This course will examine the challenges posed to legal arrangements and institutions of government by certain societal trends – principally related to technological advance and environmental stress – that are likely to have broad and disruptive societal impacts over the professional lifetimes of today’s law students. Examples of topics we will consider include technological enhancement of human capabilities, human lifespan extension, development of human-comparable intelligence and consciousness in non-human substrates (mainly machines), severe environmental change (considering both controlling the human inputs driving it and adapting to the resultant changes), and active engineered control of the global environment. In many cases these trends or related developments are already underway and causing controversy and disruption, but they promise more broad and fundamental disruption over coming decades.
As this list suggests, we will favor trends that carry the potential for broad societal disruption rather than those whose disruptive potential is limited to particular industries or activities, such as the web-enabled “sharing economy,” regulation and liability issues posed by drones or driverless vehicles, or changes in energy law and regulation provoked by an increased share of renewable energy. We will, however, consider one or two of the latter as test-runs for the modes of inquiry we will use to seek insights into the former.
The course will examine these trends in sequence, asking parallel questions for each:
• What relevant developments are already underway, and what is a plausible or likely range of future changes over a time horizon of two to three decades?
• What areas of law or government will be most severely stressed by the trend, and what are likely to be the most prominent characteristics of the resultant disruptions?
• What incremental adjustments to or stretching of existing legal tools and structures are most likely to be pursued, and how effective are they likely to be?
• To extent larger-scale innovations of legal or governmental institutions may be required to address these changes, what are the main requirements for these innovations and what further disruptions or challenges are they in turn likely to pose?
The course is necessarily an exercise in speculation, but the aim is that the speculation be disciplined by reference to presently available knowledge – scientific, technical, legal, and political. Appearances aside, the aim of the course is highly practical: to get students applying their legal and institutional knowledge to substantially new problems, and thinking in advance about the shape of large-scale challenges originating in the non-law world that are likely to drive changes in substantive legal arrangements over the course of their careers – thereby perhaps positioning them one or two steps ahead of the crowd in addressing major professional challenges they will face.
Please note an important distinction in bounding the course’s scope. The course concerns the impact of technological, environmental, and other non-legal trends on substantive legal arrangements and institutions. It is not about how external trends are disrupting the practice of law or legal education: e.g., it is not about out-sourcing legal skills, the death of “big law,” new financial models for law firms, or increased use of distance learning and online interactive methods in legal education. These are all important questions, but they are not this course.