Don’t shoot! Smart guns! May 23, 2013Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , add a comment
I recently “penned” a post about the Tracking Point self-aiming and firing smart gun. I concluded that post with a wish for guns that could refuse to shoot at all. It seems that this wish has come true, in a way.
Huffington Post describes some technology firms that have designed guns that will work only for certain individuals:
The new Yardarm Technologies LLC system would trigger an alarm on an owner’s cellphone if a gun is moved, and the owner could then hit a button to activate the safety and disable the weapon.
The Yardarm system is one of several recently introduced high-tech offerings: the iGun only fires if it recognizes a ring on a finger, the Intelligun uses a fingerprint locking system and TriggerSmart uses radio frequency identification.
Of course, such systems do not prevent the owner from firing the gun, nor would they apply to the millions of firearms already out there. However, weapons that can refuse to fire seems like an idea worth exploring nonetheless.
It may not surprise you to learn that the NRA is against such designs:
National Rifle Association spokesman Andrew Arulanandam said his organization is concerned about added costs and the reliability of smart guns in general.
“We believe that the technology does not exist today where a so-called smart gun can operate with 100 percent or close to it reliability,” he said, “and a firearm that does not function when it is required to is not a smart gun.”
The added costs are “a luxury tax on self-defense,” Arulanandam said.
This case illustrates an issue of fairness that comes up often in designs. One group is primarily concerned with false positives, that is, instances where the gun can be fired even though the owner is against it. That is the case currently for guns that are stolen from their owners. Another group, the NRA in this case, is primarily concerned with false negatives, instances where the gun cannot fire even though the owner is in favor of it. (Perhaps the owner has forgotten his ring or is wearing gloves.) Up until now, gun design has favored the NRA position, but it need not.
Instagram’s day in the doghouse December 19, 2012Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202, STV302 , comments closed
- Instagram can share information about its users with Facebook, its parent company, as well as outside affiliates and advertisers.
- You could star in an advertisement — without your knowledge.
- Underage users are not exempt.
- Ads may not be labeled as ads.
- Want to opt out? Delete your account.
Instagram has since clarified its position, arguing that it never meant to appropriate users’ photos in this way and it is clarifying its language to assure its users of this. Whether Instagram really made a mistake or employed the trial balloon strategy usual for Facebook is a matter for debate.
“Instagram isn’t going to sell your photos, Facebook is going to use them to access data to further help them push more and more targeted ads,” said Kerry Morrison, CEO of Endloop Mobile, a Toronto-based app developer.
Facebook did buy Instagram–for $1 billion–remember?
So, whatever else it means, this faux pas by Instagram illustrates a couple of issues regarding privacy and free services on the Internet. First, terms of service may be changed at any time, particularly when a service provider is bought by another company. Second, the default will always be opt-out, that is, you are a part of the service’s monetization program unless you explicitly opt out (if that is even possible).
One way to opt out is to adopt a service that you pay for up front. However, opting out of a popular service is difficult and even costly, as Instagram is well aware. Many people have invested much time, effort, and money in setting up their Instagram accounts. Deleting those accounts would mean losing that investment and the connections that come with it. Another option might be to pay to opt out while remaining in the service. This solution might be reasonable, although it hardly seems to be in Facebook’s “DNA”.
Authentic olive oil December 7, 2012Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
I discussed earlier an NPR report on controversy over the authenticity of Greek yogurts. Recently, NPR has posted an interesting article discussing similar concerns about extra-virgin olive oil. If you are like me, when you think of olive oil, you think of Italy or Greece. Those countries are where “real” or “authentic” olive oil originates. Of course, many other countries produce olive oil, including the US. However, consumers will pay a hefty premium for olive oils that they consider authentic, especially Italian oil.
As you probably suspect by now, the claims that you may see on containers of olive oil may be misleading, according to Tom Mueller, author of Extra virginity: The sublime and scandalous world of olive oil. He claims that many imported products labelled as extra-virgin fail to meet the definition of that quality. In fact, products may not even be actual olive oil:
[Tom Mueller] showed how the world’s most ubiquitous luxury food didn’t only fail to meet the “extra virgin” standard, but in many cases wasn’t made from olives at all. Rogue chemists had learned to disguise tanker ships full of low-grade soybean oil and even lamp fuel so that it could pass for the highest grade of olive oil, Mr. Mueller revealed. Even such multinationals as Unilever, Nestlé and Bertolli sold “extra virgin” olive oil that was anything but.
Mueller adds that olive oils that are labelled as Italian may actually originate from other countries and have merely passed through an Italian port on their way to world markets.
US producers are complaining to the U.S. International Trade Commission about these practices, which put them at an unfair disadvantage in competition against Italian producers. Those producers, represented here by the North American Olive Oil Association argue that evidence supporting these complaints is biased.
Canadians, it turns out, are not in such a vulnerable position. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency is fairly serious about enforcing standards for imported oils according to Mueller. Even so, we are not immune to being mislead, he adds:
The good news about Canada is, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency is very serious about olive oil. They do an excellent job of policing the market, and they’ve been doing it for over a decade. Despite the fact that everyone in the industry knows that the Canadian market is very well policed, they still turn up substantial percentages of fraudulent oil.
Mueller advises consumers to find stores that specialize in good olive oils, and to check the oils for recent harvest dates. The fresher the oil, the better the quality.
Like sincerity, authenticity is great especially if you can fake it.
Privacy and emails November 19, 2012Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV302 , comments closed
The General Petraeus affair has brought new attention to an established issue, that is, privacy of emails. Petraeus was brought low when the FBI accessed an anonymous Gmail account that Petraeus had used to conduct an affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell. As many commentators have pointed out, it seems odd or ironic that the head of the CIA resorted to a simple (and not very secure) ruse to conduct secret business.
In any event, the ease with which the FBI obtained access to Petraeus’s emails underlines the lack of privacy that people with such accounts enjoy, according to critics:
The fact that police can get that information with a subpoena — just a letter, usually without approval of a judge — is deeply disturbing to civil libertarians like Chris Calabrese, legislative counsel for privacy issues at the ACLU.
The position of the ACLU is that such information should require a warrant, just as if the police were intending to search your house. Needless to say, the police do not take the same view of the matter:
But Scott Burns, executive director of the National District Attorneys Association, says Americans should understand how much more work that would create. “The difference is, an investigative subpoena is a one- or two-pager, and a search warrant is a book report,” Burns says.
All those extra warrants, he says, would make life “incredibly difficult” for police.
This issue of the security of someone’s email illustrates a common trade-off: Enjoying security means being able to conduct your affairs without enduring the scrutiny of the state. As then-Canadian-Minister-of-Justice (and later Prime Minister) Pierre Trudeau once said, “There is no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation.” However, privacy also means being able to hide misdeeds from the public, even when the public has a stake in the outcome. (What if Petraeus’s mistress had been a foreign agent?) The issue becomes one of how to balance these competing and legitimate interests in a way that is fair to all concerned.
Although I am sure that it would be small comfort to Petraeus, it is worth noting that his arch-adversaries have similar difficulties. According to ABC News, the Taliban has had problems keeping its email list secret:
In a Dilbert-esque faux pax, a Taliban spokesperson sent out a routine email last week with one notable difference.He publicly CC’d the names of everyone on his mailing list.
The names were disclosed in an email by Qari Yousuf Ahmedi, an official Taliban spokesperson, on Saturday. The email was a press release he received from the account of Zabihullah Mujahid, another Taliban spokesperson. Ahmedi then forwarded Mujahid’s email to the full Taliban mailing list, but rather than using the BCC function, or blind carbon copy which keeps email addresses private, Ahmedi made the addresses public.
The email list consists mostly of journalists, who would be the natural recipients of a press release. However, it also includes a number of Afghan legislators, academics, and activists, whose loyalties are now, no doubt, under review.
Stewart Brand once said that, “information wants to be free.” The tendency of information to escape confinement on the Internet is notorious, as these examples demonstrate. If you are determined to communicate in secret on the ‘net, then you should look at these hints from the New York Times. Good luck!
Guerilla designers October 26, 2012Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
For the most part, people who design things seek to solve a given problem and make some money in the marketplace. Besides this, some designers seek to right what they see as social wrongs. Perhaps they look too help the oppressed or correct an injustice. Such a goal seems to characterize the designers of two gadgets discussed in The Atlantic Cities blog this week.
The first item is the “noPhoto” license plate frame, that is designed to prevent red-light cameras from shooting your license plate. The user places the license plate within the special frame, which attaches to the back of a car. The frame contains a sensor, lights, and electronics that enable it to detect the flash of a red-light camera. When that event is detected, the frame flashes its lights, thus generating enough glare to prevent the red-light camera from obtaining a legible picture of the license plate in the frame.
Here is a video that outlines the concept:
In the US, as in Canada, it is illegal to use equipment that obscures your license plate. The designer, Jonathan Dandrow, argues that noPhoto does not violate this law, perhaps because noPhoto obscures its license plate only momentarily, and to a camera and not a person. Perhaps some lucky judge will get to decide this point.
In any event, Dandrow designed his device as a part of a resistance to the red-light camera, a piece of gear that he considers unconscionable:
“I believe that traffic enforcement cameras are dangerous, invasive, error-prone, and unconstitutional,” Dandrow writes in his pitch on indiegogo. “So I decided to do something about it.”
So, Dandrow is what you might call a “guerilla” designer, who designs gear that helps people to fight back against superior forces that oppress them.
Another post concerns something called the “Knee Defender”. This is a little gadget, or pair of gadgets, that allow airline passengers to prevent the people in front of them from tilting back their seats and thus colliding with their knees. See the images below, with the Knee Defenders on the left and the Defenders in use on the right.
It seems to work, as long as you do not mind having the tray in your lap all the time.
The Knee Defender is also designed to resist injustice:
It helps you defend the space you need when confronted by a faceless, determined seat recliner who doesn’t care how long your legs are or about anything else that might be “back there”.
For those of us who have to squeeze ourselves into the limited airplane legroom space of a coach seat offered by many airlines, a seat in front of us that is poised to recline is a collision waiting to happen – with our knees serving as bumpers.
Knee Defender™ to the rescue.
Although these devices do not appear to violate any FAA regulations, they can create tension between passengers on flights, and flight attendants are instructed to look out for them.
In this case, the designers at GadgetDuck are also acting as “guerilla” designers, allowing passengers oppressed by thoughtless fellow travelers and callous airlines to resist injustice.
Guerilla designers might be compared with humanitarian designers, such as Emily Pilloton of Project H. Both types of designers share a kind of social mission: To use design to assist people who are not equipped, for whatever reason, to resist unfair treatment. One difference is that, while humanitarians tend to focus on people who have little access to the world marketplace, guerilla designers tend to focus on things they can sell through conventional channels. Thus, guerilla designers tend to serve the middle class whereas humanitarian designers serve the impoverished.
What other examples of guerilla design are out there?
The sporting attitude to technology August 7, 2012Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
The London Olympics provides us with an ongoing opportunity to discuss the role of technology in Olympic sports. Bernard Suits, who formerly worked in the field of philosophy of sport here at UWaterloo, defined games (& sports) as follows:
To play a game is to attempt to achieve a specific state of affairs [prelusory goal], using only means permitted by rules [lusory means], where the rules prohibit use of more efficient in favour of less efficient means [constitutive rules], and where the rules are accepted just because they make possible such activity [lusory attitude].
For example, the 100m dash aims to achieve the crossing of the finish line ahead of the other competitors [prelusory goal] using only a launch from starting blocks and running down a 100m lane in a track [lusory means], where the rules prohibit the use of more efficient means, e.g., a motorcycle, [constitutive rules], and where the rules are accepted because they make a sprinting sport possible [lusory attitude].
In this definition, technology features prominently in the areas of lusory means and constitutive rules: The first stipulates what technology is permitted whereas the second stipulates what technology is prohibited. So, it is not surprising that many technology stories about the London Olympics focus on distinguishing permitted from prohibited equipment. For example, Oscar Pistorius has been permitted to run in the 400m dash with his leg blades. However, the use of whole-body, polyurethane swim suits has been banned in the swimming events.
Although there are important technological aspects to these stories, they are also about the lusory attitude. That is, both decisions were made to respect fairness, to provide all the participants with roughly equal opportunities to succeed. If some competitors are able to afford superior gear, e.g., fancy swimsuits, whereas others are not, then that could be considered unfair. Thus, such swimsuits are disallowed. Fairness in sport, then, is an important part of the lusory attitude and a crucial consideration in the deployment of technology.
However, the relationship between technology and the lusory attitude is not all one way. Fairness does constrain the deployment of technology, but developments in technology also affect the lusory attitude. The development of performance-enhancing drugs, for example, has led to suggestions that new events be created especially for enhanced athletes, e.g., a 100m dash for runners who use steroids. The introduction of new technologies often leads to controversy on whether or not the result is truly a sport or rather some other form of activity.
Suits’s characterization is silent on the matter of what it takes for an activity to become accepted as a game or a sport. Indeed, it is unclear that there is any definitive resolution to this problem. However, some constraints do seem to apply, at least to Olympic sports. One that involves technology is that the technology should serve to facilitate but not to dominate the athlete’s display of physical and mental prowess. Thus, the javelin throw is an Olympic sport whereas the missile launch is not, even though both are competitive activities. It might be great to see whose missile flies further but it hardly seems like a sporting accomplishment.
A more subtle case centers on the so-called “magic carpet” material used for the Olympic track events. The running surface is a special, layered set of materials called Mondotrack:
Mondotrack was first used in 2008 but has been improved. “The backing is now a stretched hexagonal honeycomb shape with elongated, diamond-shaped cells that flex easily in any direction, rather than just forward,” A Mondo spokeswoman said. This makes the track more elastic and responsive, she said, providing better support of the foot – resulting in better control during the rolling movement of the foot, higher energy return and more control and comfort.
Runners have commented on how responsive the new material is, and it may well be helping them to run at new, record times.
The issue with Mondotrack is not fairness; all the athletes run on the same surface. The issue is whether or not the surface is contributing too much to the outcomes of the events. The IOC may like the new surface because new record times make for good television. However, there remains the issue of whether or not such a use of technology is appropriate for the lusory attitude of the Olympics. What do you think?
Bicycle cameras July 24, 2012Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202, STV302 , comments closed
Today’s New York Times brings a couple of interesting articles about cyclists. The first concerns cameras that cyclists can wear to record their rides. Originally designed so that epic rides could be re-enjoyed later, the cameras are now being used by cycling commuters to record any accidents they may have while on the streets. For example, a cyclist named Evan Wilder was sideswiped by a car and knocked off his bike. The driver sped away but Mr. Wilder was able to obtain the license plate number from the video stored in his camera. Police arrested the owner and charged him with leaving the scene of an accident.
(Alisdair McDiarmid/Wikimedia commons)
Many cyclists will see such gear as a way of leveling the playing field, that is, of addressing an imbalance of power with motorists who, after all, have a big advantage in size and power on the roadway. Some drivers, it seems, also have an adversarial attitude towards cyclists, that cameras might help to curb:
“It’s a fact of life that on American roads that you get punked, cut off purposely, harassed, not once but on a regular basis,” said Bob Mionske, a former Olympic cyclist who is now a lawyer representing bicyclists in Portland, Ore. “If motorists start to hear about bikes having cameras, they’re going to think twice about running you off the road.”
So, cycle cameras may help to make things fairer for cyclists.
The next article concerns how New York City is sending errant cyclists to remedial classes. Cyclists who are written up for violations such as riding outside of bicycle lanes (where they are available) or riding on sidewalks are sent by judges to a class hosted in a sports store in the Upper West Side. The idea is to remind cyclists what the laws concerning cycling require of them, or simply to educate them where they are not clear on the matter:
“You couldn’t possibly ticket all of the stuff you see irresponsible cyclists do,” said Judge Felicia Mennin, who worked with the nonprofit organization Bike New York to develop the new sentencing option.
But, she acknowledged, some riders may be honestly confused about what is allowed. “There are a lot of laws and not always clarity about abiding by the law,” she said.
Cycling education is rudimentary in North America, so most cyclists learn the rules of the road informally. As a result, their behavior will tend to vary with their personal and cultural background. Perhaps our approach should be more systematic, as it is in the Netherlands.
In any event, the introduction of cameras for cyclists could have unforeseen consequences. If an accident occurs involving a bicycle, the video might be subpoenaed in court, even if the video weighs against the cyclist. In a recent case in British Columbia, a hang glider pilot was charged with obstruction of justice after he swallowed a memory card containing video of a flight where his passenger fell to her death. I imagine that the courts would take a similar view of videos recorded by cyclists in the event that they are caught violating the law.
It seems inevitable that we will be surveilling one another more and more with cameras. As with the recent case of Steve Mann, the results may not alway be what we expect or would like.
What is true Greek yogurt? July 20, 2012Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
From NPR comes an interesting piece about food technology and Greek yogurt. Greek yogurt is yogurt with a thick texture, making it almost a solid rather than a liquid. Traditionally, the yogurt is made in the regular way, but is then strained to remove some of the water content, leaving behind a thickened material that retains the slightly sour taste of regular yogurt.
(Rainer Zenz/Wikimedia commons)
Greek yogurt has become very popular in the US. Sales of Greek yogurt have taken off of late:
Last year, Greek yogurt accounted for 20 percent of total yogurt sales, according to market researcher SymphonyIRI, and 15 percent of volume sales. In each of the last three years, sales of Greek yogurt have surged more than 100 percent, while non-Greek yogurt has grown at a single-digit pace, according to consumer data tracker Nielsen.
Industry experts credit Greek yogurt’s tart flavor and creamy texture for wooing consumers from traditional varieties, and in some cases persuading them to start eating yogurt. Greek yogurt also has better nutritional credentials, with more protein and sometimes more calcium and less sugar.
So, it should be no surprise that competition for the American Greek-yogurt marketplace have heated up.
This point is where the controversy comes in. According to Hamdi Ulukaya, founder of the yogurt maker Chobani, Greek yogurt is made through straining. Chobani uses high-tech centrifuges to strain away liquid so that its product achieves the required density. The result is yogurt that matches the taste and texture of the yogurt his mother used to make using cheesecloth in her kitchen back in Turkey.
However, other companies have created Greek yogurt by the addition of thickeners, such as starch, instead of the removal of liquid. Erhan Yildiz, and head of food research company Ingredion, invented a process in which such additives precisely re-create the taste and feel of strained yogurt, but at a lesser cost. Yildiz, who also grew up in Turkey and enjoyed home-made Greek yogurt there, says that the result is a yogurt that is, to all appearances, the same as the strained variety.
Hamdi Ulukaya argues that such products are not truly “Greek yogurt”. Instead, they are some kind of facsimile. So, we have an issue of authenticity: Is the yogurt made with starch truly Greek yogurt or not? It seems to reproduce all the perceptible qualities of true Greek yogurt but with a non-traditional ingredient. Does that matter? If you think so, would you change your mind if it turned out that some Greeks used to make their yogurt using thickening agents?
Of course, you could argue that Chobani’s yogurt is not authentic either, as it is made by using centrifuges rather than by pressing the yogurt through cheesecloth. Although both methods force the yogurt through some kind of sieve, the new method employs a non-traditional, industrial technology. Does that matter? Perhaps the Greeks who made yogurt by pressing it through cheesecloth might have jumped at the chance to use centrifuges, had such things been available.
(And neither is authentic in the sense of genuine, that is, actually originating in Greece the way that authentic champagne actually originates in the Champagne district of France. So, what we are talking about here may not be authentic “Greek yogurt” so much as authentic “Greek-style” yogurt, which might seem like an oxymoron to some people.)
There is also an issue of fairness here. Both yogurts compete in the marketplace as Greek yogurts but the recipe using starch is cheaper, thus giving that product a price advantage. Is that fair? If both should be considered Greek yogurt, then consumers can have their Greek yogurt at a lower cost. Yet, Ulukaya argues, identifying both as Greek yogurt would confuse the public regarding the strained product:
“That ruins the expectation in the consumer’s mind of how pure and simple this product is.”
Ulukaya argues that there should be legal definition of Greek yogurt, one that differentiates his product from the cheaper variety. This measure would work to his advantage in the marketplace but would also tend to dampen efforts to innovate improved methods of producing Greek yogurt.
My own feeling is that Chobani should look first to their own resources. An advertising campaign might well persuade consumers that Greek yogurt made without starch is a superior product, worthy of a little extra expenditure. This style of advertising and branding seems to work for organic products, so it might also work for authentic ones. Getting the government to enforce the establishment of such a distinction implies that there is a public interest in it, which does not clearly exist.
In any event, this story ties together some important themes of this blog and shows how technological progress can create novel challenges for society.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.)
Technology in the Hunger Games March 6, 2012Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV100, STV202 , comments closed
The Hunger Games is a novel by Suzanne Collins, also adapted for the big screen in a forthcoming movie. (Careful: There are spoilers ahead!) The story is set in a future North America that has experienced a violent political upheaval, resulting in the formation of “Panem”, a country in which the capital city, The Capitol, holds tyrannical power over the other regions of the continent, divided into numbered districts. As a kind of punishment for a past insurrection in the Districts, the Capitol has imposed severe austerities on its hinterlands, amounting essentially to economic sanctions. In addition, the Capitol has imposed the “Hunger Games”, in which one boy and one girl from each District is deposited in an arena to fight to the death for the amusement of the Capitol dwellers. The heroine of the story is Katniss Everdeen, a girl from District 12, who finds herself selected as an unwilling participant in the Games.
Events in the book clearly have some precedents in reality. We have recently gone through an economic upheaval to which various governments have responded with cutbacks and other austerity measures. Also, we have had a season of political upheavals in Europe and the Middle East. So, the novel reflects something of the climate of the times.
The novel also utilizes some motifs from classical antiquity. The Capitol itself is reminiscent of Rome in its late republican and Imperial periods. Its residents even have the names of Roman politicians such as Cinna and Ceasar. The arena recalls the Roman Colosseum, where fights to the death were elaborately staged for the amusement of the citizenry. The story of children sacrificed to a colonial power is reminiscent of the story of Theseus and the Minotaur: The Cretans were supposed to have taken boys and girls from Athens and thrown them into the Labyrinth, where the Minotaur would kill them. The use of classical motifs helps to relate the story to our own culture while still displacing it from the present day somewhat.
The story includes some technology-related issues as well. The first concerns technology and progress. The Capitol exists at a technological level that is recognizable but somewhat more advanced that that which exists in the Western world today. For example, they have a high-speed rail network and hovercraft that seem to combine the functions of airplanes and helicopters. Also, the Capitol appears to have some approximation of the food replicators that were found on the USS Enterprise in Star Trek. In addition, they have advanced capabilities in genetic engineering. However, this technological progress has not been accompanied by moral progress. If anything, the advanced technology of the Capitol has turned its citizens into vicious snobs absorbed with only their own pleasure and their vendetta against the people of the Districts. On the contrary, the primitive technological condition of Katniss and the people of District 12 mark them out as noble and authentic. I can imagine Rousseau nodding with approval.
Besides being bad for the character of the Capitol dwellers, their use of advanced technology to oppress also points to a lack of social progress. Citizens of the Capitol use their technological advantage to exploit and oppress the residents of the Districts, whom they keep in backward and impoverished conditions. Whereas citizens of the Capitol can push buttons to obtain a meal, Katniss Everdeen hunts much of her food with a bow and arrows. We might like to think that technological advancement will bring about fairer social conditions, as has occurred recently in the Middle East, for example. However, the opposite has occurred in the world of The Hunger Games.
Although The Hunger Games is primarily a story of romance and peril among young adults, it is set against a background in which some interesting philosophical questions about technology are raised. Does technological progress tend to ennoble or to degrade people? Does it tend to make society more or less fair to them? Or does it have no real tendencies in either case?