TOC 3000 years after Ulysses, still Nobody's fault Your Turn

Combine a good story, a likable hero and some universal truth. Add a few centuries of word of mouth. The more hallowed your creation, the more hollowed out your name will be. And fame is yours at last.

Truth we know is hard to get (see 8/22 fillip), but some truths are evident to the most casual of observers. Such is the human urge to escape from responsibility. In a pinch, it comes handy. No pity indeed for poor Polyphemous. Cruelly blinded yet Nobody to blame for it due to Odysseus' cunning. Sure Odysseus had liberated Polyphemous' food with as much regards to him as greedy plunderers grant to hard working shepherds. But to seize Odysseus and his companions to restock his larder was a disproportionate reaction.

As usual life is a bit messier. The principle still holds but bad guys are not so easily distinguished from good guys. If anything Internet amplifies this and other issues to a point fast becoming out of hand (see 11/14 fillip). Let us focus today on where responsibility should lie and why nobody is often found at fault.

The first case is better told from a real, rather than virtual life perspective. Sadly it is a repeat of the incident which lead me to define the Airport Syndrome six months ago. As reported by Libby Sander (*), six imams were removed from a recent flight departing from Minneapolis "and detained for several hours after some passengers and crew members complained of behavior they deemed suspicious, including prayers at the gate". When may I wonder should the faithful ask for God's protection if not before boarding a plane nowadays? When Manny Fernandez and Kareem Fahim filed the earlier story, I used the coincidental presence of the German Chancellor on US soil to evoke former East Germany. Actually one should rather talk about Greece under the colonels (1) who had banned all public meetings of five people or more.

Before trying to fix the blame, one should remember terrorism is worse than a simple pattern recognition problem. As the enemy strives to blend with the environment, we step into game theory territory and two months ago I predicted one should look out for grannies with bombs (see 9/19 fillip). Alas my prediction has been proven correct (2). No surprise one gets to succomb to paranoid fears. And the more suspicious one becomes of others, the more suspicious their behavior is bound to be.

Is there nobody to blame then? May I dare suggest a simple rule. The less immediate the perceived threat and the more powerful the decision maker, the lower the tolerance for paranoid opinions. In the instance the airline should be held to account and, if not already done, the appropriate government agency should provide guidelines to help airline officials differentiate blatant discrimination from prudent judgement. Second all innocent victims of decisions stemming from prudent judgement should automatically receive some significant, pre-approved monetary compensation backed by current ticket taxes. I leave the details to the regulator but think of it as a no fault insurance fund with perhaps a bonus system to discourage abuses by airlines.

In the case of Internet, the threat of terrorism is far more indirect than what a bomb implies for airline passengers and the government much more powerful. There is no justification for grand schemes of pre-emptive total surveillance and compulsive private data acquisition. Judge-approved police actions should be enough. Remember too one can use rule-based detection to sift through confidential data without spying (see 6/06 fillip).

Drawing a second example from real life, let us inject a bit of light-hearted humor, courtesy of Tim Harford (**). By ascertaining the brand, labels on wine bottles function as a recommendation mechanism (8/22 fillip). One may question the quality of such self-dealing mechanism. Indeed according to Tim Harford's sources, blind tasting by independent experts tends to contradict label-based recommendations. But independent recommenders also live by brand recognition and Rob Walker has already warned us (3). "The net effect of the vast array of opinions (from experts, from advertisements, from online reviews, from other consumers) means that sometimes we are simply unsure whom to trust". Tim Harford's advice to those buying wine as a gift ? Lift labels associated with expensive wines and paste them onto bottles of good wines but less exalted reputation.

Actually this case is a counter-example. While we have bemoaned so far (9/12, 9/26, 10/10, 10/24 and 11/07 fillips) how major Internet actors like to flee from their responsibilities, here is a case where responsibility is clear and, recall Rob Walker's opinion, the sources of recommendation quite decentralized. Assume Tim Harford's correspondent follows his advice and falsifies provenance. If the friend drinks the wine and discovers the skulduggery, he will have no difficulty to figure out whom to blame. It is not the faceless mechanism of some aspiring monopoly. It is that very friend who had put his personal credibility on the line if not online. Leave it to ePrio's technology to put personal credibility online while preserving the confidentiality of all parties involved. But that is another story.

Our final example is drawn from Internet. A recent decision by the California Supreme Court (***) stated that "Internet publishers could not be held liable if they posted defamatory comments written by others", even when the publisher is an individual. Since so much of the vibrancy of the Internet is based on the growth of innovative intermediation between information producers and readers, these are good news. We must not be too quick to rejoice though. Calumny can unleash devastating power as Beaumarchais' Bazile so elegantly portrayed (4). Given the difficulty on most sites to track down the person actually responsible for a posting, Bazile would sing Internet today as the perfect weapon to destroy reputations with Nobody to blame.

Thirty centuries ago Homer had already spotted that responsibility requires reliable ways to ascertain personal identity. As the ultimate agora, Internet threatens to fail its users on both counts. Nobody to blame though but the sorcerer's apprentices.

Philippe Coueignoux

  • (*) ....6 Imams Removed From Flight For Behavior Deemed Suspicious, by Libby Sander (New-York Times) - November 22, 2006
  • (**) ..Dear Economist, by Tim Harford (Financial Times) - November 18, 2006
  • (***) Protection for Web Publishers, by Bloomberg News as relayed by the New-York Times - November 21, 2006
  • (1) The regime of the Greek colonels lasted from 1967 to 1974.
  • (2) Grandmother Blows Self Up in Suicide Attack on Israeli Forces, by Steven Erlanger (New-York Times) - November, 2006
  • (3) Getting Through the Filter, If a trustworthy reviewer says a product is worthless why do people keep buying it?, by Rob Walker (New-York Times) - January, 2006
  • (4) see Le Barbier de SÚville, Act II, scene 8, by Beaumarchais, the inspiration behind the calumny aria in Rossini's the Barber of Seville
November 2006
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