Law in Contemporary Society
As I was reading the Internet this morning, I came across a post on the Daily Dish that articulated some concerns about reading and thinking that have also come up in LCS class discussions, albeit briefly.

The point of the post is that technology is causing people to read and think differently, and likely for the worse. I am reminded of Eben's comments about how poor reading skills represent "a societal fail." He mentioned television and push media, but also the outsize reading assignments of law school.

How we think

My own experience is that push media and oversize reading loads can be barriers to reading and thinking well. I think the "drinking from a firehose" metaphor is apt for 1L year, and that the challenge is exacerbated where there are also other streams of inputs constantly flowing as well. I think technology takes a situation that is already suboptimal and makes it worse. Push media normalizes the fragmentation of our attention and impedes sustained thought. On a national level, I am horrified to read news reports quoting politicians' 140 character, misspelled, ungrammatical "tweets" about this or that issue du jour.

What we think

I think this is a relatively banal observation, although I think that the problem is under-discussed compared to its gravity. It also seems difficult to tell what to do about it. But I think there's another important dimension here: impacts on what we think about.

I think one effect of the size of 1L reading assignments is that pushes, structurally, towards substantively orthodox legal thinking. If the goal is to wade through 60 pages and quickly identify takeaways, there's no time to consider first principles or alternative approaches. I am reminded of Noam Chomsky's argument about the political ramifications of the requirement for "concision" on the part of guests on television shows: heterodox arguments require more elaboration and evidence, since they are not built on propositions already assumed by the audience, so enforcing concision ends up enforcing conventional thinking.

I'd be interested to hear others' thoughts about how technology, in conjunction with the size of our reading assignments, affects reading and thinking - and also what might be done about it.

-- DevinMcDougall - 07 Mar 2010

I agree that technology causes people to read and think differently, however, I'm not sure it is for the worse.

On the whole, I agree with Eben's viewpoint that television is one of the main culprits of "poor reading skills." But, I think it is too facile to think that television and other things are universally bad. I remember reading this book by a pop-Science author Steven Johnson called Everything Bad is Good For You, " where he argues (rather speculatively at some points) that modern television shows actually help us comprehend complex narratives (see "multiple threading") and develop portions of the brain responsible for multitasking. I left the book at home so I can't really go into more detail. But I'll have it in less than a week if you want to borrow it.

To the more substantive point here: Yes. 1L reading assignments do push us toward substantive orthodox thinking. I see a drastic difference in the way I behave during days when I read and days when I'm not reading. And, I feel like law school in its form and structure is built to stifle creativity and crush our limbic system. My thought is that it has something to do with the way lawyers and judges write which is often, but not always, very dry and verbose.

For example, I feel like on this Moot Court Brief we are being encouraged to do absolutely nothing creative. What can be done about it? I'm not sure. I think Eben's course offers one good answer: listen to music. It stimulates completely different parts of the brain. Music always puts me in a more creative (and often better) mood when Law School drags me down.

-- MatthewZorn - 07 Mar 2010

Devin, the comparison you draw between technology and our reading load is very interesting. Regarding their respective “firehose effects,” you mention the major cognitive consequences—poor reading skills/ non-creative legal thinking. I would emphasize the psychological consequences—apathy, dependence. Having all this information coming at us at all times makes us care about each additional piece of information less. At the same time, we have come to depend upon the constant stream of info such that its sudden disappearance would traumatize us. We are becoming weaker, feebler animals, in my opinion.

Regarding the reading load, I think it engenders the same feelings of apathy and dependence. The assignment of heavy reading is one tool by which CLS controls what we think, but this occurs on multiple levels. Consider, for example, the way in which the casebook authors select and excerpt cases. First, a few hundred cases are chosen out of the universe of cases because they best fit into the authors’ tidy paradigms. These authors then sculpt the cases down in various degrees to fit their agenda perfectly. By “their” I refer, not merely to the agenda of the casebook authors, but also that of those who control the casebook authors—Foundation Press and the like. Now, we have so much reading that few—if any—of us actually go look up the full opinion after reading the casebook version to see what the case is really about. Here, then, is where I locate apathy.

This holds true, I believe, whether or not I refer to students who actually do all the reading, some of the reading, or none of the reading at all. We simply accept the excerpted version, condense it further for note-taking purposes, and never think of it again (until finals, perhaps?).

-- KalliopeKefallinos - 10 Mar 2010

Here's an interesting article about how technology is affecting the self. I personally feel more a member of the television generation than the Internet generation, as I'm not very active in the social networking world and greatly enjoyed my year abroad when I didn't have a cell phone, but definitely relate to the boredom he discusses. Either way, good food for thought (if you have the attention span to read it!)

-- RorySkaggs - 29 Mar 2010

This is a long but excellent essay about the manner in which television affected the thinking of a small subset of Americans (fiction writers). Although it's pre-"internet age", I think a number of his observations are salient today.

I completely agree with the general notion that the enormous amount of reading required for our law school classes reduces the actual amount of thinking I do. Sometimes, I find myself wondering if the goal of this isn't simply to make me think about the law in a certain way, but to think about law school in a certain way. After all, when television encourages us not to think, it's doing so for a very specific purpose: to sell us something. Television takes us out of an active thinking mode and into one of passive watching. TV shows are then geared to elicit specific emotional "highs" in viewers at each act break - in other words, just before the commercials run. The idea isn't to put us in a state where we will come to the careful conclusion that a Ford Focus really does make sense for us, but to create in us an emotional state that makes us receptive to and excited about the possibility that we, too, could own a Ford Focus.

The Law School is also trying to sell me something: namely, that a large law firm job, with a particular salary is the absolute pinnacle of achievement for a law school graduate. My workload doesn't only leave me no time to think, it can also make me feel like I'm slow, like I know nothing, like this thing called "the law" is an extraordinarily difficult subject to master. To me, at least, this creates an emotional state (comprised of feelings like stress, lessening of self-worth, etc.) that prepares me extraordinarily well to accept what the school is selling (as well as depriving me of the time to actual think about, examine and weigh the validity of those feelings). Then again, maybe all this rain has just brought out my cynicism...

-- JohnSchwab - 30 Mar 2010

John, I agree with you that the law school workload can be stupefying and stupid-making. My experience has also been in line with those of you who feel pushed towards orthodoxy in legal thought. I think this has less to do with what and how much we are reading and more to do with how it is being taught. At first, this upset me. I felt stifled, and complained on this wiki and to anyone who would listen that law school was a distinctly anti-intellectual experience. I have changed my mind, however.

Yes, there is a lot to read. Sometimes class is boring. But the way I am thinking is changing, has changed, and I'm glad of it. Eben was right: we are learning a different language, and language acquisition is hard. Once you get it, though, the world opens up to you.

A story: I spent my junior year in high school living with a French family in a tiny town in Brittany. The first months were exhausting physically, mentally, and emotionally. Then, all of a sudden, things started to slide into place in my mind. I'll never forget the first time I dreamed in French, and the feeling of euphoria in the morning. Magic!

I haven't felt quite that euphoria yet (something tells me euphoria is rather hard to come by round these parts), but I have felt things sliding into place. To bring this back to the technology discussion, I have found that 1.5 semesters of law school has helped me access and understand the world in a much more fulfilling way. I don't own a TV, and before law school I rarely read the news or listened to the radio - I much preferred the ostrich approach. Now it seems like everything has something to do with the law, and I'm excited because I actually understand what is going on. From the Citizens United decision to the debate over the constitutionality of the health care bill to patents on genes to the recent (excellent) profiles on Sonia Sotomayor and John Paul Stevens, there is no end of subjects to grapple with. I would bet my last dollar that most of you already were interested in these things before law school, but for someone like me, who is crawling out from under a rock, this is heady stuff. Without technology - NPR in the morning, the Internet throughout the day, even the NY Times on my iPhone when I'm on the train - I wouldn't have a prayer of keeping up with the news, especially in law school.

That said, I still grapple with memory problems and wish that Eben would sprinkle a little fairy dust on my head and turn me into a genius. I understand the apathy and the stress and have felt it myself, but I do believe that there is hope on the other side: we have a unique opportunity to understand and to engage with the world, and to do good work in it. Maybe that's just the sunshine talking, though.

-- CarolineFerrisWhite - 01 Apr 2010

I often tell myself that this year is going to be completely aberrant in relation to 2L and 3L year and that if by its end I don't think I'm thinking creatively enough or out of the box etc that it will have been a function of the workload and nothing else. I keep telling myself that there will be time for all of this - especially what Prof M. was talking about in class - in the two years to come. Is this silly of me? Maybe. But it's getting me through and avoiding some of the frustration I felt last semester.

-- JessicaCohen - 01 Apr 2010

Update: Wired story on internet's effect on cognition and learning.

Slightly off topic but while listening to NPR a few mornings ago (in reference to Caroline’s post), I heard an amused (and amusing!) recounting of a study (set of studies?) on children and lying. Evidently scientists have found a correlation between a child’s ability and propensity to tell convincing lies, and his or her intelligence.

Here's an interesting nod to Veblen from last week's New York Times.



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r13 - 14 Aug 2010 - 13:16:03 - CourtneySmith
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