Opacity and Access

I studied mechanical engineering as an undergrad and then, after some time working abroad, went to law school. It’s a funny but not unheard of combination and I argued in my law school essay that legal analysis and the scientific method are actually analogous:

  • facts : law :: data : science
  • legislation : law :: natural “laws” : science
  • holdings : law :: conclusion : science

Not only are the analytical processes analogous but an oft-cited benefit of studying those disciplines is the same: You learn a method of thinking. I took on faith that learning how to think like an engineer and a lawyer would be good and have discovered that it’s been critical to demystifying the things I see, read and hear every day. Two classes were particularly helpful in lifting the veil.

I took “Corporations” as a 2L and learned a couple important things: (1) Corporations are constructions of law and exist in order to maximize shareholder value and (2) A manager of a corporation that deviates from that profit maximizing mission is in breach of their fiduciary duty. I realized sitting in class one day that giant corporations (and movie villains) don’t do terrible and profitable things because they hate the wilderness and the weak; instead, they do them because they must. Accordingly, moral arguments about corporate actions carry no weight; these arguments are like trying to convince a lion that it’s wrong to kill an antelope. (I’m aware of the extensive body of law that actually gives corporations a lot of leeway on how to act and may discuss them and B corps another day.)

Notwithstanding the fact that I studied mechanic engineering, I was required (and glad) to take a class or two on programming. So, I learned a bit of BASIC, some C++ (I think) and enough HTML to be dangerous and, for the first time, the various computers I used every day were more than black boxes. It was as if I suddenly knew how they thought and where they were coming from which made it easier for me to understand and communicate with them. To a developer, this “understanding” might make me sound like a person who “understands” French people because he studied a phrasebook on the way to CDG. Nevertheless, I carry with me the general principles that I learned and understand at a slightly deeper level than I would otherwise the technical innovations that run the world.

Bringing it all together:

The video below is from an Alexis Madrigal post commenting on the fact that (a) almost all cars in America are now automatic transmission and (b) another mechanical system is becoming more opaque to the people who use it. It’s a good and interesting observation and, apropos of this post, I think a similar one can be made about technology. There was a time when to use a computer you had to truly understand it but, unlike manual transmissions, that barrier to entry was so high that it kept technology in the hands of a learned few. And then the people who understood computers figured out how to turn them into automatics and that very opacity made technology accessible.

Opacity —> Access?