The Increasing Pace of Digital Change: Why Does Our Culture Always Seem so Blindsided?

I have previously written about the legal implications of augmented reality apps such as Pokémon Go. Mine was one of many articles on this topic, most of which decried the negative implications of AR technology. The basic premise was that society is not prepared to effectively deal with the social and legal consequences of augmented reality; for example, the types of legal claims that will be asserted for property damage, personal injury, invasion of privacy, sharing of private data, etc.

However, there is another perspective which most of us who write about these matters have not addressed: why has all of this so blindsided our culture at large? That is also a question worth asking.

Let’s start with the fact that many of my law firm’s clients in the industry, e.g. developers, licensors, IT professionals, have been speaking about this. But why have so many of our political, business and media leaders not been listening? The science fiction writer William Gibson famously said “the future is already here—it’s just not very evenly distributed.” Perhaps we might now add the corollary that the future has arrived, but most are not aware of it.

Articles sounding the alarm about the unintended consequences of such advances as the advent of augmented reality tend to promote knee jerk reactions among the leaders of our cultural institutions. However, that only provides the appearance of addressing the issues—the proverbial “debate by bumper sticker”—but it ignores the complexity of the underlying social impact of the increasing pace of change in our digital world. Setting aside the often-discussed legal challenges engendered by augmented reality apps such as Pokemon Go, here are a few examples of other some digital quandaries that confront us:

  • Are the IT best practices that are being implemented to secure the digital information of businesses in America so inadequate that a complete reordering of those protocols nationwide is necessary? In other words, is it possible that our best practices regarding security are not really the best practices available?
  • While it is true that there have been almost no deaths nor injury resulting from prototype driverless cars, it is likely that when they are introduced on a larger scale, it will result in at least some such tragedies. As discussed in a recent Newsweek article, will we be more comfortable accepting the high number of deaths caused in whole or in part by human fallibility (approximately 33,000 annually) than we are respecting an even infinitesimally small number of deaths caused by malfunctioning computers?
  • If a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) is relatively free and the equivalent coursework while matriculated at an institution of higher learning is in the $40,000 – $60,000 range, is the difference in cost proportional to the benefit of actually attending that school?
  • How can digital technology improve speed and access to our court system, an institution whose rules and traditions are still largely unchanged from the period before the computer age? Setting aside the admitted incremental improvements such as e-filing and internet access in the courtroom, why can’t we go beyond that so that Americans can have access to a digital library of all litigation documents and view streaming video of all hearings and trials in our court system? True, there would need to be certain privacy protections put in place; the access would need reasonable limitations. However, most attorneys would agree that the process of opening up our court system to the public has generally not kept pace with the improvements in our digital world.

The surprised, and to some extent panicked, debate over the advent of augmented reality apps highlights that our cultural institutions are largely incapable of anticipating the increasing pace of technological advancement. Something has to be done to improve the capacity of those sometimes sclerotic cultural institutions to adapt more quickly.

Perhaps one solution is to redouble our efforts to build bridges with receptive politicians, journalists and business leaders in order to educate them about the otherwise obscure cyber-world. I fully acknowledge that many of them are simply not willing (nor sometimes capable) of considering a nuanced treatment of these complicated issues. Nevertheless, our culture needs to find a way to be more open to debating the role of digital technology without sensationalizing it, nor dumbing it down. The more this debate centers on facts rather than fear—a real assessment of what is likely to happen, rather than dwelling on an attenuated prediction of the worst (or best) that might occur—the more productive the discussion will be. Real communication about real issues in an ongoing dialogue is the key. Your thoughts?