The COVID/AI Era of Law …

For five months now, the United States has been in lock-up.  One of the ugliest hashtags I have seen and heard used is #AloneTogether.  At first it reads like an oxymoron.  If we are alone, how can we be together.  It sounds like the status of the last few years of my first marriage.  Sharing space with an energy pulling against you is draining.

The COVID-19 pandemic may be casting a new meaning on that phrase.  If you have the misfortune of having to share more time in energy draining space with a spouse that you are considering divorcing, #AloneTogether may be the last rallying cry before calling a divorce attorney.

Technology may also impact how we view the phrase.  Zoom calls and TEAMS meetings are a growing part of the workplace lexicon.  The spaces that we enjoyed being alone in at home have become offices and digital conference rooms where everything from sales pitches to digital happy hours are taking place.

For the extra sensitive, walking down a sidewalk and observing people take the extra precaution of taking a wider berth around you while hindering their own breathing by wearing a mask can be disconcerting.  The slightest attempts at saying “hello” or “good morning” are increasingly avoided because of fear that the slightest exhale from a fellow human may lead to a 14-day quarantine or time in a hospital on a ventilator.

In theory, the state quasi-mandated environment of staying away from each other should result in a reduction in analog contacts as our world goes increasingly digital.  Hard for kids to get into school fights when kids are at home distance learning.  Tough to get in a shouting match with a restaurant cashier over an order when Uber Eats, Grub Hub, or Door Dash is picking up your food.

There will be controversies; they will continue.  We are humans, taking conflict to levels that exceed what other lifeforms endure.  Legal philosophy should have us asking “Why are we engaging?” or “What is engagement?”.  Society will have to come up with tweaks to the rules for human engagement in a digital age where a corona virus is forcing on a global scale the reconstruction of society.  Should judges have to consider new threshold principles before trying to apply statutes, laws, rules, code, from a pre-COVID, non-artificial intelligence world to an issue before them arising out of a digital environment?  Will we need a new definition for personal spaces? For zones of danger?

In the area of political law how we structure political engagement and eventually the rules for engagement are already taking on a new twist.  For example, the recent squabble in the United States over funding for the U.S. Postal Service appears to be a result of the controversy over the use of mail-in ballots and the possibility of mail fraud.  As I ponder these questions, I suspect that new legal principles will appear as COVID-19 continues to change how we address the question of whose rule should prevail during political conflict.

Watching “X-Men: Days of Future Past” through the civil rights movement’s civil war …

I have heard some commenters refer to Stan Lee’s “X-Men” as a treatment of the civil rights movement of the 1960s.  I have never taken to the comparison of black people to “mutants.”  While I acknowledge that Mr Lee may have had a noble cause in starting a discussion on equality, diversity, and the inclusion of different cultures, ethnicities, and creeds into the American melting pot, but to be likened to a plant or animal with inheritable characteristics that differ from those of the parents, leads to questions such as, “Did Mr Lee and the good people at Marvel take a look at the definition?” “Who exactly are the parents that blacks differ from?” “Should we get rid of our inherited and unique characteristics in order to be equal?”

I won’t harp on the above questions too much because for the average movie goer the bandwidth may not be available for considering such social questions beyond the need just to get away and watch an exciting movie for a couple hours.  On the other hand, anyone who has read the comics as a kid or has delved deeply into the Marvel Cinematic Universe tends not to be too put off by the social observations.  Besides, lasting imagery and coming away from each viewing having observed different angles on the characters or the message are characteristics that push a movie toward the classic realm.

I hadn’t seen “X-Men: Days of Future Past in a couple years so revisiting it tonight on the FX channel gave me a chance to go a little deeper into the messaging.  The story was set in two time periods: in 1973 with the central event being the Paris peace talks to bring the Vietnam war to an end; and fifty years later where mutants are brought to the brink of extinction by an army of mechanical sentinels.  The X-Men must reach back telepathically to the past to stop an event that that, if left unchecked, will contribute to the start of the global war on mutants.

Three principal characters stood out such that they caused me to unpack the possible civil rights connection.  “Charles Xavier”, played by Patrick Stewart and James McAvoy; “Erik Lensherr”, played by Ian McKellen and Michael Fassbender; and “Raven Darkholme”, played by Jennifer Lawrence.  Charles Xavier and Erik Lensherr are trying to prevent Raven Darkholme from killing the man who would eventually create the sentinels responsible for near annihilation of mutants.  Raven represented to me the militant arm of the civil rights movement, an arm led by leaders such as Stokely Carmichael, Huey Newton, and Bobby Seale.  Raven, at one point during the story, expresses to Charles her anger and disappointment stemming from his apparent abandonment of his fellow mutants particularly during the period of crisis where mutants were facing an existential threat. This anger and disappointment was also expressed by the more militant arm of the civil rights movement where they saw the non-violent, peace first approach of leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King as ineffective.

I saw Charles as representing the more moderate arm of the civil rights movement.  He did not see violence as the way to forge any peace with non-mutants but did not display to me any naivete of kumbaya and hand holding with non-mutants.  Charles’ preferable approach was to connect all mutants and teach them how to see themselves as great individuals.  While it could be easy to liken him to a Dr. King, Charles’ realism kept him slightly to the right of Dr. King.

Erik was the separatist. And yes, the civil rights movement did have separatists most notably Malcolm X.  Erik’s degree of pragmatism altered with changes in the facts on the ground.  He would have gladly took up arms against non-mutants, but if Raven’s assassination attempt today meant extinction of mutants tomorrow, then neutralizing Raven in the short term in order to secure a separate but strong mutant nation in the long run was the logical play.

This to me has always been the beauty of the science fiction/fantasy genre.  It provides an alternative backdrop for taking a look at ourselves.  The “X-Men” movie franchise has been able to paint that canvas by using the time machine and taking us back to the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, using events from those decades to provide us with teachable insights.  Using mutants as an analogy for race is not perfect.  As I discussed earlier I don’t particularly care for it and I would digress a bit and say I don’t care for the term “race” either, but in this specific space it works.

There is no such thing as economic equality

“Who is creating equal. I’m trying to find the equation.” — Louie Bagz

Byron Allen, a black billionaire media business owner, appeared on Fox Business News today sharing his insights on economic equality.  Economic equality has been one of the major topics during the last five or six weeks since the death of George Floyd last May.  At first glance, you could argue that Mr Floyd’s death had nothing to do with economics and that the media’s highlighting of the plight of black people in the American economy is another angle to either drive up ratings by keeping the story hot or to keep the American public distracted from other undercurrents.  Frankly I think it’s a bit of both.  Conflating an economic argument with an act of horrific brutality gives Emmy and Pulitzer chasing journalists something more to talk about.

On the flip side, you can make an argument that Mr Floyd’s death was related to economics based on an economic decision he made that tragically led to his death.  Mr Floyd was trying to make a purchase with a counterfeit twenty-dollar bill.  Somewhere in his decision matrix he concluded that his optimal currency for use in exchange for some other good or service was a dollar bill not recognized as legal tender in the United States.

But currency connotes more than just money in circulation.  The amount of currency one is in possession of transmits a message about the value that an individual brings to market.  Is this individual willing and able to pay for goods and services that I have in my inventory such that I am willing and able to supply such goods and services?  In Mr Floyd’s case that value, at that moment in time, may have been zero.  But did that necessarily mean he was not economically equal to the merchant he wanted to trade with or anyone else for that matter?  I would argue no for the simple reason that there is no such thing as economic equality.

Let’s first define “economic.”  Economic, which is derived from “economy”, entails the management of income and production.  To be economic is to derive and apply certain rules regarding the management of resources in order to achieve some targeted income or production goal.  An economy is a system of rules or decision-making matrices that determine how wealth and income are to be distributed and how production is to be managed.

“Equality” is to do or to make something equal.  Two or more items are said to be equal when they are of the same quantity, size, or value.  Two or more individuals may be considered equal where they have the same abilities, rights, or rank.  But can Mr Floyd’s decision-making matrix be equal to mine?  Would his approach to deciding between producing more bread versus producing more wine equally reflect mine? For the simple reason that no two people are alike I would conclude that economic equality does not exist because no two economic decision-making systems for income, output, and wealth are alike or can be alike.

Can we find economic equality on a macro or national level?  Specifically, can we find economic equality between Anglo-Americans and Afro-Americans?  Again, just like on the individual level, you won’t find the non-existent.  Anglo-Americans, as a collective, follow the rules of income, wealth, and production as determined by a minority made up of political, banking, and religious elites for the benefit of the masses to the extent sharing those benefits with the masses protects the interests of the elite.  After acquiring by force land, minerals, and waterways, Anglo-Americans were able to apply technology and free labor to build an economy and refine a political economy that applied rules of wealth distribution for its people.

Afro-Americans were not at the table when the rules of acquisition and distribution were made.  You cannot enjoy economic equality when you were never the author of the economy’s rules.

But even if Afro-Americans had garnered a sufficient amount of land and other resources such that they could design their own economy, would there be “economic equality”?  I would argue no because differences in lineage, history, environment, and values, to name a few characteristics, would likely create a decision matrix different to those of Anglo-America.  Even if per capita production and quality of goods and services were on par, I would argue that because of the difference in decision rules, both economies would not be equal.

And would it necessarily be a bad thing if both groups were not economically equal where each group decided via its own standards how best to distribute income and wealth?

In the coronavirus era, the information engineers will win …

Editorial

Most of us believe life is about accumulating cash, making enough coin to pay the bills, put the kids through school, take a vacation, and buy ourselves a couple toys.  You know.  Living our best life.  Seven hundred thousand Americans found out last month that a virus could cause havoc not only to one’s physical health but also to one’s financial health.  There will be less coin available to pay for that best life.

Americans are not coming to terms with the reality of nature; that nature is the ultimate arbiter of life on this planet.  It is why the call from political leaders in the United States and worldwide to wage war against a disease seems silly to me.  Nature always wins and I believe its victory will be manifested in how it helps change the nature of commerce and work.

How work changes will go beyond whether a bunch of lawyers, accountants, and call center operators can conduct business from home with their kids running around. (Fortunately, social distancing at home is easy for me. I have a teenager. They like staying away from their parents.)  Not only will we have to become overnight IT managers, we will have to adjust to two additional tasks: one, becoming database managers; and two, teaching our bosses’ algorithms how to read and navigate the databases we have been assigned to classify and build.

More and more professionals, from lawyers to accountants to doctors are becoming database managers.  They are being asked to go through thousands of documents, classify them, and tag them according to how relevant they are to resolving an issue of law, finance, or medical treatment.

By tagging the contents of these databases, these professionals are providing their bosses’ algorithms a template to follow; a path to build and travel on when they eventually take over more and more responsibility for mining these databases and their content.

Capital, always in fear of a vacuum, is always in search for yield.  It is  always in search of the information that increases returns on the coin.  The more efficient the search and the more robust and plentiful the information, the greater the yield.  For coin is the physical valuation of information.  The more information capital has for use, the greater the value of the coin.

But for the rest of us, for the non-capital or what I call the credit class, we will have to rethink our view of information.  Information is no longer just something told or facts learned.  It is not just news or knowledge.  It is an asset, something owned that has value.  Each household’s value going further into the 21st century will be judged on the quality, uniqueness, and value of the information that it sits on.  Households will have to spend more of their most valued currency, time, at least in the short to immediate run, accumulating that most important asset, information.

The virus has dis-aggregated Americans.  Americans sitting at home on their desk tops remotely connected to the central brain at their office will soon be called on to generate more energy in the form of information, relying on their own leased data resources and the databases they create.  Capital, demanding the reductions in the costs for information searches, will reward those households that can mine, package, and deliver information that provides capital with a list of opportunities for highest yield.

The information engineers will win for they will lead in buying that best life…