Is 50 Years An Eternity For Laws?

June 21, 2013 — Leave a comment

In his Google I/O keynote, Larry Page said “Law can’t be right if it’s 50 years old. Like, it’s before the Internet.”  Some people were riled up about that.  When I read about FAA re-considering it’s 50-year old ban on using gadgets on the flights, it reminded me of what Larry said.  While obviously some values don’t necessarily change with age, for anything that involves technology, I contend that 50 years is eternity.  Things just don’t apply as they did before.

We really are in an age where technology changes so rapidly and we are at the cusp of where technology really is taking over human labor in a big way.  How do lawmakers keep pace with this and how do we define laws in this society? I’m sure all of us have heard of ridiculous stories where someone has been pulled over for touching their phone in the car.  Yet, a study shows that the biggest diversion comes from paying attention to children in the car!  Do we turn around and create laws that prevent us from interacting with our kids in the car?  There would be an outrage if that happened!

I don’t know the answer to how we should be defining laws.  Part of the problem is that we cannot have one rule for amending laws across the board.  In the case of lawmakers, we are talking about folks who are at least one step removed from the pace of the technological changes most of the time.  But as it turns out, the technologists also fuel some of these stale rules.  Take the use case of automatically turning off your phone when detecting you are on a plane, for example – this one has been making the rounds in context aware research cycles for a while.  It works on the assumption that turning off devices on a plane is a given.  When technologists go after applications that support the outdated laws, it is a bad signal to me.

We need to be better at creating our own destiny – and by ‘we’, I mean the tech community.  We need to be able to distinguish when technology needs to bridge some gaps when the gaps make no sense and need to be addressed more fundamentally.  To really push the boundaries, that must happen.  And to really innovate, we must push the boundaries.

Is 50-years an eternity? In the world of self driving cars and networks on balloons, it most certainly is!  This doesn’t mean we change our fundamental human values every decade.  But, it does mean that the technologists help the government and lawmakers understand the leaps that have been made at some intervals such that our constitutional rights and laws can be kept relevant.

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