Emerging Ideas Short Takes: September/October 2007

Can’t Stop the Hate?

It’s a familiar excuse among online content providers, who have yet to see serious regulation or agree on standards of decency for the digital commons: ‘There’s just so much content, we can’t possibly review it all!’ Small wonder, then, that the particularly loathsome propaganda spewed by neo-Nazis and white supremacists would find a comfortable existence on seemingly anarchic video-sharing websites like YouTube. As of January, according to Intelligence Report (Spring 2007), some 12,000 highlight reels from hate-rock concerts, pseudodocumentaries on Holocaust denial, and videos on the history of the Ku Klux Klan were readily available, and some had been watched up to 132,000 times. Even though YouTube’s guidelines already ban hate speech, and civil rights organizations have asked the Google-owned website to remove racist content as a matter of course, they claim that reviewing the sheer volume of videos posted each day (some 65,000) is not feasible, so material is removed only if a user complains.

According to Extra! (March/April 2007), however, Google’s AdSense service, which places virtual advertisements on thousands of websites and blogs, already uses ‘sensitivity filters’ to ensure that promotions don’t appear next to controversial material. On some news sites, for instance, Google-sponsored ads quickly disappear when stories about rape, pornography, or even bombings in Iraq are posted. So while the technology to police offensive material is out there, at present only paying clients deserve the courtesy.

Destination Antigua: E-bootleggers’ Paradise

Las Vegas may have met its match in the tiny island of Antigua, at least when it comes to raising the stakes on government bureaucracy. In March, the World Trade Organization ruled in favor of Antigua, which argued that the United States’ Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act violates global trade agreements because it exempts domestic gambling interests, such as state lotteries and horse racing, and targets offshore Internet gambling operations–many of them Antigua-based. Reason (July 2007) reports that the United States is expected to simply ignore the WTO’s ruling, spurring the Caribbean country to plan a possible retaliation. By ignoring U.S. copyright law, Antigua could, if it secures WTO permission, transform itself into a haven for film, music, and software pirates, using servers based on its shores to spread U.S. intellectual property around the globe. This would pit America’s powerful entertainment industry against those who pushed the gambling law through Congress.

Other groups are using more traditional (read: litigious) means to reach the same ends. In June, the Interactive Media Entertainment & Gaming Association filed a lawsuit against the federal government seeking to stop the United States from enforcing the law, which prevents U.S. credit card companies and banks from processing payments to online gambling businesses, calling it a violation of both constitutional rights and international treaties.

Robots Programmed to Seduce Coeds

Enrollment in undergraduate computer science programs is on the decline, especially among women, whose numbers plummeted 70 percent between 2000 and 2005. Universities across the country are trying to stanch the downturn by dropping prerequisites, instituting mentoring programs, and, in some cases, using interactive technology to give introductory classes a bit more sex appeal. A joint project at Georgia Tech and Bryn Mawr College, profiled in the Chronicle of Higher Education (June 1, 2007), has introduced brightly colored, wheeled bots called Scribblers into the curriculum. The reasoning is that basic programming, assumed to be a concept more familiar to men, will be less intimidating to women if there’s an opportunity to interface directly with the technology. While no causal link has been established, anecdotally women seem to be responding, and the sexual politics (or lack thereof) notwithstanding, the exercise does remind coeds of both genders that there’s more to computers than code.

Mineral Deficiency

The world’s supply of platinum is on course to run out in 15 years if demand continues to grow, a double environmental whammy given that it’s a key ingredient in the catalytic converters used to minimize pollutants in auto exhaust. Silver could also be gone in 15 years, along with antimony (used to make flame-retardant materials). Indium, the substance that helps keep flat-screen TVs flat, may be exhausted in five. These alarming predictions fuel a recent issue of New Scientist (May 26, 2007), which warns that Earth’s limited supply of numerous materials could render various high-tech developments moot. Gallium, for instance, is part of a compound that scientists hoped to use in a future generation of uberefficient solar cells, but there’s not enough in reserve to facilitate mass production. To conserve, consumers should (as always) minimize waste, recycle whenever possible, and make substitutions, such as replacing copper water pipes with plastic. In the long run, it’s possible that certain minerals could be mined from seawater and platinum could be extracted from roadside dust.

War Is Not for Children

Given that the military uses emotionally manipulative, MTV-like videos, school visits, and cold calls to recruit prospects as young as 13, it comes as no surprise that as of March, according to In These Times (June 2007), 81,000 teenagers were serving in the U.S. military, and nearly 600,000 of the country’s 1 million active and reserve soldiers enlisted before they turned 20. What will come as a shocker to some, and should concern everyone, are the results of brain scans done over the past decade by researchers at the National Institute of Mental Health. According to the data, an 18-year-old brain is still undergoing substantial structural changes in areas such as the prefrontal cortex, which polices impulse control–especially significant since weighing second thoughts is vital both when one is deciding whether or not to enlist and when one is evaluating extreme choices in stressful combat situations.

Feel-Good Recycling

An organization in Ethiopia, SOS Addis, pays local women–some destitute, some HIV-positive, some both–to collect and recycle the ever-present plastic bags that litter the capital city of Addis Ababa. The project employs 50 women who can earn up to $65 a month, enough to pay for electricity, food, and water. According to the Ecologist (May 2007), half of the employees still need protective gowns, gloves, masks, and boots. But while there are kinks to be worked out, and the work itself is difficult, the rewards are decidedly local–which is why Ethiopians who have lived abroad and returned home hoping to make a difference launched the project. Program coordinator Anteneh Aberra says she hopes to eventually expand the group’s efforts by using the recycled bags to create handicrafts and by convincing Ethiopian women to return to their traditional–not to mention reusable and biodegradable–straw shopping bags.

Gender-Neutral Name Game

Usually a woman can take her new husband’s surname by simply checking a box on the marriage license application. In most states, though, if a man wants to take his new wife’s name, he has to petition the court, publicly announce his intent in a newspaper to make sure no one objects, and pay hundreds of dollars in fees. Now legislation is pending in California to make it the seventh state where name-changing is gender neutral. According to Ms. (Spring 2007), the bill is backed by the GLBT group Equality California and several state chapters of the ACLU–including one that filed a high-profile lawsuit last December on behalf of a married couple who believed Mr. should be able to take Mrs.’ name without being penalized.

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