Think tanks wrap-up

May 27, 2003 at 2:51 PM
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WASHINGTON, May 27 (UPI) -- The UPI think tank wrap-up is a daily digest covering opinion pieces, reactions to recent news events and position statements released by various think tanks. This is the first of two wrap-ups for May 27. Contents: Get rid of antiquated FCC limits; DARPA's super-biography project.

The Cato Institute

WASHINGTON -- The big media boogyman

by Adam Thierer and Clyde Wayne Crews Jr.

A heated debate over the relaxation of media ownership rules that artificially restrict media business activities is set to culminate in a June 2 ruling by the Federal Communications Commission.

Consumer groups already decry what they see as growing media concentration or even monopolization, and caution that our democracy is somehow at risk of being dictated to by a handful of media barons. How real are these fears?

In reality, the media are less concentrated and more competitive today than they were 30 years ago. And consumers are unambiguously better off. Consider two families, circa 1973 versus 2003, and the media and entertainment options available to them.

The 1973 family could flip through three major network television stations, or tune in to a PBS station or a UHF channel or two. By compassion, today's families can take advantage of a 500-plus channel universe of cable and satellite-delivered options, order movies on demand, and check out a variety of specialized news, sports, or entertainment programming -- in addition to those same three networks.

Or, these hypothetical families could just listen to the radio together. Seven thousand stations existed in 1970 nationwide to choose from. Today more than 13,000 stations exist and subscription-based music services are delivered nationwide and uninterrupted via digital satellite.

And then, of course, there's the Internet and the astonishing cornucopia of communications, information, and entertainment services the World Wide Web offers today's families. In the media Dark Ages of 1973, it would have taken a great deal of time and money to publish your own newsletter. Today, the Internet gives every man, woman, and child the ability to be a one-person publishing house or broadcasting station, and communicate with the entire planet.

Instead of going to the library to retrieve information, as our hypothetical 1973 family might have done, today the library comes to us as the Net puts a world of information at our fingertips. While the 1973 family could read the local newspaper together, today's families can view thousands of newspapers from communities across the planet.

And the list goes on: video recorders, DVD players, interactive TVs and cell phones, MP3 players, and a seemingly endless array of other portable/wireless computing and communications devices are available to us today that the families of 1973 only dreamed of, or saw in a "Star Trek" episode.

But while America's mass media marketplace is evolving rapidly, the same cannot be said for the regime of rules that govern it, which are stuck in regulatory time warp. Federal regulations that limit how much of the national market can be served by broadcast and cable companies, or prevent a company from owning a newspaper and television station in the same market, or prohibit a television network from buying another network, should be abolished. Why should media companies be forced to play by a distinct set of random ownership rules that we impose on no other industry?

These rules have become historic anachronisms that ignore new market conditions and the intense competition for our eyes and ears. Indeed, far from living in a world of "information scarcity" that some fear, we now live in a world of information overload. The number of information and entertainment options at our disposal has almost become overwhelming and most of us struggle to figure out ways to filter and manage all the information we can choose from in an average day.

It is important to keep such facts in mind when debating changes to the archaic media ownership rules that the FCC is considering revising. Even as the underlying business structures and relationships in this industry continue to change, the one undeniable reality of our modern media marketplace is that information and entertainment are commodities that cannot be monopolized. Accordingly, the FCC should relegate these outdated media ownership rules to the dustbin of telecom history.

(Adam Thierer is the director of telecommunications studies and Clyde Wayne Crews is the director of technology studies at the Cato Institute and the authors of "What's Yours Is Mine: Open Access and the Rise of Infrastructure Socialism," Cato Institute, 2003.)

The Reason Foundation

LOS ANGELES -- My LifeLog, and yours: Military curiosity and the tragic sense of life

Charles Paul Freund

"The Pentagon," writes Noah Shachtman in Wired, "is about to embark on a stunningly ambitious research project designed to gather every conceivable bit of information about a person's life, index all the information and make it searchable."

"Stunningly ambitious" seems an understatement. The proposed program is another total-data brainchild of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, and is called LifeLog. DARPA is soliciting proposals "to develop an ontology-based (sub)system that captures, stores, and makes accessible the flow of one person's experience in and interactions with the world in order to support a broad spectrum of associates/assistants and other system capabilities. The objective of this 'LifeLog' concept is to be able to trace the 'threads' of an individual's life in terms of events, states, and relationships."

I like that: The Pentagon, in a fit of ontological yearning, wants to be able to capture a given person's "experience in and interactions with the world," actually "to trace the 'threads' of an individual's life," to access his or her "states."

Wired's Shachtman brings it down to earth: LifeLog "would dump everything an individual does into a giant database: every e-mail sent or received, every picture taken, every Web page surfed, every phone call made, every TV show watched, every magazine read." Further data -- you can never have enough data -- would come from global positioning gear, biomed monitors, audio-visual sensors, etc.

The feds seem to be in another of their omniscient moods. The current military fascination with cognitive systems -- "systems that know what they're doing," as the Information Processing Technology Office helpfully puts it -- is reminiscent, if only in an ontological sort of way, of the CIA's Cold War fascination with the chimera of mind control. Of course, in those heady days of Manchurian candidacy, all the CIA accomplished was to damn its informational soul by hitching it to such mad-scientist types as Donald Ewen Cameron.

LifeLog may be just as hopeless a project as were the variations on so-called brainwashing, but it does seems a good deal more literary. Among other problems, it will necessitate the development not only of new research tools, but of new kinds of researchers, too. What this project needs is not mad scientists, but mad biographers.

The notion that peoples' lives actually have had the narrative shape that is reflected in their biographies is one of our more pleasant cultural delusions. Don't get me wrong: the biographical impulse has been a praiseworthy one since Plutarch; there are no doubt many benefits to be gained from the careful study of other's lives. But a comprehensive understanding of those lives, gleaned from whatever documentary detritus happens to be available, is probably not one of them.

Biographers may be able to tell you what their subjects did and when, and what some of the consequences turned out to be. But they can rarely if ever tell you why their subjects did anything. (People themselves frequently have no idea why they made any given choice.) Yet LifeLog, with its desire to identify a life's threads and access its states, seems to be premised on just these points of mystery.

Lifelog's answer to the problem of biographical mystery seems to be to have lots and lots more documentary detritus. In fact, virtually unlimited detritus. But if you bury a life's salient facts, threads, and states (I'm assuming with the Pentagon that there are some) in an infinite pile of life's garbage, have you solved the problem or compounded it? I'll confess to this much: If the Pentagon succeeds in extracting meaning from infinite biographical junk, I might actually consider hooking myself up to LifeLog's spygear (or, once it's nanoteched, letting them implant it).

But I suspect a different outcome is at least as likely. LifeLog's solicitation proposal probably should have made me think of some cautionary tale from a genius of paranoia like, say, Philip K. Dick. In fact, it put me in mind of that genius of misanthropy, Nathanael West, especially his famous 1933 novel, "Miss Lonelyhearts." In that work, a newspaperman is assigned to write the advice-to-the-lovelorn column. What happens is that the daily avalanche of misery and unhappiness he encounters eventually unhinges him.

Now, reader, if LifeLog's researchers examine the threads and states of your life and mine, they will find nothing but purposefulness, singularity of mind, unending achievement, growth, progress, and triumph over every challenge. But not everyone is like us. I suspect that the Pentagon's project, if successful, will create a lot of Miss LifeLogs who will spend their days examining threads and states of disappointment, deceit, self-delusion, compromise, frustration, guilt, regret, and other such research subjects.

That may or may not unhinge any of them, but perhaps the real findings of the military's cognitive specialists will be that the world is filled with data that they'd just as soon not collect at all.

(Charles Paul Freund is a Reason senior editor.)

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