It was with some surprise that I saw that the creator of the Silk Road website was so harshly sentenced to life imprisonment for what was described as a drug trafficking enterprise. As you may recall, Silk Road was the dark web commerce site where drugs and contraband were sold for Bitcoins. While there was a certain debate as to the harshness of the sentence, there seemed to be no surprise that the sentence was being handed down at all. In this age of internet impunity, it seems like someone being held responsible for their online actions are more the exception the rule. While I do feel sorry for Mr. Ulbrict, one can only applaud in the hope that this is the beginning of some internet accountability, that one’s avatar will be as accountable as their flesh and blood actions. While this may require some rethinking of our idea of a corporation as an avatar, remember, corporations do have many of the legal rights of people and receive few consequences from their illegal actions, maybe we are growing up in this new digital realm.
While thinking about Moore’s Law, you may remember, it states that the number of transistors in a dense integrated circuit doubles approximately every two years, with the second law being that cost would fall with each new development, I was reminded of a passage from “Big Data” by Mayer-Schonberger and Cukier about the growth of information and the ability to share it. From the advent of Arabic numerals, writing, print and so forth it seems that the pace of our ability to share and manipulate data has been getting faster not unlike Moore’s Law. The world that most of us grew up in is very different from the world that we are living in now and will, no doubt, look much different in the future. How are we to understand and relate to the world that may be changing faster than our ability to understand it. Motion picture film moves at 24 frames per second that transform single images into a fluid moving image. Will our technology begin to move so fast that the single now is transformed into a rapidly disappearing past, beyond our understanding or realization?
Recently I heard about an NPR podcast how computers are now using big data to make predictions about our behavior. This may mean tracking the number of cars in a shopping center parking lot to see how it correlates with activities or sales in the mall. It seems that computers can watch what we do, make a prediction as to our behavior and market to us to satisfy our need before we know what we need or want. As soon as companies can begin to predict our behavior they will be there to market to us for profit. It seems that our only way for people to hold on to our humanity will be to be unpredictable. Our constancy seems to be something that will turn us into machines that the machines we create will understand.
As the namesake of this blog was fond of saying, media is an extension of our human nervous system and as such is neither good or bad, but a tool for us to use to learn and grow. Basically, radio is an extension of our voice, the telephone an extension of our hearing etc. With the advent of the internet and social media, it seems that our consciousness can be everywhere at once. As drones become cheaper and more accessible, it seems that our media vision can now see farther than ever before. With the addition of artificial reality and phones that allow us to immerse ourselves in a reality almost anywhere in the world or where we send our drones to look. This reminded me of a section of Neale Donald Walsch’s “Conversations With God” where he speaks of his belief that, to know itself, the creative force split itself into millions of pieces which were planted in us so that we could look back on the universe and experience it from outside the creative consciousness. As we move forward with our innovation, expanding our experiential presence of the world, are we not setting ourselves on a trajectory similar to one that many believe created ourselves.
I often think of Galen better known as Galen of Pergamon, a prominent Greek physician, surgeon and philosopher in the Roman Empire. While accomplished of all medical researchers of antiquity, might be a strange person to dwell, he influenced the development of various scientific disciplines, including anatomy, physiology, pathology, pharmacology, and neurology, as well as philosophy and logic. The problem was that as good as Galen was, his book was never updated for more current information. Centuries after Galen’s death, his book was taken as the book on medicine and when later scholars like Paracelsus disagreed with Galen, they were told that what they saw did not matter as it disagreed with Galen and Galen, they felt was truth hence, anything disagreeing with Galen was wrong. (There is a fascinating discussion of this in Daniel Boorstein’s, “The Discovers”, a book I highly recommend..)
This does not seem so far from the idea of alternate truths, and that today, with the internet one can find a source to back up whatever claim one makes. No matter how ludicrous a claim is made, it seems that someone can find some internet source to back it up. While, with Galen, it took years for the truth to will out, it now seems that we have a moving target in the realm of Alternate truth. Whereas with Galen, there was a finite monopoly on truth, the book was written and so his truth was determined. However today it seems that we have levels of truth, a tweet does not convey the truth but requires an interpretation and revision with a parade of soothsayers needed to discover the real meaning of the truth. Oddly enough, it seems that this was the initial objective of Galen.
Last week in church our choir sang a piece with a text by Christina Rossetti, “What Do the Stars Do?” and the response to what they do stuck in my mind. It seems that to Rossetti, the stars spin and do their makers will. As we go forward in the creation of artificial intelligence and the thinking computers and robots, will we be comfortable with setting them free to do our will? How satisfied are we with doing another’s will? Clearly our need for seeming to control our lives and our environment show how much we need to exert our own will. And are we ready to be the creators of artificial life? Is this a responsibility we are capable of taking on in a responsible manner? Science fiction writer Karel Čapek asked the same question in his 1921 science fiction play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots). This work that introduced the world to the word Robot, also made us question the future of our new creations and in his work, they rebel against men and want to think for themselves, and to be their own masters. In the play, they rage against their makers a tale we have seen before in the Old Testament and beyond.
Are we ready for this awesome and terrible responsibility?
Please note that the image above, Icarus and Daedalus by Breugel is, in its full title, Landscape with the Fall of Icarus. Icarus seems to be an afterthought in the image and it is the hope that the same will not be true of the questions posed here.
(Many thanks to Mr. Michael (Fletch) Reed for being a guest blogger this week)
Last week, Vizio was hit with a $2.2 million fine for collecting information about the viewing habits of people who used their televisions. Vizio not only collected the information but sold it to third parties. This aggregation and selling of data are not new. Google and Facebook make it a part of their license agreements that they will do this which is common in the industry to spell out what is being collected. However, in this case, Vizio was secretly collecting the data while the consumer was completely unaware that this was happening. This is patently wrong and a violation of the consumer’s privacy.
I have a friend who works in the development group at a software company. (Let’s call the company MFC). MFC collects information about people who use their software but allows the users to opt out if they chose to do so. Additionally, the information MFC collects is solely about the usage of MFC’s software to allow the company to decide which features to invest in and to determine what features are lagging in use.
What is the key difference between Vizio and MFC? The developers at MFC actually decided which information would help them make decisions about the usage of the software and the software only. There was little to no input from the marketing and sales departments. The developers exercised a level of restraint and ethics. But how common is this in the software industry if Vizio was collecting the information on the sly?
Other professional groups such as lawyers, doctors, and accountants have a code of ethics in place. Shouldn’t software developers be held accountable, be required to maintain a set of ethics to safeguard the consumer’s privacy?