Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Internet Commons

The current ruckus over Internet neutrality has been framed by the mass media in a highly biased way (as might be expected). It is described as a pitched battle between Internet users in general, who want free unrestricted access to the Internet and some major Internet Service Providers (ISPs) who want a proprietary right to give faster access to some of their high-volume commercial users. In short, it is framed simply as a conflict of self-interest between two disparate groups.

This seriously distorts the issue by ignoring the fact that the Internet is a commons. Although the idea of the commons can be traced back to Roman times, it currently gets relatively little attention in the media, in politics and even in contemporary works of political theory and philosophy. As a result, the general public has at best a rather cloudy understanding of the concept. (I include myself in that category.) The lone exceptions might be found in some works on environmental preservation and related utopian thinking about alternative futures. This is regrettable. The commons are actually very valuable attributes of most contemporary societies but in predominantly capitalist countries like ours, they are under constant threat of enclosure by mega-corporations that have undue influence over lawmakers. Internet neutrality is just one such case among many. For a good account of the scope of the threat, see David Bollier’s Silent Theft.

Rather than attempt a careful definition of the commons (I don’t have one), I will focus on two of its central features worth noting. A commons is a highly valued public asset or pattern of behavior that is (a) regarded as of such high value that it is felt by the public that special effort ought to be made to ensure that it can be experienced or practiced by future generations in perpetuity and (b) it cannot be privately owned or controlled without risking deleterious consequences to its value as a common public asset. The commons are, or should be, off-market. Some commons are publicly owned (parks, rivers, lakes, forests), other commons are unowned but their use can be regulated in ways that preserve their value to the public (the human genome, Antarctica, the free electoral process in democracies, basic scientific research).

The Internet is clearly a commons of inestimable value. Thanks to the technology, it is probably the first truly international commons. It has made information on almost every conceivable subject readily accessible to a significant and rapidly growing portion of the world’s population, along with the opportunity to engage in an open-ended electronic conversation about the reliability and significance of that information. The desire of some ISPs to fast-track – at their discretion – some of the more lucrative Internet sites would clearly diminish the value of the Internet commons to all other users. And if such a special permission were granted, it would very likely not be the last.

Moreover, fast-tracking would be profoundly unfair. The ISPs did not create the Internet. It was the work of a research arm of the Defense Department along with the collaboration of some American research universities, mostly taxpayer financed public entities. Nor did the ISPs build or pay for the satellite infrastructure that is the backbone hardware of the Internet. The ISPs just dropped in at the end of the line to make the connections between their microwave towers and individual homes and offices. Fast-tracking would be an outrageous enclosing of an invaluable commons.

One possible objection to this argument for Internet neutrality is that it turns a blind eye to the vast amount of Internet traffic that is far from anything one could reasonably consider a common public good, e.g. the streaming of Hollywood movies, pornography, and the widespread us of the social media for trivial ends. The point can be granted but it does not detract from the fact that a substantial part of the Internet serves the commons. We can all live with the fact that another part of the Internet serves relatively trivial personal ends.

Clifford Anderson
Professor Emeritus
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Physical time travel

There is good evidence that human time travel has occurred. To explain, let’s first define the term. We mean physical time travel, not travel by wishing or dreaming or sitting still and letting time march on. In any case of physical time travel the traveler’s journey as judged by a correct clock attached to the traveler takes a different amount of time than the journey does as judged by a correct clock of someone who does not take the journey.

The physical possibility of human travel to the future is well accepted, but travel to the past is more controversial, and time travel that changes either the future or the past is generally considered to be impossible.

Our understanding of time travel comes mostly from the implications of Einstein’s general theory of relativity. This theory has never failed any of its many experimental tests, so we trust its implications for human time travel.

Einstein’s theory permits two kinds of future time travel—either by moving at high speed or by taking advantage of the presence of an intense gravitational field. Actually any motion produces time travel (relative to the clocks of those who do not travel), but if you move at extremely high speed, the time travel is more noticeable; you can travel into the future to the year 2,300 on Earth (as measured by clocks fixed to the Earth) while your personal clock measures that merely, let’s say, ten years have elapsed. You can participate in that future, not just view it; you can meet your twin sister’s descendants. But you cannot get back to the twenty-first century on Earth by reversing your velocity. If you get back, it will be via some other way.

It's not that you suddenly jump into the Earth's future of the year 2,300. Instead you have continually been traveling forward in both your personal time and the Earth’s external time, and you could have been continuously observed from Earth’s telescopes during your voyage.

How about travel to the past, the more interesting kind of time travel? This is not allowed by either Newton's physics or Einstein's special relativity, but is allowed by general relativity. In 1949, Kurt Gödel surprised Albert Einstein by discovering that in some unusual worlds that obey the equations of general relativity—but not in our world—you can continually travel forward in your personal time but eventually arrive into your own past.

Unfortunately, even if you can travel to the past in the actual world you cannot do anything that has not already been done, or else there would be a contradiction. In fact, if you do go back, you would already have been back there. For this reason, if you go back in time and try to kill your childhood self, you will fail no matter how hard you try.

While attempting this assassination, you will be in two different bodies at the same time.

Here are some philosophical arguments against past-directed time travel. I suggest that none of these are convincing. The last one is subtle.
1. If past time travel were possible, then you could be in two different bodies at the same time, which is ridiculous. 
2. If you were presently to go back in time, then your present events would cause past events, which violates our concept of causality. 
3. Time travel is impossible because, if it were possible, we should have seen many time travelers by now, but nobody has encountered any time travelers. 
4. If there were time travel, then when time travelers go back and attempt to change history they must always botch their attempts to change anything, and it will appear to anyone watching them at the time as if Nature is conspiring against them. Since observers have never witnessed this apparent conspiracy of Nature, there is no time travel. 
5. Travel to the past is impossible because it allows the gaining of information for free. Here is a possible scenario. Buy a copy of Darwin's book The Origin of Species, which was published in 1859. In the 21st century, enter a time machine with it, go back to 1855 and give the book to Darwin himself. He could have used your copy in order to write his manuscript which he sent off to the publisher. If so, who first came up with the knowledge about evolution? Neither you nor Darwin. Because this scenario contradicts what we know about where knowledge comes from, past-directed time travel isn't really possible. 
6. The philosopher John Earman describes a rocket ship that carries a time machine capable of firing a probe (perhaps a smaller rocket) into its recent past. The ship is programmed to fire the probe at a certain time unless a safety switch is on at that time. Suppose the safety switch is programmed to be turned on if and only if the “return” or “impending arrival” of the probe is detected by a sensing device on the ship. Does the probe get launched? It seems to be launched if and only if it is not launched. However, the argument of Earman’s Paradox depends on the assumptions that the rocket ship does work as intended—that people are able to build the computer program, the probe, the safety switch, and an effective sensing device. Earman himself says all these premises are acceptable and so the only weak point in the reasoning to the paradoxical conclusion is the assumption that travel to the past is physically possible.
I recommend an alternative solution to Earman’s Paradox. Nature conspires to prevent the design of the rocket ship just as it conspires to prevent anyone from building a gun that shoots if and only if it does not shoot. I cannot say what part of the gun is the obstacle, and I cannot say what part of Earman’s rocket ship is the obstacle.

Brad Dowden
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State