Bill Joy Interview at ZDNet

In this short interview, Bill Joy answers questions about his new role as partner in a venture capital firm and his now infamous 2000 Wired article called "Why the future doesn’t need us."  The interview leads off with this inane question:

Q: Since your Wired piece in 2000, have you come to any firm
conclusion about whether technology is going to wind up as a force for
good or evil in the 21st century?

Link: The Joy of tech | Tech News on ZDNet.

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)