Chapter 9

Technology, the State, and the Law

The Professor, Nellie, Ellen, Dorcas, and Lucas are already in discussion in the seminar room when Johanna arrives. She is about to apologize for her lateness when she spots Alicia's speaker on the table in its usual position.

Johanna: (irritated) I thought we were through with having that thing in the room.

Lucas: What have you got against computers?

Johanna: They are inhuman--especially this one that pretends to be a person.

Ellen: No more inhuman than the capitalist exploiters of the working class.

Professor: I see that you are all warmed up to discuss the next chapter of the text.

Nellie: Yes, and I had an interesting idea as I read it and thought about some of the technological innovations we have been discussing.

Professor: Go on.

Nellie: What are computers good at that people are not?

Lucas: Data storage and retrieval.

Ellen: Sorting information.

Johanna: Nothing.

Alicia: Johanna, would you care to calculate the square root of six thousand two hundred forty-three correct to ten decimal places?

Johanna: Perhaps in a year or so.

Alicia: I can do it in less than a millionth of a second.

Ellen: I use computers to look up legal precedents. It's a lot faster than hiring secretaries to page through hundreds of volumes of case law.

Johanna: What about the rights of those precious workers of yours to a job?

Lucas: O.K., so your point's made, Nellie. Computers are good at searching for data and doing large calculations. This Chapter is about the state. Are you suggesting that they take over the government?

Johanna: God forbid.

Ellen: Who?

Nellie: Ellen, what's the biggest problem facing the legal system today?

Ellen: That the poor cannot get justice.

Dorcas: Won't the magistrates hear the cases of the poor? In my time, there are some who have to be bribed, but the Roman legal system generally does work fairly, even if it is very harsh with the enemies of the state.

Ellen: The problem is the long wait to hear cases and the complexity of the law. Like I said before, for less than ten-thousand dollars it isn't worth bringing a law suit; it's just too much aggravation. It can take years for the simplest of cases to come to trial, and more years to settle them. The rich know this and use it to trample the poor.

Dorcas: But, law is a part of the social structure; for pragmatic reasons alone it must be made to work or there can be no structure.

Lucas: The real problem is too many shyster lawyers looking for loopholes to get their guilty clients off.

Ellen: (rather sharply) A common, but ignorant misconception. Without the universal rights guaranteed by law, there would be no equity at all--just a feudal system run for the benefit of the wealthy.

Lucas: But, too often the guilty go unpunished

Ellen: Better to have that once in a while than to have fundamental rights violated.

Lucas: Let me give an example. There is a gang in my High School who broke in last weekend and trashed three classrooms before they set off an alarm.

Nellie: They were caught?

Lucas: Yes, but they were back in class on Monday.

Nellie: (outraged) What?

Lucas: They are all under the age of fifteen. The police don't think its worth having them raised to adult court, so they won't be tried for a crime, and the school can't expel them either.

Nellie: If I were a teacher, I'd refuse to have them in any of my classes.

Ellen: You can't do that.

Nellie: Why not?

Ellen: The law protects children like them from both prosecution and discrimination.

Lucas: These are no children. They have been running in a gang for three years or more. Every one of them has been picked up by the police any number of times for break-and-entry, shoplifting, vandalism, even assaulting a police officer. Nothing ever happens to any of them, and they just get bolder all the time. They run a protection racket in the school and have threatened to kill people who won't pay. In fact, a teacher was stabbed in the hand last month and the whole thing was hushed up because he was afraid he would lose his job if he complained.

Nellie: Seems to me it's time to get a group of people together and quietly pound a little sense into them.

Lucas: A couple of them have guns. You could get killed for your trouble, and still nothing would happen.

Ellen: It is better to put up with the occasional inconvenience than to sacrifice rights.

Dorcas: I do not really understand all this. Is not everyone responsible for their own actions?

Ellen: In this case, society is responsible, and poverty is the main issue. Children act irresponsibly because of their upbringing and their surroundings. If all injustices were stopped, there wouldn't be such problems.

Lucas: (Ticking them off on their fingers) One guy's father owns a brewery and is worth tens of millions, another's family has a clothing store chain, a third is the son of two doctors, a fourth the daughter of a teacher in the school, and only one of the other four comes from a broken family. I have never known my father or mother, grew up in an orphanage, and have never been in trouble at school. They're just a bunch of spoiled, snobby brats.

Dorcas: Let me pursue this, Ellen. You claim that there is such a thing as universal rights for rich and poor. Do you mean that such rights derive from the law? If so, it would seem a simple matter to change the law and bring justice to these malcontents.

Ellen: No, it is the law that is the consequence of pre-existent universal rights.

Dorcas: Such rights are a consequence of a universal morality, then?

Johanna: Human rights are derived from the justice of the universal struggle to escape from suffering. Morality has nothing to do with it.

Lucas: Last time, you argued that abortion was absolutely wrong. Aren't you being a little inconsistent?

Nellie: (seeing Johanna flush, and desiring to return to the point) Let's get back to my question. Ellen, why is the legal system so slow? Why do simple cases take a long time?

Ellen: Because every case is a potential minefield of cross-connected laws and precedents. It takes a long time for the lawyers and judge to examine all the precedents and decide what they mean in the context at hand.

Lucas: I think I see what Nellie's getting at. There's at lot of potential for error in all that, isn't there, Ellen?

Ellen: (reluctantly) Well, yes. Case law is so large that you can never be sure you have checked all the precedents or if your opponent will have found more appropriate ones.

Nellie: So why not automate the whole process?

Ellen: We do use computers to some extent, as I said before, but the databases are not really complete...

Lucas: (interrupting and leaning forward) No, no, not just a partial automation. Why not turn the entire process over to computers?

Johanna: (shocked) I'll not see a machine become lawyer, judge, and jury, all rolled into one.

Lucas: (glancing at Alicia's speaker) What about the plaintiff or the defendant being a computer?

Nellie: (winking at Lucas and turning to Ellen) You said yourself that delays cost the poor the most. If the straightforward cases based on easily documentable facts could be handled automatically, you lawyers could spend your time arguing the more interesting ones.

Ellen: But, how would due process be ensured?

Lucas: By retaining the right to appeal to a human-run court if necessary.

Ellen: That would just move the bottleneck up a step--everyone would appeal.

Nellie: Not if there were penalties built in for judging and penalizing frivolous appeals where no new points of law were raised, but the same material presented over again.

Johanna: And who would control this all-wise machine? The state? I can just imagine how the individual citizen would fare in such a situation.

Dorcas: All societies require some trade-offs between the desires of individuals to do as they please and the necessity of limiting those desires to achieve the necessary cooperation to have a society. Too much of one and the result is chaos; too much of the other and it is an arbitrary dictatorship.

Johanna: But, if you computerize the law courts, and much of the process of running the government, as you already have the banking and part of the retail systems, there will already be a dictatorship.

Dorcas: A tyranny of the masses. Can there be any dissent when a machine runs everything?

Nellie: Some freedoms would be lost, but ordinary people would have more power.

Ellen: It's not that simple.

Nellie: It's natural for you to oppose further automating the court system because you're a lawyer and you're afraid of a loss of influence and work. You're against participatory democracy because it would eliminate the opportunity for you socialists to set yourselves up as a new privileged class.

Lucas: Classic conflict of interest.

Ellen: All right, partially conceded; perhaps I do have some conflicts here. But look. Suppose there are no lawyers, politicians, teachers, accountants, or doctors because their professions have all been eliminated. What kind of a world would that be?

Dorcas: A world without much leadership.

Nellie: Your sudden concern for the upper middle class is touching. There would still be scientists and computer specialists, as well as business owners--and not all the other professionals would be out of work. There would also be many new professionals in the information field, such as...

Johanna: (interrupting, sarcastically and glancing at Lucas) Whose social skills and ability to lead we all admire so much.

Dorcas: Without leaders, there is just a mob.

Lucas: But would you rather have tyrants like the Caesars, or ordinary people running things.

Dorcas: Under Caesar there is the rule of law, protection for citizens, and peace.

Ellen: But, all imperialists exploit the workers.

Nellie: And that included the old communist imperialists you still seem to admire, Ellen. Outside of North American classrooms there are no Marxists left, remember.

Alicia: Professor, the time seems to be up.

Professor: Very well. As usual, we resolve very little in these discussions, but that task is up to the readers. For next week, Lucas does a paper detailing the improvements in living standards as Russia industrialized in the twentieth century. Johanna argues for a participatory democracy. Nellie researches and explains the disadvantages of computerizing the law courts, and Ellen takes the opposite view.

Dorcas: And me?

Professor: You've kept fairly neutral. How about an analysis of the reasons for the failure of democracy as it was practised in the Greek city states.

Dorcas: (in a light tone) My written English isn't very good yet. Would you like that in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic?

Professor: It doesn't matter.

Dorcas: You read them all?

Alicia: No, but I do. Just send me a copy of the file on the campus network and I'll do a translation for the Professor. If you want, you can do it on my word processor, or dictate it to me, and I'll show you screens of the original and translated versions simultaneously.

Dorcas: Why thank-you, Alicia.

Johanna: Hmmph.

The Fourth Civilization Table of Contents
Copyright © 1988-2002 by Rick Sutcliffe
Published by Arjay Books division of Arjay Enterprises