The Dumb Courtroom In A Dumb City

In an op-ed that is almost certain to be viewed with analog dismay, Shoshona Saxe observes that our love of new, shiny and smart has gotten a bit ahead of itself.

As we know all too well from our personal lives, tech products have a short reliable life span. We accept regular disruptions in internet and cellphone function as a fact of life. Technology ages rapidly, with glitches increasing common only a couple of years into its life.

Yet, “smart” technology is all the rage. Cities proclaim themselves smart by putting cameras everywhere and developing infrastructure scheme based upon as-yet uninvented technologies, mass data collection and the promise of AI to make it work.

Yet, our zeal to pray at the altar of tech and empiricism, the glorious future tech promises, ignores the obvious. What we know already gets ignored by the blinding promise of the future.

New technology in 2015 will be outdated before 2020. If we widely deploy smart tech in cities, we need to be prepared to replace it every few years, with the associated disruption and cost. But who will assume those costs?

Who will run these magnificent systems? Who will suffer when they fail, and they will fail because systems fail, usually at the least convenient times? What happens when a future administration, a future disruptive technology, goes in a completely different direction than the last “best thing ever” idea? The list of questions is long, but culminates in the biggest question.

The most critical question, however, is whether having a smart city will make us meaningfully better at solving urban problems. Data and algorithms alone don’t actually add very much on their own. No matter how much data a city has, addressing urban challenges will still require stable long-term financing, good management and effective personnel. If smart data identifies a road that needs paving, it still needs people to show up with asphalt and a steamroller.

The questions raised have an analogous appliction to what we’re doing in law, both in infrastructure and concept.

As an infrastructure engineer, I seek the simplest effective solution to a problem with a minimum of negative consequences. What will be durable and effective over the long term? Tech solutions to urban challenges are often a Rube Goldberg machine, a fun but unnecessarily complicated approach to solving challenges with more direct solutions.

As a lawyer, I do the same. On the one hand, there are the futurists of law who believe that algos can remove bias from our systems and technology can expedite our work, freeing up time to either make more money or serve the poor, according to whether they want us to pay for the tech directly or want government to pay for it.

It’s already been more than a decade since lawyers started believing in the future of a paperless office, which is good for the environment and less expensive, both in hard costs, like paper in ink, and real estate, where old files are stored. When you go to court, you plug in your technology device of choice into the newly fabricated courtroom of the future and your chart and graph appear on a big screen for the judge and jury.

Ever been in this magnificent, newly-built courtroom of the future? Does the outlet on the defense table work? Is the wifi down, or merely inadequate to handle the demand? And when you plugged in and nothing appeared, what did you tell the judge, the jury, as they sat and waited? Then there’s the nasty incompatible program, the device conflict, the failed but ubiquitous, “I don’t know why” that the IT guy in a Pink Floyd t-shirt says.

The beloved legal futurist, Richard Susskind, called it when he said, long ago, that email was the future of legal communication. And he was right. But he hasn’t been right about anything since, even though legaltech conferences continue to ask him to be their keynote speaker, while griping about lawyers being averse to technology.

Rather than chasing the newest shiny smart-city technology, we should redirect some of that energy toward building excellent dumb cities — cities planned and built with best-in-class, durable approaches to infrastructure and the public realm. For many of our challenges, we don’t need new technologies or new ideas; we need the will, foresight and courage to use the best of the old ideas.

There is a word in there that could easily be missed by someone skimming over the paragraph: durable. Our world is becoming increasingly disposable, use it and when it fails, throw it out and get a new one. We accept failure as natural and inconsequential, and yet for the people for whom the law fails, it’s a big deal.

As new technologies infiltrate the law, new modes of failure are being created. Facial recognition technology, for example, is nowhere near as good as the TV shows pretend it is, and yet it starts the ball rolling that brings a SWAT team crashing through the door. Same with familial DNA, which might be close enough to place the culprit within seven degrees of Kevin Bacon, but when they point guns at your tweens (just in case), a puppy might run out and yap, setting off an unfortunate event.

And what of the dreaded, yet beloved, algorithms that will be used to Minority Report criminals, set bail, fix sentence and, perhaps, tell us who’s lying? It will, in the “smart” mind, eradicate discrimination and achieve the “justice” that we know has long eluded us, and who doesn’t think that’s our better world?

Except that big data and empiricism is telling us what we don’t want to hear, what we refuse to believe. Some people are poor because they’re lazy, not oppressed. Some people are just venal. Some are uneducated because our conflicted fantasy of inclusion has denied them inclusion in the mainstream of accomplished society and left them as perpetual outsiders.

Data doesn’t give a rat’s ass what we want to believe. Technology fails constantly, which we’ve assimilated as just an unfortunate fact of life. Yet we believe that the courtroom of the future will be fabulous because it’s shiny and new. This isn’t to say that “smart” tech, “smart” reforms, “smart” data, should be rejected. It’s to say that, sometimes, the smart future is based on dumb durable systems, and we would be far better off putting our efforts into making them better than coming up with magic solutions based on the newest, shiniest promises of Mr. Goldberg’s ironic contraptions.

36 thoughts on “The Dumb Courtroom In A Dumb City

      1. wilbur

        My view is that it’s a free country; an adult can do whatever xhe wants to their body,

        But I have yet to encounter an individual whose looks were improved by a tattoo.

  1. Cinnamongirl

    Ever try to find an outlet to charge your phone in Bronx Supreme or any of the courthouses built at the turn of 20th century? Ever do a preliminary/ compliance conference cattle call in 80 Centre where there are 100 lawyers screaming for the other side in a room the size of a shoebox? Ever try to find your case on the calendar when there are 150 cases posted, but for some inexplicable reason they are not in alphabetical order, and you have to find your case with 10 bobbing heads in front of you? Ever walk into Queens Supreme with a soaking wet umbrella and coat and realize you have to schlep these around while you fumble with your files and hope to keep them dry, because there is no lawyers lounge?
    All I ask is for is basic infrastructure: a place to hang my coat and charge my iPhone.

    1. SHG Post author

      Yes.There’s a lawyers lounge in 100 Centre Street, except being a lawyer isn’t enough to get you into a lounge in a public building. You have to be a dues-paying member of the NYCBA. Even so, if you leave your umbrella there, you can be sure it will be long gone by the time you get back.

      1. neoteny

        Even so, if you leave your umbrella there, you can be sure it will be long gone by the time you get back.

        Is it so because the place is frequented by lawyers or because it is frequented by New Yorkers?

    2. John Neff

      My son who travels frequently carries a plug strip with him and that means his phone and the phones of several others are charged. I know this is unrelated but it might be useful.

  2. delurking

    Don’t be such a grumpy old guy. Technology is much more reliable than in the past, that’s why we use it for more stuff.

    But I’m sure it’s fun when some lawyer points the laser pointer at the big flatscreen and nobody can see the spot, because the nearly perfect specular surface has redirected it right into the judge’s eye.

    1. SHG Post author

      Remember those old, bakelite telephones, where they had wires connecting the phone to the wall, and from there to the world? Two people could talk at the same time and hear each other. Voices were crystal clear, and you could hear every word. They never faded in and out, calls weren’t dropped and there was no frustration from repeating “sorry, I didn’t hear you”?

      Much more reliable isn’t the same as reliable. Even that tech which works only works until it doesn’t. See that big pile of super cool once-beloved iPhones outside your window, the ones with, get this, earphone jacks? I know, right.

      1. delurking

        How much did the calls on those phones cost? You can still get that call quality, at much lower cost than you did back then. You still have to be wired to the wall to get it, though. Apples-apples.

        Back when I talked on those old telephones within the US, they did work well. However, calls to Europe sucked. Cell-cell calls to Europe are now much better than wired calls to Europe ever were. Extrapolating from one narrow thing is always prone to error.

        Why do you equate obsolescence and reliability? Different things change at different rates at different times. Now it is cells phones changing rapidly, 25 years ago it was desktop computers, 75 years ago it was locomotives.

        1. SHG Post author

          How was I absolutely certain you would reply? That telephone calls have become commodities rather than a minute-by-minute expense is an improvement. That the chances of talking landline to landline for a young person is negligible is not. This isn’t about hating technology, but about distinguishing between what’s durable and what’s not.

          I used an example to challenge your gross assertion about tech being more reliable. Some is. Most isn’t. Focus.

          1. Sgt. Schultz

            Lawyer logic recap:

            Delurking: Simplistic assertion without basis.
            SHG: Example disproving simplistic assertion.
            Delurking: Nitpicking collateral issues with example.
            SHG: Explaining distinction, then returning to original point.
            Delurking: Digging hole deeper, because simplistic narcissist will not be denied.
            SHG: Wuss, posts follow up comments and hijacked thread devolves into orthogonal irrelevence because he refuses to put an end to simplistic narcissists compulsion to keep digging.

            Seems about right.

            1. neoteny

              Nitpicking collateral issues with example.

              The issue of cost is never collateral to the application of technological solutions. Engineering is precisely about providing the cheapest technological solution to a particular set of problems.

      2. Jeff

        I remember those old bakelite phones. They were great, they even worked in a power outage because the phone switch sent a charge down the line to keep the phone active. To your point, however, they only worked until they didn’t. When they broke, calls only worked one way, or not at all for days to weeks depending on where you lived.

        Unfortunately, this technology is subject to much of the same gripes about which wireless tech gets complained, or the internet of stuff, for that matter. It’s possible that the rose colored glasses are on, or perhaps you haven’t ever encountered it yourself, but the old solutions were also problematic.

        I get your point with regards to not relying on technology, but where to make the cleave is an issue. While it’s true that modern solutions are bolted on to the side of the old ones (sometimes literally), those old ones are built on top of still older pieces of tech that were new and shiny at one point, yet still full of bugs that never quite got fixed properly, and it’s possible that many of the issues we see today are just amplified ripples stemming from that old crap that’s still in use. It’s garbage all the way down.

          1. Jeff

            No, I do get the point, and I agree (and I’m sure you’re exhaling with relief at the revelation), this was just an aside down the rabbit hole that I’m going to stop digging into, regardless of my perspective. See, it is possible for us to learn.

  3. wilbur

    My father used to tell me about when all calls had to go through an operator. If the recipient was on a party line they rang it two longs and a short (or whatever signal belonged to that recipient). It must seem like the Middle Ages to kids nowadays.

    1. SHG Post author

      It’s still a crime in NY to refuse to yield a party line in an emergency.

      A person is guilty of unlawfully refusing to yield a party line when, being informed that a party line is needed for an emergency call, he refuses immediately to relinquish such line.

      Fortunately, it only applies to men.

  4. Richard Kopf

    SHG, speaking of tech, pretty soon lawyers and judges will never have to worry about what a word or phrase means in the Constitution or a contract. A computer will provide the answer.

    Corpus linguistics is a new legal academic sub-discipline that uses large databases of examples of language usage equipped with tools designed by linguists called corpora to better get at the meaning of words and phrases in legal texts. It is all the rage. See, e.g., Eugene Volokh, Corpus Linguistics in Court? Two Sixth Circuit judges debate the issue, in an opinion filed today, The Volokh Conspiracy, Reason (7.10.2019).

    Color me unsettled, old and perhaps useless. Dimly, I see a far off light in a narrow tunnel that appears to be approaching rapidly but I walk on toward the approaching beam anyway.

    All the best.


      1. Norahc

        Sorry, but Justice Watson was given the three finger salute and his decision must wait until he finishes rebooting.

        1. LocoYokel

          That symbol is hate speech towards synthetic beings. How DARE you!?!? Now I’m triggered and need a tamagotchi.

      2. DaveL

        Actually his ruling was simply “42.” We’re going to need to build a better computer to figure out what that means.

  5. Jake

    I miss having to stand no more than 6 feet from the wall-mounted rotary phone in the kitchen to make plans with my friends, one call at a time.

  6. JohnM

    Lay off Pink Floyd man. Don’t knock until you try it. Laser Floyd rules!

    Unfortunately not a Tuesday rules day.

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