Monthly Archives: July 2007

You are not alone in caring

Scott McNealy of SUN reportedly said a while back that “Privacy is dead. Get over it”, thereby encouraging further the sense of inevitability about spam, identifty theft and other wonderful consequences of our age. That the world did not revolt at the very utterance tells us either how sophisticated we are in ignoring the social forecasts of those who lead the tech industry or how passively we accept our world being shaped by others. You know where I stand on that particular dividing line and it therefore was with no small pleasure that I read this month’s Scientific American article on Latanya Sweeney of CMU’s Laboratory for International Data Privacy. She is leading groundbreaking work with her team aimed at providing better tools for individual privacy but what really caught my eye was her statement on what really needs to change: “Ultimately engineers and computer scientists will have to weave privacy protection into the design and usability of their new technologies, up front”. Yes indeed, a new kind of engineer and computer scientist is needed. Sound familiar?

Laughing just to keep from crying?

I received probably an unusual spam yesterday (not that offers of drugs, porn or untold $$$ from family relatives in oil-rich nations constitute ‘usual’ but you get the idea) when a ‘stand-up comedian’ (do any of these people ever sit down?) asked me to register to vote for him in an online competition. The lure for me was that if he won, he would donate all of $500 to the Save Darfur campaign. Clearly anticipating the reluctance of spam readers everywhere to believe this, he promised to place of video of him making the donation on YouTube once the winnings came his way. What a wonderful concept — use new technology to subvent all rules of fair play yet make us feel reassured that we really are really cheating for a good cause. BTW, the prize was $10k, so he’s promising a hefty 5% of his winnings for this. In the interests of fair play I did register (using his email address) and voted for someone else.

The economy and technology axis

Steven Landsburgh, author of More Sex is Safer Sex – The Unconventional Wisdom of Economics, wrote a piece in the WSJ on June 9th entitled “A Brief History of Economic Time”. You have to forgive the rather dismissive tone of his reading of human history but he sums up his main argument neatly in a final pragraph: “Engineers figure out how to harness the power of technology; economists figure out how to harness the power of incentives. Our prosperity depends on both”. Oh dear, here we go again. The push to see the world only as advancing through economic and technological forces (with culture presumably lagging behind as the by-product) is relentless. No only does this reading push human endeavor into distinct (but imaginary) competing categories but it elevates economics (a social science, lest we forget) to unprecedented heights of insight and application. Funny, I remember my undergrad economics classes as being rather less than precise, despite all the mathematical jiggery-pokery, when it came to predicting human behavior. All this I could forgive but the reduction of human endeavor and culture to the purely technological and economic realms does little to help us understand some of the real problems we face or even the real joys of life.

This is, of course, rather typical of discourse on human development. But all ideas, (and ultimately our evolution and development, yes even our economic development is about ideas), are not the product of engineering or economic initiatives. Humans problem solve; it’s how we are wired. That we can solve some problems for the long-term and move onto new problems without having to rely only on our genetic transfer is another very human attribute. This is where the human record of knowledge plays a fundamental role. Through it we have accelerated the problem solving process. We have refined our knowledge into a transferable form and enabled a human to survey the world and its development through time. Does it make sense to consider libraries, museums, writings, and the internet as just engineering proposals enabled through economics? Perhaps one could distort their meanings to this interpretation but I am certain this is not the sense in which Steven Landsburg is using the terms – he seems to actually believe it’s all about engineering and economics as typically practiced. More likely this is again the reduction of culture to simple forces. Economics does matter, but economics is having a devilishly hard time figuring out information. And just what sort of economic argument can you make for works of art (other than their retail value to some collectors) that truly reflects what art means in human existence. Information is about meaning, and human meaning-making is complicated, nuanced and driven by more than concerns with costs and incentives. This is not to understate the value of incentives to our understanding of behavior but there are many studies of humans that reveal the a priori identification of incentives is problemmatic and one risks circularity by invoking the likely incentive only after the fact. There are few voices for this, and it complicates the simple reduction, so it is no wonder that economists get the ears of politicians and the newspaper editors. Too complicated? Well just think about HMO’s — the perfect marriage of incentives and medical engineering.

The price of culture?

Interesting piece the other morning on NPR about tomb raiders who plunder historical treasures and sell them. Nothing new here but one aspect of the story really jarred. Seems an international treaty set up in 1970 forms the dividing line between what is acceptable for museums and rich collectors to purchase and what is not. Case in point was a Guatamalan treasure on display in the a Texas museum. The item was stolen but purchased prior to the treaty, so it is ‘legally’ owned by the museum though naturally the Guatamalan authorities feel it is rightfully theirs. The settlement offered by the museum is to create a replica for the Guatamalans to display on site while the museum keeps the original. And apparently this is far more than most museums will offer. The problem is complicated by the arguments made by the collector community that rests on their love of the objects and their willingness to save and keep safe treasures that would otherwise be pilfered, destroyed or ruined. You can read/hear the story at: The parallels with events in Iraq, one of the birthplaces of civilization, where the state archives have been looted and offered back to the authorities for a ransom hardly warrant further comment. This raises very interesting questions about how we teach information to the next generation of professionals.