Keeping Up With the Kids: Document Access on Demand

“The time will come when people will travel in stages moved by steam engines from one city to another, almost as fast as birds can fly, 15 or 20 miles an hour…. A carriage will start from Washington in the morning, the passengers will breakfast at Baltimore, dine at Philadelphia, and sup in New York the same day…. Engines will drive boats 10 or 12 miles an hour, and there will be hundreds of steamers running on the Mississippi, as predicted years ago.”

–Oliver Evans, 1800 (Pacific Southwest Railway Museum website, www.sdrm.org)

One of the “wake up” lines used in technology conferences, writing and discussions is the observation that today’s college students have never known a world without the Internet.  That is and will continue to be increasingly important to courts and the justice system as they deal with, serve, interact with and are staffed by a generation that has grown up expecting – assuming – that all information on any subject is instantly available on the nearest computer.   This is a generation with little respect for – and no patience with – institutions that cannot provide information anywhere, any time, on request.

When I read history, I like to pay attention to the technology of the day.  For example, at the time of the Constitutional Convention, it took George Washington weeks to travel from Mt. Vernon to New York.  Oliver Evans’s prediction quoted above was made in 1800.  You can bet most people figured he was crazy.  By the 1830s, major railroad infrastructure was in place across America.  Any business practices that assumed weeks or months for travel or communications were obsolete – no matter how effective they had been in Washington’s time.

When Lincoln entered politics in the 1840s, the trains were the fastest means of communication.  By the time he was president, the telegraph infrastructure was in place; and Lincoln spent much of his time at the telegraph office in order to get close to real-time battlefield reports. News brought by train was stale and irrelevant.

Woodrow Wilson, a young boy at the time of the Civil War, became a lawyer.  He was an early adopter of a brand-new invention: the typewriter.  Eventually, of course, all serious business and official writing were done with typewriters.  The obvious reason was increased legibility.  The much more profound reason, only discovered AFTER adoption, was increased speed.  By the time Wilson was president, hand-written documents were simply not taken seriously in official contexts.

As a certified “oldster”, I derive a certain amount of perverse pleasure in the knowledge that, just as it is easy for those in my generation to feel a bit out of touch with “youngsters” who think and act based on reflexes, beliefs, and expectations shaped by the technological environment in which they grew up, so too today’s young adults will find themselves stretching to keep up with their children.

These kids will grow up, among other things, never having known a time when they were not connected, 24/7 by smart phones and their successors, to everyone (social networking first; parents second), everything (Google all available knowledge, facts, information, and records), everywhere (on-line access to images and sound from ubiquitous real-time cameras and audio pickups).  Their location, who they are with, what they have seen and heard, and what they are doing will have been monitored from birth (Prediction: within the next ten years it will be child neglect to allow your child out of your sight without a GPS).

Can it be that this next generation will be more impatient and less respectful than their parents’ generation?  History says, “You can bet on it.”

The moral for courts and the justice system is, in order to stay relevant to the current and coming generations, better have those track shoes on.

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