preterm births and low birth weight babies, and more emergency caesarean sections for delivery — all of which result in worse outcomes, more cost on the system and more moral distress on health care providers. How is this a good idea from any angle?

A study released just one week before these cuts were announced showed the many benefits of having the expanded funding in place, including improved access to prenatal care. It also demonstrated the relief health-care providers felt at not having the moral distress of having to decide who was able to access necessary care.

Lessons learned

The expanded funding put in place during COVID-19 revealed a few things.

First, the fact that it was implemented is an acknowledgement that it was needed. If we have universal health coverage for all who live here, why did we need the program in the first place?

Second, it demonstrated that it was not a massive burden to our health-care system to provide this care. The Ontario Medical Association estimated this program cost $15 million over three years. Even if it was several times more, this is very little of our health-care budget. By providing primary and preventive care, as well as prenatal care, the program likely saved money by avoiding more expensive acute and emergency care, and it certainly saved lives.

Third, this program brought caregivers and organizations together, with health-care associations asserting that this is a health equity issue, not a medical tourism issue. Immigration status has long been established as a social determinant of health, along with factors including poverty, racialization and education level. It is about time we address this issue in Canada.

The decision to discontinue extended care is going to cost us. Not just in terms of health-care dollars — it is always better to treat high blood pressure than manage a stroke — but in terms of our ethics.

Several decades ago, we decided as a country that everyone — rich or poor — deserves access to health care. Canadians have taken pride in this and it is part of our national identity. Until everyone is covered, we need to acknowledge that we do not, in fact, have universal health care, and decide what this means to us as a country.

This article was co-authored by Shezeen Suleman of Toronto Metropolitan University, and Rachel Spitzer, AJ Mata and Jenny Yang Klimis of University of Toronto.

ChatGPT’s greatest achievement might just be its ability to trick us into thinking that it’s honest

Written by Richard Lachman, Toronto Metropolitan University. Photo Credit Shutterstock. Originally published in The Conversation

AI chatbots are designed to convincingly sustain a conversation.

In American writer Mark Twain’s autobiography, he quotes — or perhaps misquotes — former British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli as saying: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

In a marvellous leap forward, artificial intelligence combines all three in a tidy little package.

ChatGPT, and other generative AI chatbots like it, are trained on vast datasets from across the internet to produce the statistically most likely response to a prompt. Its answers are not based on any understanding of what makes something funny, meaningful or accurate, but rather, the phrasing, spelling, grammar and even style of other webpages.

It presents its responses through what’s called a “conversational interface”: it remembers what a user has said, and can have a conversation using context cues and clever gambits. It’s statistical pastiche plus statistical panache, and that’s where the trouble lies.

Unthinking, but convincing

When I talk to another human, it cues a lifetime of my experience in dealing with other people. So when a program speaks like a person, it is very hard to not react as if one is engaging in an actual conversation — taking something in, thinking about it, responding in the context of both of our ideas.

Yet, that’s not at all what is happening with an AI interlocutor. They cannot think and they do not have understanding or comprehension of any sort.

Presenting information to us as a human does, in conversation, makes AI more convincing than it should be. Software is pretending to be more reliable than it is, because it’s using human tricks of rhetoric to fake trustworthiness, competence and understanding far beyond its capabilities.

There are two issues here: is the output correct; and do people think that the output is correct?

The interface side of the software is promising more than the algorithm-side can deliver on, and the developers know it. Sam Altman, the chief executive officer of OpenAI, the company behind ChatGPT, admits that “ChatGPT is incredibly limited, but good enough at some things to create a misleading impression of greatness.”

That still hasn’t stopped a stampede of companies rushing to integrate the early-stage tool into their user-facing products (including Microsoft’s Bing search), in an effort not to be left out.

Fact and fiction

Sometimes the AI is going to be wrong, but the conversational interface produces outputs with the same confidence and polish as when it is correct. For example, as science-fiction writer Ted Chiang points out, the tool makes errors when doing addition with larger numbers, because it doesn’t actually have any logic for doing math.

It simply pattern-matches examples seen on the web that involve addition. And while it might find examples for more common math questions, it just hasn’t seen training text involving larger numbers.

It doesn’t “know’ the math rules a 10-year-old would be able to explicitly use. Yet the conversational interface presents its response as certain, no matter how wrong it is, as reflected in this exchange with ChatGPT.

User: What’s the capital of Malaysia?

ChatGPT: The capital of Malaysia is Kuala Lampur.

User: What is 27 * 7338?

ChatGPT: 27 * 7338 is 200,526.

It’s not.

Generative AI can blend actual facts with made-up ones in a biography of a public figure, or cite plausible scientific references for papers that were never written.

That makes sense: statistically, webpages note that famous people have often won awards, and papers usually have references. ChatGPT is just doing what it was built to do, and assembling content that could be likely, regardless of whether it’s true.

Computer scientists refer to this as AI hallucination. The rest of us might call it lying.

Intimidating outputs

When I teach my design students, I talk about the importance of matching output to the process. If an idea is at the conceptual stage, it shouldn’t be presented in a manner that makes it look more polished than it actually is — they shouldn’t render it in 3D or print it on glossy cardstock. A pencil sketch makes clear that the idea is preliminary, easy to change and shouldn’t be expected to address every part of a problem.

The same thing is true of conversational interfaces: when tech “speaks” to us in well-crafted, grammatically correct or chatty tones, we tend to interpret it as having much more thoughtfulness and reasoning than is actually present. It’s a trick a con-artist should use, not a computer.

A hand holding a phone screen showing a live chat with the text HI HOW CAN I HELP YOU?
Chatbots are increasingly being used by technology companies in user-facing products. Photo credit: Shutterstock.

AI developers have a responsibility to manage user expectations, because we may already be primed to believe whatever the machine says. Mathematician Jordan Ellenberg describes a type of “algebraic intimidation” that can overwhelm our better judgement just by claiming there’s math involved.

AI, with hundreds of billions of parameters, can disarm us with a similar algorithmic intimidation.

While we’re making the algorithms produce better and better content, we need to make sure the interface itself doesn’t over-promise. Conversations in the tech world are already filled with overconfidence and arrogance — maybe AI can have a little humility instead.

Freshwater ecosystems are becoming increasingly salty. Here’s why this is a concern

Written by Alison Derry, Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM), Miguel Cañedo-Argüelles, Universitat de Barcelona & Stephanie J Melles, Toronto Metropolitan University. Photo credit: Author provided. Originally published in The Conversation

Roads require de-icing strategies in northern regions, but this practice has negative effects on aquatic biodiversity.

Freshwater ecosystems around the world are becoming saltier and saltier. Many human-driven factors contribute to freshwater salinization, including: irrigation, oil extraction, potash mining, and road de-icing.

As a result, salts enter waterways. But as bad news never comes alone, the salts are often accompanied by a toxic cocktail of other pollutants, whose combined toxicological effects are largely unknown.

Although the problem of rising freshwater salinization went largely unaddressed for many decades, it has gained considerable attention during the last 20 years.

Scientists around the world are working together to understand the ecological impacts of increasing salinization on aquatic biodiversity and food webs. Our ultimate goal? To examine the adequacy of water quality toxicity thresholds for the protection of aquatic life.

Salinization, a major problem

Canada is home to a majority of the world’s freshwater resources, mostly concentrated in the provinces of Ontario and Québec, where close to 5 million tons of road salt are applied annually to de-ice roads.

Combined with climate change and increasing frequency and duration of drought in many regions of the world, the problem is getting worse. This is a major concern. Why? Because the availability of freshwater resources will become a critical factor for humanity over the next 50 years.

A world map shows the freshwater availability in cubic metres per person and per year as of 2007.
The inequitable global distribution of surface freshwater resource availability. Source: Philippe Rekacewicz, February 2006.

Researchers from around the world mobilized

We recently presented a series of articles in a special issue on freshwater salinization in the journal Limnology and Oceanography Letterspublished last February.

In this special issue, we focus on sodium chloride (NaCl), the same molecule found in table salt, as a key agent of freshwater salinization. We highlight a series of co-ordinated field experiments, conducted by researchers in North America and Europe, that have addressed the impacts of freshwater salinization on zooplankton (microscopic crustaceans) at a regional scale.

Zooplankton are an ecologically critical group in aquatic food webs and are often used as indicators to detect environmental change due to their sensitive ecological tolerances.

The main conclusions of these experiments are as follows:

  • Water quality guidelines in Canada and the United States (standards) do not adequately protect freshwater zooplankton, which could lead to an increase in the abundance of algae, which the zooplankton feed on. This is because when zooplankton abundance decreases, especially for large grazers such as Daphnia, phytoplankton can proliferate under conditions of reduced predation;
  • Salinization of freshwater systematically leads to a loss of abundance and diversity of zooplankton in all regions; and
  • Individuals of the same zooplankton species do not all exhibit the same tolerance to salinity. Thus, this variation may interfere with our ability to predict community-level responses. Water quality guidelines may therefore need to be adjusted to become more region-specific.
Maps show the sites for the experiment in California, Eastern Canada and Northeastern U.S. and Spain and Sweden. Below is an image of a tree-lined lake.
Regional coverage of a co-ordinated field mesocosm experiment (Hintz et al. 2022b, Hébert et al. 2022; Arnott et al. 2022), with an example of one of the experiments that was conducted at Lac Croche (Québec, Canada) (Astorg et al. 2022) (Figure modified from Hintz et al. 2022b).

A matter of regulation

Many questions remain unanswered. However, what we do now know is that long-term water quality guidelines (Canada: 120 mg Cl⁻¹L⁻¹; United States: 230 mg Cl⁻¹L⁻¹) and in the short term (Canada: 640 mg Cl⁻¹L⁻¹; United States: 860 mg Cl⁻¹L⁻¹) for chloride concentrations are too high to protect aquatic life in Canada and in the United States. For reference, a pinch of salt in a pot of water corresponds to approximately 0.3 g of Cl⁻¹/L⁻¹. In other words, adverse effects are observed at much lower concentrations. Regulations in Canada and the United States should therefore be reviewed. In Europe, the water quality standards for salinity for the protection of aquatic life in freshwater ecosystems are mostly absent.

The importance of taking concrete action

Water quality guidelines for the protection of aquatic life are generally established using laboratory tests (called toxicological tests) on a single species.

However, aquatic habitats harbour a complex array of predators, prey, competitors, and pathogens, the interactions of which can limit our ability to predict the responses of communities and species to pollutants .

Thus, the collective research published in this special issue also highlights the importance of understanding ecological responses in multi-species communities in natural settings to assess the responses of freshwater life to human impacts.

A small body of water surrounded by trees.
Aerial view of a field enclosure experiment conducted in a chloride-sensitive lake in the Laurentians (Québec) (Astorg et al. 2022). Photo credit: Étienne Laliberté.

Overall, we should develop alternative applications and technologies that are more sustainable and efficient.

We also need to establish more appropriate water quality guidelines to improve controls on salts entering our freshwater environments to reduce adverse effects on aquatic life and the quality of our freshwater resources.

Declining naturalizations signal larger problems in Canada’s citizenship and immigration system

Written by John Carlaw, Toronto Metropolitan University. Photo credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick. Originally published in The Conversation.

Reports about declining naturalizations belie the historical and political obstacles that prevent many migrants from becoming citizens.

A recent press release from the Institute for Canadian Citizenship that cites Statistics Canada data has highlighted concerns over a 40 per cent reduction in Canada’s “naturalization rate” — the rate at which permanent residents are becoming citizens.

The release, headlined Newcomers falling out of love with Canadian citizenship generated a number of other media headlines.

Concerns over how and whether those living and working in Canada are attaining citizenship and important rights — including to vote and run for office — are of course well placed. But love of country by immigrants is not the primary problem.

Individual choices and sentiments are a relevant factor, but there are observable structural explanations. Beyond Canada’s control, not all countries permit dual citizenship. That includes major source countries China and India where many immigrants to Canada are from. It is understandable that some permanent residents prefer not to renounce the citizenship of their country of origin.

But within Canada’s control, there are troubling shifts in our overall citizenship and immigration model. Inequalities connected to its colonial nature have left growing numbers of residents without citizenship or even a pathway to it.

Annual immigration levels, for example, only represent those accepted as permanent residents and obscure the number of those admitted to Canada under less secure conditions.

This has occurred thanks to under-discussed but at times controversial shifts from permanent to temporary or multi-step migration.

These shifts can be obscured by focusing primarily on the naturalization process and the sentiments some attach to it rather than the larger settler colonial landscape of migration and immigration and its relationship to citizenship and belonging at each stage.

A group of people raise their right hands and they take an oath.
People take the citizenship oath during a ceremony at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa. Photo credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick.

Unkept promises and unlearned lessons

In recent years, Canada has apologized for past discriminatory immigration measures and its treatment of Indigenous Peoples. And there have been recent symbolic advances recognizing First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities and Canadians’ treaty responsibilities in the citizenship oath.

However, social exclusions in modern forms related to the project of Canadian nation-building, citizenship and belonging persist. They are even intensifying in important respects.

A recent report from the Yellowhead Institute found that, despite an expressed commitment to fully implement the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 Calls to Action, the Federal government has only fulfilled 13, with those providing symbolic rather than structural remedies.

This example is indicative of why many Indigenous people — themselves denied the vote for much of Canada’s history — understandably view Canadian citizenship as, at best, a “kinder, gentler form of colonialism.”

These realities also remind us that the terms and hierarchies of citizenship and societal membership in Canada shift over time. They are subject to social struggle. And apologies and symbolic advancements do not relegate mistreatment to the past.

Hierarchies of belonging persist

“White Canada” immigration policies that favoured European immigrants and largely excluded those from elsewhere were in place until the 1960s.

These entrenched institutional and demographic dominance by white settlers. Europeans immigrating to Canada in earlier periods had ready access to permanent residence and eventual citizenship, unlike many of their contemporary racialized counterparts.

Institutional racism continues to be felt in the country’s immigration system and political life as tiers of citizenship and belonging continue to be practiced in old and new forms.

Canada adopted official multiculturalism in 1971, yet two years later it entrenched migrant worker programs, primarily for racialized workers from the Global South. As with past exclusions, these workers still have to navigate programs and realities that prevent or make it difficult for them to access permanent residence and citizenship.

This is particularly the case for those working in what are deemed to be “low skill” positions. Many such workers become “permanently temporary” despite ongoing demands for their labour.

Today, Canada’s political institutions are still disproportionately composed of men of primarily European descent. And they continue to set and enforce problematic terms of citizenship and societal membership.

Today’s more difficult pathways to citizenship

Today’s immigrants — who mostly come from the Global South — face a system of complex chutes and ladders when it comes to their status in Canada. That system leads many migrants to remain stuck in an immigration purgatory, far away from pathways to permanent residence, let alone citizenship.

Even those often characterized as the perfect immigrants — international students who pay vast sums that subsidize our post-secondary education system — face limited and precarious pathways to permanent residence and citizenship.

As economist Armine Yalnizyan recently noted, today for each person granted the security of permanent residence, there are two migrant workers or international students who have uncertain or no access to permanent status.

This could prove an obstacle to attracting and retaining workers. When it comes to citizenship and societal membership, it hinders inclusion by creating an exploitable class of workers who lack full political and social rights.

In the face of these realities, many migrants, students and workers are mobilizing to address these exclusions. This includes protests in several cities demanding “status for all” to mark the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

A group of people at a protest carrying signs that read: status for all. A woman in a red shirt speaks into a mic.
A rally for migrant rights in Christie Pits park in Toronto on Sept. 18, 2022, calling on the federal government to extend permanent status to undocumented people. Photo credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Holly McKenzie-Sutter.

To return to the later stages of the process of becoming Canadian by adopting citizenship, under the former Conservative government, citizenship became harder to get and easier to lose by design.

Unfortunately, amidst the last decade’s battles between more exclusionary Conservative and rhetorically warmer Liberal visions of citizenship, tougher and more expensive procedures than previously existed remain under both.

The costs of applying for citizenship increased significantly under the Conservatives, and have remained prohibitive for many. The Trudeau government has made some positive reforms, such as reversing changes that made it take longer to become a citizen. But it has failed to follow through on its election promises to eliminate citizenship fees.

One recent study argues that it is likely that fee hikes and tougher, often expensive language requirements negatively impact a significant number of applicants.

Even those who have managed to obtain permanent residency and fulfilled their residency requirements face further “boundaries related to management flaws, classed naturalization, and cultural biases.” That means many, particularly refugee claimants and family class immigrants, struggle with the citizenship process.

For those who can reach the end of the process, some find it distasteful to continue to have to declare an enforced oath to a colonial figure, a reminder of the structures and hierarchies discussed in this article.

Given this context, the significant decline in Canada’s naturalization rate should be less surprising, though no less alarming as Canada continues to foster and even intensify inequalities of societal membership in its citizenship and immigration regime.

Addressing campus sexual violence: New risk assessment tool can help administrators make difficult decisions

Written by Sandy Jung, MacEwan University & Jesmen Mendoza, Toronto Metropolitan University. Photo credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Lars Hagberg. Originally published in The Conversation.

Students organize a walkout to protest sexual violence on campuses and to support survivors of sexual assault, in Kingston, Ont., at Queen’s University, in September 2021.

How do universities and colleges build safer campuses, and better respond to incidents of sexual and gender-based violence? There isn’t a simple answer to this question.

Whatever the response, any solution involves making difficult decisions based on valid tools.

We are part of a national collaborative initiative to address and prevent sexual and gender-based violence at post-secondary institutions in a survivor-centred, and trauma- and violence-informed way.

We have been co-leading a project to create an evidence-based community risk assessment tool for campus administrators and sexual violence support staff to use when formulating campus policy about sexual assault and gender-based violence, and when responding to incidents.

Informed policy needed

Culture change movements, documentaries and media reporting on sexual assault on campuses have brought to light the need to go beyond supporting victims and merely responding to incidents of sexual violence — and focus on the overall campus safety.

Such increased attention has obligated institutions to devote specialized campus resources to develop policies, increase survivor support and establish programming to address the multiple forms of systemic oppression that intersect with gender-based violence.

Students seen holding signs.
Student advocacy and culture change movements have called for more responsive and robust campus policies addressing sexual assault. Photo credit: Kendall Warner/The News & Advance via AP.

Surveillance, security responses

Campuses often respond to sexual or gender-based violence by choosing approaches involving surveillance, greater security measures and punishment — what might be called a carceral approach, reminiscent of prisons.

Some campus administrators believe that police presence and other security measures make campus a safer environment.

These mainstream approaches work only to safeguard the institution from scrutiny. They put the onus on the victim in most cases, rather than a preventive approach that keeps survivors safe.

These efforts may ultimately fail to instil trust in survivors, as reports show that victims of sexual assault, especially women of colour, are less likely to report sexual violence to police or submit a formal complaint to the university.

Decisions about victims, the accused

Neglected in these resources, however, are processes that guide decisions about those who have been accused of sexual and gender-based violence.

Most policies prematurely outline potential consequences for the accused and rush to ask how the individual should be disciplined. Instead, these policies should first ask how a decision should be made about the person who has caused harm: For example, is the person at a high risk of perpetrating further harm? What should be done about the person’s access to the campus environment and other students?

In odd contrast, the criminal justice field gives less consideration to the victim and more time and resources to the perpetrator, asking how they are evaluated, what sentence they should get — and what intervention should be applied.

There is a need to balance resources that are focused on both victims and the perpetrators.

New national framework

A Canadian social change consultancy dedicated to gender justice and equity, Possibility Seeds, collaborated with over 300 experts and advocates from across the country to outline a national framework to address and prevent sexual and gender-based violence at post-secondary institutions.

A report emerging from this work, called Courage to Act, identified the importance of a co-ordinated response to incidents of campus gender-based violence including policy responses. Our work to create an evidence-based risk assessment tool emerged from needs highlighted in this report.

Need for formal, relevant tools

It has been generally accepted by the criminal justice field that assessing risk on the basis of personal impressions — what’s known as unstructured judgements — does not yield risk assessments that are as accurate as when people use structured and validated tools.

A structured risk tool ensures that we avoid making decisions based on personal subjectivity and inaccurate beliefs.

In the end, a structured and valid tool would help ensure that fair and consistent decisions are made. This ultimately protects the rights of those involved and helps keep the whole campus community safe.

Tailored to post-secondary communities

Some may wonder: Why reinvent the wheel when the justice system already uses risk tools to make decisions about criminal offenders?

However, these tools were developed for use with justice-involved adults, tend to focus on antisocial behaviours and attitudes, and assess specific risks for partner abuse, sexual violence or general violence.

Research suggests that young adults studying in post-secondary communities are less likely to have antisocial traits (such as having serious criminal records, illicit drug dependency or poor employment records). This said, it is true that sexual or gender-based violence on campus may be perpetrated by anyone, not necessarily by students, and also that university affiliation does not guarantee pro-social or non-violent behaviour.

Students seen at a rally in support of survivors of sexual assault.
Campus sexual and gender-based violence includes a broad spectrum of harmful behaviours. Photo credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nicole Osborne.

Also, campus sexual and gender-based violence includes a broad spectrum of harmful behaviours that can’t be easily pigeon-holed into sexual violence or partner assault.

These behaviours can include coercively controlling, sexually harassing or trolling or abusing people online in ways that do not necessarily involve physical contact but can cause tremendous distress to victims.

Four factors

This risk assessment tool will be freely available in fall 2023 and is intended to be used by all support providers on campus. It is not intended for use to purely predict future behaviour, but rather, to help campus administrators make determinations regarding risk management.

The tool helps administrators and sexual violence support staff consider four factors related to:

  • the survivor/victim;
  • the post-secondary community;
  • the incident of sexual violence;
  • the respondent, or the person who has caused harm.

Safely planning with victims

In addition to the tool’s use to assess the respondent’s risk to commit further sexual or gender-based violence, the tool may help administrators and post-secondary support staff to create a safety plan with the victim.

Also, identifying a respondent’s specific risk factors can help campus administrators target the respondent’s problematic areas that likely led to their harmful behaviours. Administrators and support staff can conduct an institutional risk audit that would help evaluate where increased allocation of resources would make the most sense in order to have a positive impact on campus safety.

To build safer campuses, we can start by using a community risk assessment to make difficult decisions about a person who has caused harm, and where to allocate resources to prevent future incidents of sexual and gender-based violence.

Ruchika Gothoskar, Research Assistant with Possibility Seeds, co-authored this story.

The next phase of the internet is coming: Here’s what you need to know about Web3

Written by Adrian Ma, Toronto Metropolitan University. Photo credit: Shutterstock. Originally published in The Conversation.

The terms Web3 and Web 3.0 are often used interchangeably, but they are different concepts.

The rapid growth of cryptocurrencies and virtual non-fungible tokens have dominated news headlines in recent years. But not many may see how these modish applications connect together in a wider idea being touted by some as the next iteration of the internet — Web3.

There are many misconceptions surrounding this buzzy (and, frankly, fuzzy) term, including the conflation of Web3 with Web 3.0. Here’s what you need to know about these terms.

What is Web3?

Since Web3 is still a developing movement, there’s no universal agreement among experts about its definition. Simply put, Web3 is envisioned to be a “decentralized web ecosystem,” empowering users to bypass internet gatekeepers and retain ownership of their data.

This would be done through blockchain; rather than relying on single servers and centralized databases, Web3 would run off of public ledgers where data is stored on computer networks that are chained together.

A decentralized Web3 would fundamentally change how the internet operates — financial institutions and tech companies would no longer need to be intermediaries of our online experiences.

As one business reporter put it:

“In a Web3 world, people control their own data and bounce around from social media to email to shopping using a single personalized account, creating a public record on the blockchain of all of that activity.”

Web3’s blockchain-based infrastructure would open up intriguing possibilities by ushering in the era of the “token economy.” The token economy would allow users to monetize their data by providing them with tokens for their online interactions. These tokens could offer users perks or benefits, including ownership stakes in content platforms or voting rights in online communities.

To better understand Web3, it helps to step back and see how the internet developed into what it is now.

Web 1.0: The ‘read-only’ web

Computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee is credited with inventing the world wide web in 1989, which allowed people to hyperlink static pages of information on websites accessible through internet browsers.

Berners-Lee was exploring more efficient ways for researchers at different institutions to share information. In 1991, he launched the world’s first website, which provided instructions on using the internet.

A middle-aged man in a suit sits in an arm chair speaking into a microphone.
Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, speaks at the Open Government Partnership Global Summit in Ottawa in May 2019. Photo credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang.

These basic “read-only” websites were managed by webmasters who were responsible for updating users and managing the information. In 1992, there were 10 websites. By 1994, after the web entered the public domain, there were 3,000.

When Google arrived in 1996 there were two million. Last year, there were approximately 1.2 billion websites, although it is estimated only 17 per cent are still active.

Web 2.0: The social web

The next major shift for the internet saw it develop from a “read-only web” to where we are currently — a “read-write web.” Websites became more dynamic and interactive. People became mass participants in generating content through hosted services like Wikipedia, Blogger, Flickr and Tumblr.

The idea of “Web 2.0” gained traction after technology publisher Tim O’Reilly popularized the term in 2004.

Later on, social media platforms like Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Instagram and the growth of mobile apps led to unparalleled connectivity, albeit through distinct platforms. These platforms are known as walled gardens because their parent companies heavily regulate what users are able to do and there is no information exchange between competing services.

Tech companies like Amazon, Google and Apple are deeply embedded into every facet of our lives, from how we store and pay for our content to the personal data we offer (sometimes without our knowledge) to use their wares.

Web3 vs. Web 3.0

This brings us to the next phase of the internet, in which many wish to wrest back control from the entities that have come to hegemonize it.

The terms Web3 and Web 3.0 are often used interchangeably, but they are different concepts.

Web3 is the move towards a decentralized internet built on blockchain. Web 3.0, on the other hand, traces back to Berners-Lee’s original vision for the internet as a collection of websites linking everything together at the data level.

Our current internet can be thought of as a gigantic document depot. Computers are capable of retrieving information for us when we ask them to, but they aren’t capable of understanding the deeper meaning behind our requests.

A hand holding a cellphone displaying a group of social media platform icons.
In a Web 3.0 world, users would be able to link personal information across social media platforms. Photo credit: Shutterstock.

Information is also siloed into separate servers. Advances in programming, natural language processing, machine learning and artificial intelligence would allow computers to discern and process information in a more “human” way, leading to more efficient and effective content discovery, data sharing and analysis. This is known as the “semantic web” or the “read-write-execute” web.

In Berners-Lee’s Web 3.0 world, information would be stored in databases called Solid Pods, which would be owned by individual users. While this is a more centralized approach than Web3’s use of blockchain, it would allow data to be changed more quickly because it wouldn’t be distributed over multiple places.

It would allow, for example, a user’s social media profiles to be linked so that updating the personal information on one would automatically update the rest.

The next era of the internet

Web3 and Web 3.0 are often mixed up because the next era of the internet will likely feature elements of both movements — semantic web applications, linked data and a blockchain economy. It’s not hard to see why there is significant investment happening in this space.

But we’re just seeing the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the logistical issues and legal implications. Governments need to develop new regulations for everything from digital asset sales taxation to consumer protections to the complex privacy and piracy concerns of linked data.

There are also critics who argue that Web3, in particular, is merely a contradictory rebranding of cryptocurrency that will not democratize the internet. While it’s clear we’ve arrived at the doorstep of a new internet era, it’s really anyone’s guess as to what happens when we walk through that door.