No one will accuse Americas supreme court justices of being early adopters.
Their average age is 68. Many have admitted to never having sent an email. Facebook, Twitter, video games, smart phones even the Internet itself is a foreign land for our nations foremost legal scholars.
So with rapid advancement of technology and its ability to harm the citizenry in new and incalculable ways, it can be scary to think that the people interpreting our laws could be so technologically illiterate.
But, as we learned recently, there can be some benefits to our judicial branch being behind the times. Last week all nine justices united to rule that police do not have unlimited access to a persons cellphone without a warrant.
It is the right decision, and both conservatives and liberals can agree on that. The law on the books that police could go through anything in a persons pockets during questioning was written without kowledge of the vast information and a depth of personal data that could one day fit into a pocket.
But lets say the court heard this case way back in the days of yore say 2008. Most people were rocking the old flip phones, which had nothing more than a bunch of digits inside them. Not much different than the old black book, which can contain some mighty helpful evidence. Its highly likely that, had the Supreme Court heard the case just six years ago, they would have ruled that cellphones are just another thing in your pocket and legal to search.
Were glad they didnt. Because cellphones nowadays are more than just numbers. They have reams of data, including GPS coordinates tracking your every move and a portal into a lifetime of emails. They could contain personal banking and medical data, as well as photographs, video and written conversations with innocent parties.
Its an invasion of privacy for police to be able to access that information over a measly misdemeanor.
Yet, had the court been technologically proficient, they may have heard this case far earlier, before the technology had matured.
Thats the thing about technology. It moves fast and without direction. There are 10,000 failures for every success. It evolves each generation, becoming more powerful and more useful and sometimes more dangerous.
Yet the Supreme Court is slow. Democracy is slow. The system was designed to move like molasses so that mistakes can be caught and we dont tilt too far in one direction too quickly.
That is a frustration for activists and entrepreneurs and all citizens on the tech frontier. They want different things from the government protection, freedom, definition but they want it now. Thats just not how the Supreme Court works.
There are real dangers with having an elderly, out of touch court. We cant say we agree with the justices on other tech issues, such as broadcasting over the Internet and even net neutrality. And we think some justices would have ruled differently had they been better informed and used these tools on a daily basis.
But you cannot fault the slow and steady, tortoise approach of our high court. Rushing into a cellphone decision could have put citizen privacy at risk. Patience, common sense and a more mature product got them to the right decision.