Law in the Internet Society

Why Even Try

-- By GregorySuhr - 07 Nov 2017

Should I change the way I interact with technology?

My technology problem is two-fold. (1) I am getting dumber, and (2) the machine is getting smarter. I thwart any chance I get to digest an experience because a quick peak at the phone now occupies the moment where digestion is supposed to occur. Furthermore, as I prevent my own retention, I simultaneously leak information to an external body.

My Brain

I have an acute problem with engagement. Dramatic as it may sound, I can actually feel it: the constant attentional tug-of-war that leaves me frustrated and exhausted. Maybe you (classmates) do not have this problem. Perhaps you have the type of self-discipline that allows you to ignore the thing in your pocket that calls out your name, but I have seen enough classmates in enough classes surfing Amazon and texting to think the problem is close to universal. You and I might even follow the same study plan: read a couple pages, Facebook, read a couple more, incoming text, read the next two, check the email, and so on until “completion” of the task, where “completion” means not that we can converse fluently about the reading, but that we reached the assigned end-page and knew it was okay to stop and pull out our phone for a more extended surf. If my classroom observations are not enough, there are formal studies that show how a person’s iPhone (negatively) affects their brain power, even if it is just sitting there. According to those studies, even when I am reading (two pages at a time), I am not really reading, because I am expending cognitive capacity exercising the will to not check my phone. Whether in my pocket, or in my hand, my iPhone occupies space in my brain.

This is not just a library-boredom problem. Besides not being engaged in reading on a level beyond the words that appear on the page, I am not present in a conversation at a level that would allow me to read body language, and I do not listen to directions in a way that would enable immediate action. If the bulk of my human interactions happen on the surface of a five by three screen, how should I be able to study somebody’s eye contact, whether the blood is rushing out of their face, or the nuances of their physical stance when speaking to me? And instructions are available on Google or Westlaw, so why pay attention the first time around?

An effective attorney should be able to pick up on facial cues. He recognizes that certain situations require getting it right the first time, post-haste, and thus cannot afford to miss directions. He understands that if he is nearby an exchange of information, it is in his professional interest to be present in that moment. Above all, he realizes that this problem does not just go away the day he decides to leave his iPhone at his desk. These are not automatic abilities that turn on and off depending on the presence or absence of the iPhone. These are skills, they are developed through practice, I want them, I severely lack them, and there is still time to practice them before I am thrust into the professional world. This is one reason I should change the way I interact with technology.

Not My Brain

I am bleeding information everyday. This issue is difficult to truly feel. With my attention problem, I can hold a mirror up to my subconscious-self every time I “wake up” and find my iPhone in my hand during an important moment. The data-leaking problem (with my lack of technical know-how) has no such mirroring opportunity; I cannot see me as the machine sees me. Further hindering the ability to internalize this issue: for many of us not yet destroyed by our own digital trail, the problem is not a disaster in the flesh, just a disaster in the making. It is akin to the EIP-dilemma in Law in Contemporary Society. In that course, we tell Professor Moglen we need EIP, just like we need our smartphones, to stay relevant both socially and economically. He shows us different options (i.e. living proof that neither are necessary for relevance). We tell him that EIP will not really damage us because we are armed with an exit strategy and an iron will, just like we say unprotected data will not really damage us because nobody has any reason to watch us, viewing each piece of data we leave behind in its isolated, not aggregated, form. Then we are shown all the ways either can damage people just like us (we read up on the rates of alcoholism and depression of attorneys in Big-Law like we read up on de-anonymizing anonymous search histories that contain our searches, or data breaches over the same compromised Wi-Fi that we use, or stalking of everyday folks like us via GPS-enabled devices). But pictures of other people do no work like a mirror, and so, as sure as my iPhone is still in my pocket, a hell of a lot of Law in Contemporary Society alumni were at EIP.

While this problem may be more difficult to internalize than the one above, its implications are far heavier. My career, my safety, my very identity is on the line; the question is whether I accept the risk of ruin. Any of us who plan on dropping our name in the running for some public office, investigating individuals who have the power to investigate us right back, or handling any sort of life-or-death information on behalf of a client (like any driven attorney should plan on doing) should not wait for the potential data disaster to come to fruition. If you are like me, you are an open book for those with resources and expertise, and “open book” has likely never been a term used to describe an effective attorney.

But if the essay is the serious representation of your idea, then the passivity with which it doesn't experiment with solving your problems is very striking.

The method for figuring out how to change seems accessible. You could, for example, leave the phone home for five days in a month, keeping a list (ink on paper) of the difficulties actually encountered during those days. With some workarounds for the most serious likely "inconveniences" established, leave the phone home for two solid weeks the following month. Fix the remaining problems you encounter by not using a smartphone.

After that, stage 2.

Why not rewrite the essay after at least one of these steps? Instead of remaining in the position of thinking about why it would be too frightening to encounter as real problems that can be encountered as theory, you can then think and write from the vantage of someone changing something.

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r2 - 03 Dec 2017 - 22:16:57 - EbenMoglen
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