Category: Technology and Regulation

Blog author: mvandermaas
posted by on Friday, April 30, 2010

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.

Awhile back I referenced the Post-Reformation Digital Library, a project which I had some role in developing. I’m appending below the full news release. This is a great resource that’s already getting some recognition around the world. It also represents the kinds of projects that will become increasingly important in the age of digital information dissemination.

The PRDL is always looking to increase its coverage, so if there are figures in the various traditions that are overlooked, or works that we’ve missed, please feel free to comment at the site and suggest updates. We’re especially hoping to add sources in early modern Orthodoxy (as they are available).

Meeter Center Launches New Web-based Resource for Reformation and Post-Reformation Studies

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (October 31, 2009) — A newly-available research tool, sponsored by the H. Henry Meeter Center for Calvin Studies and the Hekman Library at Calvin College and Seminary, promises to aid the work of scholars from around the world. The Post-Reformation Digital Library (PRDL) is a select bibliography of primary source documents focusing on early modern theology and philosophy, spanning publicly-accessible collections from major research libraries, independent scholarly initiatives, and corporate documentation projects.

The core of the PRDL project involves the organization of thousands of documents available in digital form from sources including Google Books and the Internet Archive. Also included are the offerings of select libraries from Europe and North America, which are beginning to make digitized forms of their holdings available to the public. The project covers the work of hundreds of authors from a wide variety of theological, philosophical, and ecclesiastical traditions, from figures like John Calvin and Martin Luther to the Jesuit Robert Bellarmine (1542-1621) and Jacob Arminius (1560-1609).

According to David Sytsma, moderator of the PRDL editorial board, the current availability of a vast array of materials is unprecedented in academic history. “The opportunity presented by this kind of digital access is matched by the challenge to the individual researcher to deal responsibly and comprehensively with a broad cross-section of source material,” observes Sytsma, a doctoral student in historical theology at Princeton Theological Seminary. “The PRDL is one way to help ensure that the reach of technical digitalization does not exceed the grasp of the scholar,” he says.

The first stage of the PRDL project involved the collaboration of dozens of scholars from around the world on a privately editable website, or wiki. Once a standard level of comprehensiveness was achieved, the wiki was transitioned to a publicly available bibliography hosted by the Meeter Center. The site will continue to be updated and users will be able to suggest revisions via interactive web forms.

Dr. Richard A. Muller, P. J. Zondervan Professor of Historical Theology at Calvin Seminary and current chair of the Meeter Center Governing Board, notes the potential of the PRDL to advance research in a variety of disciplines. “The Post-Reformation Digital Library will be a boon to both students and professional researchers alike,” he says. Muller also serves as a member of the PRDL editorial board, as does Lugene Schemper, theological librarian at Calvin College and Seminary, who oversaw the migration of the resource to Hekman Library’s LibGuides system.

Members of the PRDL editorial board represent institutions from across North America and Europe. In addition to Muller and Schemper, the PRDL editorial board includes: Jordan J. Ballor (University of Zurich/Calvin Theological Seminary); Albert Gootjes (Calvin Theological Seminary/Institut d’histoire de la Réformation, Geneva); Todd Rester (Calvin Theological Seminary); and moderator David Sytsma (Princeton Theological Seminary).

Schemper led a roundtable discussion of the PRDL and other digital research tools at the Fall meeting of the Chicago Area Theological Library Association earlier this month. Board members Jordan J. Ballor, David Sytsma, and Todd Rester are scheduled to present on the PRDL at a “New Technologies” session at next year’s annual meeting of the Renaissance Society of America, to be held in Venice, Italy (April 8-10).

Access the Post-Reformation Digital Library:

http://libguides.calvin.edu/prdl

Contact Jordan J. Ballor at (616) 617-7669 or jballor1@calvinseminary.edu for more information.

About the Meeter Center:

The H. Henry Meeter Center for Calvin Studies is a research center specializing in John Calvin and Calvinism that opened in 1981 and is located at Calvin College and Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA.

http://www.calvin.edu/meeter/about/

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We’ve done a lot of thinking here at the PowerBlog on the future of journalism in a digital age. A recent piece in Forbes by Leo Gomez brings into focus (ahem) the question of digital innovation and it’s influence on photojournalism.

In his August 24 “Digital Tools” column, Gomez writes that “cameras are becoming what computers already are: cheap, ubiquitous, powerful and utterly transformational. There are now a billion digital cameras, counting the ones in mobile phones. They are chronicling everything about life on Earth, from birthday parties in Topeka to street protests in Tehran. Many more are on the way.”

With this explosion of video and still pictures, what role will professional photojournalism play? Both written and photojournalism faces the current challenge of a deluge of community and consumer-generated information (word blogs, video blogs, photo-sharing sites, et al.). As the technological developments have tracked with computers, so will the editorial and production side of photojournalism track with the developments in wordsmithing.

And as with the larger world of professional journalism, there will be a corresponding increase in the need for gatekeepers and editorial review to screen through the mass to find and polish the gems. And with regard to the influence of culture, given the increasingly non-verbal (i.e. illiterate) nature of today’s digital consumer, photojournalism might just be a fulcrum of cultural and social formation in the Internet age.

The same issue of Forbes includes a collection of seven profiles of the leaders in Internet video innovation. What’s true for photojournalism is also true for other forms of visual communication, including theatrical and documentary film productions. And so we need Story in the visual as well as the written arts.

The ius gentium, or law of nations, has an important place in legal history. Variously conceived, the law of nations often referred to the code of conduct for dealing with foreign peoples according to their own local, national, or regional standards. As a form of natural law, the ius gentium has often been appealed to as a basis for determining what has been believed everywhere, always, by everyone. It’s an approach used, for instance, with some qualification by C.S. Lewis in the appendix to his book, The Abolition of Man, “Illustrations of the Tao.”

It’s a bit tongue-in-cheek (it includes input from Brad Pitt on the question “Can I Answer My Cell at a Movie if It Seems Urgent?”) and risqué (to be generous), but the editors at Wired magazine have developed a set of rules for digital behavior, in conjunction with a group of social scientists who determine descriptively what the proper etiquette for life in the 21st century. In “How to Behave: New Rules for Highly Evolved Humans,” the feature takes a “scientific approach” in determining the “new rules.”

As NPR’s All Things Considered reports, Wired editors faced the problem of determining normativity. “There was a lot of subjective opinion on how to behave,” Wired editor Nancy Miller says. “We sort of decided that the best way to go about this was the Wired way, which is try to find a scientific approach … to explain why and how we behave like we do, and what makes sense in this new era of technology.”

What we have in this Wired magazine article is something like an attempt to articulate the ius digitus, the law of the digital world as gleaned from its own sources. Potentially, at least, such a method might prove helpful, if not comprehensive. Awhile back I sketched out a framework for ethical digital discourse, and interacting with the established or not-so-established norms of digital behavior seems to be an important line of development.

Much of the blame for the current financial crisis has been aimed at Wall Street and the bankers who, the story goes, created toxic debt instruments and then lined their own pockets with the proceeds. In “Verdict on the Crash: Causes and Policy Implications,” a new analysis from economists and scholars — including Acton Institute Research Director Samuel Gregg — the London-based Institute of Economic Affairs comes to the opposite conclusion: It was governments and regulators who erred. Moreover, the IEA report says, the people most often berated for their part in the crisis – the hedge fund managers and those who run tax havens – are among the least guilty. The report also spells out the need for a “radical overhaul” of the financial system to guard against a repeat of the errors that led to the crisis.

The authors of “Verdict on the Crash” assert that “a revolution in financial regulation is needed. The proposals of the G20 governments and the EU are wholly misconceived. Specific and targeted laws and regulations could restore market discipline.”

Read a letter to London’s Daily Telegraph from the economists and scholars who wrote the “Verdict on the Crash” report for IEA. Read highlights and download the full report from the IEA blog. Acton’s Samuel Gregg authored the chapter titled, “Moral Failure: Borrowing, Lending and the Financial Crisis.”

Blog author: kschmiesing
posted by on Thursday, March 19, 2009

Back in September I posted an announcement about a new book that contributed in interesting ways to our understanding of patent/intellectual property issues. Now Julio Cole’s full review of the book in the Independent Review is available online. An excerpt:

Should we really be surprised that the patent system’s internal dynamics have finally brought us to the point at which the potential profits of patenting have, for most industries, been entirely gobbled up by lawyers’ fees? Isn’t that outcome what we should expect after having studied the literature on rent seeking? If patents are really nothing more than special privileges granted by the state, then wouldn’t we expect the monopoly rents derived from such grants to become dissipated eventually through steady increases in rent-seeking costs?

I made a mental note of it awhile back when I heard that there was a “Christian” version of the immensely popular Guitar Hero video game franchise in the works. Wired recently reviewed Guitar Praise – Solid Rock here.

Reviewer Eliot Van Buskirk notes that Guitar Praise “inhabits a gentler world where a bad performance gets you mild clapping and gentle suggestions instead of the raucous boos and catcalls that accompany failure in Guitar Hero.”

There are two conditions that would have to be met before I would consider purchase of this game.

First, this song from Sonseed would have to be included:


Zap! (For some reason hearing that song always reminds me of this SNL skit [video here]…and since we’re closing in on Christmas, even better.)

And second, I’d have to receive a standing offer to play Guitar Praise on stage as part of my church’s praise and worship team.

On a more serious note, this is a great example of how “evangelical” culture is so often derivative of popular culture (in a bad way) and dated (also in a bad way). Somehow I don’t think “Christian” Guitar Hero is what Andy Crouch has in mind for fulfillment of the call for Christians to be “culture makers.”

Blog author: dwbosch
posted by on Thursday, October 30, 2008

Via Drudge, Australia is joining none other than China in censoring the internet. Here’s a surprising endorsement/justification the writer uses to bottom line the article:

photo credit: fathersonline.orgThe Australian Christian Lobby, however, has welcomed the proposals. Managing director Jim Wallace said the measures were needed. "The need to prevent access to illegal hard-core material and child pornography must be placed above the industry’s desire for unfettered access," Mr Wallace said.

I’m not endorsing porn. But earth to Mr. Wallace: Scan up a few ‘graphs and note how Chinese Keepers of Internet Purity shield their masses against illegal "spiritual movements." Makes me wonder how long the internet will be available to Christian "industries" like outreach and evangelism. Not too long, considering some Christians are readily turning those reigns over to government.

Jesus didn’t condemn prostitutes or demand that His disciples lobby for nanny states. He offered them grace and holiness and a new life, and people took Him up on it.