November 13, 2005

Whither Goes Google?


Google currently represents virtually a textbook example of the complex interplay between innovative, socially positive inventions and developments on one hand, vs. oppressively dangerous technological arrogance on the other. Or as the fictional David St. Hubbins of the film This is Spinal Tap put it more simply around twenty years ago: "It's such a fine line between stupid and clever."

We can look to history for other examples, though the analogies will of course never be perfect. Microsoft is one recent case where an attitude that many considered to be arrogant appears to have been somewhat tempered by financial, legal, and political realities. Microsoft will survive.

Not so AT&T's "Mother Knows Best" Ma Bell. While the name AT&T will live on as the new moniker of another generally arrogant firm -- SBC Communications -- AT&T for most practical purposes has imploded.

History teaches us much. The controversies over Google Print for Libraries share some aspects with ill-fated attempts to essentially abolish copyrights after the French Revolution -- for the presumed betterment of society.

Attributes such as technological brilliance and visionary thinking can be used not only to describe many at Google, but also the phalanx of individuals who created the atomic bomb for the Manhattan Project. Like those at Google, the minds behind the first nuclear weapons were convinced that they were working for the good of mankind, and -- I believe it's fair to say -- were in many cases blinded by sheer technological enthusiasm to the more ominous aspects of their creations. While Google isn't building physical weapons of mass destruction, a very real mix of extremely potent positive and negative impacts on society, and a range of complex risks that need to be fully understood, are increasingly coming into focus relating to Google's operations.

Such powerful forces can sometimes be managed successfully to truly exclude evil, but only when those in charge recognize that their own intellects and even good will are insufficient to prevent the "great machines" from being used in ways that can seriously damage individuals and society. It's all too easy not only to be blinded by science, but also to create mechanisms that can be horrendously abused by entities who don't necessarily share the benevolent philosophies of their creators.

There are things that Google could do immediately to potentially ameliorate this situation, but only if their powers-that-be recognize that there are intelligent folks outside of the current Google circle who understand these issues in ways that could avoid a lot of problems for Google -- and for the rest of us.

One relatively simple step would be for Google to create a permanent advisory panel or committee of respected outside individuals well versed on policy and risk issues associated with technology and its impacts on and interactions with society. Such a committee would likely make both public and private reports (the latter protecting proprietary information and plans as appropriate). If such a committee had appropriate access within Google, and if Google were genuinely willing to pay serious attention to the ongoing recommendations of such a group, it is likely not only that future risks to society, but also future risks to Google's own business, could be greatly reduced, and Google's own prospects enhanced as a result.

I can squeeze in one more movie reference. In the classic science fiction film Forbidden Planet (1956), we learn of a world where a magnificent and supremely benevolent race of advanced beings built a gigantic, fantastic machine to provide for the physical, intellectual, and spiritual advancement of their society. But the Krell, these marvelous creatures, were so enmeshed in the project, and so close to the problems that they were trying to solve, that they failed to fully understand the implications of their creation's power. When they activated their great machine, its interactions with the long-suppressed dark side of their minds resulted in their entire civilization being destroyed in a single night -- by their own "monsters from the Id" -- empowered by the machine itself despite its noble purpose.

Good intentions don't always equal good results, and forewarned is forearmed. Let's do better than the Krell.


Posted by Lauren at 12:25 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

November 07, 2005

Accessing the "U.S. Military Deaths in Iraq" Counter

Greetings. I've recently received an increase in the number of queries from persons wanting to place "U.S. Military Deaths in Iraq" counters on their own Web sites -- such as I display on various pages. The counter very recently passed the 2000 mark -- and as I type this it's already up to 2049. This is probably the most important counter that a Web site can display until all of our brave military men and women have returned home.

This note is a reminder that all sites can access a plain text version of the counter for their own use directly from the servers here.

The URL is:

The counter is currently updated six times per day.


Posted by Lauren at 11:37 AM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

November 04, 2005

An Online Library from Science Fiction

Greetings. With all of the controversies swirling around putting books (especially library collections) online, I'm reminded of a storyline from Piers Anthony's first published science-fiction novel, Chthon.

Our hero Aton (actually, "hero" isn't really the right word) visits a planet that is basically the known galaxy's central library. It has almost literally endless stacks of books collected over centuries, still kept (for now, but probably not much longer) for historical reasons, even though nearly all of their contents have long since been available via computers from anywhere in the galaxy.

When Aton shows up, one of the few librarians is very pleased to have a visitor -- they're few and far between -- and offers to help Aton with some reference work in the stacks.

The librarian immediately and correctly deduces (in an offhand remark) that since Aton wants to use the stacks, he is probably looking for illicit information, given that all attempts to access "proscribed" data though the computers are automatically logged and reported, even though such information would not be accessible online. But the stacks are far too vast to be selectively expunged.

I wonder ... At some point in the future of our real world, once most or all of the contents of our libraries and other written works are online rather than existing in easily available physical forms, will the powers-that-be resist the temptation to track reading habits along with just about every other aspect of our lives? How long after the implementation of significant online libraries will it be before our access and search records become data mining bonanzas to be used against those persons seeking "proscribed" information as then defined?

Aton was ultimately able to find what he was looking for without interference. Will we?


Posted by Lauren at 08:12 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

November 03, 2005

More Amazing FEMA Katrina E-Mails Surface

Greetings. Back in an earlier entry I noted some disturbing FEMA e-mails involving (former) FEMA Director Michael Brown, which gave painful insight into what was really going on during the Katrina disaster.

Some additional remarkable e-mails from the period have now surfaced, that are even more impressive in the same sickening kind of way.

Here is a PDF file of actual message printouts. You may have already seen some of the messages that appear early in the file -- but keep on reading.

You'll be treated to Brown calling himself a "fashion god" for his attire, and his press secretary urging him to appear with rolled-up sleeves like Bush to look more hard-working, among other goodies!

In Brown's defense, there's also a message where he urges arrangements be made for pets when he learns that people are refusing evacuations rather than leave their animals, so perhaps his close association with horses in a previous job wasn't all bad.

However, the overall impression is of politically-focused "image control" from the top, while FEMA workers in the trenches struggled.

One marvels at the level of mediocrity and manipulation exposed in the FEMA e-mails. Of course, these would likely look like small potatos if we could compare them with the current White House's e-mail archives.


Posted by Lauren at 08:51 AM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

November 02, 2005

Trying to Plug the Analog Hole -- An MPAA Exercise in Futility

Greetings. As you can read for yourself in a new MPAA draft document, the MPAA is back with another astoundingly inane proposal that would take Digital Rights Management (DRM) somewhere to the right of Attila the Hun. The Target: The infamous "analog hole" and the ability of consumers to digitize analog materials on their own.

I won't even bother itemizing here the long list of ways in which attempts to "copy protect" analog sources are outrageous, oppressive, anti-consumer, and expressions of hubris on high, with a vast range of negative technological and social consequences, both planned and unintended by the proponents of such malarkey.

Instead, I have a simple comment for the would-be "analog hole pluggers":

Take a memo guys, it ain't gonna work! You will put yourselves, politicians, and the rest of us through the wringer, and in the end the video piracy situation will be as bad as before -- probably even worse since otherwise law-abiding and anti-piracy viewers may be driven to piracy just out of spite from your overreaching.

The main reason that the plan is doomed from the word go is that it only takes one digital copy of any given material to render the analog hole meaningless for that item. And that digital copy will be able to saturate the Internet despite any attempts at controlling ISPs, blocking file sharing, or even the return of Hypnovision!

There will always be very large numbers of "uncontrolled" analog conversion points. It is guaranteed that unauthorized analog-to-digital conversions will take place, in most cases at multiple locations. And once that happens, it's game over for controlling the digital existence of that particular item. This will happen with every single desirable item of media that you're attempting to control down by the ol' analog hole.

So in the end, what you'll have accomplished is inconveniencing honest consumers -- who aren't your real enemies -- while living up to old Soviet-style information control philosophies (which, by the way, were largely ineffective for them, too.)

I don't like piracy. I'm sympathetic to legitimate concerns about piracy. But as a famous fictional starship engineer once said, "Ya' cannot change the laws of physics!" Attempts to plug the analog hole won't do any good, but will do a lot of damage to technology, society, and -- oh yes -- to you.


Posted by Lauren at 08:33 AM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein