Law at a Crossroads: Regaining Control or Losing the Thread? The Collapse of Distance in Real Time Computing

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


Control at a distance (cybernetics) has been one of the achievements of modern law. Since the advent of the printing press, written law has been instrumental for those in power to rule over a large jurisdiction with a great many subjects: enabling sovereign power to rule by law. Moving from absolutism to the rule of law basically meant that law gained a measure of autonomy between ruler and subjects, still providing the means to govern but also providing individual citizens with legal instruments to resist those in charge. This chapter argues that both the rule by law and the rule of law have been an affordance of the printing press, extending the distantiations in time and space already inherent in the script, thus exponentially reinforcing the need for interpretation and the related delays and hesitations that precede the application of law in court. Looking into the novel communication infrastructures we can observe a shift from the linear sequential thought processes particular to the age of the printing press to the parallel processing typical for the era of real time computing. We argue that this shift enlarges the scope for virtualisation (computer mediated real time modelling and simulation), but simultaneously collapses the distantiations implied in the logic of the script, washing away the need for reflection that is preconditional for critical reasoning as well as for a the fair trial. Speed and instantaneity are replacing delay and distance as pertinent features of communication. We then argue that lawyers must urgently align with computer scientists to advise the legislator on how to redesign the emerging socio-technical infrastructure in a way that affords the central tenets of constitutional democracy. Building on the concept of Ambient Law this means that the democratic legislator must become involved in articulating the necessary safeguards into the socio-technical infrastructure these safeguards aim to protect against.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationDimensions of Technology Regulation
EditorsB.-j. Koops, R. Leenes, M.e.a. Goodwin
PublisherWolf Legal
Number of pages22
ISBN (Print)978-90-5850-511-8
Publication statusPublished - 2010

Bibliographical note

B.-J. Koops, R. Leenes, M.E.A. Goodwin


  • autonomic computing
  • printing press
  • real time computing
  • ambient law
  • profiling


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