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Showing posts from 2013

Proper Vehicles for Rights

Would it really be too far to argue that corporations should not have rights? More specifically, I would like to argue that corporate persons do not have rights on par with natural persons. I don't think this is really all that implausible. First and foremost, let's think about why natural persons have rights (when they do). The general trend among democratic theorists is to argue that rights claims among democratic citizens arises from something like mutual consent and recognition of one another as autonomous agents. I'm an autonomous agent, and you're an autonomous agent. If we're going to maintain that autonomy and cooperate, we should guarantee one another that we'll respect one another's autonomy. A system of rights is established that guarantees that we can each do as we please as long as we don't interfere with anyone else doing the same.
It's a nice fairytale, and it can be told through the lens of game theory, mutually uninterested contr…

Trust, Security, and Privacy

If you want to think about moral concepts that ground debates about privacy, you can't help but think about trust. The basis of a community is the trust that the members extend to one another: the trust that we will leave each other in peace, respect one another as human beings, and (hopefully) look out for one another's welfare. Democratic political institutions rely on citizens' trust that fair and open procedures create just societies. Without the possibility of trust, we lose all society, and all social philosophy.

Trust is also an important concept in security. We employ security out of a lack of trust. We trust the designers of our security and encryption systems. Citizens encrypt their data or web traffic because they do not trust the government. The government resists citizen use of strong encryption because they do not trust the citizens.

It might be easy to conclude that with sufficient trust, we would have no need for security or encryption. I think there are ind…

The Information Economy

I must apologize for my neglect of the blog. Preparing for an international move is, as my people say, "no joke." Nevertheless, the content must flow, so let me share with you a brief summary of my current work-in-progress.

Consider all of the pieces of information you acquire in your normal online life. The results of Google searches, status updates from social networks, email and calendar notifications - all of these can be thought of as informational goods. For the most part, you acquire them at no monetary cost, they appear to be free as in "free beer."

Still, if you think about it for a moment, there is something you've had to exchange for these informational goods. In particular, you have to trade some token of your own private information in exchange for these very convenient and valuable informational goods. In order to find out what your friends are up to, you have to reveal that you associate with those people. If you want Google to remind you of an a…

Networked Discourse

Sorry to let the flow of posts dry up, but I'm preparing to move abroad for a really interesting teaching opportunity. In the meantime, here's a fragment from some thinking about the rational discourse and communication technology.

Information and communications technology enables a raft of networked communications platforms. Email, IRC, and various social networking platforms are all designed to facilitate communication between individuals. Of course, we must also be aware that communication platforms shape the content of interpersonal communications. By creating a vessel for content, content must also fit within the vessel. 
Consider three stages of human communication technology: Discourse Cacophony – with written language and symbol as the only communication technology, much human communication takes the form of spontaneous utterances in natural language. Discourse means nothing other than holding a conversation. With the sense of individuality arises the individual voice,…

DC Reflections

I just returned from a trip to Washington, DC where I spent a few days attending events and networking with various think tanks and advocacy organizations. Having spent the last few years doing academic work in political theory and intellectual property, learning about the policy work that happens closer to the sphere of praxis than theory has been eye-opening. My motivations for working on political philosophy included finding ways to make actual change in the world, and I have at times found myself frustrated with the isolation of the academic environment.

Going to DC, I learned that the isolation problem works both ways. While it's difficult to get politicians and policy-makers to hear academic arguments, I've found myself that academics are not always interested in the application of their theories. Since my work contains specific and substantial discussions of how theory should shape practice, I've gotten a bit of pushback. I've heard similar stories from other ac…

Stand With Wendy

I hope you watched at least a few minutes of Wendy Davis and her epic filibuster. I appreciate the rhetorical force of the exercise more than anything else. At the end of the day, the strength of the filibuster is not really in what is said but that a person feels so strongly about an issue, sees it as so important, that she will literally not stand down in defense. I think having that exercise is important in a democracy where consensus must emerge from public discussion and rational persuasion. We all know that rhetoric is not entirely rational, but the emotional component is an important flag for reason. The investment of the speaker demonstrates a conviction that counts in favor of revisiting one’s own position on an issue, makes you look closer at why someone would feel so strongly. These are important considerations in shaping a community because we need to recognize the concerns of our fellows as just as important to them as ours are to us. Wendy Davis demonstrate…


Since it's so much on my mind, I thought I would devote today's post to a brief round-up of three key Supreme Court decisions coming out this week. Each case has some serious civil rights implications, so taking a look at how these decisions go will give us a picture of the current state of various struggles for equality in the US. The three cases being decided this week are:

Fisher v University of Texas at Austin: on affirmative action

Shelby County v Holder: on the Voting Rights Act

Hollingsworth v Perry & United States v Windsor (together): on Prop 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) respectively, both concern gay marriage

There are extensive analogies of all cases, so I won't go into deep detail. If you want more in-depth analysis, I point you to the ACLU ( or the SCOTUS blog itself ( Instead, I'll gesture at the general temperature of the rulings so far.

On Fisher, the Court returned the case to a lower cour…

The Value of Simplicity

Navigating information technology often means navigating through layers of competing platforms. For every choice in operating system, there are choices for word processors, browsers, chat applications, media players, etc. As a fan of GNU/Linux, I'm also a fan of choice, so I have no complaints about the options. As long as you know what you want or are willing to explore, you can find an operating system and software suite that at least mostly meets your needs. I find that most people are really not interested in doing so and as such just use whatever they first learn.

If all software were created equal, there would be no problem with taking applications as you find them. Unfortunately, there are merits and demerits to every choice, and, even worse, there is a cost to switching. A quirky application you know is better than a quirky application you don't know, especially when productivity is an issue. As such, it's often to a user's benefit to survey a few options. Of c…

Imagining Digital Democracy

With all of the discussion about PRISM (including the EFF's excellent document breakdown, I'm doing a lot of thinking about how our technology shapes our political structures. Consider this two core feature of democracy: The Citizen as the State. This feature is usually what is meant by "a government of the people, by the people." The citizens as a collective compose the authority of the government. In other words, all citizens have a say in governing collective matters.

Typically, we see Citizen as State established through some form of representation. With  a large or dispersed population, the election of representatives was the only way to give citizens control over government. There are clear flaws in this system, as we can see looking at our own current situation. Representatives are not always as beholden to their constituents as one would li…

The Burden of Knowledge

This morning, I watched a Google Ideas Hangout on employing data analysis to stamp out human trafficking. The hangout itself was very informative, and I encourage everyone to give it a listen. Human trafficking is a major problem, partly due to movements across linguistic and political borders that hamper effort to identify victims and bring slavers to justice.

The discussion got me thinking about the moral burdens incurred by knowledge. If our increasingly networked world enables the creation of a global community, the problems of one region become everyone's problems. From the perspective of problem-solving, this is good because it means more people working on solving the problem. Without awareness of those problems, the work of solving them never gets off of the ground.

On the other hand, one of the problems we face is information overload as all of these new connections compete for our attention. When you consider that the CIA pays an entire staff of analysts to comb through …

Data in Confidence

Earlier today, I shared a CNN story detailing the reaction of major tech companies to the PRISM leak. I find it interesting that Google, Facebook, Apple, and Microsoft have all gone a pretty long way toward asserting that they protect user privacy. There is an obvious attempt here to win (or win back) the trust of their various communities of users.

All of these companies provide a set of valuable services, and they do so at the cost of our information. Just thinking about Google, the general service they provide can be understood as information management to promote convenience. Google's various products make our information more accessible to us and more easy to share with others. Google also turns our information into action through appointment notifications, editing documents, and maintaining our contact lists. In exchange for these services, we have to provide Google with our data.

On the surface, the users are supposed to get enough convenience to offset any recoil about gi…

Speech Under Surveillance

As the discussion of the NSA's surveillance program continues, it's important to reflect on the role privacy plays in a free society. As analysts and experts debate the scope and degree of access, the PRISM leak shows us that our communications and personal information are vulnerable. Even if no one is in fact listening, reading, or tracking, someone might be, so we cannot assume that any information transmitted over any communication network or held by any third party is safe from scrutiny.

Why does this level of scrutiny make us feel less free? For one, with the loss of privacy comes the loss of a little bit of autonomy. Agree or disagree with prevailing social norms, when in public there is a clear pressure to conform to them. In private, a person can shrug off that pressure and act solely on his or her own judgment. Privacy theorists from John Stuart Mill to Tim Scanlon emphasize the freedom of the private sphere as an important proving ground for developing a sense of au…

The Dharma of Problem-Hacking

In the previous installment, I said that Buddhist philosophy has a very technical understanding of suffering. This is no understatement. While "dukkha" just means something like unease, discomfort, or dissatisfaction, the Dharma allows for a great deal of nuance. Examples are most useful here.

If you make a list of five things that are bothering you right now, you would likely be able to group the list items into "big" problems and "small" problems. In other words, there is stress about complex and multifaceted problems like finding a job, writing a book, paying a mortgage, and then there is stress about simple, immediate problems like aching wrists, hunger, or sore muscles. With regard to the Dharma, we would understand both as dukkha, but as different kinds of dukkha.

For our purposes, what is important is that the simple, immediate problems are actually more pervasive than we typically realize. When we stop and ask ourselves what is bothering us, the …

Buddhism as Lifehacking

Buddhist philosophy (the Dharma) is very subtle, so there are many ways to understand it and put it into practice. Here, I will argue for what I have found to be a powerful perspective: the Dharma as a guide to lifehacking.

Lifehacking is exactly what it sounds like: finding new, more efficient, and more clever ways to handle day to day life. Just because you do something every day doesn't mean you're good at it, especially if you've never put the time or effort into thinking about what you're doing, how it's done, and how it could be done better. The best thing about lifehacking is that you can begin right now, just by stopping and thinking about the next task you have to perform and whether there is a way to  perform it that you haven't thought of before. Remember, the real point of lifehacking is to avoid becoming settling into patterns of activity or problem-solving, so just because you try one new way doesn't mean you stop trying. Keep refining, keep …

Fighting to Keep the Web Open

While frontiers represent freedom, they also represent opportunity and potential. The untamed spaces have no limits, rules, or organizing communities, so one can venture into the frontier do as one pleases. The success of the frontier in this traditional context is the establishment of rules, limitations, and organizing communities. To realize any value from the frontier, one needs to establish security, infrastructure, and clear boundaries. To establish these things, the frontier must be domesticated. As such, the opportunity represented by the frontier is its own destruction, or the destruction of those features characteristic of a frontier. 

Yesterday, the EFF released a formal objection to the inclusion of DRM in HTML5. While that sounds pretty technical, the base idea is straightforward. The short version is that there is a proposal to include usage control and digital rights management capabilities in the next version of the markup language used to create web pages and consequen…

A Brief, Non-Spoiling Review of Homeland

My partner and I just finished reading Cory Doctorow's young adult novel Homeland, our copy of which he kindly autographed for us at Octavia Books back in February. I can recommend the book without reservation, for young and old alike, but I wanted to focus on one particular merit. If you haven't read the book, what I am about to say shouldn't spoil anything, but does require taking in the whole of the book to appreciate, so hopefully it form an incentive to pick up and give it a shot. Since Cory Doctorow is also committed to free culture, you can find free copies of his books on his website. Try it for free, then buy one for a friend.

Anyway, in talking over Homeland with Tara, I decided that what I like most about it as a young adult novel is this: among other lessons the main character learns, the central theme is that he needs to learn to take control. Many of the main character's conflicts involve his reactive posture; the world happens to him, and he doesn't …

Obama: Stag Hunter

Yesterday, President Obama delivered an extended address on US national security status and policy. The main theme of his future-oriented policy emphasized the importance of foreign cooperation to long-term stability and security. Throughout the speech, Obama emphasized that the warlike posture the US has adopted since Sept 11, 2001, is doing more harm than good because it is much harder to build alliances. Instead of funneling money into combat/tactical programs, he argued that it makes more sense to funnel money into foreign aid, to build up good will, to support emerging democracies, and help other nations build up their infrastructure and economies. All of these things diffuse violent radicalism because individuals in a free society can focus on cultivating their own opportunities. There is no hopelessness which breed fear and anger, and without fear and anger, no one will be looking around for someone to blame.

To a philosopher, Obama has done a good job of channeling John Rawls. …

The obligation to BCC

Today I got a job-related rejection letter, delivered enmass to 151 candidates. I know it was 151 because the sender hit CC rather than BCC, so all of the recipients know. Furthermore, all of the recipients know who else was competing for the job, can look at their department profiles, and likely their CVs. For private individuals, academics tend to have a lot of Web presence, largely due to university/department websites. To a large extent, that's a good thing, but when combined with a leak like this one, that increased Web presence costs a good bit more privacy. Now, there are 151 candidates who get to take a peek at their competition, maybe stalk them on "the Facebook," maybe judge themselves and each other more harshly for it. At the same time, it is not unusual for departments to announce their new hires, so everyone also knows who got the job, enabling further judgement/comparison/stalking.

Situations like this really highlight how many informational trace…