Monday, March 25, 2024

GPS vs. Covered Bridges: Unintended Consequences

Every time a new technology becomes popular, effects happen that nobody anticipates—not the designers, not the firms selling the product, and not the users either.  A small but significant case in point was highlighted in a recent Associated Press piece describing the increased vulnerability of historic covered bridges in the U. S. to truck and RV drivers who blindly follow their GPS instructions, only to smash into the bridge superstructure.


Covered bridges were themselves a technical innovation.  According to the Wikipedia article on covered bridges, wooden structural members exposed to the weather, even if painted, will last only about 20 years before they need complete replacement.  In the 19th century, the European innovation of covering a bridge with walls and a roof spread to the U. S., and many thousands of them were built, mostly between 1825 and 1875.  Because they were usually built for local pedestrian, horse, and carriage traffic, the overhead clearance was typically about ten feet or less, well below the fourteen feet (4.3 meters) that is the U. S. interstate highway standard minimum clearance. 


Although most of the covered bridges in the U. S. are long gone, some communities have preserved them for historic and cultural reasons, and a few dozen are still used for vehicular traffic.  One such bridge stands outside Lyndon, Vermont.  The 140-year-old Miller's Run bridge provides a shortcut around the town of Lyndon, and many GPS-enabled smartphone programs such as Waze intended for passenger cars will route drivers through the bridge.  Despite several warning signs stating the low clearance of the bridge, at least 20 drivers of box trucks, vans, and RVs have hit the bridge in the last few years.  Sometimes only minor cosmetic damage results, but on one occasion a delivery truck hit the bridge supports.  That cost the town $100,000 and put the bridge out of commission for several months.


When the driver can be identified, the town can collect insurance money to pay for the damage, but many drivers just keep going, sometimes leaving air-conditioning units behind that are scraped off the top of campers.


Bill Caswell, who is president of the National Society for the Preservation of Covered Bridges, says this problem turns out to be a constant battle.  The only sure-fire solution is to build heavy steel height-limit barriers at each end.  But even when communities put up warning signs and flashing lights to inform drivers of the upcoming obstructions, many of them are still surprised when they hit the barriers.


Many of you may never have seen a covered bridge, and even fewer have tried to drive across one in a truck that's too tall for it.  But this problem is a good example of a widespread issue that philosopher and psychologist Iain McGilchrist has pointed out in his book The Master and His Emissary, and more briefly in a recent article in the journal of religion and public life First Things. 


McGilchrist is one of the world's leading experts in the differing functions of the left and right hemispheres of the brain.  His thesis defies easy summary, but basically, one can think of the two hemispheres as two people with complementary personalities working together as a team to accomplish mental tasks. 


The right hemisphere is focused outward.  It is the one that perceives the world and admits its complexity and mystery, in the sense of being partially but not completely understandable.  The right hemisphere helps us to appreciate art, poetry, and the best in human relationships.


The left hemisphere, on the other hand, tends to simplify and abstract things down to only the essentials needed to get something done.  It is the brain's bureaucrat, ignoring subtleties and ambiguities, and sticking heedlessly to a task long after the wider-ranging purposes of the task are forgotten.  The left hemisphere can't see the forest for the trees, and McGilchrist's cri de coeur these days is that once more (after similar paths trod by ancient Greece and Rome), we are letting left-brain thinking take over our civilization, and are in danger of falling into ruin just as those civilizations did. 


When someone driving a rented moving van for the first time tries to get through Lyndon, Vermont, if he or she is following right-brain thinking, the thing to do would be to drive through the quaint old town, stop in and have a meal, maybe, and stroll around the town common, appreciating the flavor of a historic location full of time-bound associations and resonances of the past. 


But if the driver is dominated by left-brain patterns, Lyndon is just an obstruction on the way to wherever the goal lies, and in following that fount of efficiency, the voice on the GPS-enabled phone, the driver turns away from the town and heads straight for the Miller's Run bridge.  Perhaps the driver observes the scenery—the trees, the street signs, the warning sign saying something about a bridge—but the left brain discards all of this as meaningless and useless fluff.  The main thing is to cover so many miles in so many hours and get to the goal on the map.  In this way, dozens of drivers have plowed straight into the bridge covering, wreaking various amounts of damage and propelling themselves off an idealized digital map into the real world of recalcitrant lumber, damaged vehicles, and auto insurance claims. 


Perhaps the town of Lyndon will finally decide enough is enough, and erect two sturdy steel arch barriers over the roadways approaching the bridge so that even GPS-hypnotized drivers can't cause any more damage.  But these barriers will stand as a mute and expensive testimony to the inability of modern humans to embrace the whole of their environment, instead of giving in to a tunnel-vision version of reality simplified to a creeping colored line on a map. 


Or maybe, just maybe, the world will heed the call of prophets such as McGilchrist and pull back from the brink of disaster that we seem to be teetering on.  If history is any guide, though, it will be hard to stop ourselves in time.  And this go-round, we may damage a lot more than a few bridges.


Sources:  The Associated Press article "Historic covered bridges are under threat by truck drivers relying on GPS meant for cars" by Lisa Rathke appeared on Mar. 20 at  I also referred to the Wikipedia article on covered bridges.  Iain McGilchrist's article "Resist the Machine Apocalypse" appeared in the March 2024 issue of First Things, and can be viewed at

Monday, March 18, 2024

TikTok: Divest or Ban?


The online platform TikTok is once again in the news, this time the target of proposed U. S. legislation.  One of the most popular and innovative social-media outlets, the Chinese-originated and Chinese-controlled app's infinite-scrolling videos have been imitated by Facebook and YouTube, and 170 million Americans use it, many of them under 30.  So why is Congress once more considering legislation that would either force ByteDance, the Chinese parent company, to divest itself of the U. S. division of TikTok, or else face a total ban of the app?


The ostensible reason is that despite TikTok's public protestations to the contrary, it appears that user data garnered by the U. S. division of TikTok can be accessed by its masters in China, as I noted in a December 2022 blogpost here.  Whether ByteDance actually exploits this capability is not clear, but adding that to the fact that TikTok has engaged in a certain amount of censorship on subjects sensitive to the Chinese Communist Party's sensibilities provides enough rationale to consider legislative action.


In a recent essay in Time, reporter Scott Nover describes the bill that the U. S. House of Representatives passed on March 13.  If passed by the Senate and signed by President Biden, it would present TikTok with a choice:  either totally divest the U. S. division so that it is completely independent of the rest of the Chinese-based organization, or face a total ban on selling and using the app in the U. S.  Although the bill theoretically gives the firm a choice, several sources say that the true intent is to enact a ban, not just to force divestiture. 


As the only major social-media app not developed in the U. S., TikTok excites the envy of Facebook and YouTube, and U. S.-based social-media firms would be more than happy to see a major competitor eat the dust, so they could rush in with their replacement apps and fill the void. 


Never having used TikTok, I have only a dim idea of how essential it must seem to some teenagers.  In a clumsy attempt to prevent the bill's passage, TikTok urged its users to phone their congressperson to protest the bill.  Representatives were flooded with phone calls, some of which carried the caller's intent to commit suicide if TikTok were banned.  Many of the callers were below voting age and presumably unable to vote against anyone who favors the ban, but the campaign apparently backfired, as it demonstrated TikTok's overwhelming influence with its users more than a principled regard for free speech on their part. 


Nover, for his part, thinks that even if the bill becomes law, it will quickly become entangled in court cases, and the record for similar bans at the state level in the courts is not good.  Former President Trump's attempt to ban TikTok by executive action was thwarted by a court, which said there were other ways to achieve the same ends.  So just passing Federal legislation that would effectively ban TikTok won't necessarily mean an uptick in teen suicides, although that possibility can't be discounted.


The U. S. government has decidedly mixed motives in its move to ban TikTok, as it would be a big favor to U. S.-based social media firms.  To that extent, the proposed law smells of crony capitalism, which uses government influence to suppress competition.  There are those who take the view that as long as users get better, cheaper services, it doesn't matter whether those services come from a multitude of small firms or from one giant firm.  In other words, bigness isn't a sin, just incompetence or exploitation.  That is an economic debate for another day, but it can't be ignored in the mix of motives that gave rise to the proposed TikTok ban.


It's still a theoretical possibility that TikTok would actually divest itself of its U. S. division, but as I said in previous blogs, such things can be mainly on paper rather than in reality.  One thinks of the breakup of Ma Bell, which cut the nationwide giant phone company into regional Baby Bells.  But a few years after the telecommunications landscape opened up to competition, AT&T found few obstacles on its way to reuniting itself, and continues to be a major player in that field today. 


Another problem with the proposed bill is that we don't have a smoking gun.  No one has come up with hard evidence that China is definitely exploiting its ability to suck data on its U. S. users into Beijing for nefarious purposes.  But the Chinese are very skillful at concealing their espionage activities and their consequences—that is what good spies do. 


To give a completely undocumented but likely example I'm personally familiar with, a few years ago a student employee of mine wanted to get a circuit board design he had developed turned into an actual circuit board.  This is done by sending a digital file to a circuit-board-fab company, which etches and drills the board and sends it back to you.  He looked around to find various prices from different vendors.  An outfit in Colorado wanted $50, another one here in Texas wanted $40 or along there—and a place based in China offered three-day turnaround for something ridiculously cheap, like $12.  I let him use the Chinese $12 vendor, but not without wondering whether that firm and others like it were deeply subsidized by the Chinese government for the purposes of obtaining the raw circuit-board files from thousands of U. S. firms, all without sending a single spy to the U. S.  Maybe all this is a fantasy of mine, but I don't think so.  It was all perfectly legal and probably very effective for the Chinese too.


To my mind, the best outcome of the anti-TikTok legislation would be divestiture rather than a total ban. If the federal government shuts down a social-media app with 170 million U. S. users, that is truly a heavy hand placed on First Amendment rights of ordinary citizens to express their opinions.  But even if the ban is attempted, the courts may well have something to say about the matter, so we will just have to stay tuned. 


Sources:  I referred to the article "The Grim Reality of Banning TikTok" on the Time website at and an article in National Review at  My previous blogs on TikTok are at



Monday, March 11, 2024

Will Banning Minors from Social Media Break the Internet?


Charles C. W. Cooke seems to think so.  Cooke, a writer for National Review whose opinions and style I have great respect for, opines in the April 2024 issue that using Federal power to keep minors off social media is a bad idea. 


He concedes there is a real problem:  bullying, pornography use, depression, and suicide are all results of teenagers and even younger people accessing social media.  He doesn't dispute that on balance, the harm that can happen is probably not worth the benefits that the youngsters gain.  The problem is acute enough to show up in strange places such as the comics page.  The strip "Baldo" by Hector Cantu and Carolos Castellanos portrays a nearly-nuclear Hispanic family that includes a precocious young girl named Gracie., who appears to be about 8.  Recently, the writers chose to show Gracie taking out a cigarette lighter, lighting up, taking a puff, and in the last frame she had a mobile phone in her hand instead of a cigarette.  The message, somewhat crudely but shockingly expressed, is that if you hand your eight-year-old a mobile phone, you might as well let her smoke too.


And the comparison between smoking and mobile-phone-mediated social media is apt in another way.  The social ostracism that many smokers now experience, at least in the U. S., came about as the U. S. government adopted severe restrictions on cigarette advertising and sales.  It's somewhat of a chicken-and-egg argument as to whether federal restrictions encouraged the change in social attitude, or the social attitude made the government's job easier.  But as the hypocrisy of the cigarette companies was exposed, revealing that they knew very well tobacco killed their customers but went right on selling it as though nothing was wrong, I think public opinion simply turned against them, especially among young people.  But the federal strictures helped the process along.


Cooke's main concern is that allowing the federal government to get its grubby, incompetent mitts on what is up to now almost a perfect example of the unrestricted free market of the Internet will ruin it for everybody.  He thinks that if we let the camel of government regulation of age for using the Internet get its head under the tent, the rest of the smelly animal will come too, and politicians will find some way to prevent their political opponents from accessing voters under the age of 90 ,or something.


Now I'll agree that the ingenuity of bureaucrats to expand their remits beyond all reasonable bounds is impressive and worth being concerned about.  But I haven't noticed any huge federal bureaucracy springing up around the subject of restricting tobacco use, unless you count the diversion of the huge pile of money extracted from the tobacco companies as part of class-action lawsuits by smokers toward uses that have nothing to do with smoking prevention.  And that was mainly the doing of states rather than the federal government, if I recall correctly.


Cooke says if the federal laws proposed go into action, you would have to send your private information over the Internet every time you want to access YouTube or Facebook.  Well, I do that every time I buy something online already—not only that, I send information that will allow a crook to steal from me, and now and then it even happens.  But the banks are vigilant enough to keep credit-card fraud down to a level that seems to be tolerable enough for most people, and we haven't had some giant federal bureaucracy arise because of it.


I agree that it may be premature to enact a federal law in this area.  But many states are currently experimenting with similar laws, and several have already gained some experience with them.  Some reports indicate that major porn outlets on the Internet are seeing their income drop substantially.  One report cited by the website of the Southern Baptist Convention says that as a result of an age restriction passed in Louisiana, traffic to the site Pornhub from that state has dropped by 80%. 


That may seem like a drop in the bucket, but one of the strengths of the federal system is that each state is a little political-science lab of its own.  After another year or two, federal legislators, if they are so inclined, can take a look at the many experiments in social-media regulation concerning minors that are going on right now, and take the best ideas from the successful ones. 


Then, it shouldn't be that hard to craft a law that would not only restrict social-media companies from preying on minors, but would also restrict the role of the federal government in the regulatory process.  Sen. Josh Hawley's proposed bill, nicknamed MATURE (for Making Age-Verification Technology Uniform, Robust, and Effective), would have as its primary regulatory feature the power granted to parents to sue Internet companies who don't comply.  In that aspect, it resembles the Texas anti-abortion law which empowers private citizens to sue abortionists.  No giant abortion-regulation bureaucracy sprang up in Texas after that law was passed.  But a lot of abortion clinics shut down immediately, which was the desired effect.


Cooke says that he is going to take the steps available to a responsible parent, which he is, to ensure that his own children don't get harmed by social media.  And that is fine if you are a responsible parent.  But we have plenty of irresponsible parents too, and we should have some concern for their children, who are even more vulnerable to the harms that social media can cause than the offspring of parents who are aware of the dangers and do something about them.


Cooke seems to be motivated by a libertarian impulse to leave the pristine unregulated nature of the Internet alone.  But as he points out, we have already seen inappropriate involvement of the government in censoring free expression on the Internet by means of the Twitter files released by Elon Musk's intervention.  And nobody passed any laws to let that happen.


Granted that there is currently a shortage of wisdom in Washington, we can still hope that a few public-spirited Republicans and Democrats can cooperate (!) on a bill that would take into account the successes and failures of various state laws in this area, make sure that any Federal involvement in the matter is minimized, and still accomplish the goal:  to keep children and teenagers from suffering the very real psychic harm that social media overuse and misuse can cause. 


Sources:  Charles C. W. Cooke's somewhat mysteriously titled "Chesterton's Internet" (he mentions the phrase twice but otherwise doesn't explain why he associates the Internet with G. K. Chesterton, who died in 1935) appeared in the April 2024 issue of National Review, pp. 34-36.  I also referred to an article on the website of the Southern Baptist Convention at

Monday, March 04, 2024

Big Tech Tries to Have its First Amendment Cake and Eat It Too


While my headline lacks something in concision, the topic for today is anything but simple:  whether internet-based enterprises such as Amazon, Google, Tiktok, and X are free to do basically anything they want with the input their users provide, or whether the states of Texas and Florida can impose certain restrictions on content moderation.  Last week the U. S. Supreme Court heard opening oral arguments in two related cases on this topic that the Court has decided to hear together.


NetChoice v. Paxton pits the trade association NetChoice, which includes such heavy hitters as Amazon, Google, and X, against the Texas state gadfly and attorney general Ken Paxton, who attempted to enforce a bill that would prohibit social media companies from censoring posts except in extreme cases such as obscenity and libel.  Moody v. NetChoice concerns a law that was passed in Florida at the urging of Gov. Ron DeSantis to prevent social media firms from "de-platforming" a political candidate actively running for office.  The lawsuits arising from NetChoice's objections to what it sees as restrictions on its members' First Amendments freedom of speech have percolated through the federal courts and ended up at the Supreme Court last Monday.


There are two extreme positions that mark the boundaries of this debate.  One extreme is taken by the state legislatures, which is that large internet-based firms, including but not limited to social-media outfits such as X and TikTok, are used so universally that they should be considered as "common carriers."  A common carrier, in legal parlance, is a service that is so essential to modern life that it must accept customers and their activities on a basis limited only by common-sense rules.  The classic common carrier was the old Ma Bell system back when all you could do with a phone was call Aunt Maude.  As long as you paid your monthly bill, you could say absolutely anything you wanted to say, and Ma Bell wouldn't stop you.  And anybody who can muster up the cash for a bus ticket can ride the bus.  Similarly, the state bills object to censorship, de-platforming, and other ways that social media companies either emphasize or obscure certain users depending on what they are saying, because the state laws tend to view them as common carriers.


The other extreme is taken by NetChoice, which views its members as valiant warriors protecting their own freedom of speech as well as that of their users.  Their classic analogy is the old-fashioned hot-type newspaper, back when all you could do with the paper was line the bottom of the birdcage—after reading it, of course.  Nobody presumed to tell the editorial-page editor what letters he could or could not include in the paper, and so no state law should tell X which tweets to suppress or encourage, or leave alone.  They are private firms and it's their business what they do with their content, not the states' business. 


A report on the first day's arguments by the Electronic Privacy Informatiion Center (EPIC) indicates that the Supreme Court justices are not enthusiastic about either end of this spectrum.  In particular, they seem to think that NetChoice is being more than a little hypocritical because of how it has used a law called Section 230.


Section 230 of the federal Communications Decency Act gives NetChoice members immunity from prosecution for libel for what any of their users say, in this sentence:  "No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider."  The word "publisher" echoes our exemplary newspaper editor, and Section 230 lets X say, in effect, "Man, we didn't write or publish or say that.  Our crazy user said that, and you can't blame us for what he said."  Section 230 protection is one of the carefully guarded legal jewels of the NetChoice empire, and flocks of lawyers appear whenever anyone threatens it.


At least two Supreme Court justices perceived that NetChoice is trying to have its free-speech cake by defeating the state laws limiting their content-moderation actions, and eat it too by claiming innocence when someone posts something objectionable and a NetChoice member claims immunity under Section 230.  At one point, Justice Gorsuch asked, "So it's speech for the purposes of the First Amendment, your speech, your editorial control, but when we get to Section 230, your submission is that that isn't your speech?"  And at another point, Justice Alito said, "It's your message when you want to escape state regulation, but it's not your message when you want to escape liability under state tort law." 


It's anybody's guess what the Court will decide in these cases, but indications are that neither NetChoice nor the states will get everything they want.  My own view is that social-media firms, by catering to the lower instincts of the human mind and heart, have wrought incalculable damage to the political and social structures of not only the U. S. but many other countries as well.  And especially when the government begins to "assist" social-media firms in deciding what is free speech and should be left alone or promoted, and what is "disinformation" and should be de-emphasized or suppressed, we have traveled a good part of the way down a slippery slope to something akin to the old Soviet Union, or the present Peoples' Republic of China, where everything you say and do is monitored and assessed and has consequences that can be quite dire if you go against what the government wants you to do. 


The Texas and Florida laws are a first step toward opposing this trend, and NetChoice's actions opposing them is exactly what you would expect a bully to do if someone challenges his dominance.  Fortunately, the federal structure of our government is still functioning, although seriously damaged, and I hope that the justices' decisions in these cases will clip the wings of an industry which, Icarus-like, is flying way too close to the sun.


Sources:  I referred to an editorial by Jennifer Huddleston in the Mar. 1, 2024 edition of the Austin American-Statesman, a blog post on the EPIC website at, and the Wikipedia articles on NetChoice and Section 230.