Articles by Sonia Arrison

Sonia Arrison is an author and policy analyst who has studied the impact of new technologies on society for more than a decade. A Senior Fellow at the California-based Pacific Research Institute (PRI) and a columnist for TechNewsWorld, she is author of two previous books (Western Visions and Digital Dialog) as well as numerous PRI studies on technology issues. A frequent media contributor and guest, her work has appeared in many publications including CBS MarketWatch, CNN, Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and USA Today. She was also the host of a radio show called "digital dialogue" on the Voice America network and has been a repeat guest on National Public Radio and CNN's Headline News.


“We’re at the beginning of an unmanned revolution.”  That’s what Gary Kessler, who oversees unmanned aviation programs for the US Navy and Marines, told the AFP.

According to the article, “Robots or “unmanned systems” are now deployed by the thousands in Iraq and Afghanistan, spying from the sky for hours on end, searching for booby-traps and firing lethal missiles without putting US soldiers at risk.”  This revolution is at hand because saving the lives of soldiers is very popular, which also happens to be part of a meme that is blocking President Obama’s health care plans.

That is, Americans expect technology to help save lives, even those that are in the most danger (hello robot drones).  Any move to limit the use of technology to save lives (i.e., denying high tech care to those deemed “too sick or too old”) is guaranteed to hit resistance.

This month, the Federal Communications Commission begins drafting a national broadband plan as part of the 2009 stimulus package. This is not the first government attempt at broadband ubiquity, so the FCC can learn from past failures.

The commissioners have less than eight months to “ensure that all people of the United States have access to broadband capability,” as well as provide additional guidelines for using existing high-speed Internet infrastructure to support more than a dozen socioeconomic and political objectives.

Officials can sift through more than 1,700 suggestions from a gamut of activist groups, lobbyists and interested consumers. Many of them see the answer in some form of social and economic engineering by government bureaucrats, price controls, wealth redistribution, or other regulatory mandates. Nothing could be further from the truth. Now, as in the past, the FCC should reject proposals that are hostile to market forces.

A new public fund to subsidize Internet access for poor and rural residents is not likely to be effective. Consider the case of E-Rate, a US$2.25 billion FCC fund created in 1997 to connect all children to the Information Age by underwriting up to 90 percent of the costs of hard-wiring classrooms and libraries. Since its conception, however, E-Rate has been a bust. Public and private reports detail the regulatory loopholes, rubber-stamped “gold plated” networks, and criminal abuse.

After disbursing more than $20 billion in funds — collected, ironically, from fees that raise the cost of monthly phone bills — the FCC has still failed to establish basic accountability measures for E-Rate, and according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO) this March, excessive rules and paperwork keep thousands of schools from seeking reimbursements for legitimate costs. If the FCC is too inept to structure and manage our broadband funds properly today, what will make tomorrow any different?

Read more here.

Here’s an informative article from h+ magazine on how the FDA currently argues that culturing adult stem cells amounts to the creation of a new drug.  This of course would mean long time lags for getting stem cell procedures approved, which has prompted the creation of at least two groups: the American Stem Cell Therapy Association (ASCTA) and Safe Stem Cells NOW! (both focused on adult stem cells).

It doesn’t make sense to me that my own cells would be considered a “drug,” but Dr. Christopher J. Centeno who was interviewed for this article by Stephen Coles says that “The FDA is working to protect the interests of Big Pharma.”  Yikes — if that’s the case, it’s a huge setback for personalized medicine.

Here’s a new study released by the FreedomWorks Foundation regarding yet another Hollywood lawsuit — this time against RealNetworks.  FreedomWorks Chief Economist Dr. Wayne T. Brough argues that “the lawsuit will do little to achieve its stated goal of curbing DVD piracy and protecting intellectual property since the RealDVD product does not permit users the ability to burn movies onto a disc or load movies onto the web.  Instead, the lawsuit, if it wins, would not only ban RealDVD, but set a dangerous precedent in hampering competition and technological innovation in one of the most dynamic sectors of the economy.”

This seems to me to be a continuation of Hollywood’s efforts to maintain its old business models in a new era, but if I am missing something I’d love to hear about it.

Earth Day is fast approaching, yet despite the awareness this day brings, most people are powering their computers with electricity from coal-burning power plants, delivered by “dumb” networks. Change is long overdue, and it’s not a difficult matter.

The electricity grid’s basic structure hasn’t changed much since Thomas Edison came up with the idea back in 1882. That’s a long time with little innovation, especially since electricity demands continue to rise. Some might argue that the grid didn’t need changes and it’s not wise to mess with a system already working. That argument no longer holds, anyone who lives in California’s Silicon Valley knows. Blackouts and shortages are a constant worry every summer and the grid is unable to properly handle newer and cleaner sources of energy such as solar and wind.

Worse, when a blackout does happen, the utility company usually doesn’t know until someone phones in the problem. That’s because the system can’t sense the problem — it is “dumb” and only sends inputs one way. So how come the grid isn’t smarter, and what can we do about it? The answer is not as complicated as one might imagine.

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This week, a federal judge blocked a prosecutor from filing child pornography charges against three teenage girls in northeastern Pennsylvania over risque cell phone pictures they took of themselves. This respite from the bizarre “sexting” scandal allows time for a national dialogue on an issue that goes deeper than simple changes in technology.

“Sexting” is short for “sex texting,” or the practice of sending racy pictures via text message. Twenty percent of teens admit to distributing nude photos of themselves, according to a recent survey by the National Campaign to Support Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy — a statistic that probably disturbs parents but shouldn’t surprise anyone who remembers what being a teenager was like.

Teenage hormones are almost always raging, and many teens are reckless and looking for attention. Deploying child pornography laws to deal with this reality is like using a sledgehammer to kill a fly. If the girls are found guilty of these overblown charges, they would face not only the possibility of jail time, but also the requirement to register as sexual offenders for at least 10 years.

Clearly, such harsh punishment would be overkill, but the situation is indicative of the growing mentality that government must play the central role in fixing every problem society encounters.

Whether disciplining teens or restructuring failed automobile companies, government is more often than not becoming the “go-to” place for help. Those on both the political left and right have been involved in this slow move to relinquish individual responsibility in favor of government control, so there is plenty of blame to go around.

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The Seattle Post-Intelligencer ceased print publication this week to focus solely on the Web, a transition that frightened some in the publishing business, coming so shortly after the Rocky Mountain News shut down. However, as many in the tech industry are aware, this is simply a form of “creative destruction” that should boost both choice and economic activity in the longer term.

“Creative destruction,” a term coined by Joseph Schumpeter in his 1942 book Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, means exactly what it says — the process by which a new technology or structure replaces the old and builds a new infrastructure. This is how progress happens and capitalism moves ahead. For a clear example, think back a century or so, when Henry Ford released his first prototype automobile, relegating the horse and buggy, and the buggy whip industry, to obsolescence.

Most would agree that such creative destruction resulted in a good outcome for society. Yet, not everyone is willing to let such revolutions take place without a fight. Indeed, some politicians have proposed bailing out newspapers, as the federal government has done for failing automakers.

“The media is a vitally important part of America,” said Frank Nicastro, who represents Connecticut’s 79th assembly district and advocated for a state government bailout of The Bristol Press. Likewise, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is hinting at federal intervention to help the embattled San Francisco Chronicle.

Read more here.

As the Associated Press put it recently, “Talk of a New York tax increase just got a little, er, hotter.”   But seriously, at a time when the nation is about to spend $787 billion on a so-called “stimulus,” new taxes on top of what we will already be paying is scandalous.  New York is going to go through very hard times, and new taxes on digital downloads will only make things worse.  In a recent story by NPR, the hosts noted that to avoid the tax, porn makers could just leave the state.  Such a move might make local conservatives happy (although they are unhappy with the tax because they see it as legitimizing porn), but it would indeed push more businesses out of the state (as was the case with overstock.com) and ironically harm tax revenues in the long run.

The news of octuplets born recently near Los Angeles shocked many people, especially since the mother, Nadya Suleman, already had six children and is reported to be jobless and living with her parents. Such rare stories certainly sell newspapers, but they can also lead to knee-jerk calls for overly restrictive regulation, which threaten freedom and innovation.

Already, comment boards and blogs around the Web are rife with calls for greater government oversight of the reproductive technology field. Yet Nadya Suleman’s story is atypical and obscures the great strides being made in assisted reproduction due to the reality that the field is relatively free from bureaucratic interference. An international comparison illustrates this point.

Last month, UK newspapers were gushing with the news of the first British baby to be genetically screened before conception for a breast cancer gene. This is great news for the baby, who will now avoid a 50 to 85 percent chance of developing breast cancer, but it is old news for people living in the United States. According to Sean Tipton of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, screening for the BRCA1 cancer gene in embryos has been “common practice for at least five years in the U.S.” If that’s the case, why is Britain only seeing its first baby pre-screened for a damaging cancer gene now? The answer is regulation.

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Read more here.

Here’s an excerpt from my column at TNW today:

Currently, 60 percent of Facebook’s teen users have implemented privacy controls, compared with only 25 percent to 30 percent of adult users. This is an interesting statistic, given the common assumption that members of the younger generation don’t care who sees their data. It is probably also a sign to entrepreneurs that there will be greater demand in the future for people to do more with their profiles, meaning more than one. That particular question brought up more controversy than one might expect.

If people could have more than one profile, argued Facebook’s Chris Kelly, the user experience would break down.

“It is important to have a single identity, and you may want to show different parts to different people,” he said.

Not everyone was convinced. Indeed, as Jim Dempsey pointed out, in real life people often showcase very distinct identities in different situations.

When at work, for example, people have a career persona. When at a spouse’s event, they don their spouse persona, and when picking up their children from school, they show their parent persona. Many people like to keep these personas separate. Now, of course, people often tell coworkers about their kids, but they don’t necessarily want to be defined that way in the context of their workplace. Being able to keep these identities apart in a more convenient way may very well be the next big social network innovation that consumers can’t wait to embrace.

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