Computing Problems and Legal History

Your blogger is no luddite. Computers make life easier. They assist research. There is an astonishing and increasing amount of, for example, rare books and manuscripts accessible on the internet. Just this morning your blogger was using a French 1774 edition of Blackstone’s Commentaries found on the internet. But, like most people in the academic world, your blogger often encounters the requirement to use poorly designed computer systems: the design of which has been not to aid the user, but to facilitate something else – if only a spurious claim of modernity by a “manager”. Certainly employers love the idea that employees can be replaced by computers and love computer systems. These in your blogger’s experience usually just involve giving new tasks of “inputting” data to scholars and teachers, since they have rather open contracts which define their duties in very general terms.

Two things, however, have spurred this blog entry. The first is an amusing article in the New York Times about disappearing U.S. Supreme Court References – see (presumably eventually this too will lead nowhere!). Now one such reference in a Supreme Court decision reads thus: Do click on these! Your blogger was alerted to this though the excellent  H-Law and ASLH discussion lists. This is amusing, but a serious problem.

The second was the fact that your blogger, who had been a member of the ASLH since – he believes – 1982 nearly had his membership terminated by the computer system for renewing membership, operated by a well-known University Press.  To put it simply, the renewal system just would not let him renew. To paraphrase Little Britain: computer said no. A number of requests for assistance through the help part of the website proved fruitless, even with the kind assistance of one of the Society’s officers. The first request provided a new password to try, but this still did not let me renew; other requests for help seemed to vanish into the ether. It was only finally sorted out through a phone call to New York, and the assistance of a very helpful living person who was willing to take some responsibility and get it sorted out. It was all very frustrating; and it would have been very easy simply to let my membership lapse. I don’t want to exaggerate the time taken up; but one had to periodically remember to try again and pursue the matter. I now look forward to receiving my missing back issues of the Society’s journal.