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Communications of the ACM


Technology Confounds the Courts

Supreme Court of the United States, October 2010

Credit: Getty Images

An elite group of Americans have come under fire for being averse to and unknowledgeable about the basic workings and culture surrounding new technology. Despite being viewed as some of the brightest and most accomplished people in their respective field of employ, they have publicly admitted to being resistant to using technology in their own professional and personal lives, and have been ridiculed as woefully out of touch with the basic workings of technology that has been in common use for a decade or more.

This group of individuals is none other than the nine members of the U.S. Supreme Court, who are often asked to rule on cases that are extremely technical in nature.


Ronald Bartlett

I was very disappointed with this article, and in the editor who should have rejected it.

And here is why.

A claim is made that the Court members "have come under fire for being averse to, and unknowledgable about, the basic workings and culture surrounding new technology". But no supporting information is given as from whom or where these criticism have come. Then, despite any affirmation of this claim, the article goes on to make yet another claim, based on the previously unconfirmed claim, namely, "One of the primary reasons for a lack of familiarity or comfort with technology is the average age". This is presumptuous!!! Many technological experts are older than this "average age".

Even more presumptuous; the author has clearly contradicted the data he presents later in the same article: "These opinions reveal that the Court is often cautious in the face of technological developments, not because the Justices do not understand those developments, but rather because they are not confident that they can predict the future of technology and the development of social norms that will surround its use".

Keith Kirkpatrick

Thanks for reading. In response to your comments regarding the lack of technological savvy by members of the Supreme Court, note that in the opening graf, the assertion is made that the Court has come under fire for being technologically challenged, and some members have admitted to being less than comfortable with technology. All one needs to do is a simple Google News search, and a plethora of articles highlighting the Court's supposed foibles with technology will come up. This isn't me making this claim; it has been well covered in the legal and general media for many years.

In terms of contradicting the previous statements on the judges' lack of tech knowledge, that was the point. Most of the coverage about the Courts and technology tries to show that they're old, out of touch, and have never used an Ipad (which is not true). However, by declining to issue broad new rulings on certain technological matters, the Court has stated that the lack of real or perceived familiarity with technology shouldn't matter when ruling on technological cases--they will move slowly so they don't get caught up in a fad.

In terms of the older people being less familiar with technology, on balance, this is true. Just check out any Pew Research studies on smartphone usage or Internet usage, or user demographics for Vine, SnapChat or Reddit. While there are certainly exceptions to the rule, more often than not, 70 year olds are not as comfortable or active users of the latest technology.

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