TOC The sorcerer's apprentices Your Turn

The most powerful stories transcend the boundaries between high and popular cultures. Whether you delight in watching American animated cartoons, listening to French composers or reading German poetry, the Sorcerer's Apprentice (1) speaks for your own wishes and exposes your secret fears. It becomes part of the language (2).

As stories from news reporters embedded into an army at war, a story embedded into a language undergoes subtle modifications. In French, the slip is quite noticeable. When speaking of "un apprenti sorcier", one airbrushes the sorcerer himself out of the picture and so doing turns the story from comedy into tragedy. For if there is no sorcerer, who is going to stop and repair the ever growing damages initiated by the apprentice ?

A sheaf of recent articles convey the distinct impression that Internet was created by such sorcerer's apprentices, bereft of any master.

A couple of years ago, I approach a few people whom their position made quite knowledgeable about spam. I also talked to many email users. I was told that spam, while an irritant, was not such a threat as to justify new radical solutions. From my personal experience as an ordinary email user, I can only rejoice at the fact that the proportion of unwanted mail I receive daily has remained stuck at 90% over the past few years. This is remarkable indeed given the increase in spams sent during the same time span. Yet the medias seem unable to drop the subject (see 6/27 and 10/24 fillips). According to the latest report by Paul Taylor (*), the dams which are currently protecting us from a "tsunami of spam" are groaning under the strain. If I am not mistaken I recall that similarly, years before the great flood of 2005, the medias were wont to mention that New Orleans is mostly built below sea level. We all live in New Orleans.

Think of it that way. By generally depressing the rights of individuals, advertisers, lawyers and governments make sure we remain at risk for their benefit. Who controls the dam controls the ward. The issue though goes even deeper. At a smaller scale, so called social networking sites reproduce the open mailbox feature of Internet. The article (**) John Schwartz wrote on his adventure at Facebook is instructive as well as humorous. Having signed on to monitor his son's public expression, John Schwartz soon found himself bombarded with requests from would-be friends. His son has simply enlisted his own personal network to spam his father. John Schwartz felt himself to be a sorcerer's apprentice. I prefer to stress Facebook did not allow him to define in advance by whom he could be approached. One's eprivacy is as precious to protect inbound from spurious spam than outbound from pesky spies.

Whether one looks at the whole of Internet or at one community, eprivacy issues appear the same at any scale. Our sorcerer's apprentices have left us with a fatal fractal flaw (3). Spam however is only part of the problem. Legitimate emails willingly sent and received are just as dangerous. Archived company email has proven to be quasi indestructible, accumulating in ever increasing mounds to tempt lawyers intent on discovery. Worse, companies tend to wake up to the issue only when slapped with a lawsuit and find themselves guilty of destroying evidence. To add insult to injury, companies which release email archives en bloc can be accused of neglecting their duty to protect privileged information. With John Facciola quoted by Patti Waldmeir (***), "imagine [...] paying a lawyer $250 an hour to look at recipes, notices of the holiday party and ... [sports] pool entries while doing a privilege review". To prevent such legal and financial risks, our magical ways to multiply informal communications compel companies to fashion new complex formal filing systems.

Internet threatens individual data rights. Lest I be accused of bias, I readily admit it is also a potent weapon against corporate rights holders. Despite the best efforts of record companies, illegal copying appears alive and well. While I do not condone the practice, its existence is easy to explain (see 6/13 fillip) and has spawn more unintended consequences. As filed by Jeff Leeds (****), all buyers of a Microsoft Zune player will pay Universal Music at least one dollar for the privilege, even though they may never play a song by one of Universal Music's artists. I invite the reader to savor a double dose of irony. First it seems Microsoft, this quintessential American success story, is adopting French practices (4) which have for many years burdened recording blanks with extra fees in the name of expediency. Nowadays the blank is no longer a tape or a CD but the player itself. Second all law abiding citizens will be collectively punished for the illegal behavior some of them may adopt in the future. Do not ask me its author but I remember a short story plot centered on criminals submitting to prior punishment so they be free to commit their crime later on. Science-fiction is never far ahead of reality.

Last week (11/7 fillip) I mentioned the new "Web Science" program set up by the MIT and the University of Southhampton. Will Tim Berners-Lee cloak himself in the late Dumbledore's robes and prove to be the sorcerer we so sorely want or must we cling to the hope some clever Potter graduate from Hogwarts soon enough to come and save the day?

Philippe Coueignoux

  • (*) .......Networks under threat from 'tsunami' of spam , by Paul Taylor (Financial Times) - November 9, 2006
  • (**) ....A Son's Revenge: 'Friendbombing', by John Schwartz (New York Times) - November 5, 2006
  • (***) ..The legal danger lurking in the server, by Patti Waldmeir (Financial Times) - November 12, 2006
  • (****) Microsoft strikes Deal for Music, by Jeff Leeds (New York Times) - November 9, 2006
  • (1) The Sorcerer's Apprentice
  • (2) according to both Google and the Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary versus le Petit Robert, the expression is more embedded in French than in English
  • (3) consult Wikipedia for more information on fractal
  • (4) consult Adminet for a French version of the loi Lang de 1985 on copyrights
November 2006
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