Technology Trends, Societal Impact, and the Law

AuthorGeorge Takach
ProfessionAdjunct Professor
1 There are numerous texts and journals where detailed information can be found
regarding all the different aspects of computer and related technologies. For an
engaging telling of the tale of computers since 1945, see Paul E. Ceruzzi, A Histo-
ry of Modern Computing (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1998). A good, comprehen-
sive and yet accessible volume for the non-technical reader is Anthony Ralston &
Edwin D. Reilly, eds., Encyclopedia of Computer Science, 3d ed. (New York: Van
Nostrand Reinhold, 1993) [Encyclopedia of Computer Science]; for a more recent
work in the same vein, see Brian K. Williams, Stacey C. Sawyer & Sarah E.
Hutchinson, Using Information Technology (Boston: Irwin/McGraw Hill, 2003).
For an entry-level work with many helpful pictures consider Sherry Kinkoph,
Jennifer Fulton, & Kelly Oliver, Computers: A Visual Encyclopedia (Indianapolis:
Alpha Books, Macmillan, 1994) [Visual Encyclopedia]. For works that offer suc-
cinct descriptions of technical terms used in computing and networking, the fol-
lowing are recommended: George McDaniel, ed., IBM Dictionary of Computing
(New York: McGraw-Hill, 1994); and Bryan Pfaffenberger, Internet in Plain Eng-
lish (New York: MIS Press, 1994) [Plain English]. Of course, the rapid pace of
technological change dates books on computers and related technologies quickly,
and so journals can be an invaluable source of information. Scientific American
and Communications of the ACM have particularly strong and timely articles on
various technical subjects related to computers and communications.
An understanding of the key principles of computer law, let alone its
more subtle nuances, requires some appreciation of the technology that
underpins the computer revolution and that has brought us into the
Information Age. Accordingly, there follows a brief exposition of some of
the principal technical aspects of computers, software, data, and the net-
works (including the Internet) that are increasingly linking computers.1
chapter 1
More importantly, several key technological trends and applications are
also highlighted, namely digitization, manipulation, mass storage,
communications, miniaturization, and expert systems. In this discus-
sion the emphasis is not on technical questions. Rather, the focus is on
the legal aspects of the technology. This chapter also discusses the
impact the technology and the technological trends (specifically the
elimination of distance, mass customization, our dependence on com-
puters, and our development into an information-based society) are
having on society. The law, with certain limited exceptions, is a reflec-
tion and outgrowth of the society in which it is rooted. To understand
the main elements of computer law, therefore, it becomes important to
grasp how these computer-based technologies and trends are shaping
the world. The emphasis here will not be on the sociological, psycho-
logical, or political aspects of these transformations (though these are
many and far-reaching), but on their legal significance.2This chapter
will also begin to illuminate the contours of the four dynamics of com-
puter law, namely, the rapid pace of technological change, the elusive
nature of information, the blurring of public and private, and the blur-
ring of national and international.3
Although an overview of computer technology and its trends and
applications is useful — and so this chapter is particularly germane for
those who are not technically proficient — the reader is cautioned that
what follows is very general.4In fact, the technologies involved in com-
Technology Trends, Societal Impact, and the Law 15
2 This is not to say the sociological, psychological, or political dimensions of the
computer revolution are not important or fascinating, as they are certainly both.
For example, for a penetrating study from a sociologist’s perspective of comput-
ers and the Internet and their roles in redefining human identity and community
through a culture of simulation and computer-based interaction, see Sherry
Turkle, Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet (New York: Simon &
Schuster, 1995). For a description of the types of people transformed by the
Internet — particularly youth — see Michael Lewis, Next: The Future Just Hap-
pened (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2002). As for the growing impor-
tance of the Internet to the world of politics, see “The Battle for the White
House: America’s Presidential Election Campaign is in Full Swing Not Least on
the Internet,” The Economist, 18 September 1999; “Political Campaigns Online:
Beyond the Law’s Reach,” The Economist, 11 December 1999; and “Cyber Soap-
boxes,” The Economist, 24 June 2000.
3 These dynamics are important, and are a unifying theme throughout this book.
For a discussion of these dynamics, see chapter 8, section A, “Computer Law:
4 It should also be noted that the following discussion does not address in any
technical detail various communications technologies that are also germane to
parts of this book (especially chapter 6 on electronic commerce), such as tele-
graph, telex, teletype, EDI, and fax.
puters and networks can be exceedingly complex. Moreover, the rapid
pace of change in the computer and related industries quickly outdates
even a sophisticated, detailed explanation of the technologies current-
ly underpinning the Information Age. These two factors — startling
complexity and a breathtaking pace of change — have important ram-
ifications for the legal process. They mean, for example, that lawyers
must spend a significant amount of time and energy educating them-
selves, as well as judges and legislators, in technical matters and the
new business processes engendered by groundbreaking technologies
when they are involved in cases and law reform initiatives relating to
computing and network technologies.5It also means the law is pre-
sented with a supremely difficult task when attempting to remain rele-
vant and meaningful in the complicated and ever-changing world of
computers and networks.
Computers can be described in a variety of ways. One approach is to
break down the computer into several distinct components, namely the
core technologies of hardware, software, and chips (semiconductor
integrated circuits). It is also useful, however, to understand a com-
puter purposefully, as in the following definition: “A digital computer
is a machine that will accept data and information presented to it in its
required form, carry out arithmetic and logical operations on this raw
material, and then supply the required results in an acceptable form.”6
In short, computers process data and are used to communicate data as
well. And most importantly for the purposes of the analysis in this
book, computers are continually improving their ability to perform
these functions, in terms of speed and ease of use, all the while drop-
ping in price.7The performance–price ratio of computers is improving
at a dizzying rate. The price of computer-processing power has
declined by about 30 percent a year over the last twenty years; it is esti-
mated that the cost of information processing is only 1/100 of 1 per-
16 computer law
5 For a discussion of the challenges posed to judicial decision making by sophisti-
cated subject matter, including some startling admissions by certain judges, see
chapter 2, section C.1, “Legal Dispute Resolution.”
6 Ralston & Reilly, Encyclopedia of Computer Science, above note 1.
7 For a concise but extremely readable account of the history of the development of
computers, see Maurice Estabrooks, Electronic Technology, Corporate Strategy, and
World Transformation (Westport, CT: Quorum Books, 1995) [Electronic Technology].

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