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January 2000

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Now's The Time To Jump Aboard The Web

The Internet's the only way to keep up with the awesome pace of technical advance and change.

by Sam Guiberson

LAWYERS HAVE "Webbed up," like the rest of the world, with a vengeance. While seeking retail nirvana (imitating all the rest of the goods and services sellers), law firms forgot that the Web might serve some other, greater good. By riding the backs of the e-pigs to the online trough, our profession has framed the Web as an earning tool and not a learning tool.

To try a case is to teach a case; and to teach, the teacher must first learn. No tool in civilized history, no repository of knowledge known to humankind, even reaches the knees of the Internet in terms of how much information can be efficiently and intelligently acquired. It changes the way we think by mirroring the way we think - Web links that associate relevant knowledge simulate the brain's synaptic thought and image-making process.

Learning has never been analog, just our ways of teaching. We have applied analog technologies that produced media, presenting information with a linear progression since the days of papyrus all the way to public TV. Now a technology comes to us that takes us past the assumption that we acquire information best from left to right, and down the page, page after page after page.

We find ourselves in a virtuous cycle where the availability of more information stimulates us to acquire more information, which stimulates more information to be available and so on. As this happens, the human mind accelerates in its capabilities to absorb larger and larger quantities of information.

If you don't believe it, spend a day researching with Web resources and then try to find comfort in a law library with a periodical index. It is as if time has slowed to a crawl. It is physically uncomfortable to acquire information so slowly. Such learning tools become obsolete when they cannot deliver information with the quality and quantity the learner demands. To put it simply, media become obsolete when they employ less bandwidth than their audience.

Printed books are too slow to meet the demands of a soon-to-be society that will yield information in terabytes in nanoseconds over parsecs. This is not to say that reading or writing in book form will not continue to be satisfying, only that the acquisition of professional information will need to occur in other more accelerated media.

Those who want to know enough facts to keep up with the future will not use books. The digital world will be too dynamic, too reactive for the traditional publications media, always undergoing changes occurring too fast to be frozen in published texts. I foresee a future in which we will all have to absorb knowledge so quickly that compared to the simple print media we employ today, it will seem as if we are reading off the wings of birds in flight.

Why should we settle for anything less than all the law in the Web hyperlinked to the last case and commentary? No body of knowledge is more perfectly suited to the Web based method of juxtaposing information than case law, with its limitless self-referencing in precedent. Those of us who have begun to produce Web-based curriculum can plainly see that the pace and depth of legal education multiplies exponentially when the law and legal commentary are integrated into a Web page medium.

It has long been accepted that people can only learn so much, so fast. What the digital renaissance is establishing is that the only limits on how much we can know are the limits of the tools we use to learn.

Litigators who work in specialties tied to science, business and engineering must maintain an awesome pace of technical advancement and change. The learning strategies of our profession must keep pace with change in those fields which modern litigation concerns. You cannot see the 3-D movie that is the future through 19th century spectacles.

The legal profession and the courts as well will soon have to face up to a millennial imperative. Not only must we know more to be worthy counsel, but we must learn to use new means of gaining worthwhile knowledge.

Instead of trailing the digital caboose at the sufferance of those who market and merchandise the law, lawyers need to innovate with the new electronic media. It is in our professional best interest to undertake a digital public works project that will bring all the law there is to the Web and build a consortium of Web based legal education sites that will eliminate geography and wealth as factors in the intellectual advancement of lawyers, the public and all students of the law.

We can only be as intelligent a profession as we teach ourselves to be. Our ways of teaching and training have not kept pace with the responsibility of greater knowledge that our society and its technology have placed upon us. We are poor counsel indeed when we practice law with a poverty of initiative and innovation in the face of rampant change and opportunity.

Never before has so mighty an engine for the acquisition of knowledge stood idle at the doorstep of any society. The world does not need another hundred Web sites selling watches. What the world needs is for the learned professions to stop being the puppets of commerce and start being the prophets of an egalitarian age of accessible knowledge and public information. We should commit ourselves to this goal not only because it is good, but also because it is good for us.

Sam Guiberson is a Houston litigator and consulting attorney in cases involving the use of technology in complex litigation, technology crimes and law enforcement technology.

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