Indiana Judges Association:The Thinker 2.0

September 28, 2011

IJA-Dreyer-DavidHave you been thinking lately? Judges and lawyers make a profession of “thinking,” of analyzing, balancing, applying, and just plain old wondering. But do we think like we used to? Rodin’s famous sculpture “The Thinker” shows a sitting man deeply pondering. As the figure intensely contemplates, it shows a remarkable image of the perseverance of intellect – what makes us human. Indeed, the sculpture could also be called The Judge, The Lawyer, The Mechanic, even The Parent. Life’s endeavors ask our brain to do a complex job because life presents hard problems that we have to stop and figure out.

But what if Rodin made The Thinker today? It would probably sit with that same intense look, but is it not more likely that there would be an iPhone in its hand? The Thinker 2.0 might be spending more time buying apps than reflecting upon a problem. This is becoming more unsettling, particularly since Nicholas Carr’s provocative 2008 Atlantic article, “Is Google Making Us Stupid? What the Internet Is Doing To Our Brains.” Carr examines how human thinking is affected by technology – and raises a warning flag about Google and the Internet. Google believes “information is a commodity,” says Carr, and “the more pieces of information we can ‘access’ … the more productive we become as thinkers.”

What really worries Carr are the consequences of Google pervasiveness. “The kind of deep reading that a sequence of printed pages promotes is valuable,” says Carr, “not just for the knowledge we acquire from the author’s words but for the intellectual vibrations those words set off within our own minds. … Deep reading … is indistinguishable from deep thinking.” He laments the erosion of our inclination or ability to build great ideas in our complex minds, and our potential as … “‘pancake people’ spread wide and thin as we connect with that vast network of information accessed by the mere touch of a button.” (quoting Robert Foreman)

Now if half of this is true, we judges and lawyers must pause, leave our computers, and think. In this “digital information age,” have we become digital thinkers, or what? As music fans already know, “analog” is oftentimes preferable to “digital.” Digital is not new, but means shorter, separate segments, to be very fast. Historical digital means of transmitting information include smoke signals, Morse code, even Braille. Analog means a continuous stream with more density and content, like a written sentence.

Thinking metaphorically, blogger Dave O’Hara writes, cooking strictly by recipe is digital, but cooking by instinct, reasoning, and preference is analog. Obviously there are speedy digital machines to write sentences. But do the speed and the ease of gathering information affect our time to reflect and form real ideas, not just repeat others? As judges need time, for example, to get behind the reasoning of a case or a brief, the siren of quick information by our digital technology tempts us all to replace slower deliberative thinking. Digital thinking may solve questions with a “pancake” approach,” but what if the case needs a whole loaf of bread?

Maybe we should be analog thinkers with digital law clerks.

But not all authorities are so pessimistic. Duke professor Cathy N. Davidson (Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn) has long studied learning and the Internet. She writes students understand “interconnection” long before their teachers and enjoy remarkable educational results. “Crowdsourcing,” for example, or instant collaboration and idea-sharing, has led her students to find more interest and excitement in coursework, and introduce new ways to learn and write better. Professor Davidson writes in the Chronicle of Higher Education that she even included students in grading and, “That democratizing of who can pass judgment is digital thinking.” She recently wrote to me, “I do not believe devices alone affect thinking, critical or otherwise. Practices, on the other hand, are another matter … we need to be teaching kids and adults how to use and contribute wisely to this remarkable new interactive means of exchanging information.”

Our system of justice is irrevocably changed by digital technology because we are changed. Our challenge is: understand the means of thinking may be different, but the substance does not have to be.

Futurist Richard Watson (Future Minds) worries about “screen culture,” and writes, “One consequence of … connectivity is that we are continually distracted … We seldom get the opportunity to sit quietly and think deeply … Digital technology, it seems, is good for spreading and developing ideas, but not much use for hatching them.”

The Thinker 2.0 should have an iPhone – and hopefully knows when to put it down.•


Judge David J. Dreyer has been a judge for the Marion Superior Court since 1997. He is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame and Notre Dame Law School, and he is a former board member of the Indiana Judges Association. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s.


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