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The Need for Law in an Age of STEM

There has never been a time in our history when law was more needed than it is today. And there has never been a time in our history when we have taken law for granted as much as we do today.

We live in an age of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) but we are fortunate to also live in a society governed by the Rule of Law. The products of STEM are everywhere around us. The Rule of Law, on the other hand, is largely invisible. The Rule of Law is like the oxygen that we breathe: invisible, necessary and we only notice it when it is constricted.

. . .

Over the last decades, we have seen incredible innovations thanks to advances in STEM: DNA testing, laser and robotic surgery, and the MRI. We have benefitted from the personal computer, cell phones and smart phones. Bigger changes are on the horizon with Artificial Intelligence (AI) and autonomous vehicles.

It is difficult for the law to keep up with the pace of change. Sometimes this leads to dangerous consequences.

That’s what happened to 28-year-old Nick Cameron. In March 2018, Nick and his girlfriend were heading to the airport in Toronto to go on vacation to Mexico. Charter flights often depart at awfully early hours of 5 or 6 a.m.[1]

Around 3 a.m, Nick and his girlfriend called an Uber. The driver arrived and picked them up but headed in the wrong direction. The driver then suggested taking city streets rather than the highway which was strange. Finally, they got on the highway but then the driver’s phone with his GPS slipped off the dashboard. The driver pulled over to the narrow shoulder of the highway to retrieve his phone. He then started to merge back into traffic without checking his mirrors and another car smashed into their Uber from behind. The part of the car where Nick was sitting absorbed most of the impact. Nick died from his injuries. His family blamed Uber and they blamed the City of Toronto for an absence of regulation.

When we get into a taxi or a ride-sharing service, we take so much granted. We assume that someone or something is looking out for us. We assume that the driver is certified, has adequate training, that the car is safe, that the driver has insurance, etc. We assume that the law’s oxygen will be present.

. . .

Former Chief Justice Aharon Barak of the Supreme Court of Israel said that “[t]he world is filled with law. Every human behavior is subject to a legal norm. . . . Wherever there are living human beings, law is there. There are no areas in life which are outside of law.”[2]

That was not the case for Nick Cameron and his family. For them, that Uber ride was a lawless zone; the law had not been able to keep up with the technological innovation of ride-sharing. Worse yet – in Toronto – innovation had displaced law. The Toronto City council had made a conscious decision to abandon safety training requirements for taxi drivers when it opened up the industry to ride-sharing services. This is why Nick Cameron’s family and friends blame the city for Nick’s death.

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In his recent book Trust, former Governor General David Johnston explained that law is about rules; justice is about values. We clearly need both in our conception of the Rule of Law.

Legal education excels in teaching analysis and critical thinking. We are good at not just asking what or how but asking why things are the way they are and whether there is a better way.

In an age of STEM, we need to make sure that we are asking the why questions. Many innovations have both positive and negative features. Social media brings people together and can even facilitate revolutions against authoritarian regimes. But it can also enable bullying and facilitate intervention by authoritarian regimes in the democratic process. 3D printers can make prosthetic limbs but they can also synthesize weapons.

We need to make sure that questions of law and justice are central to discussions about innovation.

. . .

I’m not saying that law has all the answers. But law and lawyers are good at asking questions and we need to ask more questions in our fast-paced changing world of innovation. We need more law in our age of STEM.

This blog is based on a TEDx talk given by the Dean Dodek at Ashbury College in Ottawa on November 22, 2018.

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[1] The facts and criticism are drawn from Eric Andrew-Gee, “Toronto raised my friend. Then it failed him”, The Globe and Mail (30 September 2018), https://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/article-toronto-raised-my-friend-then-it-failed-him/.

[2] Aharon Barak, “Judicial Philosophy and Judicial Activism,” in Iyunei Mishpat 17 (1992), p. 477 and 485 as quoted in Hillel Neuer, “Aharon Barak’s Revolution” Azure, online: http://www.daat.ac.il/daat/ezrachut/english/hillel.htm

Comments

  1. “Legal education excels in teaching analysis and critical thinking. We are good at not just asking what or how but asking why things are the way they are and whether there is a better way.” … “But law and lawyers are good at asking questions and we need to ask more questions in our fast-paced changing world of innovation.” This may be so but as you’ve used the City of Toronto as an example where “innovation had displaced law. The Toronto City council had made a conscious decision to abandon safety training requirements for taxi drivers when it opened up the industry to ride-sharing services.” It should also be pointed out that the Mayor of the City is a law school graduate who had “a career as a lawyer…”.

  2. I don’t own a car and I have no need to use taxis or ride-hailing services but that illustrative Uber story means more to me than it will to most people because I’ve been making a living doing something similar.

    Whether on a freeway, a mountain road, or in challenging city traffic I drive on high alert, dependent on adrenalin, which makes the job more tiring than it would be if I drove like it appears many people still do.

    And I’m in a similarly defensive mode as a pedestrian in a big city.

    Our ancestors in Africa learned to run like no other species ever had and we have a compulsion to be in motion. I just noticed another headline about a CP train derailment west of Banff, not far from where three CP employees recently lost their lives. There’s a strong argument that we need to slow down.

    As for education about the law and legal process, that is something everyone needs. The law schools could be doing something about that.

  3. Chris Budgell, I agree that everyone should have a legal education. But I don’t think law schools are the ones to do something about that. The scandalous truth is that lawyers learn the law after they get their law degrees. The law degree really only teaches us how to learn the law. I think the school curriculum should include legal education from kindergarten to grade 12. By middle school, students should be drafting pleadings and able to navigate some civil procedure. This would require the cooperation and coordination of government, the legal profession, and the teaching profession. All that said, and speaking as A. Lawyer, you’re not wrong, sir.

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