Computers, Privacy & the Constitution

-- ZaneMuller - 16 Mar 2020

The right of the people peaceably to assemble in interesting times

A core theme of last semester’s class was the way that the digital technology that most of us use is designed in such a way to dominate our attention and manipulate our feelings and behaviors. The harm takes the form of relentless interference with thinking, focus and attention. And while Instagram is distracting, a stream of updates such as the ones we’ve been receiving over the last two weeks is outright paralyzing.

I’ve spent a lot of law school trying to develop habits and discipline to counteract the effects of the way the net is currently configured. This has consisted of a bias towards making physical-world plans, prioritizing personal interactions, chiding friends and loved ones for phone overuse, and rediscovering exactly what people did to live their lives before the internet dominated everything. But suddenly normal in-person human interaction is unconscionable.

These ideas become more poignant when one finds out that his default mode of interaction with peers in the normal in-real-life structures, the anchor of his current social existence, are cancelled, and that a crappy e-meeting interface is going to have to do for now. Standard 3L life is socially meager as it is; the esprit de corps of 1L has evaporated, people got sorted, partnered, atomized, and the general vibe is that people have their landing pads lined up and are gliding for the remainder of the flight. You can stay engaged, show up at club meetings and throw dinner parties, but you’re fighting the tide.

Covid-19 is not that deadly. I note that not to downplay its seriousness, but rather the relative luck that the world has had so far in avoiding deadly pandemics in the last century or so – measles in an unvaccinated popluation is far more destructive. On the bell curve of likely global pandemics, this one’s pretty square in the middle, so if we roll worse dice soon these effects will only be magnified. The range of epidemiological effects, while terrifying, are at least somewhat known (though their variance is part of the terror). What I really dread, however, are the social effects, which are much harder to predict – the unknown unknowns.

As of this writing, the City of New York has prohibited gatherings of more than 500 people and closed all bars, restaurants, and schools. This, of course, is a state-level executive action (not implicating any law that Congress shan’t make) taken under emergency circumstances, the boundaries of which are ill-defined but historically pretty generally accepted and used sparingly. Luckily the current President’s control of the executive branch is unusually tenuous, though at least a few of¬ his advisers seem to have absorbed Rahm Emanuel’s maxim about wasting crises.

But what about the results of the experiment where we rapidly unexpectedly move almost all social life to the internet, and keep it there for weeks? We’re already rapidly becoming a more flaky, e-meeting, automated, stay-at-home, call-in-sick society. And my real fear with this whole thing is that everyone will become accustomed to having class only over Zoom, and decide that it’s not so bad, maybe even preferable. That anything which could be done (however less satisfactorily) virtually should be done virtually, for safety’s sake. And we’ll become more atomized, more isolated, more alone, a lot faster and more decisively than would have happened otherwise. First amendment freedoms are crucial for political accountability, but they are at least as important for social solidarity and maintenance of the body politic. The already-weakening bonds holding the Republic together will become only more strained as fear and mistrust metastasize. When I received multiple text messages from smart friends who had heard from sources they deemed reliable that New York City was about to be quarantined Wuhan-style, I was terrified, not because I thought it was actually happening, but because it demonstrated the susceptibility to panic among sophisticated, well-informed people who ought to have known better.

The restrictions in place now and those coming soon amount to a vast social experiment where social media becomes pretty much the only game in town for interpersonal interactions, in a climate of fear, emergency, and restriction. We know what will happen if we don’t impose them – many, many people will die. What we don’t know is what will unravel in society if we don’t let people go out in public for a few months, and whether or how easily it can be woven back together.



Webs Webs

r1 - 16 Mar 2020 - 18:56:55 - ZaneMuller
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