TOC Quo vadis humane? Your Turn

September 11, 2007

Our Information Age is transforming the world all around us, a thrilling spectacle as every force in society fights to survive and prosper. The danger is to miss the war for the battle. Remember my motto, it is all about Privacy, Identity, Responsibility.

Ironically this very Information Age offers us a quick escape from responsibility as we shed our identity and enter a Second Life. Christopher Caldwell has penned an enticing introduction(*) to an essay on the subject by Fr Antonio Spadaro and I beg my Italian readers for a full translation (1). In Caldwell's words, "virtual reality is a new form of advertising. It is not a new world". The difference though is profound. Tobacco companies spent fortunes to create the Marlboro man and the Virginia Slims babe. Anyone now can quickly create an avatar just as far away from reality.

Second Life is but a game. More worrisome is to see the real world turned into a game. Jeff Bailey reminds us airline schedules have thus entered a twilight zone where "more than 100 domestic flights are officially late - by at least 15 minutes - 70 percent or more of the time" (**). As if we were not already drowning in dubious data.

The more flights of fancy promote bad data, the more ferocious the fights for the rights to good data. James Boyle draws our attention to "the irony of a web without science" (***). As he points out, scientific journals are an indispensible tool to "maintain[..] the utterly crucial role of attribution", i.e. they run a recommendation mechanism responsible inter alia for authors' identities, and journals ought exploit their copyrights to recoup their investment. The real issue is that modern copyright law is no longer functional. Nothing seems to stop copyright owners from gorging themselves "one day short of eternity" and illegal copying, the current if unsatisfactory remedy, is of little help as data pirates would rather plunder more entertaining fare. Asking "that, a year after its publication, NIH-funded research must be [freely] available, online, in full" happens, in the case of subscription-based journals, to be the same as my proposal to cap copyrights to some maximum per work, according to the type of work.

Greed unfortunately knows no limit. While corporate copyright owners cry for more, at least the data was theirs to begin with. Less edifying is to see how pharmaceutical companies fight to get hold of doctors' prescriptions, which are not theirs. We analysed the issue more than a year ago. George Koroneos reports that "three data mining firms [...] filed lawsuits in Maine and Vermont last week to block legislation that would give physicians the option to keep their prescribing information private" (****). No doubt these companies represent that their actions are no threat to privacy and a benefit to mankind to boot. The Marlborough man and the Virginia Slims babe were icons of health and success in their days too. Rather what counts is whether Maine and Vermont can be bent by pronaocratic interests to accept another Munich on privacy.

Let the reader beware. The juiciest targets are individual citizens, rich in data but denied access to appropriate markets. I have warned repeatedly (6/13/07, 10/24/07) that their only recourse is banditry. No surprise then that Noam Cohen takes AdBlock Plus, a real life incarnation of my toy "blank channel", as a serious threat to advertising-based Internet content providers (*****). Like in so many intractable conflicts, the only solution is painfully obvious. Quoting Noam Cohen quoting Wladimit Palent, Adblock's developper, "Don't forget about the users. Use ads in a way that doesn't degrade their experience".

Intractable conflicts do end. One day individuals will be recognized their right to Privacy. With it though, they will be forced to deal with Identity and Responsibility. Forget virtual sex in Second Life, real prostitutes use Craigslist today to trawl for clients, who may turn out to be policemen on duty as reports Bruce Lambert (******). Internet as we know it is but the ultimate agora, with all human virtues and vices vying for our limited attention. The true revolution would be to turn Internet into a responsible peer to peer network, each user seeking mutually beneficial relationships based on real life profiles. It can be done using ePrio technology (2). But will users want it?

Philippe Coueignoux

  • (*) ............ Virtue and virtual reality, by Christopher Caldwell (Financial Times) - August 31, 2007
  • (**) .......... Most Flights Are Late, and the Situation May Only Get Worse, by Jeff Bailey (New-York Times) - September 3, 2007
  • (***) ........ The irony of a web without science, by James Boyle (Financial Times) - September 4, 2007
  • (****) ...... Data Clamp Down, by George Koroneos (Pharmaceutical Executive) - September 6, 2007
  • (*****) ... Whiting Out the Ads, but at What Cost, by Noam Cohen (New-York Times) - September 3, 2007
  • (******) . As Prostitutes Turn to Craigslist, Law Enforcement Takes Notice, by Bruce Lambert (New-York Times) - September 5, 2007
  • (1) "Second Life", il desiderio di un'"altra vita" (La Civilta Cattolica), Antonio Spadaro S.J. - 2007 III 266-278
    (for the original, click the publication link on the authors' site)
  • (2) ePrio-based dating services are mediated through a "matching grid" against profiles only known to their creators. Take "do you offer favors for money?" as a criteria for a dating service. In countries where prostitution is a crime, answering "yes" quietly aborts service usage without letting anyone know about it. Answering "no" while meaning "yes" is always possible but very risky, especially given mail fraud statutes. Click here for a presentation of ePrio's technology.
September 2007
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