Upcoming Book Forum: Jefferson’s Moose

You wouldn’t think that a book called In Search of Jefferson’s Moose could be about the Internet, but it is.

In his book, In Search of Jefferson’s Moose: Notes on the State of Cyberspace, Temple University Law Professor David Post draws remarkable and entertaining parallels between the Internet and the natural and intellectual landscape that Thomas Jefferson explored, documented, and shaped.

Post will be at the Cato Institute for a lunch-hour book forum on Wednesday, February 4th. Clive Crook and Jeffrey Rosen will comment.

Register here to see just how nicely Thomas Jefferson, cyberspace, and a rather large moose fit between the covers of Post’s new book.

Close Guantanamo Bay

In today’s Cato Daily Podcast, Legal Policy Analyst David H. Rittgers explains why President Obama’s order to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center will serve the fight against terrorism. Rittgers, who served three tours of service in Afghanistan as a special forces officer, says the move to close Gitmo couldn’t come at a better time.

In his own words:

Using closed courts to try suspected terrorists plays the propaganda game in exactly the way our enemies want, and cheapens American justice on the world stage. Terrorism and insurgency constitute violence with a message. To effectively counter terrorists, we must provide a message of our own that denies a propaganda victory to their cause. Meting sound and irreproachable justice is an important way to do that.

While serving as a Special Forces officer in Afghanistan, I took into account the Taliban’s propaganda purposes when planning operations. They didn’t need to kill us to win a small victory. They needed to shoot at us and run away to tell the tale, where fishing stories of exaggerated casualties could encourage ever larger groups of radicalized fighters to attack the Afghans and their American allies.

Solving the Evolution Question

The Texas state board of education is currently engaged in a debate over science standards and how to teach evolution in public schools, the Associated Press reports.

In a recent Cato policy analysis, Why We Fight: How Public Schools Cause Social Conflict [pdf], Associate Director of Education Policy Studies Neal McCluskey examines the root cause of the debate, and how to fix it.

McCluskey writes:

Ultimately, the problem in Texas isn’t whether or not the theory of evolution has weaknesses, or whether pointing to such weakness is religiously or scientifically motivated. The problem is that the public schooling system requires everyone in the state to fund schools that take a single view, resulting in divisive conflict in the short-term and erosion of liberty in the long. Add to this that government-mandated orthodoxy is inherently incompatible with free inquiry, and it is clear that what Texas needs isn’t to decide what everyone will learn, but how to give everyone the ability to choose where and how their children will be educated.

For more on solutions to America’s troubled education system, check out McCluskey’s book, Feds in the Classroom: How Big Government Corrupts, Cripples, and Compromises American Education.

The Future of Free Ice Cream and How to Stop It

I’m reading Jonathan Zittrain’s The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It, and I’m having a hard time granting plausibility to the book’s thesis. Zittrain writes as follows:

As ubiquitous as Internet technologies are today, the pieces are in place for a wholesale shift away from the original chaotic design that has given rise to the modern information revolution. This counterrevolution would push mainstream users away from a generative Internet that fosters innovation and disruption, to an appliancized network that incorporates some of the most powerful features of today’s Internet while greatly limiting its innovative capacity – and, for better or worse, heightening its regulability. (p. 8 )

As examples, he contrasts the Apple II, a classic of early personal computing, to the iPhone of today. The first is wide-open to outside development, insecure, not always dependable, and susceptible to hacking by both friendly and unfriendly parties. The second is sterile, secure, and, we are told, entirely under the thumb of a now much more sinister corporation. Unless we do something, that corporation’s control over information technology will, he believes, quickly morph into state control as well. Zittrain seeks a world that is open to the personal computer, which he views as as a device that enables a particular computing ethos – one of open, freewheeling exchange and innovation. The iPhone represents that world’s antithesis, and the beginning of the end of the Internet as we know it.

Although I’m certainly concerned about civil liberties and privacy issues on the Internet, I have a lot of questions about Zittrain’s thesis.

First, the example he uses is far from perfect. The Internet abounds with descriptions of iPhone hacks, many of them well-documented and remarkably successful. The menacing control exists, but it’s often a paper tiger. And although Apple didn’t originally publish an iPhone software development kit, it does now. So which one is it? Is the iPhone still not hacky enough? Or should we find another, better example? But the hacking community delights in finding supposedly uncrackable devices, and in cracking them – often within days of release. Offhand, I can’t think of a single recently released Internet-enabled device that someone hasn’t hacked. (Another of Zittrain’s purported bad examples, the Xbox 360, supports an avid hacking community, albeit with far less support from Microsoft. It isn’t a community for everyone, but then, hacking isn’t for everyone. Neither is macrame.)

Second, it seems pretty obvious that there’s room, and demand, for both kinds of devices, relatively secure and relatively open. It’s not got to be an all-or-nothing proposition. It’s not like “the Internet” is ever only going to be one thing. We can’t expect every user of every new device to master the very steep learning curves entailed by the wide-open do-it-yourself user interfaces that Zittrain clearly favors.

Some products will sell to some markets because they are relatively secure, common-sense, and uniform. Other products will sell to other markets because they are open to change, because they require high-level knowledge, and because with that knowledge comes the power to extensively modify the device itself, often at your own risk. So much the better – let everyone take their choice.

Indeed, the very same person may want devices at opposite ends of the continuum. A highly dedicated computer hobbyist, of the type who writes his own software or mods his store-bought devices in his spare time, might still want a reliable telephone for calling 911 in an emergency. (Given our now-extensive ability to mod the iPhone, this may simply entail buying a second iPhone.) We need not be afraid of any of this.

Nor need we be afraid of present trends toward greater security. Present trends do not necessarily continue indefinitely into the future. Indeed, they almost never do, and information technology is no exception to the rule. As Zittrain himself does a good job of documenting, there’s been quite an ebb and flow in approaches to information technology over the decades, from security to openness and back again. It puzzles me why he believes that today’s trend is somehow different.

Third, and most importantly, I don’t think that the relevant comparison is between the iPhone and the Apple II PC. A better comparison might be between the iPhone and the clunky, wall-bound telephones of 25 years ago: now these were sterile, non-generative devices, subject to command and control! It would be interesting to take an iPhone back in time, and show it to telephone users in 1984.

“Wow,” they’d say, “you people in the future must love all the creative outlets this thing allows you. Sound and video, games, even some kind of new paperless… letter-writing. Encrypted paperless letter-writing, if you wanted. You can talk to all your friends, set up appointments, read the news, or just spend all day tinkering around with it, kinda like we do with our Apple computers. To get all the same creative outlets, we’d have to buy maybe five or six different devices, all of them very expensive. And together they’d be big enough to take up a whole room of the house. But the iPhone fits in the palm of your hand!”

To which, we’d have to reply, “Yeah, but see, there’s this guy named Jonathan Zittrain, and he says it’s not ‘generative’ enough…”

The Guantanamo Bubble Pops

Within a day of Barack Obama’s inauguration, he has asked the military commissions judges to halt all trials in Guantanamo.  All indications point toward detainees being tried in federal courts.  This is a good decision for a couple of reasons.

First, the military commissions play into the propaganda game that terrorists thrive on.  It confirms their message that normal courts can’t address the threat that they pose.  In fact, the opposite is true.  When you convict a terrorist and lock him up with murderers and rapists, you take away his freedom fighter mystique.

Second, the trial of Omar Khadr was about to start.  Khadr fought alongside a band of Al Qaeda-affiliated terrorists and allegedly killed Special Forces medic Christopher Speer with a hand grenade.  Khadr deserves to be locked up, and letting his military commission trial start would create a Double Jeopardy issue if we interrupt the proceedings somewhere down the road and move him to federal court.

President Obama is also circulating a draft order for the closing of detainee operations at Guantanamo.  The memo sets a 12 month deadline for deciding whether to try, release, or continue holding each detainee.  Good move.

Cuba: 50 Years Later

January marks 50 years since the Cuban Revolution. In today’s Cato Daily Podcast, Project Coordinator for Latin America Juan Carlos Hidalgo discusses Fidel Castro’s takeover, the result of the revolution and offers advice to the Obama administration on reengaging with the small island nation.

“Cuba went from being one of the richest countries in Latin America to one of the poorest,” Hidalgo says. “After 50 years, the revolution has failed the Cubans.”

Behold Your Government in Action

The U.S. Senate is a busy place.  Lately it has been spending billions and billions over and above the trillions in unfunded liabilities.  Given all this activity, who would have imagined that the senators could find the time to pass a resolution about the emergency plane landing in the Hudson river in New York?

I’m not a historian or political science expert, but this Senate is clearly determined to be the very best we have ever had.  What a record pace they are setting!