A dead cat stirs debate June 14, 2012Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
From Der Spiegel comes news of a Dutch artist, Bart Jansen, who has turned a dead cat into a helicopter. Jansen somehow lighted on the idea that the cat, which was killed in a collision with a car, should be commemorated through modification into a novelty aircraft. He calls the heli-cat “Orville” after the aviation pioneer Orville Wright.
Controversy surrounds the project. Besides a commemoration, Jansen justifies his project by claiming that Orville is an artwork. Indeed, Orville is currently being exhibited at an art gallery in Amsterdam as part of the KunstRAI art festival. So, it enjoys the authorship of a recognized artist and the imprimatur of an art gallery.
However, some critics find the work to be rather tasteless. “It’s weird, it’s wrong, and it’s absulutely [sic] fucked up. That guy is sick, and I’m glad he’s far, far away from me” comments TheDeadlySteak on the YouTube video. Jansen’s defenders concede that it is tasteless, yet contend that good taste is not necessary for good art. “this shock art= sucessful as proven by comments. Well done sir” comments chemoman1. miraro1 says that “Art doesn’t have to make people feel better, there are worse pieces of art that a dead cat flying around.”
Other critics find it abusive or disrespectful. “I regard my pets as family, and so respect them too much to do something like this with their remains. So it just makes me feel kind of sad to see what I perceive as disrespect and more than a little narcissism” says Venckman. However, others question whether or not a dead cat can really be the subject of abuse or disrespect. “What’s with the rage? The cat was already dead before he was made into a helicopter, so it doesn’t count as animal abuse” says TheMagneticCoffin. pseudotruth argues that “it’s important not to criticise the actions of somebody that has done neither harm to anyone nor anything. After-all the cat was already dead.”
Finally, some critics feel that it is immoral. lloowik sighs that “I guess respect and dignity are not universal virtues after all” while GlossyShoes worries that “you are inspiring people to abuse cats”. Venckman points out that “Nor is it any more morally ‘wrong’ than taxidermy, which is to say it’s not.”
Let me address these three points in turn.
- Is it art? I would argue that the issue of art is not all-or-nothing. Anything can be an artwork; the question is, “How good an artwork is it?” Orville is a poor example of art. Good art is something that is valuable for its own sake, and that captures a message of enduring or universal significance. Orville is more of a gimmick. It seems to have value only as a publicity stunt for Jansen, and conveys no message of significance beyond, “Look what I can do with a dead cat!”
- Is it abusive or disrespectful? The story suggests that the cat was already dead through misadventure when Jansen got a hold of it. Thus, it did not suffer at his hands and so was not abused by him. What counts as disrespect is determined by etiquette, the prevailing rules of good manners. On this reading, Jansen was certainly disrespectful since the reanimation of dead bodies, even of cats, would strike most observers as ghoulish or unnerving. I think that Jansen would be happy to admit this: Disrespect is part of his gimmick.
- Is it immoral? Orville’s treatment does not seem to be inherently immoral. As Venckman points out, it could simply be read as an unusual form of taxidermy, which is not itself immoral (though it may be in poor taste, etc). More disturbing is the possibility that it could prompt abuse of living cats or other animals. People have been convicted of animal cruelty, apparently perpetrated for the purpose of posting video of the abuse to YouTube. However, Jansen’s video is not of this kind. So, it seems unlikely that people would be encouraged to abuse animals by witnessing Orville and the attention drawn to him.
Whatever the verdict on Jansen’s Orville, the case illustrates the role of different sorts of values in assessing it. In instrumental terms, Orville provides mixed results: He makes for a lousy helicopter but a good publicity stunt. In terms of intrinsic values, the assessment is more problematic. In aesthetic terms, Orville seems more gimmicky that arty. In terms of social mores, Orville is clearly offensive to established manners. In terms of moral values, it is conceivable that Orville could cause some people to view cats or other animals in general with less than the respect they are due. That would be a shame.
There remains the assessment of Jansen himself. Is his a “sicko” or a narcissist, or is he an artist educating us by challenging our notions of taste and decorum?STV202 , comments closed
TechCrunch reports on a new feature in Facebook that allows users to pay to put their updates in front of eyeballs. At present, the article reports, only about 12% of friends and followers see your status updates. This level of readership exists because Facebook employs a mechanism to rate the importance of incoming posts and prioritizes those with the highest importance. Currently, importance is calculated based on how close a friend you are to the poster, and how many likes and comments the post has attracted already. The new service, Highlight, allows you to jump the queue, as it were, by paying to have the priority of your postings enhanced.
(Ja nobasu/Wikimedia commons)
This approach to prioritizing access to attention could be controversial. As Josh Constine points out in the TechCrunch article, the new setup could alter, for the worse, users’ understanding of the value of updates:
… it could erode the site’s sense of community. On Facebook, what’s supposed to matter is how interesting your posts are, not how deep your wallet is.
In the present setup, the queue of status updates visible to any user is already a form of advertising; Facebook arranges things so that people will talk most about goods and services they might like to buy or sell – advertising packaged as a subtle form of peer pressure, as Jaron Lanier has pointed out. The Highlight system would make this covert form of advertising more overt, which users may regard as overly intrusive or uncool.
The issue also brings to mind the discussion of the ethics of queues in Michael Sandel’s new book, What money can’t buy. Sandel notes that people tend to object to certain forms of queue jumping, such as paying scalpers $100s for tickets to campsites in public parks like Yosemite that are sold by the government for $20 a piece. There are basically two objections:
- The payments make the system unfair, since many campers cannot afford the scalpers’ prices.
- The payments undermine the purpose of the park. Since affluent campers can jump ahead in the queue, the less affluent are effectively barred from a resource that is meant to be universally available.
As Sandel observes, the effect is to break down the egalitarian nature of camping in public parks, which then undermines the basic sense of equality among all citizens that such public amenities are supposed to promote.
The Highlight system, if generally adopted, is vulnerable to the same sort of criticism. Allowing some posters to push their updates ahead in the queue could be regarded as unfair and as contrary to the purpose of the posting system. Of course, Facebook is a private company not a public amenity. However, users have been conditioned to view it as a free amenity and so could balk at the change anyway.
Facebook says that Highlight is merely a test, a trial balloon:
“We’re constantly testing new features across the site. This particular test is simply to gauge people’s interest in this method of sharing with their friends.”
So, it may not materialize in the end. Whatever the outcome of this test, it provides an interesting illustration of the general problem of organizing queues and how people perceive them in terms of fairness and purpose. (More material on queues and the ins and outs of their design can be found in The psychology of waiting lines by Donald Norman.)
Biotechnolgy and design March 28, 2011Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202, STV203 , comments closed
Check out this TEDx talk by Paul Wolpe concerning ethical issues in bioengineering. Wolpe outlines a number of ways in which the abilities of researchers to design organisms presents challenges to our collective wisdom. Among the possibilities are:
- remote controlled rats, that is, rats with cybernetic implants that allow people to guide their actions with a remote control, and
- Rat-bots, that is, robots with brains composed of networked rat neurons.
One of the many ethical questions raised by this research, as Wolpe points out, is, “At what point is it not acceptable to deprive a ‘bot of either type of its autonomy?” As our creations get smarter and more independent, they will try to do things that their minders do not wish them to do. So, the minders will use the remote control to overrule the ‘bot. However, when a ‘bot gets smart enough and capable enough, does that veto power become unethical? I assume it would be unethical to implant such a remote control in a human being. So, where does the line fall?
(Image courtesy of Jeblad via Wikimedia Commons.)
In my classes on design, I point out that there are two (out of many other) principles of ethics that are particularly important for designers:
- Things that are morally impermissible may be physically possible, and
- Things that are morally obligatory may be physically unnecessary.
The second point is usually good news for designers. It implies that it is possible to make the world a better place, through design. The first point presents the flip side, if you like. It implies that it is possible to make the world a worse place, through design. Clearly, the designer faces a dilemma: How to tell when a design will make things better or worse?
This bio-engineering research challenges us on many levels. What is the difference between living and non-living things? What sort of living things is it good to design and create? What limits ought there to be the autonomy of those things? Both remote-control rats and rat-bots seem, to me, already to be pushing the limits of the permissible if only because they seem so creepy and coercive. Have a look at the video and see what you think.
iConfess February 9, 2011Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV302 , comments closed
Thanks to Darcy K for pointing out this tempting item: The Catholic Church has giving its blessing to an iPad/iPhone app that guides users through confessions. This app is reportedly the first to receive an official imprimatur from the Church. Also, it is currently one of the top-selling apps in the AppStore in Canada.
(Image courtesy of Steve Nagata via Wikimedia Commons.)
The app is designed to “walk” sinners through confession and so can be used right in the confessional. It also acts as an aide memoire:
It reminds users when their last confessions were and keeps track of sins they have previously confessed.
It also advertises features such as password protection to allow multiple users, a “custom examination of conscience” based on age, sex and marital status, the ability to add sins that aren’t listed and a choice of seven different acts of contrition — prayers that express sorrow for sins.
Wow! It tracks your sins? Can you say “privacy issue”?
Anyway, given my posting from yesterday, this app raises the question: Does the app automate absolution from sin? Apparently not:
However, absolution or release from the sin can still only come from a priest.
I assume that a future release will take care of this deficiency.
Well, we have already commented on robo-ethics and ethical drones in this blog. At the moment, robots are not well equipped to make complex ethical decisions. But then, people are not perfect at it either and it is conceivable that computers will become better at grinding out ethical judgments than human beings. Could they also be better at meting out absolution? I seem to recall a segment on Michael Moore’s show, TV Nation, where Sarah Silverman went around confessionals in New York “pricing” absolution from the sin of lust. Each priest suggested a different one. An app could at least make the cost consistent across churches.
Is oil from the Tar Sands ethical? September 16, 2010Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
I listened to an episode of Q on CBC radio, which featured debate on the ethical acceptability of oil from the Alberta Tar Sands. Ezra Levant, author of the new book Ethical Oil argued that it is, while environmental journalist Andrew Nikiforuk argued that it is not.
The argument was spirited, as you might expect, with Levant dominating the exchange by describing how much less “ethical” oil is that comes from Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, the Sudan, and so forth. Nikiforuk argued, if I understood him correctly, that we could do better, a point that Levant conceded.
I got the impression from the debate that Levant and perhaps Nikiforuk were confused about what it means to say that something is “ethical”. Specifically, it seemed to me that Levant’s conclusion simply does not follow from his argument. In other words, even if all his premises or claims about oil are true, his conclusion that Tar Sands oil is “ethical” could still be wrong.
Let me try to clarify: Levant argued that Tar Sands oil is better, ethically speaking, than oil from sources such as Nigeria or Saudi Arabia because, in Alberta, oil extraction is less polluting and gives rise to less corruption and bloodshed than it does in those other places. Yet, even if we grant the point that Tar Sands oil is better than these alternatives, it does not follow that it is the best alternative, which is what Levant seems to conclude. The best alternative, as Levant appeared to concede, might be Tar Sands oil done right with, let’s say, improved oversight, environmental controls, and benefits to Albertans and Canadians.
Perhaps an analogy would help. Suppose that you are asked to identify the most fuel-efficient car design from among a number of alternatives. Design A goes 100km on a liter of gas, design B goes 90km, C and D go 86km, and so on. Which design is the most fuel efficient? Design A, of course. Now, suppose that someone claims that design B is the most fuel-efficient because it is better than C, D, E, and so on. Even if they are right, it does not change the fact that A is better than any of the alternative designs, including B. To choose the most fuel-efficient design, you must choose A.
Likewise, if you are faced with the problem of identifying an “ethical” source of oil, you should identify all the alternatives, weigh them, and then select the one (if any) that dominates the others. Our range of options, Levant concedes, includes Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, …, the Tar Sands, and the Tar-Sands-with-improvements. It seems obvious that, according to his argument, the “ethical” option is the Tar-Sands-with-improvements and not the Tar Sands (as they are now).
Of course, the Tar-Sands-with-improvements does not exist. However, that does not make it ethically inferior to the other alternatives, any more than car design A becomes less fuel efficient then B because no one has yet produced it. Having identified the best alternative, the question we then face is: How do we get there? Unfortunately, when it comes to the Tar Sands, my impression (from a distance) is that government and industry are content with the status quo and so progress is sluggish at best. Perhaps it is here that the real problem lies for us: it is sometimes hard to do the right thing, even where we have decided what that is. So, I would suggest to Levant that, if he wants to advance the cause of ethical oil as he sees it, then he should stop berating people about how awful oil extraction is elsewhere and start berating Canadians for not doing a better job at home when the opportunity is before us.
Ethical drones? April 1, 2010Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202, STV205, STV302 , comments closed
A recent article in The Economist notes one response to the continuing controversy over the use of drones for attack and assassination by the US military and CIA: The drone could be programmed to think for itself on the ethics of its missions.
The software conscience that Dr Arkin and his colleagues have developed is called the Ethical Architecture. Its judgment may be better than a human’s because it operates so fast and knows so much. And—like a human but unlike most machines—it can learn.
After each strike the drone would be updated with information about the actual destruction caused. It would note any damage to nearby buildings and would subsequently receive information from other sources, such as soldiers in the area, fixed cameras on the ground and other aircraft. Using this information, it could compare the level of destruction it expected with what actually happened. If it did more damage than expected—for example, if a nearby cemetery or mosque was harmed by an attack on a suspected terrorist safe house—then it could use this information to restrict its choice of weapon in future engagements. It could also pass the information to other drones.
The Ethical Architecture seems to involve a limited form of utilitarian calculus, weighing benefits against harms to reach a decision. The harms and benefits considered are those more easily and immediately observed and quantified, e.g., the number of casualties and damage to infrastructure. Less tangible considerations, like fairness or resentment, will likely not be factored in. Hopefully, the operators of the drones will understand the limitations of the Ethical Architecture and not concede ethical deliberations to them.
I should point out, too, that military drones are not the only place where ethical software might soon be deployed. Consider the increasing deployment of automated driving features in cars, for example. As computers in our cars take over more and more of the tasks of driving, they will have to make more of the decisions. A collision avoidance system, for instance, may have to decide who lives and who does not when a sudden collision becomes unavoidable and the only variable left to consider is how it will occur.