Editor’s note: Dr. Kevin P. Lee is CLII Founding Director, Campbell Law School.
RALEIGH – The holiday season is a time for reflection. For the futurists, this means reflecting on the moral meaning of technology.
It has been quite a year!
Questions about Facebook’s operations raised concerns about the evolving nature of networked technology. Some of these issues deal with human rights, such as the apparent disregard for the psychological wellbeing of young female users. While the right to be free from manipulation is well established, there is no precedent for brainwashing and traumatizing minors through voluntary use of a social media network.
Similarly, revelations about Facebook’s interventions into democratic elections raised some prickly questions about the nature of the social media forum, the proper role of it in democratic discourse, and the proper scope and limits of free speech.
Finally, the use of private personal information continued to challenge established conceptions of privacy and the types of injuries that breaches of privacy can cause.
These developments suggest some important aspects of information technology that will continue to challenge traditional social and legal norms. They disrupt the legal system, both in its foundational assumptions and in the mechanisms by which it functions.
Foundational questions about the moral nature of human beings are posed by the natural sciences, which reveal that binary information plays a role in human identity. New metaphors, like information “exhausts,” are gaining ground in some places to describe the information trails that people leave behind — trails that define space and time and thus render the old metaphors of privacy law obsolete.
Similarly, the role of democratic discourse is undergoing some fundamental revisions. Part of this involves the ability to use social media to stir up powerful emotions. The need for an understanding of political emotions seemed critical this year, since our politics achieved a near fugue state in which our national identity seemed to be forgotten. The philosopher, Martha Nussbaum, has observed that modern political theories do not have robust accounts of moral psychology. Nonetheless, moral feelings play a powerful role in explaining political action and crafting consensus.
The ability to distinguish decent passions from obscene took center stage this year. It is a skill that needs to be taught with some urgency. Nussbaum argues that justice needs love, but experience teaches that ill-directed love can quickly lead to unchecked demagoguery.
The rule of law itself seemed to evolve this year. Although the evidence suggests that law always evolves. Harvard Law Professor, Morton Horowitz, argued long ago, that law was transformed by evolution of society from the founding era, which had a roughly Lockean understanding of natural law, to legal positivism in the twentieth century. Also administrative regulations were an early 20th century development.
But, while these previous evolutionary trends occurred gradually, the changes that are happening now are deep and rapid. The rule of law, traditionally conceived of as stable, even eternal, has been a bedrock for a modern democratic society. Law is needed for a healthy society, and therefore rapid changes in society can create a demand for more rules. And, where the standard sources of order are unable to generate rules with sufficient effect or at an adequate rate, other nontraditional forms of rules will develop. Smart contracts, DAOs and NFTs appear to contend as new, distributed, ways to generate rules that meet the social demand for ordered systems. They could represent the next step in the evolution of law.
All of this suggests that contemporary information technology is evolving within the context of new narratives through which human beings attempt to understand themselves.
The new technologies enter those narratives, transforming the goals and purposes that humans believe are the meaning of their lives. Armed with new self-understanding, they will refine their beliefs and try to refine their lives. Perhaps this reveals something about the meaning of technology: It is not separate from the human story, but a fundamental part of it.
That is to say, to be human means, in part, to augment ourselves (and especially our cognitive abilities) in order to achieve lives in which we can hold ourselves to high esteem, not only for our material effectiveness, but also for the discernment of wise and judicious purposes.
The story of technology is our story – our human story. And for this reason, there can be no absolute boundary between the science and the humanities. Sciences are always human, since they are always know by human minds and contribute to the narratives of human self-understanding.