Category: Technology

The Second Machine Age & the System of Professions

Why do we have professions? Many economists give a public choice story: guilds of doctors, social workers, etc., monopolize a field by bribing legislators to keep everyone else out of the guild.* Some scholars of legal ethics buy into that story for our field, too.

But there is another, older explanation, based on the need for independent judgment and professional autonomy. Who knows whether a doctor employed by a drug company could resist the firm’s requirement that she prescribe its products off-label as often as possible. With independent doctors, there is at least some chance of pushback. Similarly, I’d be much more confident in the conclusions of a letter written by attorneys assessing the legality of a client’s course of action if that client generated, say, 1%, rather than 100%, of their business.

Andrew Abbott’s book The System of Professions makes those, and many other, critical points about the development of professions. Genuine expertise and independent judgment depend on certain economic arrangements. For Abbott, the professions exist, in part, to shield certain groups from the full force of economic demands that can be made by those with the most money or power. As inequality in the developed world skyrockets, and the superrich at the very top of the economy accumulate vastly more wealth than the vast majority of even the best-paid professionals, such protections become even more urgent.

I was reminded of Abbott’s views while reading Lilly Irani’s excellent review of Erik Brynjolffson & Andrew McAfee’s The Second Machine Age, and Simon Head’s Mindless. Irani, a former Googler, digs into the real conditions of work at leading firms of the digital economy. She observes that much of what we might consider “making” (pursuant to some professional standards) is a form of “managing:”
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Methodological Pluralism in Legal Scholarship

The place of the social science in law is constantly contested. Should more legal scholars retreat to pure doctrinalism, as Judge Harry Edwards suggests? Or is there a place for more engagement with other parts of the university? As we consider these questions, we might do well to take a bit more of a longue duree perspective–helpfully provided by David Bosworth in a recent essay in Raritan:

No society in history has more emphasized the social atom than ours. Yet the very authority we have invested in individualism is now being called into question by both the inner logic of our daily practices and by the recent findings of our social sciences. . . .

Such findings challenge the very core of our political economy’s self-conception. What, after all, do “self-reliance” and “enlightened self-interest” really mean if we are constantly being influenced on a subliminal level by the behavior of those around us? Can private property rights continue to seem right when an ecologically minded, post-modern science keeps discovering new ways in which our private acts transgress our deeded boundaries to harm or help our neighbors? Can our allegiance to the modern notions of ownership, authorship, and originality continue to make sense in an economy whose dominant technologies expose and enhance the collaborative nature of human creativity? And in an era of both idealized and vulgarized “transparency,” can privacy—-the social buffer that cultivates whatever potential for a robust individualism we may actually possess—-retain anything more than a nostalgic value?

These are provocative questions, and I don’t agree with all their implications. But I am very happy to be part of an institution capable of exploring them with the help of computer scientists, philosophers, physicians, social scientists, and humanists.

I suppose Judge Edwards would find it one more symptom of the decadence of the legal academy that I’ll be discussing my book this term at both the Institute for Advanced Studies of Culture at UVA and at MAGIC at the Rochester Institute of Technology. But when I think about who might be qualified to help lawyers bridge the gap between policy and engineering in the technology-intensive fields I work in, few might be better than the experts at MAGIC. The fellows and faculty at IASC have done fascinating work on markets and culture–work that would, ideally, inform a “law & economics” committed to methodological pluralism.
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The Black Box Society: Interviews

My book, The Black Box Society, is finally out! In addition to the interview Lawrence Joseph conducted in the fall, I’ve been fortunate to complete some radio and magazine interviews on the book. They include:

New Books in Law

Stanford Center for Internet & Society: Hearsay Culture

Canadian Broadcasting Corporation: The Spark

Texas Public Radio: The Source

WNYC: Brian Lehrer Show.

Fleishman-Hillard’s True.

I hope to be back to posting soon, on some of the constitutional and politico-economic themes in the book.

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3D Printing Helps Yale Student Create Beer Bottle Pipe Organ?

Apparently, a Yale student has used 3D printing to create a beer bottle keyboard. Blowing across the top of a bottle to create sounds it not new. This student created a keyboard “of 12 beer bottles, which are set up in 2 rows, one consisting of 7 bottles and the other 5.” But when tried the get compressed air to make the same sound as a human mouth, the outcome failed. He needed a way to mimic a mouth. He “took several pictures of himself blowing air into the bottles. He then used SolidWorks to model the opening for each ‘mouthpiece’. Once modeled he used an Stratasys Objet 30Pro 3D printer to print out 12 of these nozzle attachments. The problem was solved!” Cool idea, difficult problem, yet now able to solve on your own: this 3D moment is fun example of the way the technology is opening up more creation and shifting the ability not only to design a solution but make one at a local or individual level.

I wonder how many cool new things will emerge in six to twelve months from now after all 3D printers for the holidays gifts are opened and played with. We’ll see. Whether these inventors will also file more patents on things like this students mouthpiece will also be interesting. For now, I’m happy to see fun, odd stuff being created.

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CIV!!! Or How Simulations May Help Government and Personal Choices

Could Civilization and the SIMs be part of a better informed future? I loved Civilization and played way too many hours of it in college. Turns out that the Colombian government has developed “computer games which are designed to teach pre-teenagers to make sensible choices about everything from nutrition to gang membership.” I wonder whether running a simulation of choices and outcomes over and over would shape behaviors or teach other gaming instincts. For example, most people might find that if they follow certain paths they end up in safe, but relatively happy middle class life and retirement. Heck, the game, Life, was a truly random version of what growing up is (then again maybe everything is so stochastic that Life is correct to rely on the spin of a wheel to see whether one is a doctor or teacher or has kids). Still, a game that reinforced the experience of putting money away now, not having it to play with, but having savings in retirement, i.e., the tradeoffs were more palpable, might sensitize people to choices. I never played SIMs, only Sim City, but if SIMs lets you smoke, take drugs, drink too much, have unsafe sex, etc. and gain near term rewards but then find that the long-term payoffs were poor, that would be interesting. Of course, some outcomes might be you’re a superstar who dies early or worse ends up on a horrid reality show. And, many may say “I was a wild child, had a blast, and ended up on T.V.? Cool!”

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Fusion and the Firm

Lockheed Martin claims it is closing in a fusion reactor. Such claims pop up often enough to be dismissed. Yet as the Economist notes Lockheed Martin is asserting that its design could be viable in 10 years rather than previous claims by others which tended to be 30 years. One random, nice thing about being at GA Tech is that when I first read about the claim, I happened to meet a PhD student who was studying nuclear engineering on the campus tram. He confirmed that the approach is known. He was skeptical but agreed it was promising. And that is where the firm comes in. Apparently Lockheed Martin has gone public, because to get the design to production will require the help of folks outside the firm. The researcher, Dr. McGuire, “thinks his design could deliver a 100MW reactor (able to power 80,000 homes) of about 7 metres in diameter, weighing less than 1,000 tonnes. Indeed, smaller versions might fit on a large lorry.” It may be a pipe dream, and with oil on a free fall, investment in new energy sources may seem less attractive. Still, if the idea is percolating in private and public arenas and the payoff is a clean, less expensive, renewable energy source, that would be amazing. I recall just after President Clinton left office and was on Letterman, he said if he were an oil country, he’d be thinking of energy, not oil, as the industry of the the future. Rather smart insight. Seems others are paying attention, but that works too.

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Yahoo! and YouTube

Mozilla switched to using Yahoo! for its search engine, and so I noticed something about how it shows YouTube results; something that may upset YouTube aka Google. When I was writing about lightsabers and 3D printing, I wanted to embed a clip from Return of the Jedi. The search on Yahoo! showed me a potential clip. I hit play to confirm that. It was good for my needs. I looked for the embed code, and it wasn’t there. There was a share button up top, but for the full page and codes, I had to go to the YouTube page. Now that is what happens when one embeds a YouTube video. But I wonder whether YouTube posters will be upset (or maybe even YouTube/Google) to find that a rival search engine maybe undercutting them. For example, it seems, I stress seems as I ran only one test, that a YouTube video that has an ad before a video lacks that ad when on Yahoo! Banner ads seem to be present on both, but they differ. I am guessing Google gets to serve those and maybe they vary depending on where the video is served. That would make sense given the targeting should vary depending on where the video is shown. Still if Yahoo! is taking content and showing it on its site, perhaps making money that way too (or at least keeping it from the Goog), will we see a replay of the early Internet cases on framing, diversion, etc., but with Google as the plaintiff? If so, is that an ironic moment where some folks will be saying Google just got Googled (i.e., I am thinking certain industries see being “Googled” as something other than being searched for; hey that may show that the whole genericisim question is less of an issue.).

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Hello Stigler: Google Trusted Stores, Amazon, and Price Discrimination

Hello, Stigler. Matchmaking and advertising are Google’s forte. It has upped its game. Never to leave things as they are, Google has been rolling out a trusted vendor system. I noticed the service for a company that I cannot recall. Not a good sign for the company, but then again I don’t notice Amazon third parties either. If Google can use algorithms and other options such as requiring applications by vendors to be part of a trusted network of retailers, that change could be huge. There are, however, some issues.

First, Amazon should keep an eye on this program as it might be the first one to challenge Amazon’s excellent third party system. For that to be a true threat, Google will have to find a way to protect customers. Amazon has been great, in my experience, when it comes to protecting me while I deal with sellers far away and sometimes dubious. It does not give away my credit card etc. So if a lemon is in play, Amazon covers me. I assume it takes a fee for being the broker. Google customer service may have to evolve, if it is to match Amazon. A series of online, automated loops that end up hitting walls will make me stay with Amazon. But as Google gets better at identifying good sellers and protecting consumers, the service may work well. In addition, the play should feed into Google’s foray into ecommerce. Again if it can aid in delivery and resolve poor third party service, Google could do quite well in this space.

Second, will search results be influenced by participation in the program? On the one hand, I’d love results that lead to better sellers. Heck if Amazon or eBay ratings figured into Google results and improved knowing whether an ad or listed result was trust-worthy, that’d be great. Then again, right or wrong, I expect Google watchers/haters/worriers will argue that Google has promoted results unfairly. As long as a company can go through certification, it seems that argument should fail. I imagine Amazon, eBay, and others require some level of clearance to be in their system. Regardless of purveyor, it seems systems that are relatively low-cost (or maybe free except for time to fill out forms) to join and then are monitored should be embraced. In other words, Yelp etc. are near useless to me. Crowds are not as smart as folks think. As the great agent Kay in Men in Black said, “A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals and you know it.” More ways to improve how each of us, separately, evaluates options would be welcome, and plays to the way we each are capable of being smart. Options that limit us and feed echoes of dubious sources, behaviors, and beliefs, I’d like to avoid.

So we’ll see whether Google can one-up Amazon in connecting buyers and sellers. If so, I may buy more LPs and who knows what from folks I will never meet. And prices should be more competitive. Of course, that will be so until Christmas hits. Then as happened this year, prices may go up. But hey, Amazon listed the MSRP and connected me to a retailer whose markup combined with Amazon shipping worked for a gift to my niece. That was great. Wait, did I just agree with perfect price discrimination?!!? Damn, you Goog! and Amazon! Or is that Happy Holidays! I got what I wanted without fighting through stores.

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Goliath aka Google aka No Surprises in Hollywood versus Silicon Valley

This just in: Hollywood hates/fears/plots against Google! The Sony security breach and following leaks have yielded many insights, sort of. If anyone thought Hollywood executives were discrete, that was naive and now debunked. If anyone thought most people knew not to use work email for personal business, that too is shown false. (I am continually amazed at how many law professors have thought it “odd” or “paranoid” that I use different emails for work and non-work communication). And yes, Hollywood aka the copyright industry is quite savvy and plots ways to go after its competitors and/or threats. The revealed emails do show the details of the plans and that there was a code word, Goliath, for Google (which I take as a place holder for Silicon Valley). All of which seems very Dr. Evil. But let’s be clear. Strategies to go after state attorneys general or legislators and to push negative news stories are endemic. They are endemic to Hollywood, telecoms, Silicon Valley, Wall Street, pharmaceuticals, and really any major industry. I am not saying that these practices are great or that policy is well-made from them. But they are real and should be understood. And, for those interested in the open Internet debates there are some other lessons. If you thought SOPA was the end, think again.

Vigilance and support for many companies and groups that support your issue (regardless of what it is) matters. The game is afoot. It will not end. Disclosure moment: Yes, I worked at Google in the policy group, and I have also worked on a political campaign. And one thing that I know from my experience and research (check Jessica Litman’s work on the copyright industry for a great lesson in this industry’s ability to play the game) is that if ideas come from only one entity, they seem weak. For better or worse, trade groups, NGOs, etc. matter. I prefer those that are independent and offer some nuances, but overall the concerted voices of many can be powerful. No matter what issue you wish to see succeed, backing only one entity dilutes the power of the idea or makes it seem like one company or group is crying over its lot in life. Some other post may get into the public choice issues here. But for now, the Sony leaks show that nothing much has changed. “The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose. The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again according to his circuits.” Ecclesiastes, 1:5-6.

Hollywood will always lobby for its interests and so will everyone else. “So it goes.”

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Let the Games Begin! Lightsabers, 3D Printing, and Jedi Skills

Toys are a big area for 3D printing, and now someone is printing prototype lightsabers from a fleeting image in a trailer for the new Star Wars movie. As Gerard and I argue in Patents, Meet Napster: 3D Printing and the Digitization of Things, “Advances in 3D printing technology are launching an Industrial Counter-Revolution, and the laws governing the way things are made will need to make peace with the reality of digitized objects and on-demand fabrication.” These Hollywood-inspired designs may end up a case study for the ideas and issues we raise in the article. After all, Lucasfilm had a history of strong IP enforcement as does Disney, the new owner of the Star Wars franchise. And George Lucas is famous for having negotiated the merchandising rights to Star Wars and making a fortune from that revenue stream. There is, arguably, much at stake.

So will Disney try to stop this fun? If so, who will the target be? Thingiverse, a repository for 3D printing files? FDM, the company that makes the printer hardware? The source of the PLA filament (the materials for the object)? What about the tinkering that has come from just a brief view of the new lightsaber (it has a crossguard which has caused online debates about that design)? The designers at le FabShop offer:

As Makers, we couldn’t help but try to find out by ourselves if this “crossguard” design was a good configuration or not… So we decided to build one, with our army of 3D printers. Of course, the “darkness” of the movie sequence and the lack of details on the weapon itself left a lot of place for imagination and interpretation.

A dozen of 3D printable lightsabers being already available for download on internet, we decided to make one that would be completely customizable. The modular system we invented makes hundreds of configurations possible. From Yoda’s lightsaber to Darth Maul’s.

To me that sounds like some creative work and cool ways to let people play with designs to come up with a range of lightsabers. Of course, others might disagree (as I might if I were the corporation trying to make money selling the merchandise).

Then again, as we say in the article, “Advances in 3D printing technology are launching an Industrial Counter-Revolution, and the laws governing the way things are made will need to make peace with the reality of digitized objects and on-demand fabrication.” So maybe the Disney/Lucasfilms folks will work with these tinkerers and fans. Streamed official lightsabers might be possible. Or a customized lightsaber shop at Disney stores or even in licensed partnership with le FabShop would be great. If so, someone like me is more likely to order that specialized toy for me and for others as a gift and thus rely on expertise and safe materials a bit more than designing my own lightsaber.

Wait, designing my own lightsaber? That was evidence that Luke’s Jedi skills were complete. Maybe I need to get to work on that. Thank you le FabShop!