This is a lightly edited transcript of a talk I gave at the 2022 Legal Hackers International Summit on September 10, 2022.
Hello, everyone! I’m Jack Cushman. I’m the director of the Harvard Library Innovation Lab.
Jameson encouraged us to include a big idea in these talks. And we’re here at Legal Hackers, whose mission is to work on “the most pressing issues at the intersection of law and technology.”
So the big idea I wanted to bring to you as legal hackers is: the most pressing issue at the intersection of law and technology is that we don’t know how to have a civilization anymore.
Larry Lessig famously said that what’s at the intersection of law and technology is us: we’re this pathetic dot at the middle, being regulated by law, by tech, by markets, by norms.
And the Internet has disrupted all of those! It’s made all of those start to regulate us in much faster, less predictable ways. So we’re now exploring what it means to be a civilization, what our options are, much faster than we ever did before, and we don’t know if any of that works yet.
We don’t know if we can have a civilization in the presence of the Internet yet.
What it means to have a job is changing incredibly fast right now. We can no longer assume that the same kind of jobs will exist at the end of our careers as the start of our careers.
What it means to form a consensus truth is changing incredibly fast right now.
What it means to choose a government is changing incredibly fast right now, and we don’t know if it works yet.
What I want to bring to you beyond that moment of panic is to say, hey, I work at a library.
I work at a law library and I want all of you legal hackers, all of us legal hackers who are reinventing how the world works — that’s what legal hacking is! — to steal more from libraries. Steal more ideas from libraries.
Ideas like, libraries are places that help us remember who we are, and they help us remember generationally. They help us remember, at a scale of decades and centuries, who we are and where we came from and where we’re going. Steal that idea.
Libraries, especially public libraries, are the places of last resort where you go when you just don’t know what to do next. Whether you’re in a domestic violence situation or you don’t know how to file your taxes or you just don’t know what to read next, libraries are places with a person with an ethical commitment to help you out as best they can. It’s an extraordinary resource. Let’s borrow that idea.
Libraries are an essential part of the speech network that we maintain as societies. Even a tiny town will pay to have a public library, because the public library is a core part of how we form consensus truth. We need to pay attention to those networks that help tell us who we are.
Libraries are little anti-capitalist experiments! You have your economy working along in whatever way it does, and then within the walls of the library they’re like, “it all works differently in here! Let’s try this other thing for a while!” Whatever economy you’re in, libraries are a chance to try something else to experiment and learn. They help you stabilize the change that’s happening in your society by experimenting.
And libraries are places that think about citizens and not consumers or users. Libraries call you “patrons.” And what we mean by patrons is sort of like citizens of your community — not citizens on a government list, but in the sense of people who are part of this community that we’re trying to build, people who are part of our civic infrastructure.
That’s how your library sees you.
They don’t see you as a user, they don’t see you as a resource to exploit. They see you as someone they can help be whatever it is you’re trying to be.
We need to borrow that idea.
We need to borrow all those ideas because, after fifty years of the internet, libraries are the one information technology I know of that actually scales. Meaning, the more it grows the more it helps knit your social fabric together instead of tearing it apart. [OK, I didn’t say this line in the talk, but I meant to.]
If we are to answer this pressing question of, like, “can we have civilization together anymore,” now that we can all talk to each other all the time and don’t know what to say — if we are to answer that, I think libraries are one of the core tools that we can use to do it.
And since I’m here from a library, I wanted to pass that along.
That was only three minutes and 45 seconds. So let me tell you very quickly a few of the things that I would love to talk with you about that we’re working on at the Harvard Library Innovation Lab, and the very small part of the “saving civilization” problem that we’re thinking about:
How do we collaboratively update the legal curriculum? I mean questions like, how do we teach criminal law? We have to start moving faster and including more people in that question. Tools like our Open Casebook platform can help professors collaboratively decide what to teach.
How do we make core legal data open and computable — like our Caselaw Access Project, which scanned all of the precedential legal cases in the United States. And what happens when we do, and who gets exposed, and is that good or bad or both?
How do we preserve data for the next fifty years? The internet is only fifty years old and we don’t know if we can remember things from generation to generation yet. Websites break within months of posting them; they need constant maintenance. We need to make websites that last for decades. We need to make data that lasts for centuries. Let’s figure out how to do that together.
We’re thinking about how to get more people included in that cultural record. The question of whether you are remembered, whether you are part of that generational memory the libraries offer, has always depended on how legally precarious you are. I’m thinking of examples like the sex worker advocacy movement that responded to the SESTA-FOSTA debate, that is now at risk of being forgotten already because the platforms where the movement happened were removed by the law that the movement was about. What gets remembered in the record depends a lot on who you are, and the law has a lot to say about that, and technology does too. So we’re thinking about those sorts of precarious archives that are legally in danger.
And we’re thinking about, how do we help internet communities grow into civic communities?
As we move from, “my people are on Main Street, my civic life is on Main Street, my civic sustenance is on Main Street,” to where my people are in a Slack group, or maybe they’re a group of people I talk to on Twitter, but maybe they don’t talk to each other — there’s a sense of hollowness that comes from what we left behind, and haven’t figured out how to bring along yet.
I get to think about that from the library perspective, because libraries are one of those core resources in a small town. I think they might be a core resource in our new civic life as well, in those Slack groups and the other ways that we build a civic society online — but libraries certainly are not the only one. What else does it take to build a government out of a pile of online communities, to build a people, a society, a civilization out of online communities?
Finally, since we are coming from a bunch of law schools, how do we involve students in this conversation? When we’re teaching classes about innovation, beyond the design thinking stuff — which is really important, but it’s just a tool they can use — what conversation are we trying to have with students about this saving-the-world stuff? Many of them won’t just go out and work at law firms anymore, so what other perspectives should we be bringing to them?
So that’s what’s on my mind. Thank you so much.