Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Freeloading or Free Speech?

Say you have an old-fashioned wireline phone sitting on your back porch. One morning you wake up to see a stranger sitting there chatting away on it. You open the window and say, "Hey, buddy, that's my phone."

Covering the mouthpiece, the man replies, "Don't worry, it's a local call. Won't cost you a thing."

You probably wouldn't just shrug your shoulders and go back to bed. But a recent New York Times article described how a reporter did the wireless equivalent to a San Francisco man named Gary Schaffer. Using a new Wi-Fi-equipped mobile phone that made a free call over Mr. Schaffer's home wireless Internet connection, the reporter hung up, then identified himself and asked Mr. Schaffer whether it was okay with him. “If you’re a friend, I’d say, let’s give it a try,” he said, but he'd be uncomfortable if strangers tried to sponge that way.

Among other things, engineering ethics deals with ownership, property rights, and the just distribution of resources and costs involved in technology. But as communications systems blur distinctions that were once clear and unambiguous, we may have to rethink some assumptions that have been around so long, we've forgotten them.

Take the example of "plain old telephone service" (POTS, for short). For the first century or so of phone service, an individual subscriber in the U. S. leased (not owned) a considerable pile of fairly costly hardware from The Phone Company, which was usually the Bell System. The dial set, twisted-pair wires, network interface, and lines going all the way back to the central exchange building several miles away were solid, immobile, physical objects. Ownership and operating rights were clear-cut, and it was a simple matter, relatively speaking, to regulate the industry so that investors received a reasonable return on the hardware and software installed over the decades, and consumers were able to afford POTS at what passed for a reasonable cost.

Since then, technical advances have made the incremental cost of a simple phone call positively microscopic compared to what it used to be. Much of the turmoil in the telecom business in the last fifteen years or so has resulted from various attempts to deal with this fact. What is a fair charge for something that costs almost nothing? Of course, somebody had to pay for the extensive wireless, wired, and fiber-optic networks that tie the world together, but we are very far from the simple, monolithic picture the Bell System presented as late as the 1960s. If you trace the path of a phone call or an email, your signal may pass through systems owned by dozens or hundreds of different entities, ranging from the neighbor next door to the federal government. Sorting out who should pay for what is an increasingly complex business, and one that the consumer is poorly equipped to do. But everybody can understand the lure of free phone calls. Hence the potential popularity of mobile phones that use Wi-Fi links.

We can go in several directions from here. Any activity that benefits the individual and also has no incremental cost lies open to what economists call "the tragedy of the commons." The commons was an area of communally owned land in some parts of England which farmers could graze their cattle on without charge. As time went on and population increased, the overgrazing of land turned the commons into mudflats, putting an end to the practice.

The Wi-Fi spectrum itself is a limited resource, although it is far from completely unregulated, since the Federal Communications Commission sets the basic boundaries for its use. But if you happen to live on a busy Manhattan street and Internet-ready mobile phones become popular enough, the day might come when your home's wireless Internet connection is jammed up with chattering freeloaders, and you won't be able to use it. Or the airwaves might get so crowded that most of the phones become useless.

Fortunately, the ether recovers instantly as soon as people quit using it, and if the airwaves turned into an electronic mosh pit, unusability would soon decrease the crowding to a manageable level. This sort of thing doesn't happen to conventional cell-phone systems much because they are operated by organizations which make sure there is enough capacity in a given region to handle the anticipated number of calls.

The opposite pole to the unrestricted use of a limited resource, of course, is excessive regulation. Many would argue that the Bell System monopoly broken up by court decisions in 1984 was an example of a kind of self-regulated extreme which stifled technical innovation. It's much too late to debate that argument again, except to say that clarity in ownership and consumer rights is worth something. When there was only one phone company, it was easy to pay your communications bill. Nowadays, the typical young consumer may ante up each month to a phone company or two, a cable operator, a mobile phone outfit, an Internet provider, and possibly some MMOG (massively multiplayer online game) bills. It seems to be the nature of modern technology to widen the variety and types of choices available to the consumer, but all for a price.
And sometimes the price is not just dollars and cents, but undesirable changes in places we may never see.

Sources: The New York Times article " The Air Is Free, and Sometimes So Are the Phone Calls That Borrow It" was carried in the Nov. 27, 2006 online edition.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Vistas of Choice?

In some ways, the new worlds opening up as computer science and technology progress seem to promise an almost infinite array of choices. Multi-user online games allow you to create your own avatar by selecting from an array of virtual body features, abilities, and appearances. Type almost any search term into Google, and you have thousands of pages of information to choose from.

But in other ways, once you decide to deal with computers at all (and modern life is all but unthinkable without them), your choices are extremely limited. Suppose for some reason that you simply do not like the operating systems produced by Microsoft. Well, there are Macs, there are the various Linux machines, and an array of expensive specialized systems for various technical uses. But if you're just an ordinary consumer, not a computer specialist, and you just don't like Microsoft, you'll pay a price for your pickiness.

This paradox came to mind as I read news that Microsoft is currently shipping its new operating system for PCs called Vista. Given Microsoft's large market share, most PC users will have to switch to Vista sooner or later. Vista comes with promises that it is much more secure than the previous systems, but you can also rest assured that Vista is now the main target for writers of viruses and other mischief-making software, simply because more computers will be running with Vista than with anything else, if history is any guide.

The question of whether history is any guide to these matters engaged the attention of a historian of technology at MIT named Rosalind Williams a few years ago. In her book Retooling, she explored the ways people deal with the lockstep acquiescence to the latest software upgrades such as Vista that is so often imposed upon them. Even at a supposedly future-oriented, cutting-edge institution like MIT, she realized that new administrative software was greeted with dismay as often as enthusiasm. But she also realized that in the complex, interlocking world of information and technology we have created for ourselves, not keeping up with the program (so to speak) is simply impossible without turning one's back on the way modern professional life is lived.

Of course, there are societies that do this. The religious sects collectively known as the Amish decide which modern technologies to adopt and which to forego. Sometimes their prohibitions are not absolute. For example, a whole neighborhood of Amish will share one pay telephone, but use it only for emergencies. And I recall reading about another Amish community that experimented with a video player and a set of children's films for a while. Eventually, though, the parents disposed of the equipment, because one father noticed that "the children aren't singing anymore."

Rejection of most modern technology is certainly a choice, but not one that can generally be made on an individual basis. The Amish survive, not simply because they don't watch videos or drive cars, but because they have preserved and maintained a functioning community where everyone has rights and responsibilities that are taken seriously. I understand that once an Amish child comes of age, he or she can freely choose to leave the community. But most decide to stay.

That kind of community is foreign to most of us, possibly because we demand so much in the way of freedom of choice that we refuse to be bound by obligations that would reduce that freedom. But choice comes with a price. In a peculiar way, the market is kind of a mirror of our own collective choices. Microsoft got to the place it is by giving most PC users most of what they wanted. That entails literally millions of choices. (Has any user on earth ever tried out all of Microsoft Word's features even once?) But in order to have the choices Microsoft provides, you have to forego the privilege of choosing your operating system.

Engineered systems of all kinds offer similar choices. You can choose not to own a car in a city in the western U. S., but your choices for travel will be radically restricted thereby. While millions of people do quite well in northeastern U. S. cities without cars, it is because their citizens have made a collective choice to maintain public transportation at a level that makes it possible to live without a car. The reasons for this are partly historical, partly technical, and partly political. The one thing they are not is simple.

I hope Microsoft is right about Vista's increased level of security. As for myself, I will continue to fly under the radar of many viruses by using mainly Macs. That choice is one I have found hard to maintain at times. But I enjoy being able to make it.

The ethics of choice in engineering is not a subject that comes up frequently. But since choice is a fundamental aspect of human freedom, as more of our lives are engaged with engineered products and systems all the time, those of us who create them should consider the ethics of choice more often.

Sources: Retooling: A Historian Confronts Technological Change by Rosalind Williams was published by MIT Press in 2002. My review of the book can be found in IEEE Technology and Society Magazine, vol. 23, pp. 6-8, Spring 2004.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Tesla and the Secret of "The Prestige"

Movies are not normally germane to engineering ethics, but I can justify the following discussion of the recent film "The Prestige" thusly. The driving force behind much good fiction, literary or cinematic, is a moral problem. When the moral problem involves technology, you have the same kind of issues that engineering ethics deals with, but in a different context.

This piece should not be read by people who have not seen the film and want to be surprised by the ending, because I'm going to give it away. If this blog had a wider readership I would hesitate to do such a thing—journalistic ethics generally forbidding it—but since all indications are that the audience is, shall we say, exclusive, I will go ahead and summarize the plot.

The time is around 1900, and two magicians, Angier and Borden, fall out when Borden ties a knot around the wrists of Angier's wife in such a way that it may have caused her death by drowning in a stage stunt. Angier, convinced that Borden killed his wife, embarks on a kind of revenge career in which he tries to out-magic Borden, who retaliates by disguising himself in Angier's audiences in order to wreak havoc with Angier's tricks, as well as devising increasingly ingenious stunts for his own London performances. Borden outdoes himself with a stunt called the Transported Man, in which it appears that he walks into a doorway on one side of the stage and emerges almost instantaneously out of a second doorway forty feet away. Angier, convinced that Borden does this trick by means of a machine he bought from the famed American inventor Nikola Tesla, visits Tesla in Colorado Springs, where Tesla has electrified (literally) the entire town in exchange for being able to use the town generator for his own experiments in transmitting energy without wires.

Here is the secret: Tesla, according to the movie, actually hits upon a way, not of transporting objects, but of duplicating them. He begins with top hats (the movie opens with a scene of a pile of top hats outside Tesla's remote laboratory), progresses to cats, and eventually duplicates Angier himself. Angier buys Tesla's machine, takes it to London, and with it stages one hundred performances of his own stunt, which requires him to drown his own double each time in order to keep the number of Angiers running around within manageable quantities, namely, one. The last scene of the movie shows where Angier (now dead—shot by Borden, who turns out to be two people who have been exchanging roles all through the movie) has hidden his one hundred dead bodies, each preserved in its own drowning tank.

As I watched that last scene, a thought flashed through my mind of the thousands of frozen embryos—babies—fetuses—whatever your preferred word is—that are preserved in in-vitro fertilization clinics around the world. They are not artfully lit and do not have all the features of a familiar screen actor, as the bodies in the tanks did. But they share with those bodies the one feature that makes them different from all other material objects: they are in some sense human, though in a state that might be termed suspended animation.

I do not believe "The Prestige" will go down in cinematic history as a great movie, although events could prove me wrong. For one thing, the main characters Angier and Borden, played by Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale, respectively, arouse little sympathy in the audience. They are each so single-mindedly focused on their rivalry that they trash the lives of women and shamelessly exploit anything within their reach to achieve their goals of mastery over the other, which necessarily involves mastery over the material world. As for the Tesla character, played by David Bowie as a kind of proto-Nazi-scientist type, he is simultaneously the enabler of the deepest wrongs committed by Angier, and the prophet who warns against the use of his own tools. When Angier offers to buy Tesla's machine, Tesla says that the best thing that could be done with it would be to sink it under the ocean.

The scientist who issues dire warnings against the use of his own creations is rather a cliché in science fiction. But with frozen embryos an everyday reality and human cloning on our doorstep, we are no longer talking about science fiction when we consider the morality of duplicating human beings. The job of the artist in a culture is not so much to solve moral problems, although they can sometimes help, as Harriet Beecher Stowe tried to do with Uncle Tom's Cabin, which she wrote explicitly to expose the horrors and wrongs of slavery. The artist should bring our attention to things we either do not see out of familiarity, or out of unfamiliarity, or for some other reason. The recent debates over so-called "therapeutic" cloning and embryonic stem cell research, frankly stated, involve the question of whether we should duplicate existing human beings and kill them for some purpose of our own. That is exactly what Angier did with his duplicated magicians. In the movie's system of justice, he died for his wrongdoing at the hand of his enemy.

I have little doubt that most of the people intellectually involved in the production of the film enthusiastically support embryonic stem cell research. Perhaps they see the connection between their film and that issue, and perhaps they don't. The typical response to someone who voices opposition to such research on the ground that it involves killing a human being is that the object in question is not a human being. In a recent Supreme Court case involving a law that prohibits partial-birth abortions, the language preferred by a Planned Parenthood lawyer was to say that the "fetus" involved in an abortion will "undergo demise." Would you feel any better if your doctor told you that you were going to "undergo demise" in a few weeks, rather than just saying flat out that you're going to die? The feelings at stake are not the baby's. Rather, people resort to this kind of language to help them deny the fact that they are dealing with other human beings, beings just like they were when they were that age.

The writer Flannery O'Connor was once asked why she so often tended to write about the grotesque and the bizarre in her stories. She responded to the effect that as a Catholic, she knew that most of her audience did not share her beliefs: " . . . for the almost-blind, you draw large and startling figures." The makers of "The Prestige" have drawn some large and startling figures for us to ponder, perhaps without meaning to. I hope more people will draw the connection between their tale of long ago and far away, and what is going on in the halls of science and medicine today.

Sources: The Supreme Court case is described in an audio report by NPR's Nina Totenberg at http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=6460614. The quotation from O'Connor is at http://thinkexist.com/quotes/flannery_o'connor/.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Global Warming and World Views, Part II

Global Warming and World Views, Part II

Last week I started from the fact that flying takes about ten times as much fossil fuel as riding trains, and imagined how an atheist would reason out a position on whether flying is morally justified, given the news about global warming. I showed that our purported atheist could come out either in favor of flying or opposed to it, but the reasons for each conclusion came down to a matter of choosing rationales to suit one's conclusions. If you think getting enjoyment out of life is what it's all about, you'll fly as much as you can and leave the climate catastrophes for someone else to worry about. If you think man's presence on the planet is a bad idea on the whole, you'll favor the least intrusive modes of transportation possible. This leads to images of pre-agricultural primitive peoples tip-toeing through the jungle, leaving no trace of their passage. I'm sure the imaginative reader can come up with other rationalizations for either view, but that's what they are: rationalizations. You pick the outcome you want to get, and then you go looking for reasons to back it up.

I also said I'd take the example of a different worldview and see what conclusions you can draw from it as well. Here goes.

Before you say the opposite of atheism must be theism, hold on. We can keep this entirely at the level of philosophy. Instead of atheism, I should have said that the person I had in mind last time believed that there is no such thing as moral law apart from what somebody thinks. Because what I'm going to contrast that with today is the viewpoint that there IS such a thing as moral law, independent of what you or I think or say or feel, and even independent of the existence of humanity altogether.

What I mean is this. No one would quibble with the notion that whether or not people are on this planet, the law of gravity would still cause the earth to revolve around the sun. The law of gravity doesn't depend on our agreeing on it, or even knowing anything about it. Now what I'm proposing as an alternate view is the idea that common notions of right and wrong such as "don't kick babies" and "don't steal cars" are just as much an independent, inviolate part of the universe as the law of gravity. Anywhere there are sentient beings with intelligence and will, this theory goes, you find these moral principles, and they are the same everywhere.

This theory goes by various names at various times, but "natural law" is probably the most common one. It is "natural" in the sense that it is part of nature, part of the universe's structure. I won't attempt to justify it at this point, although people have done that, and not just religious people either. What I will do is to use it as a basis to adjudicate this question of whether it's moral to fly planes, knowing that you produce less greenhouse gases when you ride the train.

It turns out that the question is just as hard, but for different reasons. There seems to be a universal bias against what I'd call waste, for example. Taking a thing that is good for people and simply trashing it without benefiting from it yourself is something that hardly anybody would argue to be a good thing. If—and this is a big "if"—it turns out that our 200-year love affair with fossil fuels utterly wrecks the planet—and by this I mean, makes it completely uninhabitable, like burning down a house—then, well, I'd say anyone who burned anything combustible in the last 200 years is partly responsible. But the trouble with this notion is that we cannot know the future. That is why the "if" is so big.

You will meet people who will tell you that we have that amount of certainty about the problem, and it's time to start doing something about it. The only sure way to tell they're right is not to do anything and then wait and see. This approach has its own problems. There is a kind of prudential judgment that is part of natural law, in the sense that people are not generally expected to change their behavior based on remote possibilities that they are not intimately involved in. And that is what we should apply here.

The biggies in natural law concern how you treat your family, your friends, your neighbors, and so on. Giant geopolitical things like global warming may be the proper concern for certain specialists, but it betrays a kind of inverted set of priorities to put global warming ahead of friendships, fulfillment of duties, and charity, which is an old-fashioned word for love. I think natural lawyers would say, "If your life involves air travel and is otherwise following generally accepted moral principles, then you should consider using a less polluting form of transportation. But if your ability to do good would be seriously impaired, go ahead and fly." Of course, different people will come to different conclusions using these principles, even if they start from the same data. But that's true of almost any moral problem that isn't on the extremes. The same was true of our conclusions when we started from the atheistic or individualistic assumption.

So what good is all this? "You haven't answered the question!" you say. "Should I or should I not fly rather than ride trains?" Never mind planes or trains for the moment. Never mind global warming, even. The important question is not what mode of transportation to take, and not even whether New York City will be under water in 2106, but how you decide what is right and wrong, and what you believe the world is about, and why you are here in the first place. Get those things right, and the little stuff will take care of itself.