FULL DISCLOSURE: I am a Luddite. At least in terms of how the concept is popularly understood today, i.e., I am rotten with computers (o.k. let’s face it, electronics of any kind) and despair that technology is stripping away our humanity one gigabyte at a time. I mean, look, I still own and play my original vinyl records. (What is this docking station stuff? Aren’t those for spacecraft?) I have not, however, resorted to the tactics of old Ned Ludd, the 19th century British teen who struck a blow for textile artisans by smashing up a bunch of new fangled power looms and stocking frames. And, yet.
I do completely acknowledge that technology has made my life in the courtroom infinitely easier. Jury instructions are a breeze. No more frustrating delays resulting from corralling witnesses and lawyers. A simple tap of a send button on a smart phone now summons the necessary folks. No more endless telephone tag for my clerk. (Likewise, no more less than credible protestations of "sorry, Judge, I must have just missed your call”.) And, oh the beauty of computerized exhibits! No more unwieldy poster boards slipping out of clips that somehow don’t work right. No more push pins popping off wheeled bulletin boards causing carefully ordered documents to spray through the well. No more flip charts that don’t flip. Now, there is just the soft click of a power point remote. But, still, I miss other more sonorous clicks, as well.
I am, of course, talking about the dulcet tones of the deservedly vaunted IBM Selectric typewriter. Yes, you younger folk (hereinafter "YF”), I said TYPEWRITER not keyboard. Remember the lovely sound of that rapid click, click, click? (A sound almost as evocative as the smell of mimeograph ink or Le Pages white school paste!). And, the extraordinary clacking of those typists who managed 100+ words per minute? I know this is hard for the YFs to believe, but some of us actually began our careers when an IBM Selectric III was the next big thing. We then graduated to ABDicks—which, as I vaguely recall, were glorified typewriters with an electronic component that allowed it to save a line of text. Yes, I concede that the carbons and whiteout necessitated by these warhorses probably instigated the three martini lunch. And, still...
Computers have made all kinds of knowledge available to those who previously had no access to books—an undeniably wonderful thing. It levels the playing field in many ways. I can pull up a case on the bench in the blink of an eye and Shepardize it in less time than that. I can have the testimony of witnesses right in front of me in real time and can highlight portions of significance. But I can’t flip back and forth through the pages of a digest anymore. And, I miss that. (Absolutely startling to me is the fact that many lawyers are agog that I still have a library in my chambers; I fear they find me quaint.) And, I desperately miss my bookstores! I know, there is Amazon, blah, blah, blah... but there is no web site that allows you to tuck yourself away in a corner of a great old bookstore and feel the heft of a cache of books in your arms or on your lap as you perch on a stool (in a REALLY great store the books will even be dusty), and listen to the lovely crack of a brand new spine being opened.
Some of my best memories of being a young lawyer are of events that occurred precisely because of the lack of technology—to wit, the courthouse filing run. The shared tension and anxiety of partners, associates, law clerks (whoever was available at 4:00) running down to the federal courthouse in tandem (one driving, one pirouetting around obstacles on the sidewalk to get to the filing window) to get an emergency brief filed just in the nick of time and the commensurate stress relieving laughter and high fives that ensued created a bond and a sense of doing something truly important that the solo push of a send button cannot replicate. I grant you that electronic filing results in far less wasted paper and far fewer grey hairs, but still...
Another unintended consequence of the efficiency created by technology is the concomitant creation of pan-emergencies. In other words, every project mutates into the highest priority. Everything must be on the boss’s desk yesterday, everything must be done ASAP (or sooner). So, we text, e-mail, fed ex, and fax (remember that curly thermal fax paper that fell in long spirals to the floor?) so we can get it there faster, faster, faster. How do we know what a true emergency is these days when we respond to everything as though it is one. A strained extrapolation of Descartes, perhaps? "I have the capacity to respond to an emergency, therefore everything is one?”
And, phones. Don’t get me started on phones. Do you ever wonder why you can never get through to anyone anymore? Because EVERYONE is on the phone all the time. What in God’s name is everybody talking about??? I just don’t get it. Are we all suddenly that much more interesting? Not if you are gauging it by the snippets I hear as I walk around the city, "Then he went, and I mean, I’m like, and then she’s all...” OMG. Nor does the eyeroll provoking commentary on Facebook or Twitter convince me of our populace’s wisdom ("I just ate a banana , yummers! J”). I mean, do I really care what Demi Moore thinks about Syria or the federal government shutdown? Or what Miley Cyrus thinks about Liam Helmsworth’s butt (a subject as to which she at least presumably has some first hand knowledge). WTH. Yes, cell phones are wonderful in emergencies and they make it so much easier to meet people at large events --think Disneyland or sports arenas. Social media is obviously an incredible tool for, among other things, allowing the disenfranchised to be heard. But just as I’m pretty sure most folks on a cell phone aren’t arranging a hospital admission for their child or coordinating pick up times at the airport, I’m equally certain most Facebook and Twitter entries aren’t fomenting the next Arab Spring.
O.K., here is my last and biggest gripe. No one talks to each other in public anymore. No one speaks to a congenial stranger while grabbing a cup of coffee or a quick bite. No one chats in the grocery store or DMV lines. AND, did you ever notice these days, no one looks around while walking. No one notices the sky, or the birds, or the buds on the trees in spring because they are all talking and texting and tweeting, and, yes, twittering away. And, they are probably trying to send something to be saved on their cloud. Maybe we should just stop, breathe, put the phone away, and take a better look at the ones above us.
Judge Melissa N. Widdifield is a judge of the Superior Court for the County of Los Angeles and a Past President of WLALA. Before her appointment to the Superior Court, she was a partner in the firm of Talcott Lightfoot Vandevelde Woehrle & Sadowsky and clerked for the Hon. Consuelo B. Marshall (C.D. Cal.). She handled criminal defense and civil rights matters and currently sits in a criminal trial court.