Consumers, politicians, toolbars: Full of bull

Identifying BS is not as easy as people always expect

I am reading a fine book: On Bullsh*t, by Harry G. Frankfurt, professor of philosophy emeritus at Princeton University. Now you may think that BS is a risible topic, but, as Frankfurt points out, BS matters.

The book begins: "One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much [BS]. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted. Most people are rather confident of their ability to recognize [BS] and to avoid being taken in by it."

Frankfurt points out that BSers "misrepresent themselves to their audience not as liars do, that is, by deliberately making false claims about what is true. In fact, [BS] need not be untrue at all. . . . They quietly change the rules governing their end of the conversation so that claims about truth and falsity are irrelevant."

So what does such philosophizing have to do with the world of IT? Plenty. There's all the technology marketing BS that we wade through, the BS of corporate politics and the BS of simply doing IT. And then there's the subject of this column: online BS.

What got me so riled up is a toolbar for Internet Explorer, MySpace Guardian, published by myspaceguardian.com. This "tool" was launched in the middle of last year, and if you search the Web, you'll find plenty of stories that make it sound like the toolbar does something good and effective. The pitch for MySpace Guardian is as follows: "The MySpace Guardian helps protect parents and children from potential predators on MySpace."

At first blush this sounds laudable. MySpace is, after all, a primary online venue for sexual predators, isn't it? Well, maybe, maybe not. No one actually knows and the handful of stories of teenagers getting themselves into trouble hardly adds up to the level of risk that professional BSers, such as politicians, have claimed.

For example, Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), in arguing for the ridiculous Deleting Online Predators Act of 2006, claimed that MySpace, Friendster and Facebook "have become a haven for online sexual predators who have made these corners of the Web their own virtual hunting ground." The reason this is BS is that in this hyperbole there are so few facts, just a handful of real cases along with lots of stories and supposition.

So what does MySpace Guardian actually do? "The toolbar notifies MySpace members when other members add content to their MySpace pages. . . . Other ease-of-use functions included are quick access to any major search engine, and Skype users can send and receive calls directly from their browser." OK, but this is not related to the central goal, and it is certainly a rather random collection of features. What else?

"Users can search a database of registered sex offenders in a selected radius around their location or by name, alias, height, age and any combination thereof. . . . Users can also notify authorities directly from the toolbar if they suspect that they have been contacted by a sexual predator."

In other words, when it comes to the sexual predators on MySpace, the toolbar does nothing at all! Voila! BS! But the pitch gets better, at least as far as being BS: "MySpace Guardian is dedicated to protecting children online. With our tools and a combination of other child-protection tools, such as SearchHelp's Sentry parental-control software and sexual predator alerts, we intend to keep our users safe online." BS!

What is so disturbing about MySpace Guardian is that it does nothing to remotely address whatever problems might be associated with MySpace but implies that it does. This is definitely BS as defined by Frankfurt: "It is just this lack of connection to a concern with truth -- this indifference to how things really are -- that I regard as the essence of [BS]." MySpace Guardian qualifies as BS on the BS!

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Mark Gibbs

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