UPDATED: A Brave New World

1052(Brave New World)

Image by danielweiresq via Flickr

O wonder! How many goodly creatures are there here! How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world! That has such people in it!
Miranda’s speech in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Act V, Scene I

“There’s always soma to calm your anger, to reconcile you to your enemies, to make you patient and long-suffering. In the past you could only accomplish these things by making a great effort and after years of hard moral training. Now, you swallow two or three half-gramme tablets, and there you are. Anybody can be virtuous now. You can carry at least half your morality about in a bottle. Christianity without tears-that’s what soma is.”

Aldous Huxley, Brave New World, Ch. 17

In  “Got Twitter? What’s Your Influence Score“, Stephanie Rosenbloom of the  New York Times paints a dismal future when she writes,

IMAGINE a world in which we are assigned a number that indicates how influential we are. This number would help determine whether you receive a job, a hotel-room upgrade or free samples at the supermarket. If your influence score is low, you don’t get the promotion, the suite or the complimentary cookies.

This is not science fiction.

It’s happening to millions of social network users. If you have a Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn account, you are already being judged – or will be soon. Companies with names like Klout, PeerIndex and Twitter Grader are in the process of scoring millions, eventually billions, of people on their level of influence – or in the lingo, rating “influencers.” Yet the companies are not simply looking at the number of followers or friends you’ve amassed. Rather, they are beginning to measure influence in more nuanced ways, and posting their judgments – in the form of a score – online.

To some, it’s an inspiring tool – one that’s encouraging the democratization of influence. No longer must you be a celebrity, a politician or a media personality to be considered influential. Social scoring can also help build a personal brand. To critics, social scoring is a brave new technoworld, where your rating could help determine how well you are treated by everyone with whom you interact.

Is this all there is? Are we now all resigned to a social media caste system where our digital selves are to be rated, traded, bartered, exchanged and sold?

For many lawyers, both old and new, borrowed and blue, the siren song of social media and its chorus of empty promises and get-rich-quick-or-die-tryin’ American Idolatry is too much to resist. The heart is willing, but the bank account is weak. The rocky shoals do not portend any risks. There’s only smooth sailing ahead. Professionalism and Ethics—the Scylla and Charybdis of Lawyering—are best avoided altogether on this epic voyage.

I read Brave New World as a high school student in Grade 10 English class.

At the time, in the unbridled optimism of my youth, Huxley’s dystopia was fanciful science-fiction. Nothing more, Nothing less. While George Orwell’s classic, 1984 has permeated the collective psyche, contorted by many into a convenient metaphor for totalitarianism and class conflict, it was Huxley’s novel that somehow remained imprinted into my sub-conscious. Brave New World inhabited the dark recesses of my mind, waiting patiently, like a crow hovering over freshly killed prey, to feast on a developing cynicism, eventually calcified, when Life’s inevitable disappointments and illusory achievements cumulatively took their toll.

Eighteen years ago I became a lawyer. It was my high school history teacher, Mr. Evans, whom I fondly remember suggesting that I should consider becoming a journalist or a lawyer.I thank him for the inspiration, but today, I feel old. Not chronologically, just existentially old. As though all the years I have spent learning, listening, working, trying to become a better lawyer, and thus, a better human being, have sped by like a freight train—the days, the months, the years—clipping past like dilapidated railway cars, quickly fading into the distance.

What is the point of writing about the Law, practicing the Law, living and breathing the Law, when all that was noble in our profession has been compromised, commodified, compartmentalized? What is the point?

Of course, lawyers need and want clients. Clients need and want lawyers. It is a symbiotic relationship, but a relationship where the client’s needs always must come first. We all need and want to be respected by our peers. Few of us are independently wealthy. We pay our bills and taxes. We deserve to make a living. Yet, is everything fungible, even your ethics? Are you willing to do anything to get a high Klout or Peer Index score, amass Twitter followers and Facebook friends? All at the expense of your clients and your profession?

Before his downfall a man’s heart is proud, but humility comes before honor. Proverbs 18:12

What is the point in exposing the hypocrites; the liars; the egregiously incompetent; the unintegrious? Have you even asked yourself these questions? Do you care, or are you surfeit with the soma of self-promotion and self-congratulation, masquerading as self-actualization?

Where are all the lawyers? Where are the next Scott Greenfields, the Brian Tannebaums, the Mark Bennetts to take up the fight against the banality of it all?

I leave you with a final thought from Huxley’s Brave New World:

“The Gods are just. No doubt. But their code of law is dictated, in the last resort, by the people who organize society; providence takes its cue from men.”
– Aldous Huxley, Brave New World, Ch. 17

UPDATE: Many thanks to George Wallace, partner in the Pasadena, California, law firm of Wallace, Brown & Schwartz and author of the excellent A Fool in the Forest Blog and Declarations and Exclusions Blog,  for his comment and providing a link to a wonderful cartoon that visualizes the  thesis from Neil Postman’s 1985 book “Amusing Ourselves To Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show business”: http://www.recombinantrecords.net/docs/2009-05-Amusing-Ourselves-to-Death.html 

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7 Responses to “UPDATED: A Brave New World”

  1. Picador Says:

    Cheer up, Pribetic. After all the grim news about the rule of law and the nakedly predatory operations of power in the last few years, you’ve finally lost hope because of some idiotic press release by a couple of inane dot-com con men about their laughable business model? This kind of hype about monetizing social networks has been flying around since the heady days of the mid-90s, and it’s just as implausible today as it was then. Don’t believe everything you read in the NYT, especially when it purports to be reporting on some emerging “trend” that’s soon to sweep the nation.

    Also, I’m puzzled by this line:

    “While George Orwell’s classic, 1984 has permeated the collective psyche, contorted by many into a convenient metaphor for totalitarianism and class conflict…”

    Surely 1984 doesn’t have to be “contorted” into a “metaphor for totalitarianism” — the operation of a totalitarian state is the explicit subject matter of the novel. Not sure what you’re getting at here.

  2. Antonin I. Pribetic Says:

    I and others write regularly on the pernicious impact of social media marketing on professionalism and ethics in the legal profession. The NYT article only reinforces this narrative. Hope is not lost if it is illusory.

    The Orwell reference is more sublime. Where Orwell wrote “Big Brother is watching” to illustrate the loss of democracy by the State controlling levers of power over the Individual (think thought police), it is now Google, Facebook and Twitter which manipulates our opinions, invades our privacy and controls our future. We are all now Big Brother. We glibly sell our privacy to the highest bidder to gain our 15 minutes of fame, reputation or celebrity.

  3. George Wallace Says:

    In his 1985 book “Amusing Ourselves To Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show business,” Neil Postman posited a similar Orwell-Huxley dichotomy. He was concerned, not with professional or personal ethics, but with the impact of ready distractions on a society’s ability to think clearly and to carry on with the hard work of functioning in a rational, prudent way. As you do, Postman concluded that “1984” is the future we learned to fear, but “Brave New World” is the future that actually arrived. (A simplified, cartoon version of Postman’s thesis can be found here: http://www.recombinantrecords.net/docs/2009-05-Amusing-Ourselves-to-Death.html .)

    Well done.

    Ironically, having pointed favorably to your post on Twitter, I have likely contributed to your ever-increasing Klout and influence, enhancing the measurements you so rightly disdain in the post itself.

  4. Antonin I. Pribetic Says:

    George, your thoughtful and enlightening comment is not only greatly appreciated, it enhances the great respect that I hold for you, both as a colleague and as a writer. You have clout with a “c” which counts in my peerless index.

  5. Elizabeth Miles Says:

    Don’t worry. Any mathematical model is only as good as the axioms upon which it is based – and these are highly likely to be simplistic I would submit. The real test is the quality of the predicted outputs & how much they vary from reality. In my humble opinion all you have to do is sit by the river and wait for the bodies to float down the river 🙂

  6. Antonin I. Pribetic Says:

    “BEEP BEEP Richie! They ALL float down here. When you’re down here with us, you’ll float too!” -Pennywise, Stephen King’s “It” (1990)

  7. Picador Says:

    My perspective is different. Like George Wallace below, I read Neil Postman’s 1984/Brave New World thesis at a time when it seemed apt: it was the late 90s, and online tracking and ad-delivery companies like Doubleclick were making a lot of news with their devious doings. I bought into Postman’s thesis, and spent a lot of time and energy crusading against invasions of privacy launched from the private sector.

    But things changed dramatically (at least in the US, where I was living) in 2001. Not only did the state pull out all the stops in spying on its own citizens, it also asserted its dominion over the extensive private-sector surveillance tools that had been developed during the Internet boom. It also, infamously, began kidnapping people and holding them in dungeons without due process, torturing people, planting stories in the media as part of an extensive Pentagon-funded propaganda campaign, rewriting official history, and so on. The two-minutes hate aired several times an hour on cable and network news channels features the Emmanuel Goldstein of the day: Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Muammar Qaddafi, etc. All of this has been accompanied by a complete dismantling of the rule of law insofar as it acts to limit the power of the state.

    Yes, the private sector played a role in all of this. Yes, Facebook and Google are pernicious forces eroding our privacy and exposing us to propaganda. But looking back at Postman’s thesis today, it sounds hopelessly naive. The totalitarian state depicted by Orwell is not some Soviet spectre that vanished when the Berlin Wall came down; it is alive and well, right here at home.

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