Change by design

[dropcap]A[/dropcap]s much as I love my parents, I cannot fathom why they continue to pay for cable. Coming from a generation whose pop culture preferences were at least partially facilitated by the rise and fall of LimeWire, I grew up surrounded by kids who knew how to torrent without incurring so much as a pop-up.

As of 2016, Netflix had accumulated more than 5.2 million consumers in Canada and was well on its way to infiltrating 50 per cent of households in the country. Today, alternative streaming services like HBO NOW and Amazon Prime continue to compete with Netflix on the Canadian market. Meanwhile, I don’t have a TV, and my father continues to step outside after thunderstorms to adjust the satellite on the roof.

Technology is fascinatingly context-sensitive. What one person might consider useful, like paying $8.99 per month to watch Stranger Things on a smartphone, could be totally lost in the eyes of another. There are clear generational and cultural divisions between my preferred medium for consuming entertainment and the way my family is used to doing things. And it’s not difficult to imagine someone 10 years younger saying something similar about me.

More importantly, the ways in which people respond to technological innovation matter a great deal. While some might jump at the chance to test-drive the latest products, others are reluctant to embrace new innovation into their daily lives. Often, that reluctance is wholly justified in light of the associated risks.

On October 17, it was announced that Sidewalk Labs, a sister company to Google, would launch a project to completely redesign the eastern part of Toronto’s waterfront. This project will intertwine digital technologies with urban development to the point where the community will be considered a “city of the future.”

Simultaneously, tech hopefuls are banking on the belief that Toronto will soon become an artificial intelligence hub for Canada, leading the country toward greener pastures. The University of Toronto’s research expertise will no doubt play a role in this process, meaning any developments that come about will likely affect students and staff as well as the community at large.

In light of the planned changes for the city, I wanted to explore the institutional frameworks and processes that facilitate technological developments, as well as the social responses associated with the emergence of new innovations.

The innovation landscape

U of T is renowned for its contributions to the technology industry in Canada and its excellence in this area of pedagogy. Aside from the impressive credentials associated with its various tech-focused faculties, numerous laboratories for technological innovation are located right on campus and contribute to spurring technological change in the city and beyond.

One such hub is the Entrepreneurship Hatchery, or ‘the Hatchery’ for short. Hosted in the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering, the centre provides teams of students with tools and resources geared toward helping them establish successful startups. I went to 222 College Street to speak with Joseph Orozco, Co-founder and Executive Director; Mimi Hao, Operations Lead; and Naveed Ahmed, Community Engagement Officer.

“The Hatchery is solely agnostic,” explains Orozco. “We believe that the tools we provide are needed by any type of startup that wants to [get into] business.”

The Hatchery caters to teams of three to four students, with at least one student required to have an understanding of technology or engineering. Examples of projects that have come out of the Hatchery include TeleHex, the world’s lightest Allen key set for bicycles; PhysioPhriend, an app built to provide accessible physiotherapy data; and Kepler Communications, a satellite communications company.

Over the years, while engaging in community outreach, the number of entrepreneurship applications to the Hatchery has surged. The Hatchery has hosted a “Young Innovator Boot Camp” at Scarlett Heights Entrepreneurial Academy, where high school students were tasked with developing ideas for products to solve problems a thousand years into the future. The winning idea in 2015 was a ‘permanent doctor’ — a microchip that, when inserted into the patient’s body, could monitor their physical health, detect evidence of illness, and administer appropriate medicine.

Conversely, some other educational settings at U of T have opted to steer clear of digital technologies altogether. A number of instructors have imposed technology bans in classroom settings, often based on studies positing that students learn better without the distractions posed by computers; the bans have prompted some students to voice concerns about accessibility in the classroom.

Thomas Gendron, a second-year Criminology and Ethics, Society and Law student, and Estée Katz, a third-year Ethics, Society and Law and Bioethics student, have both experienced tech bans in classrooms.

“I’ve had a couple profs that have tried to prevent the use of laptops or technology entirely,” Gendron tells me, “which is pretty laughable in situations like Convocation Hall, where class is like 1,500 [students] and they’re trying to implement a full cell phone ban.”

When instructors attempted to implement an electronics ban in Gendron’s first-year politics course, for example, students largely ignored it. Gendron refers to the policy as “extremely backwards,” alluding to the fact that many people could otherwise have made good use of the technology for educational purposes.

In one of Katz’s classes, students using laptops were asked to sit on a specific side of the class so as not to distract others. Though Katz believes this was a better solution than a full-on ban, she also feels there is a strange logic associated with attempting to regulate students’ behaviour in this way.

“At that point, I feel like you’re an adult, so if you feel like you’re going to learn better using your computer, then use your computer,” says Katz. “You should know how you learn best and if you’re going to spend the class online shopping, then that’s your deal.”

Gendron has been frustrated with slow rates of digitization in educational settings since he was younger. As a child who grew up with computing technologies, his experience apparently surpassed that of all the staff members at his elementary school.

“The moment anything went wrong they would call me, the sixth grader, in to try and fix the issue,” says Gendron. I laugh uneasily when he tells me that adopting this de facto IT role meant being granted access to a wide range of sensitive information, from students’ grades to a teacher’s PayPal account.

It would be absurd to compare U of T to Gendron’s elementary school. The university is home to one of the most reputable computer science departments in the world, and students have access to a wide range of technological resources. Libraries are well equipped with computer labs and rentable laptops. Gerstein Library even has a 3D printer and scanner.

At the same time, the persistence of tech bans reveals a tension between the traditional and the digital, which is unsurprising in light of its context. History and pop culture are rife with images of institutions like U of T as places steeped in institutional memory, full of gothic architecture and curmudgeonly instructors.

In light of advancements in computing technologies and mathematical softwares, the chalkboard theorems in films like Good Will Hunting and A Beautiful Mind might now be perceived as anachronistic within certain modern educational settings.

It won’t be long before today’s ways of learning fall out of favour; anticipating what will take their place, and what rules will arise to regulate them, is easier said than done.

Changes on the books

Giuseppina D’Agostino is a professor at Osgoode Hall Law School and Founder and Director of IP Osgoode, the school’s intellectual property and technology program. Evocative of the situation at U of T, D’Agostino refers to technology both as a “disruptor” and as a driver of change.

“The law always, immemorial, has reacted to new technologies: from the typewriter to the printing press before that,” says D’Agostino. “Every time there’s new technologies, there are disruptions in the market, new ways of dealing with change, and the law has to change.”

Part of this involves crafting the legal infrastructure in a way that accommodates technological innovations, which involves looking to areas of law such as copyright and patent. Much of the protection available for new inventions, D’Agostino tells me, depends on access to justice, which can be highly limited for parties like creators and law students.

“I can tell you that the innovators on the ground, the students, don’t have those resources,” says D’Agostino. One of the reasons why D’Agostino founded IP Osgoode was because students had ideas for change but lacked the resources with which to see them through.

Slowly but surely, the legal profession has undergone substantial changes in the way of technological advancement. Legal research databases such as LexisNexis and Westlaw, as well as various forms of legal software, are automating work formerly completed through more traditional means.

Completely new innovations have also emerged. Avi Brudner is the Head of Strategy & Operations at Blue J Legal, a Toronto-based company that employs artificial intelligence strategies to predict legal outcomes. “We predict case outcomes by using data from previous cases, leveraging machine learning to do that accurately,” says Brudner.

Having officially gone to market as of January 2017, Blue J Legal’s venture into the world of predictive legal technology began with tax law.

At the same time, the persistence of tech bans reveals a tension between the traditional and the digital, which is unsurprising in light of its context. History and pop culture are rife with images of institutions like U of T as places steeped in institutional memory, full of gothic architecture and curmudgeonly instructors.

The company’s first product, Tax Foresight, is designed to maximize the quality of legal advice professionals provide to their clients by making use of technology that can detect patterns in case databases.

“It’s just not realistic for a tax professional to go back and read all 500 cases in a given area of law, understand how all the factors in those 500 cases are related to each other, and then use that information to make a prediction about a new case,” explains Brudner. In his view, Blue J Legal is granting tax professionals that very ability, allowing them to gain insights that would otherwise be impossible to reach.

The “superpowers” that come with products like Tax Foresight, as Brudner puts it, exemplify some of the benefits associated with innovation. Moves toward digitization and incorporation of machine learning can free up time and cut costs for clients — something that could be especially useful in a profession often considered notoriously resistant to technological change.

D’Agostino refers to the legal profession as “one of the dinosaurs” in tech-related conversations. “The Copyright Board is now dealing with tariffs about technology that is probably 10 years old,” says D’Agostino. “They’re going to come up with decisions that are dated already and that really have no resonance to current market practices and user behaviour.”

I see her point. Trials and appeals can take exorbitant amounts of time to resolve, and court systems in Ontario remain largely paper-based. More fundamentally, the law in Canada is grounded in the rule of precedent, which requires the outcomes of future decisions to be consistent with those in previous cases so long as their circumstances are sufficiently similar. That inherent reliance on the past could throw a wrench into things when rapidly evolving technologies are at stake.

The impression I get from Brudner, however, is that Blue J Legal hasn’t suffered. He tells me that once professionals see the product, they appreciate how it can be integrated into their own practices. “We’ve been really excited by the uptake from the legal profession,” says Brudner. Maybe there is hope.

Given that technologically innovative strategies can be harnessed to address a wide variety of social issues, it is arguably in our best interest to not only figure out how to facilitate these solutions, but also how to do so responsibly.

Reason for restraint

When discussing the feasibility of innovations, it is crucial to consider the ways in which they might be received by the society that adopts them. Dr. Rebecca Woods is an assistant professor in the Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology at U of T and a cultural historian of technology. She considers any type of technology “to be deeply embedded in the society and culture in which it operates.”

Accordingly, Woods believes that what might be perceived as “resistance to an innovation” may actually have to do with how compatible it is with a society’s culture. She uses the example of Uber, which, despite having become a ubiquitous method of transportation in cities like Toronto, has come up short when trying to appeal to consumers in other regions. Residents in Frankfurt, Germany, for instance, perceived Uber’s tactics as aggressive instead of innovative. The company eventually withdrew from the city after 18 months of operation.

I ask Woods to comment on attitudes toward technological innovation in the present day. “What I notice is a lot of hubris, frankly,” she replies. “A lot of rhetoric out there is public discourse that assumes that technological change is inherently for the good, that it is progressive in the sense that it is bringing us closer and closer to some sort of better society, better future.”

Part of the problem, of course, is that innovations almost always have unintended consequences. Despite it being launched as a peer-to-peer housing share system, for instance, much of the market on Airbnb has been taken over by third-party actors in the hospitality industry. A report from the Urban Politics and Governance Lab at McGill University found that Airbnb has now removed 14,000 rental units from housing markets in Montréal, Toronto, and Vancouver. Housing prices in the latter two cities have continued to rise, much to the alarm of tenants.

“A technological solution… might solve the immediate problem,” says Woods, “but it’s almost always bound to produce new problems of its own.”

Not everyone I speak to shares Woods’ concerns. When I ask about drawbacks associated with Blue J Legal’s technology, Brudner says they have found none. In response to a similar question about the projects that come out of the Hatchery, Hao states it is important “to have the mindset of moving forward and not being afraid of all the complications things may cause.”

While Orozco acknowledges the importance of evaluating solutions for potential harm to others and to the environment, he feels technological innovation is fundamentally a good thing — something in our evolutionary nature that “we owe to ourselves” to continue pursuing.

Yet, as I speak with Woods, I find myself struggling to repress memories of various tech-related horror stories. Social media sites like Facebook and Instagram have been linked to deteriorating mental health states in teens and young adults, which have included multiple reports of suicides. Further, hackers routinely find ways to use their skills for sexually exploitative purposes; one of the most infamous naked photo leaks occurred in 2014, when nudes of over 100 A-list celebrities were distributed online.

Recently, in a turn of events I expect will be parodied in the upcoming season of Black Mirror, a Wisconsin tech corporation threw a party for employees willing to have company-owned microchips implanted in their hands. The technology is made possible through the Swedish corporation Biohax International, which is scheduled to take a ‘chipping tour’ throughout Sweden in the near future. Thinking back to the ‘permanent doctor’ at Scarlett Heights, this makes me uneasy.

“There may be something to a little bit of hesitance or restraint when it comes to adopting innovations merely because they’re innovations,” advises Woods. It’s easy to understand where she’s coming from. Innovations like Uber and the smartphone have radically changed the societies that have adopted them, and many of their consequences have yet to be seen. How could we possibly anticipate them all?

One might also wonder how things will play out with what D’Agostino identifies as the next big “disruptor” — artificial intelligence (AI). AI technologies often seek to modify how we conceptualize human capital, or even to replace it altogether. As such, its increasing prevalence in society will have colossal effects for the nature of the workforce.

McKinsey Global Institute estimates that about half of all the activities that people are currently paid to do will be automated by 2055. Even more dramatically, Taiwanese venture capitalist and technology executive Kai-Fu Lee believes AI will replace half of all jobs within the next decade.

According to D’Agostino, repetitive jobs will be the first to go. Speaking to the legal profession, she says, “If you’re just drafting contracts, drafting patents, then you may have to change your skillset, diversify because just doing one thing is going to make you dispensable through technology.” Given the current economic climate, students and recent graduates of all disciplines might be forced to stomach that advice.

“A technological solution… might solve the immediate problem,” says Woods, “but it’s almost always bound to produce new problems of its own.”

And if technology is a social phenomenon, it undoubtedly affects how we interact with one another. The smartphone, for instance, has fundamentally changed the way we communicate with others. Woods points out that we now text in advance to make sure people are available for phone conversations, which is substantially different from just calling someone up to chew the fat.

In general, communications technologies have facilitated radical shifts in the ways people relate to one another. The last time I had a conversation without referencing an internet meme was probably around the time LimeWire called it quits.

“Even if you feel like something is an innovation, you feel the loss of what it’s replacing,” says Woods.

Preparing for the next big thing

I ask D’Agostino whether there is an issue in the legal profession today that could be alleviated through the use of new technology. She responds that the answer will be the next legal tech startup — the next big thing. “That’s what we ask our students,” she says. “Where’s the problem, what’s the problem?… And that’s a company.”

I also ask representatives at the Hatchery to speak to problems in the community they would personally want to prioritize in future projects. Orozco suggested that entrepreneurship tools could be used to address ‘us-and-them’ political divides currently taking place in countries around the world, including to a certain extent in Canada.

Ahmed wants to tackle the gender gap that exists in the world of entrepreneurship, especially with respect to small businesses and startups. The first- and second-place teams at this year’s Hatchery pitch competition were both led by women, and it would certainly be encouraging to see similar representation in the future.

Given that technologically innovative strategies can be harnessed to address a wide variety of social issues, it is arguably in our best interest to not only figure out how to facilitate these solutions, but also how to do so responsibly.

More importantly, the ways in which people respond to technological innovation matter a great deal. 

In this vein, D’Agostino identifies the need for long-term commitment to resource investment. “If we want Canada to be an innovative country and want to innovate our industries, then we need to be able to support them,” she says. That includes paying attention to what she refers to as the “bedrock” components: namely, ensuring that our internet infrastructures are stable and secure.

At the same time, keeping in mind the situations currently unfolding within courtrooms, D’Agostino says it can be a good thing that the law is moving at its own pace. Harkening to the way she teaches her curriculum at Osgoode, “You also have to ensure you don’t jump, because you want to make sure everybody’s with you as you’re doing it so you can carry people along.”

Recalling Woods’ words of caution, part of that strategy should require sensitivity to how technological innovation will change us. As we’ve seen, anticipating these consequences can be analogous to trying to predict the future — absurdly difficult and sorely necessary at once.

“There’s a quote that we always overestimate the change in two years and underestimate the change in 10,” says Brudner. In light of the rate of change, he can’t tell me what law firms or legal technologies will look like years into the future, however he appears confident that whatever tools are developed will continue to improve.

I am confident too. It pays to be forward-thinking, so long as we are also careful to heed the lessons of the past. As students at the university, as members of a generation in which digital technologies shape our presents and our futures, it is easy to be frightened of the uncertainty that lies in wait. More exciting than fear, however, are the opportunities that might come hand in hand with the unknown.