A consistent theme of my past three years in law school has been the parallel between learning the law, and how both its practice and pretense have seemingly become the epicenter of everything.
It’s not just what has become something of a national sport of canceling, suing, impeaching, boycotting, censoring, deplatforming, overriding, misinforming, deposing, doxxing, room-reading and of course, vibe-checking—but also the tendency of today’s political and legal intelligentsia to continuously find new things to complicate and extend “the law” into.
I’ve lived in Greater Boston my whole life—traveling the same roads to and from many of the same places. Boston has never been known for the efficiency or condition of its roads or transportation. But over the last few years, a new phenomenon seems to have captured the hearts and minds of our local officials: the so-called “Vision Zero” movement—the reconfiguration of streets and intersections for bicycle users and foot traffic at the frustration of motor vehicle drivers. The recent diaspora of green-painted bike-lanes, no-turn-on-red signs, and other apparatus that slow and bully drivers, from the urban core out into the suburbs seeks to prevent pedestrian injuries. It also seeks to reorder our “road diet” away from cars and towards a supposed destiny of bicycles–part of a broader urbanist ideal of walkable cities.
“Tactical urbanism” is the term to describe these strategies to design curbs, turns, and other aspects of the built environment to intentionally dragoon motorists out of the equation. Proponents of such tactics tend to believe in “congestion by design,” in which the substantial effect of these new traffic policies–traffic jams slowed to a crawl–is not collateral damage but very much part of the plan. By disregarding cars, and with enough traffic and hassle, they seem to hope drivers will throw in the towel and accede to a future of mass transit and bicycling.
The largest impact of all this has been to add another layer of legal complication to the world around us. While we’re all familiar with “Do Not Enter” and “No Turn on Red” signs, today we can increasingly find such signs with additional signs affixed to them listing the hours for which entering is not allowed, or large, electronic “No Turn on Red” Signs that can be turned on or off based on the complex timing of the intersection to accommodate new bike lane and bus lane policies, in addition to other added complications.
Increasingly the “No Turn on Red” signs are being put in places where turning on red has always been perfectly safe. But due to all the lobbying from Big Bike (which seems to value uninterrupted bike travel over the inefficiency of a lineup of vehicles idling needlessly), these spots now often have multiple sets of red lights–a set for bikes and another set for cars.
In a way, the intersection is the simplest illustration of government regulation at work. Many groups with diverging interests headed to different places, such as concerns for safety, questions of who has the right to turn first and when. The government provides rules that regulate these situations.
But what happens in today’s age of big data and technology, and unprecedented socio political division? What we get is a world in which everything increasingly feels like a frustrating intersection.
I’m talking about things like self-checkouts (which are used to reduce the labor costs of retailers) fighting you if they do not perfectly detect the weight of each of your items being placed in the bagging area; apps that won’t let you play television shows, movies or sports unless they have your GPS location for league blackouts and advertising; digital rights management-riddled textbook websites and e-books that block copying, pasting, and note taking; and social media platforms designed to coax you into providing data and doom scrolling through social outrage and ads.
On those social media platforms, a familiar miracle plays out each day—corporate media employees who are (quite impressively) experts on everything. The Supreme Court, vaccine mandates, merger and acquisition law with Twitter, national security law around Trump and Biden’s piles of classified documents, the law of war in Ukraine, criminal procedure after violent crimes and murders, Constitutional law atop the assembly line of daily made-for-TV Washington news dramas, municipal law experts battling over housing. Not only do these folks present as experts, but ours is a time where policy, and its pretense, increasingly finds itself being extended into everything.
Want to know if a pass was completed in the NFL? Given the quantity of high-tech cameras for replay review and the legislation of every bobbled ball, every frame of the catch, every blade of grass, hopefully you went to law school so you can understand what the referee is saying after a long review. Want to sit down at a restaurant? Scan a QR code to see the next available seating. Just note that the cancellation policy requires you to enter a credit card, which will be charged a fee if you do not show up. Want to take a shortcut at rush hour? No left turns between 7-9 AM or 4-6 PM on weekdays. Want to use the heated seats in your car? There might be an $18/month subscription fee for the manufacturer to turn those on.
Technology provides today’s corporate and government powers new frontiers to legislate. Thinking about speeding up a little when nobody is on the road, or maybe taking that right on red? While you might have gotten away with it before, depending on where you live, a license plate-reading camera at the intersection can now ticket you. Want to top off your soda from the machine before leaving the food court? There might be a chip inside the cup to block you from doing so. Did your iPhone break from water exposure despite it being warrantied as water resistant to an industry standard? You’re out of luck because the warranty still won’t actually cover water exposure, and the phones have internal water indicators to help Apple Stores void your warranty.
At the intersection of technology and law, there exists a sense of apprehension and horror as more and more of our lives feel policed and monitored by corporate and government power, in ways both trivial and quite serious.
As a society we’re slowly becoming more aware of some of our modern problems. The City of Boston notably banned facial recognition technology, fearing a future of police over surveillance. New Jersey is working on a bill to ban vehicle feature subscriptions—where auto manufacturers cannot require motorists to pay a subscription for features in the cars they already own. New York is working on a bill to restrict big tech companies from collecting kids’ data.
But what about the people in all of this? Those on social media who set out as experts on everything? In a way, it can feel like these folks are driven by a need to attach themselves to the latest outrages and cultural fads, trying to “signal” their way atop the roiling apogee of the nation’s undulating cultural warring—straining to wrest the fractious media spotlight onto themselves by assuming the imprimatur of media expert in our short news cycle.
In the famous and admittedly over-cited dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury introduces us to the “Parlor Wall,” a giant, cacophonous television screen in everyone’s home. The main character, Montag, whose job is to burn banned books, begins to have doubts about the morality of book-burning. This is opposed by his anxiety-stricken wife Mildred, who worries such unorthodoxy might make her unpopular among the “parlor aunts and uncles.” It’s a perfect prediction of Twitter, TikTok, and Instagram. Bradbury predicted that the future would be one of de minimis attention spans, where media works in favor of short summaries and condensed versions of longer works.
As technology, law, media, and today’s divisive politics continue to collide, we could all benefit from taking a healthy break from the toxic dynamics we are surrounded by, lest we continue to make skewed policy and legal decisions that lead us further down the rabbit hole, amplifying a divisive media and fueling a vicious cycle of political strife and ever expanding attempts to control and find fault with more areas of daily life.
Or just settle down with a good book and try to ignore the fire.
Tom Blakely is a third-year student at BC Law, and co-host of the Just Law Podcast. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
One thought on “The Law of Everything”
The questions I’m left with after reading: Is this “toxic dynamic” new? Or has it always been there, but now technology has helped us experience it differently?