Show Me The Strength of Your Singular Eye

In the American Colonies, before the Revolution, taxation was done at the whim of a Parliament in which American tax payers had no representation whatsoever. But far worse for many Americans caught a-foul of the law, settling disputes and penalties with the British legal system often meant showing up in court in Merry Old England herself. Such a voyage in those days meant months and years away from the very properties these Americans we trying to maintain, to say nothing of the lost income and extra expense of the voyage, lodging in England and the like. It was precisely these types of extreme hardships – much more so than the taxation itself – that prompted a few well-educated and wealthy Americans to start plotting the Revolution.

The American Revolution can therefore be thought of in a certain context as a radical renegotiation of the relationship between the ruler and the ruled. Not simply a reinvention of government, but forging of a new principle of power sharing, supported by thousands of legal pleadings in British courts, up to and including the final and most famous Declaration of Independence.

But I don’t recall having reached any such deal with cameras or computers.[1. Title of this post provided by a lyric from Yes: Machine Messiah]

More and more municipal governments, including most recently Rochester, have been employing red light cameras and other automated means of handling law enforcement issues. This is raising many legal and ethical concerns among many quarters, as Doug Emblidge points to in his above-linked blog post. My concern may seem oblique, but it seems to me that implicit in the negotiation of law is the fact that law exists as a guidepost towards justice, not an iron-clad set of parameters from within which a computer program is expected to perform.

This is not an abstract concept for philosophy classes, nor is it a plot for some 1970’s “computers take over the world” scenario movie. No set of circumstances which deviates from the law yields any other outcome for a computer than a violation of that law, and even if the issue can be resolved in a court, we once again require that potentially innocent people take time out of their lives to prove thier innocence – or potentially fail to – at the behest of a set of arbitrary laws.

Cops do not issue tickets for every violation they see. They don’t even issue tickets for every person they pull over. Computers contain no subroutines for compassion or clemency.