Dropping magnets on the moral compass

CNET has a story today on the latest obsession of our esteemed Representatives in DC: House passes ban on “morphed” erotica.

An excerpt explains: In their April ruling, a 6-3 majority of the justices wrote that Congress’ first try at banning "morphed" porn was akin to prohibiting dirty thoughts. "First Amendment freedoms are most in danger when the government seeks to control thought or to justify its laws for that impermissible end," Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority. "The right to think is the beginning of freedom, and speech must be protected from the government because speech is the beginning of thought." Prosecutors argue that the COPPA bill is needed, since otherwise it is too difficult to prove that an actual child was involved in the production of an electronic image on, say, a seized hard drive. .

Here’s another example of how weird the world is getting due to technology, and how morality itself is often shaped by the medium.
Anybody who thinks this is an easy question is missing the big picture (so to speak).
If a picture is worth a thousand words, and the picture is not of something “real,” then what do the words say?
We used to not have to worry about this problem. It was obvious in an analog world, or at least provable with the help of experts, that a photograph had been doctored, or that a film had been edited and lit to fool the eye.
Not so with CG creations. They’re getting better and better. When they show someone doing the physically impossible (like Spiderman) no big deal, because 1) what he’s doing is obviously a trick and 2) it’s not especially illegal or harmful to anyone except street thugs and supervillains.
But take a few minutes to deftly edit the image of 21 year old woman engaged in sexual activity to look like a 16 year old youngster, and even though what you’ve done is somewhat disgusting, it didn’t hurt anyone physically. Yet you could end up in prison. That seems absurd, right?
But how about this… you’re trying to find and prosecute members of a child porn ring. The only physical evidence you have is a bunch of jpegs on a computer showing pictures like the one described above, along with other scenes. The technology has made it so that we cannot assume these pictures are showing the real thing, although in this case based on testimony of others involved you pretty much know it’s really going on.
If you can’t grab this sicko with the evidence in hand, because it’s possible that it’s “morphed”– now what do you do?
I’ve certainly oversimplified this, but the bottom line is that what we have taken as ‘reality’ over the last couple of centuries is being dissolved before our eyes. Even eyewitness testimony and fingerprinting are known now to be much less conclusive than we could previously, comfortably assume.
So, now, how are we going to sort the baddies from the virtual baddies? If only technology could give us a way to see into one another’s hearts?

Author: Andrew Hinton

I use information to architect better places for humans. More at andrewhinton.com.