In the course of my attempts to reconstruct the history of cyberspace, I've spent a certain amount of time reading legal writing on cyberlaw— the application of copyright and property law on the Internet. I hadn't expected it, but the law is arguably the field in which the metaphor of cyberspace has been most influential. The metaphor of the Internet as place, and the way you conceptualize the relationship between real physical places (which have jurisdictions and laws) and digital places (which might or might not be terra nova) has serious consequences.
So I was interested to come across the new Law and Technology Theory blog. As today's post explained, it's interested in two big questions: "First, should we have a general theory of law and technology? Second, what form should such a theory take?"
Is it a good idea to have a general theory of law and technology? Should we try to generate principles that will provide us with advance guidance for approaching a new technology? For example, we are currently trying to decide how to deal with privacy threats imposed by RFID tags that are incorporated into passports. Should we generalize from previous efforts to regulate technologies that threatened privacy to formulate principles that will guide us in the case of RFID tags? Alternatively, should we formulate principles that will serve as common guidelines for regulating the adoption of technologies that produce similar social tensions, but at first blush appear quite different? For example, genetic testing and the Internet, two technologies, which were recently diffused, produce similar social tensions. Should they be governed by common principles?
Two primary objections are likely to be brought forward. First, such an endeavor is antithetical to the very essence of technological change. The application of general principles will suffocate human creativity. We are likely to make decisions that will inhibit new opportunities at the expense of stability and social order. Second, the articulation of general principles would be impractical and doomed to failure. Nobody could have predicted the way the Internet has changed our lives. Technology advances beyond our wildest imagination – any principles we formulate today will become very quickly extinct and unworkable.
Of course, in my view the obvious first thing to do is ask, what "theory" of technology should you use? The definition of technology one begins with will have a serious effect on the project.