Reflections on Ownership, Access and Control

  • Written by Mike
  • November 16, 2015

I was recently listening to episode 12 of the Singularity Bros podcast. In that one, they used something we talked about in Ep 211 - #InternetFAIL as a starting point. In our episode, I’d mentioned listening to one of their early episodes (ep1, I think) about this idea that ownership as a concept is on the way out. I’d taken a bit of an exception to that idea, which is mainly rooted in the copyright debate. So, in their episode 12, the Bros had some interesting follow up thoughts that I wanted to think through a bit more, and maybe clarify the thing about this concept, of ownership going away, that really worries me.

What is Ownership? I think there are really two components to it. One is definitely what the Bros seemed to focus on, which is to say Access. If you have Access to something, isn’t that an effective replacement for the idea of ownership? It’s an intriguing idea… but I think it’s missing something which is really at the heart of my worry about this issue. That missing piece is Control. Control has been under assault for a long time now, via technology. I remember the very first VCRs, that didn’t have any copy protection on them, you could even chain them together to make copies of officially released movies. In other words, once you bought that movie, you could do whatever you wanted with it, and there really wasn’t anything that anyone could do about it. Of course, pretty quickly the copyright lobby went after that idea. At first, via the law, they limited you to “home viewing” rights. So, in other words you were allowed to purchase the movie, but it was for use in your home. You couldn’t take it to a public place and show it.

Due to the previous existence of movie theaters, this certainly seemed like a reasonable restriction. In return for having your own personal copy of a movie, you weren’t to show it in public, in competition with theaters. Fine. But they haven’t stopped there. If your kids were a bit destructive, and rather than risk your purchased copy, say you decided to make a backup copy for them to watch, while keeping the original safe. That method would require the aforementioned daisy-chaining (although there were always rumors of “double-decker” VCRs that did that automatically), but it was workable. Enter technology. Eventually trying to do this would result in a copy of essentially nothing, with the advent of copy protection. And thus really began the game of copyright “whack-a-mole” that continues today.

You Don't Own That!

  • Written by Matt
  • July 1, 2015

The great thing about America used to be that if you could dream it, you could build it.  If you had a vision to start a business, the only thing standing in your way was you.  You still have that ability, the only difference is now you don’t really own that dream.  What do I mean?  Based on current laws and court rulings you don’t really own anything, you merely rent it and it can all be taken away from you at the whim of the government.

There are now 3 main laws that have been twisted and used by the government in order to take what you have worked for or in some cases let you know that you never owned it to begin with.  There’s eminent domain, which the Supreme Court ruled can take your privately owned property and give it to another private citizen or company.  Then there are civil asset forfeiture laws, which say the government can take your belongings for a crime, but they don’t have to charge you with a crime or even prove you are guilty of said crime.  All they have to do is say we believe you might have committed a crime and then take all you own. The final piece to the puzzle is the DMCA, which stand for the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  This law is used to sue consumers for items that they have purchased but the manufacturer doesn’t approve of how you are using it. All of these laws are being twisted and manipulated by the government and corporations in order to take what you own and there is little you can do to stop them.

Eminent domain laws have always had a place and purpose in our society.  They were originally designed so that if they government needed to build a road or other project for the public good, they could buy your property at fair market value.  Now these laws are being used to force you to sell your property so that the government can give it to a private developer.  These developers then tear down the existing structures and build something they deem better.  This all came to a head with the Supreme Court case of Kelo vs. City of New London, when the Supreme Court ruled this was all perfectly legal.  I highly recommend reading about that case if you have the time.  When all was said and done, essentially the city lost $78 million and the property that they forced their residence to sell is still vacant to this day.  So do you really own something if the government can force you to sell it and then give what you worked and paid for to someone else?

Point: Minimum Wage

  • Written by Matt
  • June 10, 2015

NOTE: This is the first article in a series of two. You can find the second post here.

There has been a lot of talk lately about raising the minimum wage across the country.  We’ve heard rumblings of this in the past, but never this loudly.  Certain cities and states are looking at raising the minimum wage to anywhere from $15-$20 per hour.  While I know to a lot of people this sounds like a great idea, there are some serious consequences to raising the hourly wage of unskilled workers to that extent.

Labor is a commodity, just like anything else and because it is a commodity, the more it costs the less demand there will be for it.  For most things, the more they cost the less you sell, this is why Toyota sells a lot more Corollas than Porsche sells 911s.  The same is true for the commodity of labor, the more it costs to hire an employee, the less demand there will be.   If you increase the cost of labor it will encourage more companies to automate and discard the employee all together. Restaurants and a lot of other industries already work on a thin profit margin and increasing their cost of doing business will have then doing one of three things. Pass the cost on to the customer, employ less people or close the doors.  The first option usually means less customers and last 2 options obviously equate to less jobs. 

Mike and I have talked on Robot Overlordz about one of the issues with futuristic Sci-Fi movies is that they change one component of the future and everything else stays the same.    For example there may be a movie set in the future and there are self-driving cars, but the movie makes no other changes to the future, just the self-driving cars.  The same can be said of people who are advocating raising the minimum wage, they act as if only the wage will rise and nothing else will change.  Let’s look at it like this:

I’ll break this down and show why this won’t work given the sci-fi movie idea above.  Right now a McDonalds worker makes about $8 an hour and a regular burger at McDonalds costs about $1.  Let’s say we give the McDonalds worker $15 an hour.  We also have to pay the person working at the bakery that makes the burger buns a raise to $15 an hour.  We also have to give the people working at the slaughter house a raise, plus the woman making the pickles, the people at the factory making the ketchup and mustard all get raises too.  All of that cost gets passed down to the consumer, so you are left with a burger that was $1 and is now $2.  This not only affects the fast food industry, but every industry in the country.  That $15 an hour only gets you as far as your current salary of $8 an hour because the cost of literally everything just went up.  What happens to people making a salary that aren’t given cost of living increases?  They are making the same salary, however the prices they pay for everything has just increased across the board.

CounterPoint: Minimum Wage

  • Written by Mike
  • June 10, 2015

NOTE: This is the second article in a series of two. You can find the first post here.

OK… where to begin? When he wrote his post on the Minimum Wage, Matt assumed that I would disagree with him. Here’s the thing… I think he gets things half-right. But unfortunately, that means there are some things that he gets wrong. So this post is a response. It’s also an attempt to explain my own thinking on this, and why my conclusion on the issue of the minimum wage is… complicated. I’ll apologize right now for being a bit on the “mansplain-y” side of things. But I think if you stick with this, you’ll see why I’m writing this in the way below…

First things first. I think we need to better define our terms, so that we can in fact KNOW we’re talking about the same things. Matt’s post started off with an assertion, “Labor is a commodity, just like anything else and because it is a commodity, the more it costs the less demand there will be for it.”

In fact, labor is NOT a commodity, although I do agree that we often treat it as if it is. I have to admit, this jumped out at me right away. Because if you treat labor as a commodity, then Matt’s argument makes perfect sense. But if you don’t… it changes the parameters a lot.

Book Review - Nexus

  • Written by Mike
  • May 20, 2015

One of my favorite recent science fiction series has been Ramez Naam’s Nexus Trilogy (published by Angry Robot Books). We just recently read the first book (Nexus) in a bookclub that I’m a member of, so I thought since it was fresh in my mind, I’d do a quick review here.

Summary:

In the near future, the experimental nano-drug Nexus can link humans together, mind to mind. There are some who want to improve it. There are some who want to eradicate it. And there are others who just want to exploit it. When a young scientist is caught improving Nexus, he's thrust over his head into a world of danger and international espionage - for there is far more at stake than anyone realizes. From the halls of academe to the halls of power; from the headquarters of an elite agency in Washington DC to a secret lab beneath Shanghai; from the underground parties of San Francisco to the illegal biotech markets of Bangkok; from an international neuroscience conference to a remote monastery in the mountains of Thailand - Nexus is a thrill ride through a future on the brink of explosion.

Review:

Ramez envisions the titular Nexus as a brain-enhancing technology, that effectively makes a person into a transhuman -- literally connected mentally to a programmable interface to their own body. Of course this includes connectivity to others running the same OS. The main character and his close associates have developed a way to run an operating system (OS) on this nano-drug, which allows all kinds of tweaks and applications. Ramez grounds his story in the very believable reaction of governments and leaders to restrict and control these new technologies. The parallels to how our actual history has played out, with regards to the War On Terror and the War On Drugs, as well as any number of minor panics and outrage campaigns, from the PMRC to comics causing juvenile delinquencies, are astounding. That just felt absolutely realistic to me and was one of the main reasons that the story drew me in so quickly.