Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Summary: Human Autonomy, Technology and Law

I’d like to thank our bloggers for their many thought-provoking posts: Frank Pasquale, Jennifer Chandler, Kieran Tranter, Gaia Bernstein, Lyria Bennett-Moses, Lisa Austin, and Samuel Trosow (also thanks to Jennifer for suggesting the blog topic). Many thanks as well to Jim Chen for administrating the techtheory blog, and for helping out with technical glitches. Final thanks to those individuals who provided helpful comments.

At the outset of this blog on the topic of 'human autonomy, technology and law', we asked whether we controlled machines or whether machines controlled us, and what did all this have to do with law.

Not surprisingly, the diversity of views expressed on this topic resists any straight-forward summary.

Our bloggers and commentators explored technologies that included cosmetic surgery, nuclear weapons, cell phones, surveillance technologies, digital copyright protections, databases, Facebook, neurocosmetics, reprogenetics, email, videotext systems, Blackberries, Neanderthal tools, airplanes, handguns, virginity-restoring surgery, human growth hormones, insulin, genetically-modified canola, fMRI, and even parenting styles.

Areas of law discussed included torts, copyright, privacy, cyberlaw, space law, virtual law, civil procedure, contracts, property, constitutional, family, labour, and mental health (nobody mentioned my personal favorite ‘tax law and tech change,’ but don't get me started on that one...).

A number of our bloggers drew from works from non-legal academic disciplines with an emphasis on the ways that philosophers, sociologists, political scientists, historians and economists have struggled with technology theories as well as perspectives on the relationship between human agency and technology. Views ranged from the near-impossibility of staving off technological determinism ('those darn machines do control us!') to emphasizing the ways that people adopt and successfully resist technology ('we aren't going to let mere machines push us around!').

Those bloggers who fell toward the ‘machines control us' perspective tended to support more interventionist legal policies while those who identified more closely with the human agency position seemed to take a more 'wait and see' attitude and were reluctant to change the legal status quo in an aggressive manner as this could unduly upset traditional legal interests.

Many comments seemed to fall within the middle-ground that accepts the potential for human willpower within technological determinism. This position appears to track the 'soft determinism' perspective articulated by some technology theorists (which, in turn, is related to the philosophical notion of compatibilism that holds out the prospect of free will in a deterministic universe). This perspective could require a careful examination of the facts and circumstances of each legal issue to see whether technological determinism could harm legal interests.

Accordingly, how one thinks about the blog topic can carry important consequences with respect to both legal analysis and the ultimate legal/policy recommendation meant to address situations where law and technology intersect.

A final note: a collection of works on general law and technology theories and perspectives, including some by repeat bloggers at this site, has recently been published in a book entitled Law and Technology: An Interface from Amicus Books, Icfai University Press (edited by K Prasanna Rani).


Blogger Gaia Bernstein said...

And thank you Art for organizing this round of blogging!

3/10/2009 3:04 PM  
Blogger Prokofy said...

I think the debate isn't just "do machines rule us or do we rule machines" in online virtual communities. What it boils down to is whether code is law, or the rule of law is based in organic human institutions and culture, and whether coders are going to be subjected to liberal democratic participation, or become authoritarian or even totalitarian. Machines, after all, don't have "a mind of their own" even with "artificial intelligence"; coders concretize their will for how those machines will behave in code they decide. The question is: can non-coders/users/the general public exercise some democratic civilian control over this New Class?

Social media really ought to be revolutionized with more democratic oversight over coders:


The reason is that coders have a certain set of cultural beliefs that they inevitably weld into the technology, limiting choice. These beliefs can range from extropianism and extreme transhumanism with notions of "The Singularity" (the Geek Rapture), where no dissent is ever brooked because "technology is always good" "forget about privacy on the Internet" "if you can see it you can copy it" and other memes; or they can include multiple feedback channels where change actually occurs from influence by non-coding users, and not just with a "vote yes" device or bug tracker.

3/16/2010 3:00 PM  

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