Erik P.M. Vermeulen

@erikpmvermeulen

Are You Worried about the Digital Future?

Why We Should Understand “Coding”

Digital technologies will continue to dominate our future.

Connected, smart and autonomous devices will automate manual labor and have a huge impact on knowledge workers. Everyone’s life will be transformed.

These changes seem to scare a lot of people. Technology is often seen as a threat to a traditional way of life or — in a worst case — leading us on a path to oblivion.

But, it isn’t the technology that should scare you. Rather, it is the ignorance shown by many who are, and will be, affected by on-going technological developments.

Whenever the exponential growth of technology is discussed, I often hear that “we’ve been here before”, that “we have coped with technological revolutions in the past, and that this time it won’t be any different”.

Or, what is perhaps even worse are those who believe that the new technologies won’t change anything, and that the companies who invented and introduced new business models based around new technologies create nothing more than hype, a bubble that will eventually burst.

“Fear” or “complacency”. These seem to be the standard responses to the on-going digital revolution.

What worries me about this response is that the gap between technological development and society will become wider and wider. If we don’t take the digital revolution seriously, we may come up with solutions that will have a counter-productive effect. In a worst case, it will only encourage the emergence of parallel worlds and new forms of social division and exclusion.

Thinking about how to close the ‘gap’ between technology and society is imperative for all of us. In this spirit, my own small contribution has been to introduce a “Coding for Lawyers” course on a business law program that I run.

Why Lawyers?

In general, the image of lawyers as innovators or constructive partners in innovation is not positive. A recent post by Steve Blank leaves little room for doubt:

He refers to an older blogpost that makes it abundantly clear that lawyers have always been poor at running innovative companies. Here are some of the traditional issues with lawyers:

  • They are constantly ‘over-lawyering’ and killing innovation.
  • They are notorious for failing to prioritize issues, instead focusing on what are — from a business point of view — irrelevancies.
  • They have poor listening skills.
  • They are inflexible and unresponsive.

These problems become even worse in the context of digital technologies.

For a start, lawyers tend to zoom in on the “privacy” and “data protection” issues raised by new technologies, such as artificial intelligence or blockchain. Or, they will explain how current rules don’t allow for the use of “Big Data”. They even argue that we need stricter rules and regulations to deal with IP infringements, for instance.

In short, lawyers are constantly holding back innovation, rather than facilitating it. Lawyers are creating problems, rather than finding solutions.

This is clearly wrong and short-sighted. Lawyers need to be much smarter about new technologies and their role in building a better future. This is not only necessary to remain relevant in a fast-changing digital world, but also to contribute to a better society for all.

What Should Lawyers be Doing?

Here are three things that lawyers should be doing.

(1) Lawyers need to work with new technologies

The way I see it is that lawyers cannot ignore new technologies:

  • Existing and new clients have to prepare for a new digital and innovation-driven economy. They want to get a better idea of how their businesses can benefit from blockchain, smart contracts and algorithms. Such clients will expect their lawyers to understand these technologies in order to provide strategic business and legal advice.
  • If lawyers are not able to give a satisfying answer to their clients, they run the risk that their clients will switch to another law firm or consultant. Being tech-savvy will be essential in building and maintaining “brand” loyalty.

(2) Lawyers need to come up with “smart” solutions

I believe that digital technology has the potential to contribute to a better, healthier and safer world.

Yet, there are challenges that we shouldn’t ignore. We need to be smart about digital technologies.

In order to come up with the best possible solutions, lawyers (and other consultants) need to have a detailed and accurate understanding of the new technologies in order to play a role in identifying such solutions.

(3) Lawyers must learn to work together with “technologists”

I have participated in a blockchain experiment in which both technologist and non-technologists worked together and engaged in co-creating. I wrote about it in an earlier piece.

I strongly believe that pro-active and tech-savvy lawyers can play a crucial role in the further development of the digital economy.

This doesn’t mean passively “applying” current rules and regulations to a new technology in order to constrain innovation. This is the type of lawyer that Steve Blank objects to.

Rather, it requires new and different skills. The “best” lawyers of the future will be those that understand the need to work together with technologists in order to find technological solutions that can help generate confidence in the technology, as well as meeting the regulatory requirements.

This means going beyond a pure compliance role and instead focuses on adding genuine value to the current technological developments.

For instance, how can we create a system in which autonomous and connected devices can build reputation and trust, and ensure that the collected data will only be shared with other trusted devices. Such an approach addresses privacy and data protection concerns, but also makes a product more attractive in today’s marketplace.

So, Why Coding?

And that brings me back to “Coding for Lawyers”.

In order to perform this new type of “lawyering”, the lawyer of the future needs to be able to understand and communicate with technologists.

One can see this already in the context of “smart contracts”. A “smart contract” is simply a contractual arrangement that is designed as a computer program. The contract is written and enforced in code.

What is interesting (and perhaps surprising) is that lawyers (particularly, the younger lawyer who is at the start of his or her career) have an increasing interest in these “smart contracts”. In particular, they want to know how these computer codes or protocols can automate the verification, execution and enforcement of certain terms and conditions of a “contractual” arrangement.

And this means understanding the basic structure and concepts of computer code.

Certainly, the course (which is taught by mathematicians and lawyers together) provides an introduction in how to create smart contracts for the Ethereum blockchain. Students are introduced to programming languages for smart contracts, such as Solidity.

But, it isn’t my intention to transform “lawyers” into “coders”. I just want them to understand the power of automation and technology. I want them to understand how automation could streamline transactions and build trust.

But most importantly, I want them to think about building creative solutions in partnership with technologists.

I want them to become “solution-oriented” instead of “problem-oriented” (to use the language of Steve Blank).

When lawyers understand the power of technology and how technology can disrupt their current work, only then can we have lawyers that help improve the technologies and make sure that humanity doesn’t make any mistakes in navigating the digital revolution.

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