Sunday, February 17, 2008

My New Book

At the end of December, Oxford University Press published my new book: Law in an Era of “Smart” Technology. It's for sale on Amazon, among other places.

It’s a difficult book to describe. Essentially, what I set out to do is to figure out why we keep adopting what are usually called technologically specific laws. The best (or worst) example I can think of are the laws in a few U.S. states that outlaw “computer theft” – the act of stealing a computer or computer equipment.

Most of the technologically specific laws are more subtle than these computer theft laws, but they all suffer, in my humble opinion, from the same essential flaw: They focus too much on the technology and not enough on the underlying “harm” the law is intended to address, and remediate. My concern is, of course, primarily with criminal laws, but as I note in the book criminal laws often tend to be the “canary in the coal mine,” in that they tend to be the first to address new social problems. That is particularly true of technology because, as some researchers have noted, the “bad guys” are often the first adopters of new technologies.

In the book, I explain a bit about what “law” is, what it’s intended to do and how it does that. Then I trace the development of laws directed at technology from the earliest “tool” technologies, through the “machine” technologies that emerged in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and then through the “consumer” technologies that appeared at the end of the nineteenth century and throughout the twentieth century. In doing this, I focus on two kinds of laws: “use” laws and “misuse” laws. “Use” laws are primarily intended to ensure that technologies are implemented effectively and safely; licensing provisions for airline pilots are an example of “use” laws. “Misuse” laws are, obviously, intended to prevent technologies from being used for improper purposes; the obscene telephone call statutes that began to be adopted a little less than a century ago are a good, basic example of “misuse” laws.

I point out that all of these laws, along with the laws we are adopting to deal with more evolved computer technology, assume we have a single, distinct relationship with technology: We “use” it.

Then I get into what, for me, anyway, is the most interesting part of the book. I analyze how the evolution of “smart” technologies – technologies that incorporate varying levels of artificial intelligence – must change the way we approach law, including law that has some impact on technology. I outline developments in “smart” technologies and explain how these technologies are likely to evolve. I then argue that our relationship with these technologies will move from one of “use” to one of “interaction.”

We will interact with these technologies, often unconsciously, because they are to some extent intelligent and because they will increasingly be embedded in our environments. We will become increasingly unaware of the fact that we are utilizing technologies because they will recede into the background of our world. As that happens, we move from “using” technology to “interacting” with technology and that shift, I argue, will require a correlate shift in how law deals with technology. I could tell you more about that shift, but I should leave a bit of a cliffhanger, in hopes people will read the book.

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