Thinking Digitally

It takes all types to make a world, so perhaps there are people who actually appreciate and/or read the popups that read something like

“By checking this box I acknowledge I have read and agree to the User Agreement…” [consisting of dozens, hundreds, or thousands of virtual pages of indecipherable gobbeldy-gook].

114_thinking-digitallyOf course, in order to consummate the transaction, you have no choice – you HAVE to check the box. Nevertheless, courts routinely hold that users who check the box have thereby bound themselves to the substance of the said gobbeldy-gook.

I bring up this example to pose a question: Is that which binds the user a document; or is it a data point, meta or otherwise?

I don’t raise this question to be churlish or legalistic; but rather to point out an increasing and accelerating trend towards the evolution, if you will, of what were formerly regarded as “documents” into pure “data”. The transition seems to be a continuum. First, paper documents were converted to electronic form and stored, with added meta-data. Rapidly, the meta-data itself became first useful, then essential, and (in some cases) of greater significance and greater accessibility than the content of the document.

The move to “born electronic” documents moves everything further along the continuum. The distinction between “content” and “meta-data” has gotten real blurry, in case you haven’t noticed.

In fact, more and more, “forms” are replacing “documents”. The form’s actual IDENTITY – what it IS-  (A Motion for a Continuance? A Change of Attorney?) has become meta-data. There is no verbiage; only identification of the transaction type and the relationships.

Among the many implications of this evolution – which is either approaching or has hit the elbow of the asymptotic curve – is that “Records Management” in the historical sense no longer has much relevance. Concepts related to paper and physical files provide little guidance and much confusion when applied to data. Just one example: In the world of paper and physical files, no one asks how many places or in how many documents the name of the defendant’s attorney is stored. In the digital world, the name of the defendant’s attorney may not actually appear in any record or data on any of her cases. Instead, there will be pointers to a central file with all the attorneys’ names. What happens to the old case records when the attorney gets married?

I bring this up not because I believe problems to be pervasive or difficult to surmount; but because it sure seems to me that the entire subject requires a way of thinking completely different from the old ways. Someone probably has a better term, for now, I’ll call it “Thinking Digitally”.

Courts that are thinking digitally will be wanting to “data-tize” what used to be files and documents as quickly and deeply as possible. Essential tools include robust ECM including E-Filing and Workflow, integrated at the data level with Case Management Systems, with data-level intersystem communications among business partners. Without these tools, it’s hard to imagine how anyone can manage “records” at the data level. Because, let’s face it, at the atomic level, the data is a bunch of ones and zeros. Without knowing where it came from, how it was created, how it was processed, when it was “approved” (“By checking this box’ I agree…”), and so on, you CAN’T know what to do with it or how to manage it. Think of the marrying attorney. Multiply that situation by a zillion.

You can bet that Microsoft keeps track of when you checked the box; and you can also bet that they don’t keep a copy of their “Agreement” for everyone who checks the box. Developing the rules, processes, and procedures for today and tomorrow’s records requires thinking digitally about ALL information, whether it is or previously has been contained in a document.

 

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