Thursday, September 27, 2007

New technologies and old sins

Today CNN has a report on how the use of Google Earth shows that a group of US Navy barracks are shaped like a swastika, which can be used as excuse to analyse a series of issues. The first and more obvious relates to the discussion as to whether today’s standards can be applied to things and actions done in a completely different technological environment and to whether, barring any statute of limitations, people or organizations can be found guilty/liable based on that new standards. Before carrying out the analysis of that issue, it is important to point out that in the case of the barracks, the intention or reckleness were cleary there when built because in order to built such large buildings blueprints were needed and the shape had to be obvious then on paper as it is now from the sky. That allows me to make a huge digression into a myth usually accepted in the US, and that is that after the IIWW most Nazis fled to Argentina, Brazil and Chile. While it is true that Eichmann and Priebke were both found in Argentina, fw years ago it was finally acknowledged (through Nazi War Crimes Disclosure Act and Freedom of Information Act requests) that many, if not most, Nazis went actually to the US and they went there to work for the US government (it would be interesting to see who the architect and others related with the barracks’ design were).
Going back to the new standards applied to old actions, and recognizing that following established principles of criminal law allowing the use of new evidence and law when they benefit the defendant are not in question, the issue becomes thorny in business and academia. For example, this year the an anonymous source showed that the PhD dissertation of the president of Sourthern Illinois University, Glenn Poshard, had been plagiarised by proving that “in one instance, a 68-word passage from another source is used without quotation marks or citation” and, furthermore, “an 80-word section, also missing quotation marks and citation, is taken from a source with only a few minor changes, such as switching a verb from "has been" to "was."” (from the Chronicle of Higher Education, subscription needed). I don’t know Dr. Poshard, I haven’t read the dissertation, I don’t want to read it and I couldn’t care less, but it seems clear that in today’s technological environment, with Google and Turnitin, one could expect that those minor issues to not exist, but to use the same standard for something done in 1984 could imply to misjudge the situation (again, with the easiness that those things could be checked today, one would expect that for a PhD dissertation not such “mistakes” be made, although some are still reasonable, but when the whole search and recording was done manually, the issue was not about academic integrity but about faultless organizational skills, which although needed were not what a PhD implies).
That simple example (the issue is quite more complex because the "plagiarism wars" in SIU started when a teacher was fired for copying a two-page teaching statement) can show how current technologies can invade a form of privacy that normally is not taken into account, which is the breach resulting from the crossing of temporal boundaries, and relates to the fact that many heavy ICT users are not aware of those boundaries and by posting things online they blur the limits not only between offline and online but between past and present…As always, the conclusion is that more education is needed.

1 comment:

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