Category: Technology and Regulation

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Thursday, April 10, 2008

When John concluded his gospel, he supposed that if all of Jesus’ doings were written down, “that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.”

The last two millennia have seen quite a bit of change, to be sure. Christians have done their best to make John’s comment come true, filling the world with writings on the life of Jesus, the biblical revelation, and the implications of the gospel for every aspect of all walks of life.

But at the dawn of the third millennium, we are seeing an increasing shift to digital media (sometimes, but not always to the detriment of analog media like books), it’s conceivable that a single hard drive might have room for all the books that have ever been written (and not just the religious, theological, and biblical ones).

And as there has always been demand for the Bible (said to be the best-selling book of all time), so too there is demand for new and innovative ways to apply the power of computers to religious and theological texts. Currently these demands are being met by the de facto cooperation between non-profit and for-profit enterprises.

Take, for instance, the developing relationship between the non-profit Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL) and the for-profit Logos Bible Software.

In addition to advertising on CCEL’s website and in their electronic newsletter, Ken Verhulst, a spokesman for CCEL, says that there’s an agreement for Logos software to be sold by CCEL. The non-profit then receives a share of the sale price. “These funds are used to keep CCEL going,” he says.

Phil Gons, who works in Logos’ press relations department, says that his company has “a good relationship with CCEL” and that they are in talks “about ways we can work together.”

Gons also points to BibleTech, a newly-inaugurated conference held in January hosted by Logos that had a large turnout of open source and non-profit folks. The conference website lists participants like OpenText.org, “a web-based initiative to provide an annotated corpus of Greek texts and tools for their analysis,” and the CrossWire Bible Society, “an organization with the purpose to sponsor and provide a place for engineers and others to come and collaborate on free, open-source projects aimed at furthering the Kingdom of our God.”

That isn’t to say that non-profits don’t feel some market pressures, too. Verhulst says that there is a strong push to move CCEL towards self-sufficiency. The donor who keeps CCEL going “is encouraging us to strive towards ‘independence’ — not profit status, just the ability to sustain ourselves.”

All this is a new twist on an old story in theological and biblical publishing. There have always been critics of major publishers like Zondervan, Thomas Nelson, and Tyndale, which are for-profit enterprises. Crossway, by contrast, is a non-profit venture that focuses on publishing around the English Standard Version.

The reality of the situation in the digital world is that open source and for-profit ventures are just as much partners as they are competitors. Given its practical focus, for example, CCEL generally limits itself to “public domain” works, while companies like Logos can use tools like their pre-publishing and community pricing systems to gauge market demand and bring major projects like Luther’s Works and Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics to digital publishing.

As in other sectors, enterprise is the driver of innovation, without which other non-profit ventures might not be possible. Even “public domain” works were once published for sale. It isn’t the case, either in traditional or digital publishing, that the choice is simply between for-profit or non-profit efforts. Instead, we live with the all-or-nothing complementary reality of both for-profit and non-profit publishing. And we are better off for it.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Wednesday, March 19, 2008

I was reading about Bill Gates’ speech to the Northern Virginia Technology Council last week, which received a lot of media coverage (PDF transcript here).

In the speech about software innovation, Gates “speculated that some of the most important advances will come in the ways people interact with computers: speech-recognition technology, tablets that will recognize handwriting and touch-screen surfaces that will integrate a wide variety of information.”

“I don’t see anything that will stop the rapid advance,” Gates said. I appreciate the insight that a corporate mogul and business insider like Gates provides.

The predictions did make me think about this observation from Alasdair MacIntyre, however, which serves to temper some of the more audacious claims often made about technological progress.

MacIntyre writes,

Any invention, any discovery, which consists essentially in the elaboration of a radically new concept cannot be predicted, for a necessary part of the prediction is the present elaboration of the very concept whose discovery or invention was to take place only in the future. The notion of the prediction of radical conceptual innovation is itself conceptually incoherent.

To his credit, much of what Gates is describing doesn’t meet these criteria. They are not “radically new” concepts, but the integrative alteration of already existing concepts (some might argue that this has essentially been the modus operandi for Microsoft’s success: not innovation per se, but rather innovative popularization of integration).

That said, we need to be cautious about the precision of our claims about future innovation. Statistically we can predict that radical innovations are quite likely to happen, but by definition we can’t know what they will be.

Blog author: kschmiesing
posted by on Thursday, November 29, 2007

In my Acton Commentary this week, I argued against government funding for stem cell research.

The developments that served as my springboard have unsurprisingly prompted a lot of other reflections from various quarters as well. A sampling:

Joseph Bottum on politics, religion, and stem cells.

Fr. Thomas Berg on the reaction of the scientific community.

Malcolm Ritter on obstacles remaining in the path toward medically useful applications.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Tuesday, November 13, 2007

After attending GodblogCon last week, largely due to the efforts of Rhett Smith, “New Media Ministry to the MySpace-Facebook Generation: Employing New Media Technologies Effectively In Youth Ministries” (a podcast of his talk is here), I started a Facebook page.

But I also urge you to read the experience of Agnieszka Tennant, a relatively new columnist at CT with whom I’m quite impressed, who writes that she “yielded to peer pressure and have begun to lead a modestly active Facebook life.” It’s a real temptation, as she points out, perhaps a greater one in virtual reality, to reduce people to means and consider only their utility for your own pursuits. “Social capital” can be a dangerous thing.

As persons, true sociality respects the personhood of the other. That’s the only kind of “social capital” really worth having.

More on technology and the Gospel: “Plugging the Planet Into the Word” (HT).

More on BlogWorld & New Media expo: Mark Cuban, who gave one of the keynote addresses, is profiled in this lengthy Fortune magazine piece, “Mark Cuban wants a little R-E-S-P-E-C-T.”

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Wednesday, October 24, 2007

I watched the 2006 film The Prestige (based on the 1995 book of the same name) over the weekend. The film does an excellent job of portraying the complex relationship between the two main characters, Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale).

These two men are stage illusionists or magicians (the name of the movie derives from the terms that the author gives the three essential part of any magic trick: the setup (pledge), the performance (turn) and the effect (prestige). Their interaction over the course of the years is characterized by rivalry and obsessive vengeance-seeking. The film does well to show the admirable and dishonorable elements of both men, thereby giving a realistic and relevant portrayal of the fallen human condition.

There’s certainly a great deal of morality to be learned from the film’s tale of revenge, but one of the more interesting subplots involves a different kind of obsession. At one point Angier seeks out the famed inventor Nikola Tesla (ably played by David Bowie) to help him get the upper hand on Borden.

The device that Tesla builds for Angier ends up being a critically important element of the developing plot (it gives a whole new ironic meaning to the term deus ex machina), but what I want to examine briefly here is Tesla’s view of technological development.

As the movie progresses, it becomes clear that Tesla and Thomas Edison have developed an antagonistic rivalry similar to that of Angier and Borden. While the latter pair’s relationship is focused on stage magic, the former two men are vying for preeminence in the field of technological innovation.

Tesla is a rather tragic figure, a brilliant scientist who knows he is captivated by an obsession to push his mastery over nature to ever greater scope. He also knows that such a burning obsession must needs eventually destroy him. When Angier approaches Tesla asking for a radically powerful device, Tesla says confidently, “Nothing is impossible, Mr. Angier. What you want is simply expensive.”

Nikola Tesla: “Man’s grasp exceeds his nerve.”

In this way, Tesla’s faith is in technological progress: “You’re familiar with the phrase ‘man’s reach exceeds his grasp’? It’s a lie: man’s grasp exceeds his nerve.” The first quote can be taken to mean that man’s technological capabilities outstrip his abilities to make sound moral judgments about the use and abuse of innovative technology. But whereas Tesla determines that this maxim is a “lie,” there’s a great deal of contemporary evidence that the statement is indeed true.

This is perhaps nowhere more clearly evident than in the field of biotechnology, especially with respect to the research and science related to fertility and embryology. When writing about the moral challenge of in vitro fertilization, Acton scholar Stephen Grabill states, “Technology, it seems, has outpaced our understanding of the fundamental legal, political, theological, and moral issues in the creation and management of human embryos.”

I have written a great deal on the phenomenon of animal-human hybrids, known as chimeras, and there is a recent piece on NRO from Rev. Thomas Berg is executive director of the Westchester Institute for Ethics and the Human Person, and member of the ethics committee of New York’s Empire State Stem Cell Board. Berg concludes that “Biomedical science fails humanity when it deliberately destroys human life in the pursuit of trying to cure it.”

The Prestige is a great film on a number of levels. As a morality play it has many things to teach us. One of these is the stark contemporary relevance of a cultural obsession with technological progress divorced from a firm and reliable theological and moral grounding.

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.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Tuesday, July 31, 2007

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.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Monday, May 14, 2007

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.