Selective use of technology

In his book The Nine, Jeffrey Toobin gives a few details of former Supreme Court Justice David Souter’s decidedly low-tech life. Souter has no cell phone or voice mail. He does not use email. He was given a television once but never turned it on. He moves his chair around his office throughout the day so he can read by natural light. Toobin says Souter lives something like an eighteenth century gentleman.

I find it interesting that Justice Souter would have such independence of mind that he chooses not to use much of the technology that our world takes for granted. He made it to the top of his profession and had a job for life, so he could afford to be eccentric. But he wasn’t born on the Supreme Court. I would like to know whether his low-tech work habits developed before or after his legal success.

I imagine most readers of this blog could more easily relate to Donald Knuth than David Souter. Knuth obviously doesn’t reject technology, but he is selective in how he uses it.

I had the opportunity to see Knuth speak while I was in college. Much to my surprise, his slides were handwritten. The author of TeX didn’t see the need to use TeX for his slides. While he cares about the fine details of how math looks in print, he apparently didn’t feel it was worth the effort to typeset his notes for an informal presentation.

In 1990 Knuth decided to stop using email.

I’d used email since about 1975, and it seems to me that 15 years of email is plenty for one lifetime. Email is a wonderful thing for people whose role in life is to be on top of things. But not for me; my role is to be on the bottom of things.

I believe I’ve read that Knuth does most of his work on a Linux box with no network connection. He also has a Mac for creating graphics and using the Internet. He has a secretary to handle his correspondence, including email.

If you’re reading legal briefs by sunlight, your thoughts will not be exactly the same as they would be if you were reading by fluorescent light. If you’re writing a presentation by hand, you’re not going to think the same way you would if you were pecking on a computer keyboard. And if you do use a computer, your thinking is subtlety different depending on what program you use. Technology affects the way you think. The effect is not uniformly better or worse, but it is certainly real.

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14 thoughts on “Selective use of technology

  1. I read _The Nine_ too; doesn’t the author imply pretty strongly that Souter has always been low-tech, living in a cabin well before abruptly being plucked up and nominated for the Court?

  2. I am troubled by the thought of someone like Mr. Souter casting a critical vote on an issue of how existing telecommunications law applies to (say) the intersection of cloud computing, social networking, and privacy. Can he possibly have an informed opinion? Would he recuse himself?

    The highest officials of our government give up the right to live their lives within self-determined boundaries.

  3. Two comments: I was going to make the point that DaveT did. It’s troubling to imagine lawmakers and judges being unfamiliar with everyday technology if their work involves laws governing these technologies. Is a judge like Souter competent to make an informed judgement on eg the legality of file-sharing, or whether Microsoft’s bundling of Windows components violates antitrust laws?

    Second, Knuth’s comment always struck me as cranky. Imagine someone saying “15 years of phone calls is enough for one lifetime, I refuse to talk on the phone any more”.

  4. I might be troubled if nobody on the Supreme Court used email, but there are nine of them. It adds variety to have one on the court who is not enamored with technology.

    I would be even more troubled if the SCOTUS acted like a bunch of teenagers, texting instead of paying attention to a discussion.

  5. “Technology effects the way you think. The effect is not uniformly better or worse, but it is certainly real.”

    I appreciate the reasonable nature of the conclusion you reached.

  6. I think the avoidance of technology in these cases is really an avoidance of distraction. These same fellows would probably not keep a parrot in their office if it screeched every couple of minutes, regardless of their affinity for birds.

    Rgarding the opinion that the highest officials of our government give up the right to live their lives within self-determined boundaries, WTF? What about those who choose not to drink, use illicit drugs, consume obscene materials, engage in unconventional sex acts, practice all identified religions, and so on? Or those who have decided that 15 years of eating fast food is enough for one lifetime, and decide not to eat it any more? The highest officials of our government, especially the supreme court, routinely make decisions about the legality of regulations of these sorts of behaviors. Must they also practice them?

    What about driving a car? Would the choice not to drive a car render them incompetent to make a judgement about the constitutionality of a federal maximum speed limit? Must all high officials drive, listen to pop music, follow spots, and participate in all of the other practices shared by the majority of Americans?

    What about vegetarianism, or veganism? Should high officials be allowed to decide if they want to eat meat? Would deciding to abstain make them uninformed about the constitutionality of the USDA regulating meat products?

    Why do we assume that our justices need to be omniscient? Isn’t that what expert testimony is for? We need them to be experts in the law, not encyclopedias of the state of the art of every technology and human activity.

    Besides, assume for a moment that Mr. Souter regularly used email, cell phones, voice mail, and so on. How exactly would that make him any more knowledgeable of the Windows OS (and what is part of it, as opposed to bundled with it), the cloud, or filesharing? There are plenty of people who use these technologies constantly, but would be hard pressed to explain anything about how they work or are built or even how the email gets from them to Aunt Sally, much less on which servers and in which forms it is stored and possibly archived along the way.

    Heck, my six year old son is an old pro at using all kinds of technology, and probably doesn’t have a leg up on Mr. Souter as regards how telecommunications law applies to the intersection of cloud computing, social networking, and privacy. I would even venture to guess that Mr. Souter knows more about this than my son, despite Mr. Souter not owning a cell phone.

  7. John Venier,

    I didn’t say that they gave up the right to any and all self-imposed limits; just that they give up the right to decide for themselves which things it’s OK to give up. (I thought about unpacking that in my original comment, but opted for brevity. Sorry about that.)

    To pick an extreme example, the President may not choose to be a full-time nudist, or take a vow of solitude, and remain President. A vow of silence might be an insuperable problem as well. Certain self-imposed strictures are inconsistent with executing the duties of the position. Where that line is will, of course, be subject to dispute.


    “Why do we assume that our justices need to be omniscient? Isn’t that what expert testimony is for? We need them to be experts in the law, not encyclopedias of the state of the art of every technology and human activity.”

    I don’t believe the law is as separable from its domain of application as you seem to think. Lack of technical understanding has led to some really horrific legal rulings in the telecom world; I assume the same is true in other domains. Things like the imputed right to privacy are not well defined by the Constitution and the US Code, and will not be interpreted or adjudicated in the same way by someone who is unfamiliar with many of the various domains in which ‘privacy’ functions in modern life. At some point, that becomes a problem.

  8. I am struck by the fact that nobody commenting before me seems to be aware that Justice Souter retired from the Supreme Court over two years ago. Thus, there is ZERO chance that he needs to worry about recusing himself from any future cases involving cloud computing, social networking, etc.

    Moreover, Supreme Court justices have no precedent whatsoever of recusing themselves from cases involving areas in which they have no personal experience. Male justices write opinions and vote on abortion cases, justices who have never spent a day in prison rule on cases involving prisoners’ rights, heterosexual justices rule on gay rights issues, judges who have never served in the armed forces rule on military law cases, to take just a few examples.

  9. David Souter is a very strange person. But we always knew that. I would guess that his avoidance of technology, in itself, is no more strange than any other aspect of his reclusive life.

  10. You mentioned that Knuth has a secretary, and I’m sure a high justice has one or more as well. Rather than avoiding communications technology, isn’t a human secretary perhaps the ultimate in office communication and information processing devices? They can eschew computers and phones because they have a “device” that is far more potent already.

  11. Janne makes a good point, of which I wholly agree. I will present the opposite side of the coin. Technology is for people at the BOTTOM of the work force food chain. Farmers need high-tech combines, factory workers need fast tools and automation, middle-class office weenies (like myself) need emails and cell phones to keep up with their communications. It’s only when you become terribly successful that you can eschew these provincial chains and spend your time leisurely using your brain.
    High-speed jet air travel was thought to be a vehicle for COMMON people to be able to get away because only the rich could afford the time to take a ship across the ocean or train across the country.
    I will measure my own professional success when I have the time to turn-off my email and phone, read when the light is good, casually give a presentation that does not involve a PPT template, and maybe take a nice long boat trip across the Atlantic.

  12. Sigh – maybe technology is for people that haven’t figured out how to integrate their minds. Could Souter have learned how to be still and hear through more subtle channels?

  13. I read a while ago that people who study these aspects of human and technology interactions, had concluded that societies that first had it, had only just caught up with the implications and effects of the telephone, then suddenly cell phones, computers, and the internet were upon us.

    There are well positioned corporations that limit email and other electronic interactions, for among other reasons–the effect that the processes themselves have on the humans, and their ability to function meaningfully and usefully, and all this crosses over many different boundaries of human behaviour and not just the obvious.

    Our brains function chemically as well as electronically, and the effects and drains caused by certain kinds of stimulation, and the varying abilities of individuals to replenish the needed chemicals and restore electronic balances, are only just starting to be fully researched in these contexts. That there are problems to be explored and resolved, has already surfaced.

    All these new technologies are meant to be tools to towards ends, but unlike more tactile tools of the past, we find that these `virtual’ tools as much can effect us at low-levels of how we perceive the world, and how we think it works, as we wish to have those tools effect results on our behalf.

    It is now strongly believed by many child behaviour study circles that there is a very solid case for not exposing children below between five to eight years old to any form of television or screen technology. There are strong indications that many Attention Deficit Disorders of one kind and another are due to interruptions in the child’s development of the appropriate neural path ways through pre-mature exposure to those technologies. And their take on reality is subtly and detrimentally warped.

    As surprising as that may sound to people who grew up without such exposure, and have taken it all these technologies in their stride in later life, the realities of it all are quite chilling.

    Given a hundred years for human society to truly come to terms with the telephone, how much more will the avalanche of sudden technologies that we have witnessed be found to have had effects upon humans as time goes by?

    In a relatively few weeks I may scan more information than my Grandfather was exposed to in a life time! Yet he could converse with old class mates in Latin, design engineering projects, take out patents, and live a healthy life into old age, dying with the Bible beside his bed, at peace with God through Christ.

    Apparently people today with all the inputs we have, rarely experience peace or reflective solitude, have time to evaluate where they are heading, and what it is really all about.

    I suggest — make sure that there are people on the Supreme Court who can view these things in a clearer mind—given that we do not yet have any substantial research in on all this!

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