Michael B. Duff

Lubbock's answer to a question no one asked

Archive for May 2009

Should Google be responsible for what people do with its maps?

If I had to explain this column in terms of an academic paper, I would call it “a meditation on the moral consequences of information technology.”

I like to think of myself as spanning the border between science fiction and science fact. The best science fiction explores the moral consequences of technology that we don’t have yet.

How would we act if we could spy on our neighbors any time we want? What would society look like if we could manipulate the genetic heritage of our children?

Now imagine yourself living in a science-fiction universe where you could get the answer to any question by typing it into a machine or view historical maps of the world on a perfect virtual globe.

That science fiction concept has become fact in 2009 and has created moral problems that even Ray Bradbury couldn’t predict.

On Monday, we published an Associated Press story by Jay Alabaster. Google Earth has recently added historical maps of Japan to its library, and this information is creating a unique moral problem for citizens of modern-day Japan.

To American ears, the availability of historical maps sounds like a dry academic issue, the kind of news you skip over unless you’re a historian or a geography professor.

But Google is facing angry accusations of prejudice and responding to inquiries from the Justice Ministry because the publication of these ancient maps is enabling discrimination in the present.

Alabaster’s article explains: “The maps date back to the country’s feudal era, when shoguns ruled and a strict caste system was in place. At the bottom of the hierarchy were a class called the ‘burakumin,’ ethnically identical to other Japanese but forced to live in isolation because they did jobs associated with death, such as working with leather, butchering animals and digging graves.”

The caste system is long dead, but people who live in these areas still face discrimination based on where they live or where their ancestors lived.

Alabaster quotes an anonymous source who works for a large, well-known Japanese company: “If we suspect that an applicant is a burakumin, we always do a background check to find out.”

These areas have been known to reduce nearby property values, and residents of these areas have been the target of graffiti and racial taunts.

This information has been circulating on bulletin boards for a while now, but Google’s maps have revealed new blocks of “dirty” addresses and made geographic discrimination easier for anyone who cares to look – a textbook case of a moral dilemma created by information technology.

If someone uses the information provided by Google to harass, demean or harm a person from one of these areas, is Google responsible for the crime?

This information has been available for decades, but you had to visit libraries and do tedious academic work to use it. It’s not the existence of information but the improved presentation of information that has created this problem.

Google is making it easier for bad people to do bad things, but is that really Google’s fault? I think of Google as a kind of common carrier. If criminals use telephone lines to harass people and plan crimes, can you really blame the telephone?

If thieves get blueprints from the library and use them to plan a theft, is it fair to blame the library?

I like to use gun control analogies here. A gun is a weapon but it can’t fire itself. Google makes information available but can’t control how people use it.

Maybe it’s a privacy issue? Individuals can remove themselves from phone directories and put themselves on do-not-call lists. But how do you hide yourself from something as general as a map?

As of this writing, Google has removed the offending maps from its software. The historical maps have been altered to blank out data from the sensitive neighborhoods, but I’m not convinced that the company did the right thing.

Information is a resource. It can’t be “good” or “evil” by itself. The consequences aren’t harmful until a person acts on that information. I think we need to hold individuals responsible for their actions and protect providers who make these tools available.

Written by Michael B. Duff

May 8, 2009 at 18:20

Posted in Columns

Tagged with

Forums are down

UPDATE 5-14: My editors are deciding what to do about the forum issue. We’ve got a couple options we’re considering but nothing has been decided yet. I looked into reactivating the old forums but the company that made them is out of business and we can’t control the spam on them. I’ll update here as soon as I know something.

We’re experiencing technical difficulties with our host and have had to take the forums temporarily off-line. We apologize for the inconvenience. We should have them restored in the next day or so. Comment functionality on our stories and blogs is still available.

Written by Michael B. Duff

May 7, 2009 at 15:43

Posted in Admin

Bioware moderator stirs controversy in game forum

The High Secret Order of Forum Moderators had to issue an emergency alert this week when one of our brethren exceeded his authority on the Bioware forums and accidentally challenged 30 years of Star Wars history.

I was leafing through our secret newsletter and saw the sad story of Bioware community manager Sean Dahlberg sandwiched between “Ten ways to abuse your power” and “Five new slang terms that are actually obscene.”

Like most forums, Bioware’s system automatically catches and censors keywords that contain profanity and explicit language. Their system was set to automatically censor the words “gay” and “lesbian” since they are frequently used as insults.

But as is so often the case, rules that were meant to prevent discrimination are now having the opposite effect.

This was a minor incident until Mr. Dahlberg tried to defend the policy with a most unfortunate choice of words. Instead of just dismissing the issue or declaring the subject off-topic, Dahlberg said, “These are terms that do not exist in Star Wars.”

It’s hard to say if Dahlberg took his logic too far or simply not far enough. He could have declared the topic inappropriate or gone one step further and made the case that there is no sexuality in Star Wars.

The latter statement is kind of sweeping but I think it would be easy to defend. There is passion in Star Wars. There is romance in Star Wars, but the series has always stopped short of addressing adult sexuality.

That would have made for an interesting discussion but it wouldn’t have made headlines or set off any kind of Internet firestorm. Instead, Dahlberg’s statement was interpreted as a declaration that there is no homosexuality in the Star Wars universe – a dangerous statement to make on any fan forum.

To understand why, you have to understand the psychology of a dedicated Star Wars fan. Fans of these forums don’t just consume Star Wars material, they study it the way theologians study the Bible, searching for hidden connections and undiscovered nuances in the text.

In this context, Sean Dahlberg wasn’t just making a statement about his forum, he was questioning the meaning of scripture, bringing up a question that may require a Star Wars Council of Trent.

The resulting firestorm inspired press releases, blog posts and a good deal of original scholarship, as fans scrambled to provide examples of homosexual relationships in the Star Wars universe.

Game designers dismissed one example as a “scripting bug” while a well-known Star Wars author declared that a pair of Mandalorian soldiers in her work were more than just friends.

Most of this is just standard Internet contrariness. The Internet can turn anybody into a rebellious teenager. A forum rule is like a closed door. It’s not enough that there are thousands of blogs and forums where this discussion would be welcome, people want to talk about it in the one place where it’s not.

There’s also a larger issue here, a tendency that has come on very strong in my generation. Where baby boomers and their parents were content to grow up and leave their childhoods behind, Generation X seems determined to hang onto its childhood and bring it into the adult world.

You can see it in our entertainment, as comic book movies rule the silver screen and books like Harry Potter cross over to an adult audience. But we’re not just trying to extend our childhoods, we’re trying to project adult values and adult flaws onto our childhood heroes.

My favorite example is the recent “Iron Man” movie where the fight scenes and special effects are merged into the context of a real human life. Robert Downey Jr. portrayed Tony Stark as a real person who built fantastic things.

In this case, the mix of childhood memories and adult storytelling worked. Other films have missed the mark. Bryan Singer tried the same trick in “Superman Returns” but didn’t quite pull it off.

The original “Superman” film was classic family entertainment. Audiences went to the new one expecting an ordinary comic book movie and found themselves watching a kind of Greek tragedy. Singer’s Superman was brought down to Earth in a way that made a lot of fans uncomfortable.

This forum incident was blown out of proportion because Star Wars is like the last holdout against this trend. Fans walked into “The Phantom Menace” expecting a Star Wars film aimed at the adults they had become. Instead, George Lucas went the other way, abandoning adult fans in his quest to sell toys to children.

But fans are still hungry to see adult stories told in the Star Wars universe. “Revenge of the Sith” was dark and violent, but it lacked the emotional complexity that fans were waiting for.

Early reviews say that J.J. Abrams has successfully moved Star Trek into an adult context. Hopefully the Star Wars reboot won’t be far behind.

Written by Michael B. Duff

May 1, 2009 at 18:21

Posted in Columns, Movies