June 08, 2006
Control the Telcos Before They Control You
In trying to rally opposition to Net Neutrality, big telecommunications companies have built their case around the badness of regulating the internet. (The big anti-Net-Neutrality site emphasizes anti-regulation themes with the slogan Hands Off The Internet. Of course, a certain invisible hand is exempt from their slogan.) It’s a smart rhetorical move. Many freedom-loving internet folk oppose regulations on internet speech, and the big telcos’ rhetoric tries to suggest that opposing Net Neutrality is part of the same cause. Of course, regulating internet service providers and regulating speech are completely different things. People who care about the freedom to express their ideas and engage with the ideas of others ought to support Net Neutrality. If you don’t regulate the telcos’ ability to control the internet, they’ll use that power to interfere with free speech themselves.
What Net Neutrality supporters want is for data from different sources to all be treated equally by telecommunications providers. Otherwise, big telcos might otherwise offer preferential treatment to some sources over others – for example, setting things up so that political websites that argue against the telcos’ interests will load very slowly, while everything else will load at normal speeds. The telcos might also charge some providers for a guarantee of high-quality service, or even charge some providers for the favor of giving low-quality service to these providers’ competitors. A bidding war between political parties to make the other side’s websites and blogs load at tortoise speed would be a disaster.
In response to the telcos’ anti-regulation rhetoric, it’s important to keep in mind that they are, in many cases, heavily regulated monopolies. It’s not like Net Neutrality will be putting the hand of government regulation into some frightening place where it’s never been before. All we’ll be doing is making an important and useful addition to what local governments have always done – regulating the local telecommunications monopolies so that they don’t abuse the power that monopolies have.
What I care about in freedom of speech is the opportunity to express my ideas so that others can hear them, and the opportunity to hear the ideas of others. Letting the big telcos give preferential treatment to some sites over others, or some messages over others, could deny me these opportunities. If federal regulation is necessary to preserve these opportunities – and I think it is – we ought to have that regulation. And that’s why I support the regulations that constitute Net Neutrality.
There's a lot of internet petitions out there in support of Net Neutrality. Partly to make the point that this is another important progressive issue that John Edwards is on the right side of, I'll link to his petition.
September 21, 2005
All Hail Our New Robot Overlords
Lots of folks are talking about Ray Kurzweil's new book The Singularity is Near. His argument, basically, is that true artificial intelligence is a function of computing power, we currently haven't created it because we don't have the computer power, given current trends we will have it in about 20 years, then our artificially intelligent robots will begin working on speeding up the process ever-more, making human intelligence almost useless in a relatively short period of time. Kurzweil kindly goes in for the "this will help humans and make us all much happier" explanation rather than the "we're all gonna be robot-slaves" argument. To me, that one seems a coin toss. In any case, the singularity is when it happens, when our intelligence becomes increasingly non-biological and and the world becomes Totally Awesome.
Reactions vary. Kevin thinks he's right, but that he cheated on a graph. Matt thinks he's wrong, and points to our dashed hopes for nuclear power as proof. Tyler wonders why IE still crashes if we're so damn smart. And so on.
Count me critical. Inventions don't tend to follow the tracks we think they will. If they did, we'd have long ago had our flying cars, phaser guns, and teleportation devices. So the graph that Kevin references showing the increasing speed of technological innovation strikes me as a point against. We're getting better at making things, but we don't tend to improve them in the way futurists expect. Very rarely folks get a few things right and so the reputation of futurists everywhere is saved, but given what we've seen in the past, Kurzweil's analysis strikes me as too easy an extrapolation to accurately describe where we're going to end up. In my read, the one thing we aren't is linear.
On that note, what sort of intelligence is Kurzweil talking about? I assume he's after something quite similar to consciousness, which may prove a problem. Kevin may be right that the brain is but a biological machine, but it's a biological machine that doesn't quite follow itself. Many of its properties are emergent, and unless we're starting to see that correct programming and processor design are giving rise to characteristics much different than producers expected and more powerful than anything they imagined, AI is going to probably remain quite a ways back in consciousness, simply because we've little idea how to actually design anything actually resembling it.
Now, if Kurzweil is talking about glorified calculators, massively able machines that do a couple things a billion times better than humans and are considerably more flexible when working on a problem, that's likely possible, but nevertheless a whole different, and potentially less arresting, issue.
Lastly, and this is decidedly not what Kurzweil's talking about, we have a society raised on Aasimov and The Matrix -- the barriers to AI, in the long-run, are going to be less technological and more legal/societal. When truly smart machines do start to tumble off the production line, when they do begin to replace folks in service jobs and prove able to replace them in all jobs, you're likely to see a backlash of almost unimaginable proportions. Nativism will be supplanted by its far more desperate cousin, humanism, and I'd be fairly surprised if the government didn't enact controls making the prohibitions on cloning look laughable. Think the X-Men comics in more recent years. Humans don;t like to believe themselves obsolete, and my hunch is they'll be vicious and swift in stopping production on anything that threatens to make them so.
August 30, 2005
Your world is about to get sleeker. Apple is bringing out an ipod cell phone. Someday, someone will write a history of mobile devices that explains why teeny-tiny cameras that focus worse than a midget after a bender were a more logical accompaniment for phones than music players, which many of us carry in our pockets anyway. And when that book is written, next week's unveiling of Apple's later market-mover will be lionized as the day sense returned to cell phone manufacturing. Unfortunately, it will also be known as the day we all switched to Cingular, even though their service totally sucks. But I guess you take the good with the bad. If my phone is going to reduced to a useless rectangle in my pocket, it may as well look like a present from the martians and hold my entire music library.
July 09, 2005
No More Polls?
As Kevin notes, there are now more cell phone subscribers than landline subscribers in the US. My girlfriend and I are a good example -- two cells, no landline. The question, then, is how long before this starts violently skewing poll results. Pollsters are legally barred from calling cell phones. Cell phone users, to some degree or another, make up a different demographic profile than the rest of the country (skewed young and economically mobile), and may have different political opinions than the land users. This got a lot of attention in 2004 but, in the end, the polls turned out almost exactly right (indeed, those who harp on the exit polling forget that nearly every poll in the country got the results within the margin of error). As the country switches to cell phones, though, that won't last forever. So when's the tipping point?
June 28, 2005
Brave New World
I'm not going to get in the way of Matt's open-source advocacy, it's very much a heart says yes, head says no issue for me. I do think he's being a bit obtuse on the distinction between "making stuff" and infringement (it's fairly well understood that many of these programs are specifically made for the purposes of infringement but legally cling to potential legitimate uses, something Tim Lee explains well in this post), but his ultimate points are sound.
One thing, though, that confuses me. File swapping has always struck me as fairly easy to stop. The RIAA or the movie industry could simply purchase 15,000, or 30,000, or a million fairly cheap computers, pack their hard drives with audio files, hook them to the file-swapping networks, and flood every open file-sharing program with dummy files that, once downloaded, offer a symphony of top-volume screeching teenyboppers, yelping puppies, and sobbing children. If users had to sift through five of those for every usable file they got, the migration to iTunes would be so quick the UN would have to set up refugee camps.
Enterprising swappers, certainly, could create code names for popular songs and translators to find them, but each time those sneak-arounds became commonly known, the RIAA could easily shut them down in court or simply flood the programs with files corresponding to the new names. Surely this has been thought of, and I've even heard of it being done in some cases. So why hasn't the industry tried it on the necessary scale? It couldn't be too expensive to do.
Movie sharing, as Matt and Kevin note, is substantially more problematic, but not for the film industry. In the age of Netflix, no late fees, and pay-per-view, seeing a film in theaters, at $9.75 a ticket, requires a special desire to see the film in theaters. It's really not about an inability to access a rental for significantly less money and more convenience. Theaters are on the decline because they're prohibitively expensive and home entertainment technology is closing the gap, but that's not BitTorrent's fault. No, the folks who'll be hit by a future of high-bandwidth file-sharing are the Netflix and Blockbusters of the world, the companies competing in the convenient and cheap home movie market. Theaters already cost a lot and have a limited selection, renters compete on grounds of convenience, price, and selection. High-speed downloads can beat them on all counts.
June 20, 2005
I'm taking a week off, heading up to the mountains with the girlfriend. Sadly, this'll actually make the site much better. Filling in will be:
• Scott Lemieux, an assistant professor of political science at Hunter College and one of the excellent bloggers helming Lawyers, Guns and Money;
• The Jew, who writes the smart blog of almost the same name;
• Prof Goose, who'll be filling you all in on energy policy and can generally be found at The Oil Drum;
• Shakespeare's Sister, who needs no introduction but will bring you all up to date on the Downing Street Memos;
• And Matthew Holt, a health care consultant who'll be adding some professional expertise to all the pronouncements us armchair health care strategists keep offering.
I'll be quite surprised if you all want me back. Anyway, it should be a fun week around here, so keep checking in -- there'll be lots to learn.
May 04, 2005
E-mail Lists Ain't All They're Cracked Up To Be
Update: Sigh. Just can't leave it at that, can I? Vestigial e-mail lists aren't always an asset, in fact, I have a hunch they're a net negative. Many of the people on the list will no longer be interested in the candidate, and many of those who might, in some world, retain some sympathy for them will have so totally conditioned themselves to junk the e-mails that they're effectively empty inboxes by the time the next campaign rolls around. Those very same people, conversely, will open e-mails from new candidates because they're not used to trashing them on sight. So it seems to me that Kerry's e-mail list is going to be less effective per person and, because so many are already on it, harder to grow. Other candidates can build their lists and enjoy much higher rates of click-through and participation from much lower numbers of people.
April 15, 2005
Regarding Daniel's point on child poverty and the promise the internet has for linking kids to a world that'd otherwise remain inaccessible, I want to tell a quick story. Grant, one of my closest friends, works with Amnesty International going into urban areas of Chicago and teaching the students about human rights. A recent lesson plan of his focused on Abu Ghraib and American attitudes towards torture. Towards the end of the lesson he noted that further pictures, documents and information could be found on Google. One student raised his hand and, not joking, said:
"What's a google?"
He wasn't the only one in the class not to know. We take it for granted that the information revolution sweeping through our lives has, to some degree or another, rippled into every crevice of America. It hasn't. And while modems aren't a silver bullet to poverty and despair, they do provide those hoping for a better life but sequestered in an impoverished one with the opportunity to tap into worlds beyond what they know. Using the net, you can look at colleges, e-mail admissions officers, read blogs, scan the news, meet new people, read new things, and on and on. Will everyone use the computer for that purpose? Of course not, most will hone in on the porn. But for those who do want to expand their horizons, giving them that opportunity is a moral imperative.
March 14, 2005
u hav no privacy OMG lolz!!1!
Just when I think I'm out, they pull me back in!
Ezra has graciously asked me to mind the shop today, and I've gladly obliged. (I guess this is what it's like to be an Army reservist.) Anyway, I want to direct your collective attention to a startling development on the privacy front. Apparently, AIM is Big Brother:
America Online, Inc. has quietly updated the terms of service for its AIM instant messaging application, making several changes that is sure [sic] to raise the hackles of Internet privacy advocates.
The revamped terms of service, which apply only to users who downloaded the free AIM software on or after Feb. 5, 2004, gives AOL the right to "reproduce, display, perform, distribute, adapt and promote" all content distributed across the chat network by users.
I can't remember the last time I wrote something on AIM that could be "performed." Still, it's a vaguely alarming trend. It doesn't seem that bad at first, but consider this: Personally, I communicate with friends, especially faraway ones, with AIM way more than I do on the phone. If the phone company had claimed the right to reproduce, redistribute, or godforbid perform recorded phone conversations, people would go nuts. But when it happens on AIM, which is arguably used more frequently than the phone, people are more or less complacent. Why?
I think it has a lot to do with the Internet being seen as a giant, shared thing. I remember posting a link to my friend's livejournal once, only to have her yell at me for making her innermost thoughts public knowledge. I was baffled. You posted them on the Internet!, I thought to myself. With the advent of blogs, which rely crucially on the idea that communications are non-secretive, this idea has only been reinforced. But in a way, my friend was right. Increasingly, people are turning to the Internet for purposes that are decidedly personal. AIM is just one example. VoIP, a weird (and apparently government-regulated) merger of phone and internet, is another.
The 'net is attractive to companies, because it makes it easy to gather massive amounts of data in what is essentially a public forum. But what happens when people try to carve off small chunks of it for personal use? In other words: Is AIM stepping over the line in trying to copyright your private communications? Or are you stepping over the line by claiming some expectation of privacy within a "publicly available worldwide system of interconnected computer networks"?
Can't wait to see what Lessig thinks of this one. Incidentally, my AIM name is WordOMatic. (Grade school nickname that stuck.) Drop me a line sometime. Just don't tell me anything you wouldn't tell AOL.
February 24, 2005
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Call me a softie (unless you're Peter Beinart), but I found this post of Berube's weirdly poignant:
First the laptop goes, then the coffeemaker...I wouldn’t bother blogging about such a thing if not for the fact that the coffeemaker in question-- one of those nice steel carafe things that keeps your coffee warm without having it sit and stew on a hot plate-- succumbed, like the laptop, to a Mysterious Malfunction while insisting that it was actually in working order. (The laptop is still in denial about the loss of its USB ports; the coffeemaker continues to tell time and to insist that it will make the next pot of coffee at 6:38 AM even though it no longer heats water and brews coffee.)
Now I might simply be anthropomorphizing (that's an 18-letter word, y'all) some gadgets, but I found that touching. Like an aging, crippled dog that weakly barks at perceived intruders, or an old man who keeps coming into the office despite long ago being relieved of his work. The laptop and the coffeemaker are both making herculean efforts to remain useful, even as their usefulness has been effectively extinguished. I'll bet you that each morning, right at 6:38 AM, the coffeemaker starts trying to brew a cup of coffee, trying to heat the water, only to fail at the task and fall back, exhausted, but desperate to be given another chance the next day...
Update: Fixed the title.