What I don’t get about Grokster

I want to believe, I really do.  I agree with all the talking points — big corporations will resist new media every time because it’s better for their bottom line; overly strict interpretation of copyright will hurt creativity and business; 95 years is way too long for copyright protection terms; businesses need to stop fighting electronic distribution and embrace it; corporations don’t need the encouragement of a supreme court win; yada yada.  What I just don’t get is how to make the leap from that to the conclusion that a tool expressly made for illegally sharing copyrighted materials must therefore be legal.

The New York Times had what seemed like a reasonable, balanced editorial yesterday on this (see 1 below).  Lawrence Lessig called it "insanely wrong", and a commenter offered a quote from David Rowan (3) as the essential rebuttal.  Rowan wrote:

But the roughly 10 per cent of “legal”
file-swapping on these networks allows programmers to swap code,
academics to exchange learned papers and little-known musicians to gain
a fan base. Why should the music industry be able to close such
communications channels?

Oh, come on! (in Rob Corddry voice)  First, are we talking about Grokster (and Morpheus) or the entire Internet?  Programmers use Grokster to swap code?  What the hell for?  And when did papers get so big that email or ftp or http didn’t suffice?  Who goes out of their way to use a special tool for this stuff?  (Besides, of course, the enthusiasts who this week are posting Grokster briefs and materials in seemingly every p2p/torrent format they can find, as if to say look! legitimate uses! see, we told you!)  Little-known musicians, okay sure, the more distribution the better, but really, if the demand for my music is so high that I can’t handle the bandwidth from my web site and need to go to p2p or bitTorrent, then I’d probably celebrate, then go invest in a bigger server.  Look, I’m sure there are exceptions in all these cases, but my point is that all of these things were possible before Grokster.  Even the pro-Grokster forces readily admit that the makers of Grokster were in it to make money off of people illegally sharing copyrighted materials.

But, but… isn’t Grokster just the wedge in the door?  If we lose this one, then there’ll be no stopping the big corporate bullies.  This seems to be the main line of argument for why the Supreme Court should find in favor of Grokster and Streamcast.  I confess that I don’t know enough about the courts or how powerful a precedent this would be, but as a lay person I have a hard time buying it. Granted the public and media will surely perceive a loss in this case as a huge blow, even if it doesn’t in actual/legal truth mean the sky is falling on the internet.  That would surely be unfortunate, but both sides will have contributed to that scenario.  I just don’t get how a ruling against Grokster necessarily leads to every other kind of sharing/copying technology getting killed.  "The Connection" call-in show on NPR today was about this topic (4), and a few of the callers made this point better than I can: people would say to Lessig, in effect, "I get everything you’re saying, but everyone knows Grokster is for making illegal copies so it should be illegal, right?"  The responses were always something like "we don’t condone illegal uses, but this is about so much more than Grokster!"  Well, maybe it is… I don’t know.

On a somewhat related point, I read this in the NYT yesterday (2):

Justice David H. Souter asked Donald B. Verrilli Jr. … to
envision "a guy sitting in his garage inventing the iPod."

… That Justice
Souter, the least technically minded of the justices – he still drafts
his opinions by hand on a legal pad – could even invite a dialogue
about Apple iPods, much less suggest that he could be tempted to engage
in illegal file sharing, was an indication of how this confrontation of
powerful interests had engaged the court.

Isn’t that statement about Souter a little odd?  Do you see that kind of comment about judges hearing cases on other specialized topics, that aren’t technological?  There’s an implicit argument in a lot of writing about law and technology, that this high-tech stuff is too complicated for lawyers and politicians to grasp and so they’ll never legislate it properly.  But this is just arrogance.  There should be little doubt that experienced judges can hone in on the truly important issues at stake, even if they do still write on paper.  The last people I’d trust to get to the bottom of the essential human and societal aspects of computers are computer scientists (and I say that as a computer scientist).  For far more incisive/coherent writing about techno-biases like this, see Paulina Borsook’s book (6).


  1. NY Times Editorial: When David Steals Goliath’s Music
  2. Lawrence Lessig’s Blog
  3. David Rowan in The Times UK: Downloaders of the world unite
  4. The Connection: Supreme File Trial
  5. NY Times: Lively debate as justices address file sharing
  6. Paulina Borsook: Cyberselfish

Medical Technology Hype

AlterNet has an interesting interview with Richard Deyo, one of the authors of
Hope or Hype: The Obsession with Medical Advances and the High Cost of False Promises. Excerpt:

Technology, you both point out, is only good to a point, that
eventually it becomes a cost without a benefit. Given the American
obsession with technological advances, what can be done?

of us in the medical world need to be more honest about the limitations
of technologies we are providing and realistic about what it provides.
I think in many cases medical professionals, corporations and the media
portray every new medical device as a breakthrough while failing to
note that if a technology has benefits it is often tiny and often at
the expense of side effects, complications and cost. We simply need to
be more realistic about what technology offers. In many cases, if
patients understood what the device does or doesn’t do, they would make
the kind of decisions doctors are not willing to make. They might say,
"You want to prolong my life for a day for half a million dollars,
that’s not worth it."

Another new, and perhaps more controversial, book with a similar theme is The Last Well Person: How to Stay Well Despite the Health-care System.  The book and its author, Nortin Hadler, are profiled in this recent article.

Link: Alternet: Miracle Malpractice, via Bookslut blog.

Computerized Spoken-Language Testing

Phone_2eSchoolNews reports on a company that has developed an automated test for spoken English ability:

Ordinate Corp., a subsidiary of Harcourt Assessment,
is offering what it says is the world’s only technology-enabled,
spoken-language proficiency test. Ordinate says its test uses speech
recognition technology to assess the listening and speaking skills of
non-native English speakers.

Ordinate’s Bernstein claims the SET is fairer than other similar exams.
"A test can’t be fair unless it’s reliable and accurate," he said,
adding that the SET is more reliable and accurate because it is not
subject to the caprices and prejudices of human judgment.

Bowen agreed. "There’s a lot of subjectivity involved in grading these
kinds of tests," she said. "With [the SET], there is none."

You can try a demo version online (and over the phone) at Ordinate’s website.  The image above is from the test instructions.  Apparently you’re screwed if you aren’t loud enough (or have a bad connection or use a wireless phone).

Link: eSchool News Online: High-tech test for spoken English.

Ronald Wright: A Short History of Progress

WrightThis excellent book of Ronald Wright’s 2004 Massey Lectures is finally out in the U.S.  He warns us that unless we start thinking in the long term about technology, our society is at risk of falling as did earlier fast-rising societies like Sumer, Rome, and Easter Island.  From the jacket description:

Each time history repeats itself, so it’s said, the price
goes up. The twentieth century was a time of runaway growth
in human population, consumption, and technology, placing
a colossal load on all natural systems, especially earth,
air, and water—the very elements of life. The most
urgent questions of the twenty-first century are: where
will this growth lead? Can it be consolidated or sustained?
And what kind of world is our present bequeathing to our

In A Short History of Progress Ronald
Wright argues that our modern predicament is
as old as civilization, a 10,000-year experiment we have
participated in but seldom controlled. Only by understanding
the patterns of triumph and disaster that humanity has
repeated around the world since the Stone Age, can we
recognize the experiment’s inherent dangers, and,
with luck and wisdom, shape its outcome.

Link: Amazon, House of Anansi Press (Canada)

Laptops for Everybody!

eSchool News online has a new-ish article about Nicholas Negroponte’s proposal to build and distribute $100 laptops to students in developing nations.

Three researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of
Technology have embarked on an ambitious plan to close the global
digital divide: They’re recruiting corporate partners to join MIT in
designing and mass-producing basic, durable laptops costing $100 or
less that hundreds of millions of children worldwide–perhaps even U.S.
students–could use at school and home.

The "one laptop per child" plan could give children internet- and
multimedia-capable computers to make laptops as ubiquitous as cell
phones in the world’s technology-deprived regions.

At the same time, kids could get their parents hooked.   

The idea has generated a lot of press, but it seems the only real skepticism is about the technical feasibility, not about the impact it might have on education:

Negroponte acknowledges the collaborators have some technical obstacles
to overcome–primarily designing a simple, low-power display that
doesn’t put the price out of reach or drain the battery too quickly.

But the MIT team believes it has the right recipe: Put the laptop on a
software diet with only widely used programs; use the freely
distributed Linux operating system; design a battery capable of being
recharged with a hand crank; and use newly developed "electronic ink"
or a novel rear-projected image display with a 12-inch screen. Then,
give it Wi-Fi access, and add USB ports to hook up peripheral devices.

The image above is from the web site for the 2001 "Laptop Moratorium Now!" campaign in Seattle.

Link: eSchool News online. (Note: www.bugmenot.com has logins to free news sites if you don’t want to register.)

What Happens to Your PC When You Die?

When your important documents are all on computer, how do you ensure that they aren’t lost when you’re gone?  A reader asks technology writer David Pogue in the NYT:

"My will will
reflect that my commissions go to whomever, but what about all the rest
of the stuff? Can this be a new job category?! It’s sort of like
forensics, but not. I cannot be the only person whose thoughts have
strayed in this direction. I’m divorced, no kids. So I have to nominate
someone to take care of this. I’d like to read about how other people
are thinking about/dealing with this."

Any takers?

What DOES happen to your computer when you die, anyway?

Does someone stick it on a DVD just in case, and
then erase the hard drive and sell the thing? Is this something people
stipulate in their wills these days?

Good question.  I’d imagine that people pick a colleague to look for and process anything left unresolved, and then archive all the rest on printouts.  Sticking it on a DVD isn’t safe because file formats expire too.

If Kafka had used Word, would Max Brod have gone to the trouble to retrieve his work, assuming it hadn’t already been set to auto-delete?  What if Franz was a little behind on upgrades and was still using Word ’20 when Max came around with Word ’25?

Link: The New York Times > Technology > Pogues Posts > What Happens to Your PC When You Die?.

Saint Nate’s Blog: Modern Day Alchemists Part II: Immortal Begrudged

Few topics seem to get the Technorati database a-bloating like "Aubrey de Grey", and so I get a surge in visitors (like 2) when I mention him.  I like to browse through the other blog posts I’m listed with.  It’s depressing: perhaps not surprisingly, bloggers love their Aubrey de Grey!

So I’m shocked if I find anything that’s critical of transhumanism, never mind a post like this one in Saint Nate’s blog that’s incredibly thorough and well-written.  Brief excerpt:

Maybe someday immortality will be achieved, and maybe someday scientists will learn how to rearrange the molecular structures in lead to turn it into gold. But I’m not buying any lead mines in anticipation of this day, and I question the ethics of telling anyone over 40 indefinite lifespans are possible.

What scares me about the immortality group is the way they dismiss any
thoughts or ideas that imply they could be wrong while clinging
tenaciously to tenuous theories that only hint at a distant
possibility. I’m also frightened by their inability to question the
logical and ethical concerns of their wishful thinking, deflecting all
such comments with the ardent shouting of a cult follower. The whole
thing shows confirmation bias, selective thinking, wishful thinking,
and a complete disregard for the evidence-based model of medicine as
well as willful ignorance of historical lessons. As far as I’m
concerned, the quest for immortality has all the hallmarks of bad
science now and always has in the past.

Link: Saint Nate’s Blog: Modern Day Alchemists Part II: Immortal Begrudged.

Bryan Appleyard on Living Forever

In this article in yesterday’s Sunday Times of London, Bryan Appleyard discusses the radical life extension ideas of Aubrey de Grey, Ray Kurzweil, et al.  An excerpt:

Death has always defined us. The first
creatures to laugh, said Vladimir Nabokov, were also the first
creatures that knew they were to die. Self-awareness means, above all,
awareness of one’s own ultimate extinction. But, as La Rochefoucauld
pointed out in the 17th century, looking directly at death is like
staring at the sun. It cannot be done.

And so conscious creatures have always embarked on elaborate
programmes of death denial or death justification. Even the
Neanderthals decorated their graves and positioned the corpses as if
for another life. The great religions promised immortality in another
realm or as part of the great wheel of existence. In fact, as the
philosopher Roger Scruton has pointed out, all human civilisation might
be defined as an attempt to give meaning to death.

In our day, civilisation might be defined not as giving
meaning to death but as a desperate attempt to defer it. Staying young
is our religion, and every health, cosmetic or diet fad offers just
that. The rise of individual, as opposed to collective thinking, has
inspired the conviction that the extinction of the individual is the
only conceivable evil.

Link: Times Online – I’m going to live forever.  Appleyard is author of the excellent book
Understanding the Present : An Alternative History of Science (original, more descriptive subtitle: Science and the Soul of Modern Man), and Brave New Worlds : Staying Human in the Genetic Future (which I have a copy of but haven’t yet read).