A Crisis of Ownership
You may or may not know it, but the last 20 years has seen a crisis of digital ownership. Some think ownership in a digital age began its slippery slope with the advent of smartphones; you don’t control the software in the device, you’re just licensed to use it. They however would be wrong. It began long before, with the internet enabling copying of almost anything: from music, to books, to movies – Naturally, Law attempted to keep up by cracking down on rampant copyright violations, which saw us switch to licensing and streaming models. Except, that’s the opposite of owning something digitally, making the question as to who controls what increasingly problematic. Meanwhile, over in the gaming world, unique in-game buys were exploding overwhelming legal frameworks; lack of legal existence enabled people to move enormous sums of money illicitly in and out of gaming economies. However, today, with the arrival of NFTs, the ownership landscape has and is changing drastically.
The Law and Technology
The gulf between law and technology is shrinking. No one is more apt to discuss this transition than our guest Joshua Fairfield, who straddles both disciplines as an internationally recognized law and technology scholar. Here he delves into the evolving language of law, IP and gaming as examples of just how law really is keeping pace with technology.
Language of the Law and Technology
Joshua’s career began in the world of language and software at Rosetta Stone, a hallmark company for learning a second language that created one of the earlier immersive linguistic environments. His interest transitioned to law, how it evolves and keeps up with changing technology, but his interest in language, specifically the philosophy of language remained and became intrinsically linked with law and his subsequent work. There is a tension between the two disciplines, Tech and Law, and arguably it’s down to the fact that they are both tasked with precisely defining how the world is to work but they use radically different languages to do it. Just like tech, Law’s evolution, Josh argues, is wrapped up in the evolution of language. Laws are written using terminology that’s ambiguous so its meaning can change as our use of language changes. Take the simple sentence of the law: “All men are created equal”. When penned in 1776 it meant all men. You’d be right to flinch because it came into being during a time when people were held in enslavement. Yet we took that fragment of language and we treated it as if it were true. Now we have iterated it to mean something akin to “all people are created equal.” Today, there’s a new version of this, such as BlackLivesMatter or #MeToo. These are modern neologisms; evolutions of language, each layer built on the uses of the layer before it. This is how law progresses, by creating new language, new ways of talking about the problems of the future. Law therefore is a type of social technology itself: it’s a tool that in principle can be iterated on and improved. To secure the benefits of changing technology for all of us, we need a new kind of law, one that reflects our evolving understanding of how humans use language to cooperate.
Gaming: A Tech-Law Use Case
Gaming is a good example of this. It’s a particularly rich linguistic environment; its immersive context provides a medium that’s an excellent learning environment specifically for learning a language. Why? Because you learn in context, which is something AI is yet to catch up with. Gaming is also an excellent example of historic appetite for digital objects, but objects that had no legal existence, despite people treating them as if property. Despite the demand being prevalent for 20 plus years, it’s only today that we seem to have addressed it and Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs) have highlighted the set of problems that laws have been struggling to solve. Today, with the advent of NFTs we are able to identify a unique digital ‘something’ and we can transfer it in a way that economists call rivalrist, meaning ‘if I have something, then you don’t.’ With the creation of such digital rivalrist there is now an untapped demand for a legally supported market. The legal system has to sit up and take notice. Technology, and specifically here NFTs, are giving foundation to change legal arguments and sparking a legal revolution. Tune in to part one of this fresh take on how the rule of law faces new challenges in our ever-increasing digital world, and how we can create the kind of laws that help humans thrive in the face of technological change.
In this episode of the Global Investor Podcast, host Karim Nurani of Linqto welcomes guest Joshua Fairfield, J.D., an internationally recognized law and technology scholar, writer, and legal professor at the Washington and Lee University of Law, who specializes in applying the law and human rights to digital assets and technology.
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How Law Keeps Pace With Tech; From Philosophy of Language to NFTs
A Crisis of Ownership