The Future of American Law
When I talked to my brother, a former law student, about his take on the law and technology, the last thing I expected was for the conversation to turn to Twitter. I remember wanting to be a defense lawyer when I was in middle school – reading several John Grisham novels to educate myself – but when it dawned on me that I might have to defend someone who had committed a crime, my perspective changed. Before that realization, I had the idea that a defense lawyer keeps the good guys out of jail and puts the bad guys in. Simple as that. What I learned over the years, and after conversations with my brother, is that the law is much more fluid than that, and technology is only slicking the wheel.
My brother, Alan, chose to study law because he had a desire to affect change in people’s lives, to perform a service that was very much needed. “I wanted to do something that people couldn’t do for themselves,” he said as we chatted over the phone, “even lawyers feel that they can’t represent themselves well. The law,” he continued, “is filled with intellect, complications, tricky things that need to be navigated. And I found it fulfilling.” Currently, he work near his home in central California, in the field of computer information, designing applications for business websites.
Having recently become familiar with some public questions surrounding a person’s right to map their own genome and who that information belonged to, I asked Alan what he thought about it, and if he believed that people should be entitled to privacy of their genetic code, and what it would mean for the law if there were disagreements surrounding protocol and who owned what information.
“I don’t think there will be any laws preventing anyone from mapping their genome,” he said. “Eventually, it’s just going to be part of science, and part of the medical practice. It used to be illegal for you to reproduce if you were repeatedly convicted of crimes. In fact, there were even measures taken to ensure that you wouldn’t be able to reproduce.” When I remarked that such a law seemed discriminatory, Alan agreed.
“Oh yes, the law definitely is, and is going to continue to be, discriminatory. There’s no way to avoid that; it’s just the way it is. When you get down to it, the law is all based on the concept of right and wrong, and people have different ideas about what right and wrong mean. I mean, the law can only go so far, and it will never be able to enforce morality. Never. Nor was it intended to enforce morality. People don’t care as much about principle; they just want to know what they can do and what they can’t do, and while the heart of the law is inspired the idea of right and wrong, it’s practical application is driven by action.”
Fair enough. But I have to wonder what happens to trigger an act? Does one think a series of thoughts, experience a wave a feelings, or perhaps neither – acting on blank instinct? What are the factors in the creation of an act?
“How about the definition of humanity?” I asked my brother after a few minutes. “Do you think the law has any say about what it means to be human? Say that technology alters humans so much that they begin to look and act radically different. Where does the law come in, if at all?”
“Well,” he said, “the law will never reach a point where it defines a portion of humanity as a new species. Look at all of the alterations that we do to our bodies already. Plastic surgery, even taken to the extreme, may be alarming or look freaky, but when you get down to it, no one actually says, ‘that’s not human.’ Maybe in jest, but not as a serious issue.
“And in any case, laws are slowest to change. People create the change, and then the law follows, not the other way around. It wasn’t laws, for instance, that emancipated the slaves in the 19th century; it was the people who decided to change the way they were living. The laws were just there to guide, but it was the moral code that societies adopted (the moral thing to do being to follow the law) that really produced a change.”
I asked Alan if he thought that media had any influence in lawmaking.
“Absolutely,” he said. “Any government that allows its people to be a part of the legislative process also has to deal with it’s people’s perception of the laws that are being made and carried out. Take the coffee/McDonalds case, for instance. There was so much media hype about that case that the facts got lost. People came away from reports of the trial thinking, ‘Oh, if I spill come coffee at McDonalds, I’ll get a million bucks’ but that’s not really accurate. In fact, the woman who sued was only asking for $27,000 – the cost of her skin grafts from the burn she sustained from coffee that was made way too hot. The media influence perceptions of that case big time.”
“Another thing I learned in law school,” Alan continued, “was that the law in our country is much more flexible than I had originally thought. I mean, you can have laws changed simply by having a conversation; two attorneys plead their cases before a judge and a decision is made. There’s no voting, no forum. Our laws are just very flexible.”
“But the invention of social media has changed the way we interact,” Alan said. “I love Twitter because I don’t get information that’s been filtered through a news source or public relations. I get my information from the people themselves.”
I have noticed how social media has changed the law already. In fact, last year I heard a radio announcer commenting on how much usable information Facebook was giving divorce lawyers. “There’s no such thing as real privacy anymore,” Alan declared. I’m inclined to agree. You’ve got to be careful what information you feed your technology. I almost wrote, “You’ve got to be careful what you type,” but typing is only one way our computers, cellphones, personal data devices, etc. obtain information. With the ability to use voice commands, braille, and images to get our points across, being careful what you type seems like an antiquated warning.
When I think of a futuristic legal system, the first thing that comes to mind is Steven Spielberg’s 2002 movie, Minority Report. Set in 2054 and based on a short story of the same title by Phillip K. Dick, Minority Report presents the idea of PreCrime, a specialized police department that arrests criminals based on crimes they will commit in the future. The movie presents the role of media in a future state where electronic advancements make its presence nearly boundless, and addresses the question of free will vs. determinism, or more specifically, asks whether we still have free will if our future is set?
I have to wonder how technology will continue to influence our media, and in turn, how the media will influence our perception of the law and consequently, our own moral code. Does technology produce a more moral people, or are we creating lawlessness?
And apart from merely asking conceptual questions, do we let our actions be guided by technological determinism? Is the future already decided?
Some say the future is bright, and in many instances I would agree, but I have to ask myself:
Is that sunshine I see ahead, or rows and rows of florescent bulbs?