TOC British humor, German might, human hubris Your Turn

August 9, 2011

Lowly handmaids of language, common commas may command meaning, witness our title. They are ignored.
To high lords of the land, mere specks are insignificant. As shown below, they capture their whole attention.

British humor is on the decline. It's official. As Jo Becker and Ravi Saymona report (*), "a London court imposed a six-week jail term on a 26-year-old man who threw a paper plate of foam at Mr Murdoch [...] during a parliamentary hearing."

Was the shaving foam untested for pollutants? Had the plate been spinning so fast as to threaten the target with paper cuts? "The court had been told that Mr Murdoch had not wanted charges to be brought". Indeed he had come to eat humble pie and all Jonnie Marbles did was to oblige him.

This however overlooks the dignity of the United Kingdom Parliament, which cannot stand to have its hearings interrupted with unprompted comic relief. You may wonder what dignity it has left after so many members were caught cheating on their expense reports (1). They charged the State for the maintenance of their marble piles. Marbles' pie got his owner to be held at the expense of the State. The scales of Justice are well balanced.

Compare this trivial anecdote of inflated British self-importance with the mighty fight of Germany to protect our personal privacy.

Kevin J.O'Brien has given us a good summary of those efforts (**). The latest, by "Johannes Caspar, the data protection supervisor in Hambourg", has been to "ask [...] Facebook to disable its new photo-tagging software" as "its facial recognition feature amounted to the unauthorized collection of data on individuals".

This comes after Google's apologies for "collecting private data from unencrypted Wi-Fi routers", Apple's promises "to address German privacy concerns" over its "compiling logs of user locations" and "an investigation into Facebook over its Friends Finder feature which allows [it] to copy names and addresses from a user's e-mail address book". With the latter, Facebook herds even non users willy-nilly into its own data base.

Not being a Facebook user myself for obvious reasons, I can testify to the power of the latter dragnet as I have been betrayed by countless friends. Not that I hold it against them. Didn't one of them call me to apologize after the fact, explaining he had never realized what would happen?

In the present row on "suggested automatic tagging", my criticism will therefore lack precision. Still a company with "an archive of more than 75 billion photos", with "450 million people [...] tagged worlwide" should be forced to admit to some social responsibility. In this respect, as few believe Facebook will be present at the end of the world, to say it does "not permanently store data on individual faces" is disingenuous.

Despite its best intentions, I doubt however that German might will prove successful. "Under German law, the regulator could fine Facebook [...] up to 300,000 euros ($429,000)". For a company valued today at up to one hundred billions, this is probably just fine, a trivial comma.

Indeed, for lack of a proper legal framework in Germany, let alone in other countries, Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google have dismissed our privacy rights as a distraction on their high speed track. Can they avoid the parallel with the Chinese development of its high-speed rail network?

As Simon Rabinovitch reminds us, "a bullet train crash [...] killed 40 people last month" (***). Nobody has suggested that anyone, acting alone or with accomplices, deliberately provoked this catastrophe. On the contrary. Can one imagine the heart-felt dismay of the dedicated talent, at all levels, which have made high speed rail a reality in China today?

Until the Whenzhou tragedy, the managers, the engineers, the ordinary workers involved had shown the world how to push technology relentlessly forward, how to create the infrastructure of tomorrow, how to deliver aesthetic satisfaction to an ever widening public. And their pride was natural.

Today this remains an isolated accident, whose gravity was fatefully magnified by the fact one train collided into another over a viaduc. Yet "public trust in the country's trains" has been undermined. For under what seemed at the time to be a legitimate "government's rush", some on whom the required effort rested appear in hindsight to have cut corners as they yielded to pressure or, worse, found opportunities to unduly enrich themselves.

Recall corruption in the Chinese Ministry of Railways has already been officially acknowledged to be as rampant as governance was lax. What is conveyed by public reactions so wide spread and critical they look as an emotional overreaction, is instead a very rational fear. With the accident came a dramatic dawning. Many might have found passenger safety a prime area where corners could be safely cut and plum profits plucked.

With a little bit of luck, the price would not have to be paid until much later down the line and be randomly distributed among powerless citizens.

Some may find my comparison a gratuitous exercise.

Corruption, it is well known, is unknown in Western pronaocracies. How dare I allude to legal lobbying as our local variety? Plus Internet based companies are the fruit of Western individual ingenuity financed by private capital, far from some government backed appropriation of foreign technologies. Dare I ask if Mark Zuckerberg never recycled ideas from strangers, not to mention the influence of DARPA (2) and Al Gore (3)?

Isn't human hubris then the reason why new layers of Internet are built posthaste in the US on a disregard to privacy rights in the same way as it downplayed passenger safety while China implemented its high-speed rail program? What with his garbage collection and moral limitations, Alfred Doolittle is the real role model followed by today's Internet leaders.

Still some will protest. If the comparison is to hold, where are the human victims? Precisely. As La Palice (4) would have said, until the catastrophe strikes, there are none. And despite my past scenarios, ranging from sexual predation to medical mistakes, I know neither the viaduc nor the train.

Pity though the poor programmer whose fault it will be. Jonnie Marbles' punishment will seem trivial in comparison to this future scapegoat.

Philippe Coueignoux

  • (*) ..... Latest Arrest Highlights A Tabloid's Cash Payments, by Jo Becker and Ravi Somaiya (New York Times) - Aug 3, 2011
  • (**) ... Germany Investigates Facebook Tagging, by Kevin J.O'Brien (New York Times) - Aug 4, 2011
  • (***) . China to take shot at aircraft technology, by Simon Rabinovitch (Financial Times) - Aug 5, 2011
  • (1) for more details, see the UK parliamentary expenses scandal in the wikipedia.
  • (2) see ARPANET in the wikipedia
  • (3) see Al Gore's influence on Internet development in the wikipedia
  • (4) see La Palice in the Wikipedia
August 2011
Copyright © 2011 ePrio Inc. All rights reserved.