Category: Technology and Regulation

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.”

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.

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.”

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.