It was early in 2006 and Professor Richard Susskind was day-dreaming. He was at an event in the Mercers’ Hall, the splendid home of one of the city’s longest established livery companies. What, he wondered, had happened to the mercers?
For that matter, what had happened to the cordwainers? The wheelwrights? The tallow chandlers? We buy silk and fine leather goods and wheels and candles in huge quantities, but the crafts people who made them have been largely displaced, their professions pushed to the economic margins and changed beyond recognition.
As Mr Susskind sat there he wondered — might this happen one day to lawyers?
The thought prompted this legal theorist to pen his important book The End of Lawyers? and, more recently, a new volume, Tomorrow’s Lawyers.The thrust of these works is that the rising cost of legal services and the increasing availability of cheaper alternatives is going to reshape the legal business entirely.
In a new edition of The End of Lawyers? Mr Susskind draws attention to the 60 million disputes each year that arise as a result of eBay sales. The parties use online dispute resolution, which allows differences to be settled with a minimum of human interaction.
His simple question is: why think that such processes won’t spread? The growth of demand for legal services could, ironically, be a major cause of the downfall of the conventional lawyer. Clients will find the cost too great to meet. The pressure they exert will lead to new ways of resolving disputes and new ways of delivering traditional legal advice.
Lawyers already outsource back-office jobs. Now some are outsourcing contract review, drafting and legal research to companies in India. Software will replace many human judgments; indeed it is easy to underestimate how much information systems will be able to do. And the profession might break into a far more varied group of providers.
Mr Susskind is careful to add a question mark to the title of his book. He is a lawyer and believes in the importance of the law. He just believes that technological trends are going to make life for the next generation of lawyers very different from that of their predecessors.
In reaching this conclusion he is far from alone. There is a growing literature that foresees that new technology will change the jobs of middle-class professions beyond recognition, doing to them what has been already been done to manufacturing jobs. This is the argument, for instance, of Tyler Cowen in his book Average is Overand of Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee in The Second Machine Age,published earlier this year.
Mr Susskind’s daydream set me to a similar one. Are we witnessing the end of politicians? I am as insistent as the professor upon the question mark, but as confident as he is about the trends. And those trends are already changing politics profoundly.
Let’s start with the very heart of the matter, with politicians as representatives. We were taught at school that while in ancient days it might have been possible to gather citizens to make choices in person, in modern times there were too many people to make this possible.
For straightforward practical reasons it was necessary to employ middlemen to gather opinions together and to make decisions that broadly represented what voters want.
In two ways, this school lesson no longer holds. The first is that modern technology makes it possible to gather citizens together at low cost and find out their opinions. Direct democracy through electronic referendum is now far more practical than it was.
At the same time, even when direct democracy is not used, there are many modern techniques for gathering opinions that are far superior to the unscientific, partial, anecdotal ways in which politicians collect them. There are both quantitative and qualitative opinion polls, for instance, including focus groups and citizens’ juries. And in Martin Lindstrom’s book Buyology,he argues that these may, in years to come, prove less powerful than the insights yielded by brain imaging.
Even those unconvinced by brain scans would acknowledge that we have, through scientific investigation, a far greater understanding now than 20 years ago of how people think and what lies behind their decisions.
Of course, being a representative is not just about parroting the views of other people. There are judgments to make, balances to be struck, priorities to be set. Yet automation will impinge even on this vital political function.
A senior US State Department official recently explained to me how the department uses computer modelling to help it to understand and potentially resolve intractable international disputes. Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, professor of politics at New York University, describes in his book Predictionthe use to which he has been put by successive administrations and the CIA. He employs game theory and computer simulations to help, for instance, to forecast the outcomes of foreign elections and predict the next moves of international terrorists.
The use of such methods to aid political decision-making will only grow. Yet even where it is not appropriate, how sustainable is our current model of political generalists who spend their whole lives in politics, moving about from topic to topic, trying to master a new subject every couple of years?
If the increased complexity of modern government can’t be entirely removed by computing power, surely we will also see the rise of experts who lend themselves to government for parts of their career?
New technology is also challenging traditional political parties. The current party system, with its dominant leaders, strong party whipping and internal coherence is at least partly a product of technological change. It arose as a way of dealing with the emergence of the mass media, a development that required simple, uniform, national messages.
The rise of a much more varied media and the dramatic fall in the cost of communicating with voters directly is already having its impact on parties. If it is possible to contact voters without a party machine, the power of the machine will decline. Look at the House of Commons today. Whipping is already much less effective than it was. The same trend will produce more independents and make political careers less stable.