Serge Boucher

I'm a computer scientist at ULB, focusing on databases and the semantic web. I'm also a musician and photographer.

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« Social Sharing Needs to go | Main | Nobody Cares About Apps »
Wednesday
Feb012012

Advanced Bullshit

Besides giving the best solution ever to the problem of dealing with overwhelming and irreconcilable commitments, David Allen's Getting Things Done introduces the interesting concept of advanced common sense, i.e. ideas that seem trivial at first glance but are revealed as profound after you work on them for a little while.

The flip side of this coin can be called advanced bullshit: ideas that look insightful at first glance, but are revealed as completely worthless after a little investigation.

Exhibit 1, a photo montage apparently shared by all my facebook friends and their brother:

Wow. A guy whose only crime was sharing music on the internet got 50 years in prison, while murderers get away with 20 years or a few months. What a sick sad world we live in.

Or do we? Let's dig just a little deeper.

I couldn't find any corroborating evidence on Miguel Carano, the "middle guy". But a man convicted of rape and murder getting 20 years in prison is hardly news. Some would argue he deserves the electric chair, or at least life in prison with no possibility of parole. I think we can all agree that anyone who commits such a heinous crime should be put away for a very, very long time. Which is exactly what reportedly happened here. Not news.

The main story I took from that picture, and I'll guess most viewers did as well, was about the two extremes: one guy got 50 years for sharing music, another didn't even get 3 months for killing 24 men, women and children.

The latter's story is complicated. At one point he was by all accounts a great kid, who chose to serve his country by enlisting in the US Marines around the turn of the millennium. In 2005, that led him to patrol duty in contested areas of Iraq. At that time, a convoy under his direction struck an IED, which literally cut one of his comrades in half.

The events that followed this will never be precisely known, but they clearly led to the death of 24 civilians who had nothing to do with the bomb that triggered the massacre. Whatever happened, Frank Wuterich was the commanding officer of the group that killed civilians, and as such he certainly bears responsibility for the death of innocent people. According to several testimonies, he straight out executed innocent civilians as retribution for the deaths of his comrades. Again, we'll never know exactly what happened, but had I been on the jury, I'd have made the case that he shouldn't ever be in a commanding position again (which seems to be the case), and I'd have argued for a lengthy prison sentence as well.

And yet, to say that this man "killed 24 men, women and children" without any context whatsoever seems to me an unacceptable simplification. I don't know about you, but when I hear about killers, I think of cold-blooded murderers who don't give a shit about human life. I'm certainly not one of those, but if I ever see one of my close friends blow apart before my eyes, I can't totally rule out going insane and committing unpardonable crimes. We've known for a long time that wars make good people do unspeakable evil. Should those people be held accountable for their crimes? Undoubtedly. But assimilating those crimes with those of psychopaths who, under no particular threat, slaughtered human beings only because it was convenient, seems morally indefensible to me.

So what about the first guy, Kim Dotcom Schmitz, who only shared music on the internet yet was sentenced to 50 years in prison? Well, the first thing of note is that he's done quite a bit more with his life than sharing music. He was convicted of fraud and embezzlement a decade ago, and his activities since then have been shady at best. By all accounts he's a ruthless businessman who's only in it for the money. Nothing wrong with that, but describing him simply as a guy who "shares", Jimmy Wales-style, is a tad disingenuous.

More importantly, he has not been sentenced to 50 years in prison. He's only been arrested during an ongoing investigation. What sentence he faces for his alleged crimes is anyone's guess, but the "50 years" figure seems to me 100% made-up. Maybe I should have started this post with this fact, which proves the whole premise of this picture is complete bullshit. In reality, the only thing Kim faces at the moment is extradition from New Zealand to the US, where he'll face charges of copyright infringement or I don't know what else (IANAL). Those charges might add up to a lot, I have no idea, but those "50 years" seem to me a completely arbitrary number, which was devised not as a realistic estimate, but as some figure that would suggest the other two criminals got away easy.

Maybe I've been reading too much Kahneman lately, but this picture strikes me as a perverse use of the halo effect masquerading as social critique: you like file sharing, thus you assume Kim Schmitz is a really good guy who's being unfairly treated. You dislike the Iraq War, thus Frank Wuterich is surely a blood-thirsty murderer who deserves to rot in prison for the next century or so. None of this helps you or anyone else think any clearer about the legality of file sharing or the appropriate way to prosecute soldiers who kill civilians. The only thing it does is fuel righteous indignation, which may be psychologically satisfying but really doesn't help in the long run.

Now, don't get me wrong: if you believe military personnel who abuse their power and commit atrocities towards civilians should face harsher punishment than they currently do, I entirely agree. If you believe current anti-piracy laws are at best ill-designed and in practice unduly harsh on infringers, again, I completely agree.

But these are important debates, and we should address them from rational bases, grounded in real, ascertainable facts. My point is that an artificial juxtaposition of Kim Schmitz and Frank Wuterich, and the sentences they face, accompanied by ridiculously incomplete background info and utterly made-up numbers, doesn't help these debates at all.

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