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Author: Greg Lastowka


Signing off

With the end of April comes the end of my guest-blogging stint. Many thanks to all of the regular Concurring Opinions bloggers for sharing this space with me. I’ll be back often as a reader!


Signing Off

Well, it looks like my guest slot time is now up. So I’d like to thank Dan Solove and the rest of the Concurring Opinions bloggers for inviting me to hang my hat here over the holidays. This has been a great introduction for me to the “blawgosphere,” and it has been fun taking part in the opinionated conversations. You might not know this, but Dan, in addition to being a prominent legal scholar and writer of consistently thoughtful posts on CO, is really a fantastic and well-organized host to guest bloggers.

In retrospect, I’ll count it among my achievements here that I helped give critical mass to the new Wiki category of posts — and thanks to all the commenters here for all your thoughts. Good luck to the Concurring Opinions collective in 2006 — may you continue to ascend the Technorati rankings!


Welcome to the Google-Borg is running a banner headline today for an article: “Google becoming an auxiliary brain.” Here’s the article, and here’s the thesis of the reporter, Elizabeth Weise:

If we are the sum total of our knowledge and experiences, then the Internet is a collection of other people’s knowledge and experiences. And Google — so ubiquitous that it has become its own verb — allows us to tap into that collection.

I generally enjoyed reading this, and it’s way too easy to nitpick USA Today, but here are a few reactions:

1) It’s a pretty clear example of the cyborg trope isn’t it? Google isn’t billed as just a novel information source, like a television, it’s billed as a “brain” — a technological extension of human biology. And like the brain of the Star Trek Borg, it is a collective mind we now share. This collective brain-sharing is billed not as scary, but nifty.

2) Despite the excerpt above, if you read this, Google appears to be getting a great deal of credit for the Web itself. Throughout, Weise’s language makes this an article about Google as information repository, not as search provider. To be clear: Larry, Serge, and company built a great search tool that helps you find information that other people put on the Web (and one that hands you an advertisement along the way).

3) In somewhat of a contradiction, it appears that people who provide information on the Web are not to be trusted. Weise quotes a research librarian from Georgia:

And even when malicious intent isn’t the problem, mastery of a subject can be, says Jacobson. “The opinions that get heard are from people who have a lot of time to create websites, not necessarily the people with the best information.”

Can’t trust those people who have time to create websites, can you? Oh wait — isn’t that the definition of my Googlebrain? What is curious is that the answer seems to be no, because this comment doesn’t follow the discussion of Google, but… Wikipedia. So Wikipedia is less trustworthy than the Web (aka “Google”)? Oh well.

Further reading: Danah Boyd on the Seigenthaler fuss.


What Wikipedia Is (and Isn’t)

In light of the recent discussions here of Wikipedia, I’d like to throw in my two cents on the subject.

I like Wikipedia. In fact, I like it a lot. In fact, I have gone so far as to do what Eugene Volokh warned against — I’ve actually cited to Wikipedia. In fact, I cited to Wikipedia six times in a recently published law review article. (I’m not alone in this by any means–”wikipedia” gets over 200 hits on a Lexis search of law review articles, almost all of which are cites to entries.) In my case, I cited Wikipedia as a starting point for investigating personalities, such as John Mellencamp, Tom Clancy, and Marni Nixon. I’m aware that some of these entries contain certain inaccuracies, but I feel comfortable citing to them for reasons I’ll explain below. In the alternative, I suppose I could have cited to nothing (not very helpful to the reader) or cited to books (realistically, though, how many people would follow up on those cites?). Also, I should admit that, in part, I cite to Wikipedia sometimes because I hope some readers might take a look at Wikipedia and appreciate it for what it is. However, I’m not trying to deceive people about what Wikipedia is–it is, more or less, the Web, repackaged and reformatted.

In fact, before I cited to Wikipedia, I cited, on rare occasions and for very similar reasons, to web searches on Google for a specific term. (Again, I’m not alone in this, though the numbers of people who did this were smaller.) As far as I’m concerned, citing to a Wikipedia entry for Marni Nixon and a Google search for Marni Nixon are very nearly the same thing. Both are invitations to the reader to enter what you might call a “muddy information portal,” a messy and organic field of data that the citing author does not control, but feels would be helpful to the reader as a starting point for further research. Citing to something like that might be unorthodox, yes, but I don’t think it is beyond the pale.

To my mind, the difference between citing Wikipedia and citing a Web search is just a matter of the target’s format. When we search the Web, Google creates our “entry” on the fly with algorithms that prioritize popular and relevant websites. With Wikipedia, we have the dynamic of Web search somewhat inverted — creators with data they consider relevant to specific terms offer up that data to Wikipedia under a shared hosting umbrella in a common format (and with a commitment to collaboration). Due to this, Wikipedia entries generally look nicer. But other than that, Wikipedia and the World Wide Web are very nearly the same thing. Wikipedia’s openess, to both creation and revision, doesn’t guarantee much accuracy.

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New York Times on Gold Farming

gold.jpgThe New York Times carries a story today on gold farming activities in virtual worlds. “Gold farming” is the term used for acquiring virtual wealth within multi-player games like World of Warcraft and then selling it to other players for real cash. As the Times notes, it is a growing industry, despite the fact that the sales are usually in violation of the software contract of the games.

I mention this because exploring the legal issues raised by these environments has been a pet project of mine, and it has been interesting to see the popular media attention increasingly given to multi-player games as their demographics expand. In many ways, the predecessors of World of Warcraft were part of the impetus for the debates in the 1990′s over the growing importance of cyberlaw as a field for legal inquiry. For instance, William Mitchell’s City of Bits, about the construction of digital social spaces, is a book from 1994 that is well worth reading today.

If you want a crash course on the economics and society of virtual worlds, I’d recommend Virtual Worlds by Ted Castronova, Unreal Estate by Julian Dibbell, and this blog. For some thoughts on the legal dimensions, Dan Hunter and I have published two articles on point: The Laws of the Virtual Worlds and Virtual Crime. Among other writings on the topic are Virtual Property by Josh Fairfield and Virtual Liberty by Jack Balkin.

Even Judge Posner thinks this stuff is cool.


Searching the State

As a temporary diversion from discussions of state searches, you might want to search the state a bit — the State of the Union that is. Jonathan Corum has put together this pretty tool (explanation here) that allows you to pull up George Bush’s state of the union addresses and compare the number of instances where particular words are used. If you check a box, you can see the sentences in which the words appear. Here are some for starters:

George Bush on “terror” versus “taxes”

Bush on “evil” versus “freedom”

Washington, Lincoln, Reagan, and Clinton on “nation” v “state”

Perhaps readers can pull out some more interesting/humorous comparisons. Credit due to my RSS feed from the excellent information aesthetics blog.

p.s. Dan would probably be interested in this one from IA — a online GPS diary tracking the artist’s movements on various days.


AIBOs as Test Objects

aibo.jpgSherry Turkle teaches psychology at MIT, and is one of the leading scholars in the social dimensions of digital culture. Her book, Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet, was written in 1995 (an epoch ago in Internet years) but is still probably the most perceptive and well-written (in my opinion) treatments of the psychological dimensions of human-computer interaction. In it, Turkle quotes a statement by Emmerson that dreams and beasts are “test objects” — “two keys by which we are to find out the secrets of our nature.” Turkle adds computers as a new form of test object — she argues that in our attempts to negotiate the meaning of digital objects and spaces, we will face important decisions about who we are, individually and collectively.

As an interesting update to the “test object” notion, see this page from the University of Washington’s Value Sensitive Design Research Lab, and scroll down to the section on Human-Robotic Interaction. There is a wonderful set of papers on the way people relate to AIBOs — the electronic dogs that Sony manufactures. The AIBO is interesting because it is doubly a test object — a virtual dog. The researchers sample human interactions with the AIBO to assess how they differ from interactions with real dogs or inanimate (stuffed) dogs. For instance, do people perceive any ethical issues with regard to the treatment of a robotic dog? Most don’t, though some do. This is from a message board:

WHAT!? They Actualy THREW AWAY aibo, as in the GARBAGE?!! That is outragious! That is so sick to me! Goes right up there with Putting puppies in a bag and than burying them! OHH I feel sick…

But while (I think) most would agree it is silly to treat an AIBO even remotely like a dog, is there anything else to say about AIBO ethics? The authors state that AIBO owners seem to garner some of the psychological benefits of having a pet from a relationship with an AIBO — yet most feel entirely free to ignore it whenever is convenient or desirabe to do so. Which is interesting, considering that we’ll soon have generations of children growing up with richly interactive electronic companions as toys. What might they learn from the availability of such switch on/switch off “real” imaginary friends?

And if you want a legal-doctrinal spin on these questions, see Ian Kerr’s recent paper on e-commerce law: Bots, Babes and the Californication of Commerce: Are we tricked into buying things by electronic babes?


File-sharing & Social Capital

In the intellectual property / cyberlaw niche of the legal academy, I think it is fair to say that the litigation over Napster and Grokster has resulted in so much spilled ink that it is hard to keep up with the commentary. Indeed, while these are cases in my bailiwick, I never finished reading through the panoply of Grokster amicus briefs, much less all the law review articles on file-sharing.

What becomes quickly apparent from a skim of the literature, though, is that the policy questions entertained by lawyers in relation to file-sharing aren’t as interesting as they might be. Copyright is a doctrinally complex regime of statutes and caselaw. However, at its core, it presents a fairly simple policy story, one of economic incentives for greater production and distribution. In other words, through our legal policy lens, the song becomes a widget and the accepted policy goal becomes the production and distribution of more and more widgets. Thus, to the extent a complex legal doctrine permits it to come to the surface, the relevant policy question for file-sharing is whether it will provide the public with more or fewer song-widgets. It’s a bit disheartening that our intellectual property policy equates songs like American Pie, Hey Ya, and Toxic with three fungible barrels of crude oil–but perhaps judges, as Justice Holmes once opined, shouldn’t really be in the business of making artistic policy judgments.

As a result, though, what often gets left out of the myriad legal ponderings on file-sharing is the social dimension of the activity. This isn’t true across the board by any means — Rosemary Coombe, Mike Madison, and recent guest-blogger Joe Liu, for example, have written law review articles with a clear interest in how popular content “consumption” is actually something much more interesting than the term suggests. But because the legal doctrine of copyright rests on that reductive incentives story (with a constitutional basis), it likely seems to many legal scholars that there is little reason to pay attention to the cultural dimensions of intellectual property law.

That’s all by way of background to why I found this paper, presented at the CHI conference in April of this year, so interesting.

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