Legal scholarship tends to focus on the past, the present, or the relatively visible, near-term future. And that’s understandable: the challenges that loom many years away often aren’t susceptible to confident claims or carefully worked out solutions. In law as in life, our biggest worries—or hopes—may never come to pass at all.
But what about challenges in the foreseeable but still uncertain future? We believe that legal scholars should have a great deal to say there, too. Even improbable scenarios can be worth preparing for, and academics are especially able to discern nascent trends, reflect on their potential implications, and suggest how best to prepare for what’s next. In addition, by imagining aspects of the future, scholars may bring to light under noticed dimensions of the present.
Whether by taking something obvious about the present to a greater extreme, and playing out the possible consequences (like the move from the experiment with Google Glass to the arrival and acceptance of a total life recording device, The Ruby, imagined in Jane Bambauer’s essay, or a total surveillance device, The Watcher, imagined by Richard Re), or by recognizing the inherent limits of our current paradigm (like Kristen Eichensehr’s essay exploring how we will handle the recognition that cybersecurity simply cannot give us all the security we want and need), a number of these pieces stop us short, sometimes startle us, and make us see current pathways and fault lines afresh. By engaging the imagination, we can shake loose habits of mind and better question conventional assumptions of fact.
Plus, futurism can be fun and so serves as a good conversation starter. Wouldn’t it be not only instructive but interesting to hear different perspectives on our common fate?
We thought so. So, under the auspices of UCLA’s Program on Understanding Law, Science, and Evidence, or PULSE, which we co-direct, we invited a group of scholars to choose a scientific or technological development that might revolutionize their fields within the next fifteen-or-so years. In short, we asked the participants to imagine the legal landscape in 2030.
We hoped for a wide range of responses, and we got them. What happens to knowledge, universities, scholarship, and publishers if Intellectual Property frameworks implode under the technological pressures of easy copying and the increasing power of AI? Chris Kelty plays out some of the possibilities vis-à-vis copyright and trademark, while Robin Feldman also looks at IP issues, focusing on the inadequacies of the patent system revealed by new gene manipulation techniques like CRISPR. Elizabeth Joh explores a future when robot cops become real and Jaclyn Seelagy unpacks the implications of virtual reality violence. Erin Murphy presses the fast forward button on the collection of DNA for criminal justice purposes given our continued ambivalence over the tensions between security and privacy, and Dov Fox, in a quite different space, also projects current ambivalences into the future, focusing on selective reproduction and our ability to select particular traits for offspring. Edward Parson offers a framework for evaluating future efforts at managing technological dangers, including from “do it yourself” microbial design kits; and William Boyd weaves a fictive history of environmental regulation based on big data, which might transform and personalize perceptions of risk.
The Symposium pieces variously offer dire predictions, underappreciated challenges, and optimistic solutions. One essay is explicitly utopian (Frischmann and Selinger); somewhat to our surprise, no essay was wholly dystopian, nor did anyone posit the wholesale destruction of civilization by 2030, though a number of the authors sound loud warning bells as they look ahead. Some essays focus on developments that are quite realistic, while other pieces require a little extra imagination. The pieces are also diverse in terms of method. They draw on findings from the sciences and the social sciences. They engage with theories of sociology and regulation. And they defy conventional scholarly genres, even venturing into the creative domains of science fiction and satire.
Many of the Symposium’s predictions will come to pass (or so we predict!), but others won’t—and that’s for the best. Sometimes part of the point of peering down the road is to urge a course correction, or simply to explore the possible. Regardless, we believe—and these essays uniformly reveal—that imagining the future can provide us with a powerful and valuable way to understand the here and now.