Rural Technocracy

Humanity is acquiring all the right technology for all the wrong reasons. R. Buckminster Fuller

Technology is slowly making inroads out here in the hinterlands. GPS, GIS, and laptops are transforming how fields are managed, crops are planted, and even who (to be more accurate, that should read “what”) is steering the equipment. Combine this new technology with the farmer’s existing knowledge about the raw inputs and the result is more efficient farming as crops are planted at optimal spacings by equipment moving at optimal speeds and engines turning at optimal rates.

The interesting thing is that the requirements of the raw inputs are driving the technological improvements. It seems that the successful advances either reduce operator workload or provide better management of the raw materials. All the rest seems to lie on the shelf neatly polished under a light film of dust.

Technology is rapidly making inroads in the legal profession. From smart-phones to SaaS,  VoIP to VLOs, and e-fax & e-mail to social networking, there appears to be a high tech solution to each and every problem you can think of and some you’ve not even thought of yet. But I am left wondering if we, as a profession, are building the right machinery or if, in our headlong rush into the 23rd century we are building a highly polished, intricately complex, highly efficient machine best suited to gathering dust.

I’ve no doubt that there is a basic level of technology that has become de regueur for a law firm to be even remotely functional – things like a computer, scanner, some type of phone system, printer, internet access and a backup system. And I’ve no doubt that  the smart solo practitioner can use technology to reduce operator workload with voice recognition software, document assembly apps, and virtual assistants and virtual receptionists. But it seems that there is a fine line to be walked here and there seems to be a razor-thin margin between technology as servant and technology as master. To quote from a recent New York Times article:

Scientists say juggling e-mail, phone calls and other incoming information can change how people think and behave. They say our ability to focus is being undermined by bursts of information. These play to a primitive impulse to respond to immediate opportunities and threats. The stimulation provokes excitement — a dopamine squirt — that researchers say can be addictive. In its absence, people feel bored. The resulting distractions can have deadly consequences, as when cellphone-wielding drivers and train engineers cause wrecks. […] While many people say multitasking makes them more productive, research shows otherwise. Heavy multitaskers actually have more trouble focusing and shutting out irrelevant information, scientists say, and they experience more stress.

The other question I have is – do we, as a profession, know enough about our clients (the “raw materials” of our practice) to choose the technology that will produce an optimal experience for them or, are we choosing technology based on our personal biases and hoping that, through the miracle of “new and improved”, it will produce a better (perhaps that should read “non-traditional” or “different”) experience for the client and provide a mark of distinction that will elevate our practice above the herd.

I’d love to have an answer, but until I do, I’ll follow my neighbor’s example and keep using my 1950’s tractor until I know enough about my land and my crops to use a 2010 model efficiently. As for my law practice, I’ll keep evaluating technology with a jaundiced eye and keep asking – what’s my ROI, have my client’s requested it, and do I know enough about my clients to choose wisely?