The problem with lawyer-driven society in a nutshell

Posted on November 30th, 2009 — permalink

This post on Boing-Boing includes the following quote that summarizes the pathological extreme of lawyer-driven society, a pathological extreme that we see too often in our current society:

The reason given was that the potential liabilities involved haven’t been settled by a definitive SCOTUS ruling. Which is absolutely true, of course. Just as it is true that the risk of exploring the pyramids hasn’t been conclusively settled until we’ve proven that we won’t be attacked there by golden unicorns.

In my (admittedly limited) observations, corporate lawyers (which, I believe, represent the vast majority of legal work out there— far more than Perry Mason style courtroom lawyering) exist to do two things.

The first thing they do is try to write contracts and other similar things that grab absolutely as much control for their employer as possible. When dealing with other corporations, they have to battle other lawyers, but when dealing with individuals who can’t afford their own phalanx of lawyers, they usually write egregious things like “Terms of Service” on software and severance agreements that include terms nobody who believes in the principles of the United States should agree to, but that we all agree to as a matter of course all the time just because it’s become standard operating procedure.

The second, less sinister but just as harmful, thing that they do is sit around and play paranoid. They think of where their company might get into legal trouble, where there might be liabilities, and then they advise their company on policies that will hopefully avert any such potential liabilities. Here, they’re doing their job; they’re telling companies what could go wrong. The problem is, just as with our reaction to fears of terrorism, in our society we tend to hear about these things going wrong, and squeeze off all sorts of expression and creativity out of paranoia. Or, if sometimes those things do really go wrong, seemingly undermining my calling them “paranoia”, they don’t really evaluate the cost of the downsides of policies that stop that thing from going wrong again.

Yeah, lots of the things lots of us do, and lots of the things it would be really neat for companies to do, could potentially expose them to all sorts of liabilities. And, yeah, it’s useful to have lawyers around to tell them what the laws really are (since, alas, we live in a society where it takes years of training to understand the laws) and where things might go wrong. But then, sometimes, you have to be willing to take risks. Sometimes, you have to say, yeah, there’s no case law that says we’ll be safe if we do that, but let’s try it anyway because the potential benefits could be great.

Too often, though, we don’t do that.

Kind of odd for me as a not-risk-taker to be saying this, but I’ve seen this happen enough times that it just makes me sad that we’ve taken what should be a service— the advice of lawyers about the state of the law— and have turned it into a gigantic ballast that prevents us from flying.


Living La Vida Ludic

Posted on September 24th, 2008 — permalink

I was at SLCC a couple of weeks ago. One thing I noticed was that most of the most interesting and exciting stuff going on was related to education. Some of that was self-filtering– that’s where I went– but there’s no denying there was quite an education buzz.

One of my favorite talks was given by Barry Joseph of Global Kids, and was entitled Why second Life Can’t Tip: the Power and Perils of Living La Vida Ludic. I suspect that the whole not-tipping business was in the title to get people to want to come to the talk, but I have to admit that I found that part of the talk less interesting, and perhaps even borderline irrelevant.

However, the concept of La Vida Ludic is something that really grabbed me, partly because I hadn’t seen it layed out clearly and definitively before… yet, in the concepts, I recognized something in the way that I live my life.

Briefly speaking, “ludic” is derived from a latin (I think) word for games. As such, “La Vida Ludic” is the “game life”, or “playing at life.” Barry Joseph talks about how in our culture, we tend to have a very strict separation between work and play. One great example he gave was elemetary school. There’s a place for work– the classroom– and a place for play– recess. If you try to play in the work context, you get in trouble (he showed an image of a kid sitting in the corner wearing a dunce cap). Likewise, if you try to work in the play context, you also get in trouble (other kids harass for being a nerd and bringing boring work stuff into the play environment).

He went on to describe Global Kids’ way of educating kids leaning heavily on work in Second Life, and showed how a lot of the activites they do have serious mixing of work and play… and yet, because of that mixing, the learning may perhaps be stronger than it would have if we were too serious to be willing to include play in it.

I think I have long lived, or tried to live, my life with the philosophy that my work should feel like play. This is why I majored in physics when I was in college; I was going to major in engineering, but physics was just more fun to me. As I became a professional astronomer, I also picked up a hobby as an amateur astronomer. (I didn’t do any telescope observing before my last couple years of college, and only got my amateur telescope after graduating from college.) I’ve always wanted to be doing something that I enjoyed doing, so that at least some fraction of my work would feel like play. (I know it’s inevitable that some of work won’t… but, then again, some of my play (hobbies, etc.) feels like drudgery too!))

One of the reasons moving to Linden as a system engineer was appealing to me was that sometimes I would use adminstering my machines and writing code as a way of procrastinating “real work” when I was an astronomer. Mind you, this was still real work, as it was stuff that needed to be done, but I was more of a computer nerd than one really needs to be as an astronomer. Just as I enjoyed playing with data, as I enjoyed playing with the science in my classes and going on stage to teach, I also enjoyed playing around with computers.

A few months ago, I was at a “MoonLab” meeting in-world (”MoonLab” being the “lab” where those of us who are remote work). Some people were saying how they’ve set aside specific workspace in their homes– some computers dedicated to working, and when they’re at that computer, they’re “at work”. They have other comptuers they play with. To me, this has always seemed unnatural. First of all, maintaining all those extra computers seems like a lot of effort, not to mention costing space. But, beyond that, it just seems unnatural to me.

I’ve long mixed work and play, in my mind, with my time, and in my approach to life. And, it feels more human, more natural, to me to do it this way. When I’ve heard IT policies that strictly prohibit personal use of work comptuers, I think, are these people in touch with real people? I was told that once at LBNL, you weren’t allowed to make even local personal calls from desk phones; you had to go out to a payphone. Hello? Not only is that dehumanizing, it’s inefficient (people spend more time making their local calls). (When I was there, LBNL had a more human personal use policy for comptuers– do as thou wilt as long as (a) you don’t do anything naughty (e.g. porn), and (b) you don’t put an undue load on LBNL resources.) On the flip side, before I moved the Supernova Cosmology Project database from a very creaky and problematic flat file system to a PostGreSQL database, I installed and played with PostGreSQL on my machine at home to understand how it worked. I’ve done data reduction and work on my own computers. To force myself to keep it all separate would be especially hard now that I work from home, but was unnatural even when I worked at LBNL or Vanderbilt.

In Joseph’s talk, he talked about how doing things in Second Life naturally leads to a Ludic life. After all, Second Life does use technology that you primarily see only in a gaming environment. Many people are still under the misapprehension that Second Life is in fact a game. But even though it’s not, there’s no doubt that there are playful aspects to it. I sometimes go around as a dinosaur…. Sometime soon I’ll post some photos I’ve taken here of work meetings, and the morphologies with which people show up to those meetings.

The sad thing is, our culture and legal system is fundamentally hostile to the ludic life. I suppose I could write some fraction of my computer, laptop, office space, etc., off of my taxes, but I never will do so… for to do so legally, I would have to strictly use it for work and not also play, and that would put more of a damper on my lifestyle than any tax break I would get would be worth. I got into trouble because the first time I did a play in-world, I billed myself as Prospero Linden– figuring that since we’re all encouraged to be in-world and interact in-world, this could only be good press. Besides, it was just me doing stuff. But, alas, I got reprimanded for that, because it’s a work account and when I’m using it I’m representing the lab. And they’re right; the business could be held responsible for things I do in that form… but, unfortunately, it also means that one has to keep one’s work and one’s play separate.


Signing digital documents : technology transitions that don’t make sense

Posted on January 21st, 2008 — permalink

My wife had knee surgery today.  (All went well.  She’s now in recovery.)  As we were in admission, we went through various things with the hospital worker.  At some points along the line, my wife had to sign some documents.  One was permission to treat and to tell our insurance about it.  Another was notification of having received a “Patient’s Rights” document.  Another was some Medicare form or another.

Rather than doing everything on paper, the signatures were all kept in documents on the computer.  And, here’s how they were done : there was one of those little “signature” widgets that you may have seen in stores where you can swipe your credit card, only here there was just the screen for the signature.   The woman, facing us and looking at her monitor (which we could not see), would ask my wife to sign something, and say, “OK, you’re signing now to say that you received this document,” or some such.

If you sit back and think about this, none of this makes any sense at all.