Saturday, October 02, 2004

A Clickable World: Using IT to help ethical buyers support workers rights and other good causes

Johann Hari of The Independent reminds us that while Bush and Blair talk of "never negotiating with terrorists", and repeatedly congratulate themselves on opposing tyranny in one particular isolated case (i.e. Saddam Hussein's Iraq), they are quite happy to do business with the representatives of what Noam Chomsky has called "private tyrannies". From selling arms to repressive regimes (or in some cases effectively giving them away, due to Export Credit Guarantees, courtesy of the Western taxpayer), to colluding with governments and paramilitaries who assault and murder union activists, to employing (directly or indirectly) slave labour, to doing business in military dictatorships like Burma where torture and other human rights violations are widespread, it seems there is almost nothing which multinational corporations will not do.

However, I would argue that, to some extent, they can only get away with this because they operate behind a veil of secrecy.

Pushing for increased media democratisation and accountability on the airwaves, in print media and on the internet are all important strategies for piercing this veil, but I want to suggest a complementary strategy here, based on the nascent technology of scanning objects with camera phones. (The concept needs a snappier name, doesn't it? Suggestions on a postcard, please!) Though still very much in its infancy - both the hardware and the software need improvement before the concept can go mainstream - what this idea promises is being able to quickly run your camphone (or other portable scanning device) over your purchases - or prospective purchases - and then tapping in to a wealth of information on the web about the products, their producers, and any negative allegations about the production process.

What makes this idea so interesting, and promising, for me is that there are so many other useful applications for such a device - from automatic calorie, sodium and trans-fat counting (which you might not even need an internet connection to do, if the phone already had those products in its memory), to looking up competitor products and doing comparisons - even something as simple as automatically keeping track of your credit card balance could be a boon to some people.

And the whole labelling mess - no longer would the government's refusal to change labelling laws become an obstacle to more informed buying. Don't like GM foods being foisted on you without your consent? Use this device to exercise informed consumer choice. Want more detailed nutritional information about a food product than the legally required stuff? Maybe someone has already provided that information on the web. This device makes such information more conveniently accessible, and in doing so, increases the interest and demand for such information. It might not sound like much - but the importance of convenience in new technology is often underappreciated - even, oftentimes, by those who design and market it!

The way I see this kind of technology developing is: first, market it to the hilt based on self-interested concerns - like aiding people to improve their health and life expectancy by making more informed dietary and other choices. That, I think, will snag the greatest number of potential converts.

Then, after the technology has become mainstream, that is the time to seriously promote its use for ethical consumerism. Clinical, I know - but I think it'd be more effective than just adopting the hairshirted tone that radical lefties like me often take, and ignoring the benefits from self-interest of this technology.

Of course, once you've scanned in ("clicked on") the products of interest - and this might involve scanning bar codes, information-rich images or even RFID tags - I don't want to set the medium in stone at this stage - you needn't depend on your phone's tiny little screen to find out what you're really buying. Hook your phone up to your computer at home, and drill down to more detail about claims of union-busting, forced labour, or pollution of local water supplies. The possibilities are endless!

Taking us full circle almost: there is, of course, an analog to this idea even in the online commerce world - and it's an analog which has seen surprisingly little attention. Namely, "backlinks" - the automated looking up of web pages which link to the page you're looking at. Not a new concept (AltaVista, Foresight's CritSuite and the browser add-on Alexa have all implemented it in various different ways), but not that widely used to research alternative views on a product or company, as far as I know.

And it needn't stop at consumer goods. We can put pressure on sellers of consumer goods, charities, and our own governments, to discriminate against unethical suppliers. This is already happening, of course, but it needs much more support. Bringing ethical purchasing to the day-to-day consciousness of vastly more people using this technology could really help beef up support for ethical purchasing in the corporate and government sectors - which is what is needed, because ethical consumerism at the consumer level can only achieve so much on its own.

What I've left out of this picture so far is probably the most important role here - the "gatekeepers" - the software and search engines which will determine what information comes up - and what information is prioritised where. There is much to be said about this, but I believe that the combination of the zero-reproduction-cost of open source software, and the slightly flatter competition landscape of the internet compared to previous media, creates a real chance of winning a lot of mindshare currently held by those who want to keep information about corporate crimes and corporate injustices from the people. Even if principled supporters of ethical consumerism do not happen to win the awesome prize of "first mover advantage" in the consumer scanner space - although it would be a fantastic achievement if they did - there would still be massive new opportunities created for piercing the veil of secrecy around what we are unwittingly responsible for when we spend our money.

Of course, Google, for one, seems to have a pretty good record for relevance and impartiality as a "gatekeeper" - at least in the free, democratic world - but we should not, and do not have to, rely on this continuing.

Thursday, September 30, 2004

Good news for lefty US cyborgs: US Government to provide artificial heart devices

Reuters: The US government is planning to expand "coverage of implantable cardioverter defibrillators (ICDs) by one-third so that nearly 500,000 Medicare patients would be eligible.... In the first year, Medicare anticipates at least 25,000 more beneficiaries will get the implants, 'potentially saving up to 2,500 lives..."

Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Breaking News: Congressional republicans trying to legalise extradition for the purposes of torture

Legalizing Torture

According to a press release from the office of a Democrat member of congress, a bill is being proposed by congressional republicans which would legalise extradition for the purposes of torture - past, present and future. Extraditions for the purposes of torture have already taken place, so it is not just a theoretical danger!
"The provision Rep. Markey referred to is contained in Section 3032 and 3033 of H.R. 10, the "9/11 Recommendations Implementation Act of 2004," introduced by House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL). The provision would require the Secretary of Homeland Security to issue new regulations to exclude from the protection of the U.N. Convention Against Torture and Other Forms of Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, any suspected terrorist - thereby allowing them to be deported or transferred to a country that may engage in torture. The provision would put the burden of proof on the person being deported or rendered to establish "by clear and convincing evidence that he or she would be tortured," would bar the courts from having jurisdiction to review the Secretary's regulations, and would free the Secretary to deport or remove terrorist suspects to any country in the world at will - even countries other than the person's home country or the country in which they were born. The provision would also apply retroactively."
I would like to suggest three actions, especially for any US-based readers:
  1. If you have a blog, you could join us in linking to the story. The Right made blogging relevant in the national news in the case of "Rathergate" - maybe those of us who are opposed to torture under any circumstances could collectively use our blogs to put pressure on the media, and therefore on the US Congress. Of course, some blogs have much more impact than others. :)
  2. Consider other websites that potentially, anyone can post to - Kuro5hin, Metafilter, etc.
  3. Please consider checking if your media have covered this story yet with the level of coverage it merits - and if not, politely but assertively asking them to cover it.

Monday, September 27, 2004

Scientists and Engineers For Change

Scientists and Engineers For Change
are a group mobilized to make the scientific case against Bush and for Kerry. On Health Care they note:
Investing in federal research, including doubling of the budget of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) from 1998 to 2003, has fueled a spectacular growth in our understanding of human biology. Powerful new treatments for cancers, heart disease, AIDS, and other clinical conditions have emerged from NIH laboratories. The sequenced human genome and other major advances of the past decade are poised to serve as a launch pad for an enormously productive decade of discovery in which there will be new ways to diagnose, treatment, and prevent many diseases. The need to focus on infectious diseases has been heightened by the real threat that infectious agents could be used as weapons by terrorists. But success in building on the promise of biomedical research depends in part on the outcome of the presidential election.

John Kerry understands the scientific opportunities ahead and shares the hopes of patients and patient advocates. He proposes a forward-looking commitment to continued growth of health research. He will remove ideological barriers to objective scientific assessment of these opportunities, including current limitations on stem cell research. He will support FDA approvals of ways to avert unwanted pregnancies and HIV infections. He will focus research on technologies that improve the quality and safety of medical care and reduce costs, partly through more effective use of information technology.

Kerry Proposals

"If we pursue the limitless potential of our science - and use it wisely - we will save millions of lives and earn the gratitude of future generations." Specifically John Kerry proposes to:

  • Sustain annual significant increments in the research budgets at the National Institutes of Health and at other agencies which support relevant research, from the Veterans Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy, rather than cutting these research budgets.
  • Reverse the Bush administration's extreme restrictions on federally supported stem cell research, which could lead to innovative treatments for diabetes, spinal cord injuries, Parkinson's and many other diseases. Kerry states that "I have full faith that our scientists will go forward with a moral compass-with humane values and sound ethics guiding the way". He supports bipartisan legislation that will open this innovative avenue of research and assure ethical guidance to all stem cell researchers at universities or in industry.
  • Invest in biotechnology research, seeking breakthroughs for human health, agricultural production, and environmentally-friendly industrial processes.
  • Restore the scientific integrity of federal science review panels advising the White House, the NIH, the FDA, and other agencies.
  • Expand research on health promotion, disease prevention, and quality of care.
  • Provide strong support for development of detection systems, vaccines, and other countermeasures needed to protect Americans against biological terrorism.
  • Provide federal leadership on standards and through procurement of information technologies that can dramatically improve the safety and quality of American health care. These technologies can slash administrative costs, allow patients to make more informed decisions about their health care needs, improve the management of chronic diseases, and reduce medical errors.
  • Join the international efforts to combat the HIV/AIDS pandemic and fight tuberculosis, malaria, and other debilitating parasitic diseases.
  • Anticipate the needs of our growing senior population, including comprehensive implementation of the just-enacted "Welcome to Medicare" initial visit for new 65 year-old Medicare patients and positive health promotion and disease management for older individuals.

How to be Happy

As a utilitarian, I find these results quite compelling.

Beyond Money: Towards an Economy of Well-Being
Ed Diener and Martin E.P. Seligman
Psychological Science in the Public Interest
Volume 5, Number 1 - July 2004

The emphasis is on the marginal effect of gross domestic product on happiness in the industrialized world:

"Studies looking at the relation between average well-being and average per capita income across nations have found substantial correlations, ranging from about .50 to .70 (Diener & Biswas-Diener, Above a moderate level of income, there are only small increases in well-being. Using the World Value Survey II, we computed the correlation between average life satisfaction and the GDP per capita of nations, restricting the analysis to nations with per capita GDP above U.S. $10,000. The correlation was only .08, confirming the small effect of further income once a moderate level of income is achieved."

The studies reviewed also show that the democracy, stability, liberality and trust-worthiness of people's governments are related to their average happiness.

Workers are happier in more democratic workplaces with more "Opportunity for personal control" and use of skills, more "variety of tasks" and "physical security," and where they enjoy "supportive supervisors," "respect and high status," and "good pay and fringe benefits."

Although the relationship between social equality and happiness is complex - inequality makes left-wing people more miserable than right-wing people - many of the correlates of happiness are directly related to public goods that can be provided by a generous welfare state, such as financial security and mental health care.

"We reviewed in the previous sections several of the factors that lead to well-being—to frequent pleasant emotions and engagement, to finding meaning and satisfaction in life, and to low levels of stress and depression.

The existing findings suggest the following partial formula for high well-being:
 Live in a democratic and stable society that provides material resources to meet needs
 Have supportive friends and family
 Have rewarding and engaging work and an adequate income
 Be reasonably healthy and have treatment available in case of mental problems
 Have important goals related to one’s values
 Have a philosophy or religion that provides guidance, purpose, and meaning to one’s life

A nice reminder that policy wonks, and advocates of human enhancement technology, need to be mindful of the effects on relationships, social cohesion, political stability and anomie, and not just the more "material" outcomes of health and income.

WHO Commission on the Social Determinants of Health

At this year's World Health Assembly, WHO Director-General Dr LEE Jong-wook announced the start of a process to act upon the social and environmental causes of health inequities. The launch of the Commission on Social Determinants of Health will add to existing UN efforts to increase vulnerable people's chances for a healthy life. Differently from previous WHO approaches to social determinants, the Commission's edge will be in strongly advocating for political action on the key social factors that influence health.
The most important objective of the Commission on Social Determinants of Health will be to leverage policy change by turning existing public health knowledge into an actionable global agenda.

Vital to the Commission's success will be strong partnership with other UN agencies, as well as with national governments, bilateral agencies, civil society groups and the private sector. Much knowledge on social determinants and what works to address them already exists among the UN specialized agencies, in countries, and in affected communities.
For example, it is known that poor people and those from socially disadvantaged groups are sicker and die sooner than people in more privileged social positions. Inadequate medical care explains part of these differences, but science shows that most suffering and death and the bulk of global health disparities are the result of social factors. These include poverty, gender and ethnic discrimination, education, nutrition, access to water, housing and children's early life conditions."

Causes of third world debt, and famines

Or, "'Our' crimes vs 'theirs'"

Two related quick quotes today, one from new-kid-on-the-blog International Rooksbyism about British chancellor Gordon Brown's latest partial third world debt cancellation (there have been other debt reductions announced in previous years, but they weren't very impressive overall):
"The second thing I recommend here is Mike Davis's 'Late Victorian Holocausts' (Verso, 2001). In this Davis sets out the 'hidden history' of the Victorian era - the massive famines that swept through third world countries in the age of colonialism and imperialism. Davis shows that it was the integration of (what are now) third world economies into the global capitalist system that lead to the almost unimaginable death tolls which he sets out - death tolls he points out which are virtually unrecorded in most mainstream historical accounts of the Victorian era (the victors of course, write history - we hear of the dreadful famines that ravaged Mao's China for example, but little about the capitalist famines). The brutal opening up of Indian, South American etc markets and their integration into the world system of liberal capitalism by imperial powers had devastating consequences. Davis tells us that in India, for example, 'there were 31 serious famines in 120 years of British rule and only seventeen recorded famines in the entire previous two millenia' (Davis, 2002, 287). Davis points out that today's third world poverty can be traced back to the effects of Victorian imperialism."
Read more here
And the other from an interview with Noam Chomsky, about two key conclusions of the feted Nobel-prizewinning enconomist Amyarta Sen: one about famines (widely known) and one about malnutrition (which I didn't know, probably because it's one of those things that are scarcely mentionable in the mainstream media):

"The biggest component, and the one that’s prominently discussed in the first issue of the New York Times Review of Books for the millennium, of this alleged 100 million is the Chinese famine around 1958-1960. Maybe 30 million died. Sen points out that, although India used to have plenty of famines under the British, since independence it hasn’t had famines like that. So there was never a famine in India since, say, the early 1950s, in which huge numbers of people died, as they did in China. He says this is related to specific forms of socio-economic and political and ideological development. India is more or less democratic. It has a free press. Information comes back from the bottom to the top, and if there are signs of a famine, the central authorities will know about it and there will be protest about it. In China, a totalitarian state, no information gets back to the center and any protest will be smashed, so they probably never knew about it until after it was over. Crimes of communism, traceable to the nature of the system.

"That’s half of what he says. The other half of his inquiry, which somehow escapes notice, has to do with another difference. He says China in the late 1940s began to institute rural public health and educational programs, as well as other programs oriented towards the mass of the population. India played the game by our rules. It didn’t do any of this and there are consequences, for example, in mortality rates. These started to decline sharply in China from around 1950 until 1979. Then they stopped declining and started going up slightly. That was the period of the reforms. During the totalitarian period, from 1950 to about 1979, mortality rates declined. They declined in India, too, but much more slowly than in China up to 1979. Sen then says, suppose you measure the number of extra deaths in India resulting annually from not carrying out these Maoist-style programs or others for the benefit of the population, what you would call reforms if the term wasn’t so ideological. He estimates close to four million extra deaths every year in India, which means that, as he puts it, every eight years in India the number of skeletons in the closet is the same as in China’s moment of shame, the famine. If you look at the whole period, it’s about 100 million extra deaths in India alone after the democratic capitalist period enters.

"Suppose you were to undertake the same calculations that are used quite correctly to count up the crimes of communism? It turns out that in the leading democratic capitalist country of the South, in fact of the world, if you count population, that country alone up until about 1980 has produced about 100 million dead, the same number that’s attributed to all the communist countries of the 20th century in the world."

Slashdot: Europeans To Monitor American Voters

Slashdot, September 27, 2004: The United States is known as being the world's most stable democracy. But since the Florida 2000 fiasco, things have changed. Europe's famous Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) will now be monitoring the U.S. elections. The institution normally monitors elections in third world countries in transition, and in crisis areas or regions where civil wars have destabilized the political process. In november, the OSCE will be monitoring local and state elections in Kazakhstan, Skopje, Eastern Congo, Ouagadougou and... the United States. As the BBC reports, for some Americans this comes as a humiliation; others see it as a necessity, since they have lost trust in the American election process.
The BBC article only says: There have certainly been objections to the involvement of foreign monitors in the domestic affairs of a country which sees itself as a beacon of democracy. Of course the discussion of Slashdot is more heated. Some readers consider this as "an insult to America" or "a slap in the face". But it is a fact that in most European countries nearly everyone thinks that the 2000 presidentials were not clean as these things should be, and that this had a big, negative impact on the rest of the world. This feeling would probably not be so widespread if at the time of the 2000 presidentials there had been independent observers to certify, if appropriate, that no fraud took place.