Category: Technology and Regulation

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, December 15, 2010
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Steve Connor in The Independent (HT: RealClearReligion) speculates about some happenings at the Vatican with regard to genetically-modified (GM) food. It’s important to note, as is the case in this article, that things that happen in various committees and study groups at the Vatican do not by default have some kind of papal endorsement.

To wit:

A leaked document from a group of scientists linked to Rome has set a hare running about the possible endorsement of GM technology by the Pope. The document, from scientists linked to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, suggested that there is a moral duty to adopt GM technology in order to combat hunger.

Connor’s larger point is more chastened and more accurate, however. “Intriguingly, although the debate over GM crops has died down in Britain for the moment, something tells me it is set once more to become one of the most contentious scientific issues of our time – and one where both sides will invoke morality to justify their position,” he concludes.

I’m generally in favor of allowing GM food, with the caveat that animals have a different moral status than do plants. I sketch out a case in “A Theological Framework for Evaluating Genetically Modified Food.” More recently you can see an Acton Commentary from earlier this year, “The Science of Stewardship: Sin, Sustainability, and GM Foods.”

I also should note that the use of GM foods to patent certain seeds, which then naturally circulate to non GM cropland, raises a whole host of issues related to property rights that are quite complex and can’t be dealt with here. I will say, though, that it’s not obvious to me why farmers shouldn’t have the rights to keep their crops from being exposed to GM seeds if they don’t want them to be and further how in the case of such involuntary exposure the responsibility to mitigate lies with the non GM crop farmer.

The Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization, also known as Cape Town 2010, was reportedly the target of an cyber attack. The official statement from the congress says, “The sophisticated computer network developed for sharing Congress content with the world was compromised for the first two days of the Congress.”

“We have tracked malicious attacks by millions of external hits coming from several locations,” said Joseph Vijayam, IT Chair of The Lausanne Movement, sponsor of the gathering. “Added to this was a virus brought into the centre on a mobile phone.”

Officials are holding off making public claims about the source of the attack. “We have a pretty strong indication, but one can never be absolutely certain, so we prefer not to share our suspicions,” said Vijayam.

But a prominent evangelical blogger, Andrew Jones, who is attending the conference speculates regarding the attack: “…now we have heard that 95% of these internet hits came from the country of China, and the 66 locations were also situated in China, and that account of a Chinese fellow taking photos of Congress participants before running away, and this has caused us to consider China at least as a potentially suspicious candidate.”

This is on the heels of roughly 200 Chinese Protestants having been denied departure from China to attend the congress. More on that story below the break.
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I’ve been meaning to write something on the “locavore” phenomenon, but nothing has quite coalesced yet. But in the meantime, in last Fridays’s NYT, Stephen Budiansky does a good job exploding the do-gooderism of the locavore legalists. Here’s a key paragraph:

The best way to make the most of these truly precious resources of land, favorable climates and human labor is to grow lettuce, oranges, wheat, peppers, bananas, whatever, in the places where they grow best and with the most efficient technologies — and then pay the relatively tiny energy cost to get them to market, as we do with every other commodity in the economy. Sometimes that means growing vegetables in your backyard. Sometimes that means buying vegetables grown in California or Costa Rica.

I’ve never liked the idea that its somehow immoral for me or my family to consume mangoes, even though they don’t grow all that well here in Michigan.

And as Budiansky points out, the only way to grow them locally would be to invest large amounts of capital and energy in artificially transforming the climate (via a greenhouse, for instance).

This is to say nothing of the virtue of interconnectedness that comes about when, for instance, I buy mangoes that originate in India, China, or Mexico and someone else buys cherries grown here in Michigan.

There’s something in the Bible about “doing unto others.” If you want other people to buy stuff from you, visit your town, and so on, you ought to be eager to reciprocate.

David Murray is Professor of Old Testament and Practical Theology at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, and chairman of HeadHeartHand Media, announces the release of a new video product, God’s Technology, a product about “training our children to use technology to God’s glory.”

I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Murray over lunch one day, and I look forward to seeing his presentation of “a Christian response to the digital revolution.” Dr. Murray blogs here.

You can see the trailer for God’s Technology below.

God’s Technology Trailer from Puritan Reformed on Vimeo.

We at Acton have been among the loudest critics of clergy and other religious leaders who undermine economic freedom (and therefore prosperity, including for the poor) by advocating more extensive government intervention in economic affairs.

So we should be the first to applaud when clerics strike a blow for freedom. Kudos to the monks of St. Joseph Abbey in Covington, Louisiana.

Monasteries may seem an unlikely venue for capitalist ferment, but in fact they hold an important place in the history of economic development in the West. In the medieval period, for example, they were centers of industrial activity, such as milling and tanning.

The monastic tradition’s insistence on self-sufficiency continues, spurring contemporary marketing of monkish products from coffee to chocolate to … caskets.

It’s the coffin business that got St. Joseph’s in trouble. By selling its pine boxes without a funeral director’s license, the monastery violates state law. So the abbey is suing the State of Louisiana in federal court.

It’s a classic case of what economists call “barriers to entry”: regulations put in place by existing businesses or professionals to limit competition and thereby drive up prices and compensation. Usually the vested interest posits some rationale concerning the public good (e.g., not just anybody should be allowed to practice medicine…), but frequently enough the reasoning is pretty thin (e.g., should you really need a license to cut hair or drive a taxi?).

The negative consequences of such barriers are the same as those attending any artificial limiting of competition: inflated prices, deflated supply, decreased employment opportunities for those who need them most (those who cannot afford the fees or tuition associated with credentialing and licensing).

Thus, Abbot Justin Brown, in words that might warm the heart of Frederic Bastiat, Adam Smith, or Milton Friedman:

We have not taken this step lightly, but it is one of our Constitution’s many great virtues that it protects economic liberty so that everyone — even monks — can earn an honest living through the labor of their own hands.

This week’s Acton Commentary from Rev. Gregory Jensen, “Finding the Balance: Privacy and the Civil Society,” is a thoughtful reflection on the place of privacy in our modern life.

I have recently made the claim that public persons, such as police officers and politicians, have a somewhat different claim to privacy than private persons.

This was especially in the context of controversy over the legality of videorecording police officers while on the job. Gizmodo follows up on a previous item (discussed here) with another one, linking to a Popular Mechanics article in which “Glenn Harlan Reynolds notes that mall cops may have a legal basis for asking you to put your camera away, public property (such as any sidewalk, street, or municipal area) is always fair game.”

The current situation is, apart from the special kinds of state-level legislation discussed in the previous post, that “Legally, it’s pretty much always okay to take photos in a public place as long as you’re not physically interfering with traffic or police operations.”

Blog author: jballor
Monday, June 28, 2010
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Gizmodo has an intriguing post about attempts to regulate and even criminalize photography. As Wendy McIlroy reports, “In at least three states, it is now illegal to record any on-duty police officer.” She goes on to detail some of the exceptions and caveats, noting,

The legal justification for arresting the “shooter” rests on existing wiretapping or eavesdropping laws, with statutes against obstructing law enforcement sometimes cited. Illinois, Massachusetts, and Maryland are among the 12 states in which all parties must consent for a recording to be legal unless, as with TV news crews, it is obvious to all that recording is underway. Since the police do not consent, the camera-wielder can be arrested. Most all-party-consent states also include an exception for recording in public places where “no expectation of privacy exists” (Illinois does not) but in practice this exception is not being recognized.

It is simply amazing the level of accountability and transparency that can now be achieved because of technological advancement. Certainly the Founders didn’t imagine that video recordings would ever exist, much less become important sources of evidence in legal cases.

Are there any compelling reasons that the burden of proof should be on the photographer rather than the law enforcement officer in these kinds of situations? McIlroy continues, observing “recordings that are flattering to the police – an officer kissing a baby or rescuing a dog – will almost certainly not result in prosecution even if they are done without all-party consent. The only people who seem prone to prosecution are those who embarrass or confront the police, or who somehow challenge the law. If true, then the prosecutions are a form of social control to discourage criticism of the police or simple dissent.”

Merely using a camera certainly doesn’t entitle you to do anything you want and expect protection under the First Amendment. But in clearly non-aggressive instances, where police are acting in public and there is the clear potential for recorded data to be used as exculpatory or convicting evidence, the public’s right to accountability and transparency should be respected. Again, writes McIlroy, “Cameras have become the most effective weapon that ordinary people have to protect against and to expose police abuse. And the police want it to stop.”

It’s of course understandable why officers wouldn’t like being recorded, any more than the average person would like to be recorded when doing their jobs. But the job of a law enforcement official isn’t the same as that of an accountant, an editor, or a janitor. It’s a public service position, and one that acts officially and with government sanction in public.

Maybe in our technological age law enforcement officials should increasingly expect to be recorded. Or at least always act as if what they are doing is subject to public scrutiny.

Blog author: mvandermaas
Friday, April 30, 2010
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U·to·pi·a [yoo-toh-pee-uh]- noun – an imagined place or state of things in which everything is perfect. The word was first used in the book Utopia (1516) by Sir Thomas More. The opposite of dystopia.
ORIGIN based on Greek ou not + tóp(os) a place

Last Exit to Utopia

Last Exit to Utopia by Jean-François Revel

Note, dear reader, the origin of the term “utopia”: the Greek root indicates that utopia is, literally, nowhere. It is not a place. It does not exist. Sir Thomas More, who first used the term, certainly never considered such a place to be realistically possible. And the truth of the matter is that anyone remotely acquainted with the reality of human nature and history must admit that we do not live in a perfect world, and that such a place would be impossible for fallen humanity to create.

Anyone, that is, besides leftist intellectuals and politicians, who continue to insist – against the overwhelming evidence of history – that socialism can work, that indeed it must work! They argue, in spite of all the plain evidence against them, that socialist solutions are more efficient and equitable than market solutions, and that the classical liberal system that has created the most vibrant societies and powerful economies in world history should be at the very least reined in and subjected to strict scrutiny, and at most outright replaced by a “more humane” socialist system.

Jean-François Revel was a French intellectual, a member of the Académie française, and one of the greatest French political philosophers of the 20th century, at least in the seemingly small branch of 20th century French political philosophy that wasn’t completely enamored of totalitarian schemes. Prior to his death in 2006, he penned a book called Le Grande Parade, which has now been translated into English and re-titled Last Exit to Utopia, in which he exposes the intellectual and moral failure of leftist intellectuals who have served as apologists for the brutal communist regimes that brought misery and death to millions in the last century, and examines the project that was undertaken by the left after the fall of communism to rehabilitate Marxist and socialist ideas.

Revel was no stranger to this type of clear thinking; indeed, as early as 1970 (in an earlier work, Without Marx or Jesus) he was willing to completely dismiss the argument that Stalin had hijacked and warped the course of Lenin’s revolution by noting that “…Neither Lenin, if he had lived, nor Trotsky, if he had remained in power, would have acted any differently from Stalin.” He understood that the problems in socialist systems were not caused by people corrupting the system, but stemmed from the design of the system itself. He restates that 1970 argument in 2000 – this time with the benefit of retrospect – in Utopia, describing the state of affairs after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989: (more…)

In this week’s Acton Commentary, I reflect on a decade of Wikipedia, a remarkable experiment in human interaction:

Ten years ago this month, Internet entrepreneur Jimmy Wales hired Larry Sanger to develop an online encyclopedia. You may have never heard of that project, titled “Nupedia,” but you’ve probably heard of the site that emerged from its ashes. Wikipedia is not only one of the most successful initiatives in the history of the Web but also a shining example of the potential of human cooperation.

Wikipedia sprouted in the fertile soil of freedom and possibility that characterized the early days of the Internet. Andrew Lih tells the story in The Wikipedia Revolution (2009). Wales, a principal of the technology company Bomis, perceived the potential demand for an online encyclopedia and launched his new venture to fill that need. Nupedia was soon abandoned because it was the result of conventional thinking—a traditional encyclopedia model applied to the Internet. When this dawned on Wales and Sanger, the resulting creative spark ignited the Wikipedia revolution. Putting an encyclopedia on the Web should mean not merely a change in the location of encyclopedia content, they realized: the new technology could instead transform the entire process of content production and publication. This was the insight that set Wikipedia apart and soon attracted millions of people across the world to its community.

The Wikipedia experiment was an exercise in entrepreneurship, and demonstrates that the impetus for life-enhancing innovation is not merely monetary success. Wales and Sanger were motivated by a desire to promote learning and empower people. In their view, the accumulation and dissemination of knowledge should be democratic: let anyone with access to a computer participate in the process.

Traditionally, the collection and presentation of the world’s accumulated knowledge in the encyclopedia format was a jealously guarded prerogative of the gatekeepers of established publishing and academic institutions. This method had its advantages: consistency, careful review processes, and adherence to accepted standards of scholarship.

It also had its drawbacks. The updating and release of new material necessarily occurred at a glacial pace. Originality and dissent were frowned upon and non-mainstream perspectives could only find their way to print slowly, if at all. There were intrinsic limitations of scale and scope, put in place by the economics of the editorial and print process: only major topics deemed to be of interest to large numbers of people could justify the resources put into covering any given entry.

The philosophy of its founders shaped Wikipedia and supplied its unique sensibility, overturning the conventional constraints of established encyclopedias. Most critically, Wales and Sanger possessed a fundamental faith in humanity. Wikipedia is not about technology, Wales wrote in the foreword to Lih’s book, “it’s about people… it’s about trusting people, it’s about encouraging people to do good.” Detractors believed that permitting open editing of web content, or “crowdsourcing,” would result in chaos. Bias, error, and distortion would be rife. How could the anonymous interaction of the Web, they wondered, result in reliably accurate information on a wide range of topics?

But Wikipedia’s bet on the potential of free human interaction in an online community paid off. By 2008, it boasted more than 2 million articles in English, and millions more in some 250 other languages. By almost any measure it was a spectacular success.

The model pioneered by Wikipedia is not flawless. One might say that it is perfect only in its reflection of human nature. Without a formal review process and elite gatekeepers, there is the constant threat of interminable “edit wars,” which have in fact occurred from time to time. There is always the possibility that inaccurate content will be posted and will not be corrected in a timely fashion: Wikipedia entries cannot be assumed to be error-free. This last problem is most serious when contributors use content maliciously to defame the character of individuals or institutions. Finally, the vast scope and influence of Wikipedia is a temptation to the unscrupulous who have a pet agenda to push (witness the recently exposed exploits of a British scientist and Green Party activist who modified more than 5,000 articles in the cause of global warming alarmism).

Partly in response to these problems, Wikipedia has progressively imposed more elaborate publishing protocols which has, in turn, raised frustration levels and resulted in a decline in the number of editors who write for the site. There are also fewer subjects that haven’t already been covered after a decade of Wiki writing.

Yet Wikipedia is immensely useful and, all in all, remarkably reliable. Its success is a testament to the potential of human cooperation in a system of free exchange. It capitalizes on a vision of the person as flawed but capable of accomplishing good when given the opportunity and encouragement to do so. It recognizes that there is, in community, a power and capacity that exceeds that which is possible when people apply their talents individually and haphazardly. In brief, Wikipedia is a brilliant display of ordered freedom.

That there was no burdensome government regulation of technology in place to impede or prevent Wikipedia’s creation and expansion is then only the more superficial policy observation to be drawn from this episode. Wikipedia both recognized and benefited from a realistic appreciation of the human person as a creative, social, and moral being. Applying its lessons to the interaction of government with individuals and communities would transform political institutions as radically as Wikipedia transformed the meaning of the word encyclopedia.

During this holiday travel season, which has you more concerned, conventional terror attacks of the kind attempted on Christmas Day or tech terrorism, which aims to take down access to or breach various computer networks?

John P. Avlon of the Manhattan Institute makes the case that the latter perhaps represents a greater threat to national and economic security. Avlon concludes, “Whether it is perpetrated by al-Qaida, a hostile nation, or a lone hacker, we cannot afford to wait for a digital Pearl Harbor to take this threat seriously. Delay is denial. Cyber-attacks are coming—it’s not a question of if, but when and to what extent.”

Judging from the reaction to recent BlackBerry network outages, the consuming public (if not the policy makers and politicians) appreciate the disruption that cyber terrorism might cause.