The World’s Columbian Exposition was an influential social and cultural event (“The Devil in the White City” from Erik Larson brilliantly communicates the vibrancy of the preparation of the Exposition). On October 9, 1893, the day designated as Chicago Day, the fair set a world record for outdoor event attendance, drawing 716,881 people to the fair. Electricity occupied a very special place in the White City. An entire building was devoted to electrical exhibits. Electricity powered everything: fountains, a moveable sidewalk, elevators, automatic door openers, and even electric cigar lighters. GE, Westinghouse, Thomas Edison, Brush, Western Electric were showcasing various inventions and technologies. Electricity was shown to provide fun and ease of living, and the Director of Electricity, John P. Barrett, proudly proclaimed that the Exposition “brought electricity to the people in the light of a servant not as an awful master.”
Around those times, large companies owned their own power plants under the responsibility of the Director of Electricity. Later on electricity became a commodity and stopped being managed in the executive suite. Today, only occasionally, during winter time power outages, we spend a quick thought on what life would be without electricity and that thought is quickly gone, knowing that power will be on quite soon.
Back to our turf, in 2002 at the Law via the Internet conference in Montreal the LII movement adopted the Montreal Declaration on Free Access to Law. Even though it had started in the mid-nineties, free online law still generated a lot of amazement (with a mix of reasonable skepticism): All cases from all courts and tribunals would be searchable online without a fee? With judicial history and noteup features? With hyperlinks on parallel citations? Statutes with point-in-time capabilities? Really? Wow!
Today in Canada free access to law is a commodity (no more “wow!”) and it is a great thing that lawyers only think of the importance of free law on the rare occasions when the CanLII site blinks. A dozen tweets and a couple of seconds later everything is back to normal. All this means that the walk to freeing the law has successfully reached its destination. But there is more to come.
This introduction resembles a Georgian toast. And as such, it’s followed by an invitation to join the free access to law artisans at the 2014 Law via the internet conference. The 21 topics ranging from open data platforms and emerging trends of access to legal information to transforming legal process through technology show that there is a lot going on in the field of access to legal information in both developing and developed countries.
This will be the second time that the Law via the internet conference visits South Africa. The previous conference held in Durban in 2009 was a top notch event which attracted a large attendance and outstanding speakers. Getting involved at the international level and collaborating with other countries to move forward the access to law is both generous and selfish, probably more the latter than the former. One always learns from the experience of the others and the more successful they are, the more content is accessible to everyone.
We are living in a time of profound transformation of information. Without trying to list all changes here, it suffices to say that after a century-long sleep the legal information world is now fully awake and moving. The changes that could be observed may not present the materiality of the works of Burnham and Sullivan, but as the electricity, they could be pervasive in our niche universe.
Last but not least, to add to the excitement of the vibrant discussions that will take place at the conference, the host city of Cape Town is bound to enchant you with its pulsating culture, spectacular scenery and fervent history.