Category: Technology and Regulation

Blog author: abradley
posted by on Wednesday, September 19, 2007

In his recent and fascinating book Five Minds for the Future, Harvard professor Howard Gardner outlines the 5 basic types of intelligence people have:

1. The Disciplinary Mind: the mastery of major schools of thought, including science, mathematics, and history, and of at least one professional craft;

2. The Synthesizing Mind: the ability to integrate ideas from different disciplines or spheres into a coherent whole and to communicate that integration to others;

3. The Creating Mind: the capacity to uncover and clarify new problems, questions and phenomena;

4. The Respectful Mind: awareness of and appreciation for differences among human beings and human groups;

5. The Ethical Mind: fulfillment of one’s responsibilities as a worker and as a citizen.

Gardner makes the striking point that the Synthesizing Mind is becoming more important than ever, given our highly technological, highly informational world. The Disciplinary Mind — or what we think of as classical intelligence, the stuff child prodigies are made of — has dominated the intellectual landscape throughout history. But, Gardner argues, now that the Internet, technology, and media are making massive amounts of very dense information available to the average person, the type of mind that can acquire and store information is still impressive, but ultimately less useful than a mind that can process, connect, and communicate cross-disciplinary information to others in a meaningful way.

Thanks to the Internet, everyone can now access the vast storehouses of intellectual wealth that once belonged only to a concentrated elite. It makes sense, then, that the new elite could turn out to be those who can receive information rapidly, sift it, connect the dots, and put the whole picture to the best possible use for others.

In my mind, the Synthesizer concept parallels entrepreneurship in a few interesting ways. Just as information can behave like a type of good or service, it seems a person with a Synthesizing Mind can make prudent use of knowledge for the good of the entire human community. Technology makes it possible for the Synthesizer quickly to select the most relevant material from the experts — who have divided their labor to manage whole disciplines and systems of thought — without laboring to build a monolithic knowledge base of every field on his own, which would take a long time and allow him to share only a few authoritative insights at the end of all his pursuits. This does not mean the Synthesizer hurries or skips over important steps: he still must be a careful scholar who humbly stands “on the shoulders of giants,” as Sir Isaac Newton put it. It simply means he is free to use his creative powers to illuminate more readily for others the way various disciplines interact and the consequences they have for human life. That in turn makes him able to harness and combine the talents of others to form a serviceable “product” faster than a person with a Disciplinary Mind.

If thinking truly is “connecting things,” as G.K. Chesterton wrote in Orthodoxy, the concept of the Synthesizing Mind has a great deal to offer to people of every category of intelligence. Even if you disagree with Gardner’s categorizations, having a Synthesizing Mind might help you to figure out why.

My local library is apparently having a problem with youth gangs who are using the public computers to access social networking sites, such as MySpace and Facebook. The hooligans are defacing each others sites, sending threatening messages, and causing other kinds of trouble.

From the Wyoming Advance, “A place that should be safe for children has seen graffiti, assaults, loud and vulgar language, patron intimidation, public sexual encounters, carving gang symbols in furniture, and more.”

What is the library to do? “As a solution, KDL has employed a part-time security guard who interacts with youths and is on-duty during key teen use times. They are also poised to install filters that limit access to social networking sites on all but six of the 40 library computers in an effort to quell the problems.”

That raises some first amendment questions, of course. The GR Press reports that the ban on some social networking sites will go through a six-month trial period.

“It is only a trial,” Martha Smart, KDL director, said. “It’s very important to provide freedom of access to information for the public. We want to protect people’s First Amendment rights.”

Here’s an idea: why not simply play some classical music instead of banning social networking sites? (HT)

“Transit workers are installing speakers this week to pump classical music from Seattle’s KING-FM into the Tacoma Mall Transit Center. The tactic is designed to disperse young criminals who make drug deals at the bus stop or use public transportation to circulate between the mall and other trouble-prone places.” Let’s just hope they don’t add any Wagner to the playlist.

Update: Still on the case, Tim Disselkoen summarizes the reactions of a KDL spokesperson: “Garrison said the library has acceptable use policies in place regarding the Internet, and Mish said they work to educate youth about cyber-bullying, online predators, and other potential areas of concern. While KDL has declined to block all access to the social networking sites, parents can restrict their children’s access to such sites through their library cards.”

The theme of the role of the libraries not acting in loco parentis has come up in a couple different quotes from library officials. “If parents are concerned about the use at the library, we can block children’s Internet use,” Garrison said. “We can block the total Internet, we cannot block certain access.” The story concludes, “But KDL officials have said acting in the role of parents is not a duty libraries perform.”

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Wednesday, July 11, 2007

This is a not-so-compelling argument that “information should be free.”

Logos Research Systems Inc., which produces Libronix biblical and theological research software, was vandalized this past weekend by “a man throwing Froot Loops cereal and pieces of paper out of an apartment window in the shipping department building Saturday morning.”

The Bellingham Herald reported that he “told officers he felt the company was charging him money for Bibles when he could get them for free.”

The confluence of two recent headline-making stories has the potential to impact the practice of free speech, political or otherwise, in this country.

First, let’s discuss the question of media bias that has surrounded the offer made by Rupert Murdoch to purchase the Wall Street Journal. The closure of the deal appears imminent, now that the formation of an independent board has been agreed upon.

NPR’s Morning Edition covered this story in detail yesterday, with a piece by David Folkenflik on the proposed merger, followed by an in-depth profile of Murdoch by Steve Inskeep. The Inskeep piece focused especially on concerns that Murdoch would influence the editorial stance of the journal.

Here’s how Inskeep finished the profile: Speaking of the WSJ, Inskeep intones that the paper “blends powerfully conservative editorials with powerfully balanced reporting.” According to a study of media bias published in 2005, however, Inskeep is only half right in that assessment.

In “A Measure of Media Bias,” appearing in The Quarterly Journal of Economics 120, no. 4 (November 2005): 1191-1237, authors Time Groseclose and Jeffrey Milvo determined that the WSJ was “the most liberal of all twenty news outlets” that they studied, a group including papers like the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, New York Times, USA Today, as well as numerous other cable TV, network, and news magazine outlets.

“We should first remind readers that this estimate (as well as all other newspaper estimates) refers only to the news of the Wall Street Journal. If we included data from the editorial page, surely it would appear more conservative,” write Groseclose and Milvo. Apparently Inskeep didn’t read this study or others like it. Or, perhaps even more importantly, it fit with his own editorial agenda to cast the WSJ news reporting in as centrist a light as possible, the better to highlight any possible rightward shift that might come under Murdoch’s ownership.

The second set of items revolves around the speculation that the Democratic majority in the Senate might be considering steps to re-install the media “fairness doctrine,” in substance if not in name.

Concerns that talk radio is unfairly unbalanced in favor of conservative politics fuels the ire of Sen. Dianne Feinstein: “I think there ought to be an opportunity to present the other side. And unfortunately, talk radio is overwhelmingly one way,” Feinstein said. “I do believe in fairness. I remember when there was a fairness doctrine, and I think there was much more serious, correct reporting to people.”

There’s a lot to dislike about the “fairness doctrine,” but perhaps what concerns me the most is the precedent that such policies make with regard to political speech.

How easy would it be to expand the scope of such a doctrine beyond overtly political “talk radio” to other sorts of programming? What about religious broadcasting, whose content may have a greater or lesser political relevance depending on the particular issue? Could the censorship of religious speech in the US begin under the auspices of a politically-motivated “fairness” doctrine?

Update: Looks like a “fairness doctrine” amendment has been defeated. See also this editorial cartoon over at Townhall.

There once was a time when it was, in practice at least, more difficult and costly to copy videocassette tapes than it was music tapes, compact discs, or computer programs. That, in part, is the justification for how the US Copyright code treats music and computer software differently than, say, movies.

It’s also why you see rental companies, like Blockbuster and Netflix, that specialize in delivering rental videos for limited home usage. Other companies, like Gamefly, specialize in the rental of video games for consoles like the PlayStation 3 and XBox 360. Gamefly can do this because games for consoles, whether cartridge-based or disc-based, don’t qualify as “computer software,” and are thus not under special protection.

And in some states, there are increasing restrictions on how you can sell your used music CDs, for instance.

But as is so often the case in the world of technology, things change rapidly. The advent of the PC and powerful CD and DVD burning technology has made copying DVD movies as easy as copying tracks from a music CD.

Moreover, the PS3 in particular describes itself as a “computer entertainment system,” and comes with a hard drive, to which files can be copied, theoretically easing game load times and storing player profiles and statistics. This raises the question of what truly differentiates a game for the PS3 “computer entertainment system” and a game for a PC. Because of the particularities of copyright law, the former can be rented commercially, while the latter cannot (at least not without direct permission from the copyright holders).

The reason that you can rent games for such console systems is that such a game system is understood to be “a limited purpose computer.” But many PC gaming systems aren’t actually used for anything besides gaming (even though they theoretically could be).

Some commentators are in agreement with the view of Apple’s Steve Jobs: “There’s no mainstream demand for music subscriptions. The music business isn’t built on long-term rentals; it’s built on one hit after another. It’s confectionary. Tunes are addictive for a while and then discarded. It’s like the drug business: Users are always looking for the next hit.”

To the extent that this is even true, it may simply be the result of the different copyright treatment of music, movies, computer software, and video games.

Via Slashdot, news comes today that Google’s next shareholders meeting will feature a vote on a shareholder resolution to protect free speech and combat censorship by intrusive governments.

According to the proxy statement, Proposal Number 5 would require the recognition of “minimum standards,” including, that “the company will use all legal means to resist demands for censorship. The company will only comply with such demands if required to do so through legally binding procedures,” and that “the company will not engage in pro-active censorship.”

Part of the basis cited for the proposal is the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which declares that the “advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people.”

One of the specific provisions of the declaration related to freedom of speech is Article 19: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

It’s pretty clear that China’s censorship practices, which include a so-called “great firewall,” violate this provision.

I’m curious to see how this resolution fares and how the directors, especially considering that Google co-founder Sergey Brin has said that the company’s cooperation with China “a net negative.” External considerations might also be at play, given the potential for legislation like the Global Online Freedom Act of 2007 to regulate the activities of companies like Google.

Socrates in some sense has come full circle. In a case of life imitating art, researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Central Florida in Orlando have received a grant to create life-like virtual representations of historical figures, with whom students can interact, dialogue, and inquire (HT: Slashdot).

“The goal is to combine artificial intelligence with the latest advanced graphics and video game-type technology to enable us to create historical archives of people beyond what can be achieved using traditional technologies such as text, audio and video footage,” said Jason Leigh, associate professor of computer science and director of UIC’s Electronic Visualization Laboratory. Leigh is UIC’s lead principal investigator.

This project seminally resembles the technological world depicted by Robert Silverberg in his mid-80′s novella, Sailing to Byzantium. In that work set in the 50th century, Silverberg’s characters travel to variously themed reconstructions of cities, complete with interactive simulacra of historical or mythological figures.

The UIC/UCFO project will focus on creating digital “avatars,” who mimic the mannerisms and characteristics of the persona they represent: “Leigh said his team hopes to create virtual people who respond with a high degree of recognition to different voices and the various ways questions are phrased.”

Some commentators wonder if the concept has commercial appeal. Judging from the popularity of the cities in Silverberg’s novella, I would certainly think so.

But what is more striking is how a project like this provides an answer, albeit one that is incomplete, to the conundrum of communication posed by Socrates himself so long ago.

In the Phaedrus, Socrates makes the following critical observation about the nature of writing:

I cannot help feeling, Phaedrus, that writing is unfortunately like painting; for the creations of the painter have the attitude of life, and yet if you ask them a question they preserve a solemn silence. And the same may be said of speeches. You would imagine that they had intelligence, but if you want to know anything and put a question to one of them, the speaker always gives one unvarying answer. And when they have been once written down they are tumbled about anywhere among those who may or may not understand them, and know not to whom they should reply, to whom not: and, if they are maltreated or abused, they have no parent to protect them; and they cannot protect or defend themselves.

We now have within our sight a superficial answer to Socrates’ critique; these avatars will presumably be able to know “to whom they should reply,” and “to whom not.” Indeed, the simulacra might be able to give more than “one unvarying answer.”

But I think in some ways this simply sharpens rather than dismisses Socrates’ criticism. Will these avatars, in spite of the technological achievement of interactivity, fundamentally represent anything more than the illusion of intelligence, or “the attitude of life”? Whence comes the dynamism and spontaneity of human rationality, willing, and consciousness? Is it possible to truly recreate such things by means of “artificial intelligence”?

John Berthoud of the National Taxpayers Union has a piece in today’s Washington Examiner about the battle between Microsoft and the European Commission. Berthoud writes that it is part of a larger “anti-American” program, and “another example of old-guard European protectionism.”

Berthoud writes, “The EC’s actions against Microsoft are not isolated. It has acted against other American businesses as well. For instance, in 2001 the EC blocked General Electric’s planned acquisition of Honeywell. Assistant U.S. Attorney General Charles A. James said at the time that the EC’s decision ‘reflects a significant point of diversion’ with U.S. American antitrust regulators.”

It’s true that Microsoft isn’t the only target, although it is the one of the biggest and perhaps the most significant in the digital realm. It seems that any American company that successfully innovates and offers a valuable product can be threatened by EU regulators. The Commission has launched an investigation against Apple for potential violations of EU law, by selling music for different prices in different countries.

Berthoud gives the following advice to the EU, “Rather than try to stifle American innovation, perhaps Europe should focus more on encouraging homegrown entrepreneurial advances to vie with U.S companies.”

But it seems pretty clear that in the case of operating systems and software, the EU has chosen its horse to favor: open source. Next week we’ll examine some of the claims of superiority that might be influencing the EU’s adoption of open source software.

The effort to create a top-level domain suffix for adult Web sites has failed, for the third time (HT: X3). ICANN voted 9-5 to defeat the proposal, which was roundly opposed by an unlikely alliance of religious groups and the adult entertainment industry.

The proposal would have created a new “.xxx” suffix that would have allowed voluntary participation of adult content providers. Many in that line of work are concerned that such a voluntary program could become mandatory, “pushing them into a so-called online ghetto.”

Religious groups are concerned that such a voluntary program would simply legitimate pornographic content on the Web without effectively segmenting objectionable content from the rest of the Internet.

We’ve talked before about options for self-regulation that could function well in place of a dedicated domain suffix, such as an NSFW (not safe for work) HTML attribute.

But as long as the “.xxx” domain proposal includes a voluntary “opt-in” for adult sites, don’t expect the unlikely alliance of religious activists and pornographers to dissolve.

I’ve discussed previously the complex interrelationships between the next-generation gaming consoles and hi-def DVD formats, especially as complicated by the pornification of culture and technology.

So far I’ve focused on the battle between Sony’s PS3 (paired with the Blu-ray format) and the Xbox 360 (paired with the HD-DVD format), and argued that the hi-def formats rather than the porn industry itself would act as a decisive influence.

In an recent Newsweek article, Brian Braiker conclusively exposes the vacuous nature of the often highly exaggerated claims about the influence of the porn industry on technology (HT: Constitutionally Correct). He rightly wonders,

If people aren’t buying adult DVDs in the numbers the “official” estimates suggest—and, in fact, if cable and free online porn is driving the demand for physical product even lower—how does it make sense that porn will be the deciding factor in the battle for supremacy between Blu-ray and HD-DVD formats?

It doesn’t make sense, and that’s why the “conventional wisdom” about the power of porn needs to be questioned. And there’s more and more reason to suppose that Blu-ray is beginning to turn the tide against HD-DVD, even though the latter is far more porn-friendly. New plans have also been announced about the release cheaper Blu-ray players from Funai Electric Co. Ltd and from Sony later in 2007, increasing the low-end competitiveness of the format.

There’s a good debate on video about the format wars here, which also addresses the question of porn’s influence. Tom Arnold, editor at Hollywood Reporter, raises the observation that neither format can win as long as both are readily available. In this way, the format wars can really be seen to mirror the “cola wars” of the 80′s between Pepsi and Coke. If the market is large enough, perhaps it can support multiple formats, brands, or flavors. Arnold also said, “Porn is not the driver.”

But beyond the issue of the influence of porn on the format war, and its indirect impact on the next-gen console conflict, the dichotomy of the PS3 vs. Xbox 360 also needs to be adjusted. The fact is that Nintendo’s Wii is an important and powerful player in the console gaming market. This despite the accusations leveled by some that the Wii is not truly “next-gen” because it displays at 480p resolution (which qualifies only as “enhanced” and not “high” definition). But this past February saw the Wii dominate both the PS3 and the Xbox 360 in sales.

So, assuming that the Wii doesn’t suffer from the attempt by a Christian group to label it a “portal to porno” because of the potential to access adult content through its connection to the Internet, the next-gen console contest is officially a three horse race.

Internet access is a feature shared by the other next-gen consoles too, and despite the rather unfriendly response from the gaming community to ThePornTalk.com’s message, I see it as a praiseworthy and well-meant attempt to inform parents about the reality of technological advances. It certainly is true parents often are unaware of the potential content and capabilities of game consoles.