Law and the Baby Singularity

Ray Kurzweil’s very much in the air lately. He’s the MIT prof and former successful businessman who has written The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology in which he argues that information technology will overtake us and remove distinctions between human being and machine, and together with other advancing technologies, this leap will ensure us all a rosy future. (He’s not the first by any means to promise that accelerating change will at some point tip over into something completely different and liberating: older readers may have heard of the Roman Catholic priest and paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin who believed, among other things, that evolution was headed toward the Omega Point, a final unity of sorts.)

But the idea of an impending great change, already underway and driven by information technology, is not confined to the higher reaches of MIT. It seems that Microsoft has at least embraced a new employee who himself embraces the notion of what he calls a “baby singularity.”

Gary William Flake has been hired to animate Microsoft’s brand new Live Labs. To quote from his description [Word doc]:

Our Vision The Internet operates in a manner fundamentally unlike anything that has ever preceded it. In particular, it promotes “democratization” of information, tools, and resources that combine to empower more people with increasing capabilities. As democratization progresses in multiple domains (e.g., content, commerce, community, code) the aggregate impact of the many small participants (i.e., individuals and small companies) can eventually surpass the impact of the larger participants (i.e., companies), changing the manner in which online entities cooperate, compete, and form a richer digital ecosystem.

These new dynamics set the stage for the literal evolution of innovation. Startup costs and barriers to entry diminish; opportunities for creating entirely new value increase; human muscle no longer gates scalability; transactions are not bound by time, distance, or size; and something intangible – a better algorithm – can massively increase global utility and welfare.

This pattern is not merely about new applications. It’s about a revolution in how we create, share, and refine anything that can be digitally encoded, be it news and information, artistic forms, scientific breakthroughs, personal communications, economic transactions, and, yes, even software. This is not Web 2.0. It’s World 2.0.

… The long-term mission of Live Labs is … ambitious, may take decades to realize, and necessitates that we extensively partner outside of Microsoft. We wish to generalize the virtuous cycle to the rest of society: empowering people to create in whatever domain they chose, facilitating the exchange of any digital artifact, and cultivating communities of all forms to the benefit of all.

There’s a PowerPoint presentation from a recent conference he spoke at titled “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Imminent Internet Singularity.” Very roughly, the idea is that from the “democratization” of computing power and all it enables, and the global spread of its use, new possibilities emerge that have never been present before. The collection of small users, content providers, vendors and software developers will, taken together, far outweigh large corporative providers, vendors, etc. in many important respects (the “long tail” is heavier than the high head). He obviously developed these sketchy notions in greater detail. But the general point is one that should interest us, mere bloggers.

Here we are, having created a structure that is spans the country and more, that is growing, that produces content of interest to an ever larger group, and all of this within a matter of months. We may not be a small part of a march to apotheosis, but we are clearly a small part of a new development.

And a new development for law. The blogging part is new, but as for the rest we’re a mix of Law 1.0 and Law 2.0. We’re by way of being experts — not a lot of democratization here, except for the fact that non-experts can and do listen in to our conversation in a way that wasn’t easy or even possible before. Non-experts can contribute to the conversation, so long as they make sense to us. As well, we’re global — because we can be; it takes no effort at all, and in fact would require a great effort not to be: witness China’s struggle to throttle the internet. Law 1.0 is very jurisdictional; Law 2.0 is increasingly transnational.

Where might law go, if present trends continue or intensify? It would be foolish of us to imagine that if commerce and technology and journalism are all clearly changing as a result of the forces Flake and others identify, law is nevertheless somehow immune. Democratization would suggest that increasingly lay people will have their say, certainly in discussions about law and in published critiques, and perhaps in arguments directed at decision-makers (whether the latter want it or not). Might decision-making be further or fully democratized such that folksonomy (which contains “nomos,” after all, a Greek word for law) becomes a form of distributed justice? How might that work?

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