Connections 2016

“Dem Bones” . . . the tone bone connected to the foot bone . . . this page is about connections . . . get it? Get it??

Before thinking about using it here, I have not thought about this song in a couple of your lifetimes. I’ll wager none of you have heard it before. Tell me if I am wrong, and I will connect you with the Starbucks beverage of your choice.

Say you were traveling in Europe this past August. You enter an Oslo cafe for coffee and sit at a small table by the window. A lone woman sits at the next table, reading Being Mortal.  You smile and say “we have the same summer reading.” You chat, and learn she’s from the U.S. Further conversation reveals a startling fact:  she is your cousin’s college roommate. What do you say? “It’s a small world.”

It is–or indeed it can seem to be–a small world. The #2 song in the 1971 Billboard Top 100 Singles chart was Maggie May. How many steps—membership in the same bands or other artistic endeavors—are there between the artist who recorded this song and Jennifer Lawrence?1

Connections

The game “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” became popular in 1994. Its rules were simple: name a random actor, then connect that actor, via film co-stars, to Kevin Bacon in as few moves as possible.2 The game’s title was inspired by John Guare’s 1990 play “Six Degrees of Separation,” and by his 1993 film adaptation of the play. The premise that one can connect any two people in the world in no more than five steps can be traced to a 1929 short story by Hungarian author Frigyes Karinthy. In his 2000 book “Tipping Point,” Malcom Gladwell drew on this concept to explain, in part, how ideas spread. Small World Theory3 can make the world seem more orderly.

It’s no surprise why many lawyers embraced the World Wide Web from its inception. Using precedent—citing a prior case to support an argument—is, conceptually, the same as using hyperlinks. My law school professors often said the law is a seamless web: start any place in the law, and one can connect it to any and every other place in the law. For instance, take the concept of duty of due care, which is central to the tort claim of negligence. If someone fails to observe his duty of care—his duty to protect others from the reasonably foreseeable consequences of his conduct—then a court can require him to compensate a person injured because of his failure. One can link this concept to other duties of care throughout the law: for example, the duty of a corporate officer to the corporation’s shareholders, the duty of each general partner in a partnership to the other other partners, and the duty of a trustee to the trust’s beneficiaries.

Perhaps a lawyer represents a client injured by the conduct of another, but the current law does not recognize a legal duty to protect against the injury. The lawyer might argue that, while the facts of the case appear to be novel, the relationship between the parties is similar to other relationships in which the law imposes a duty of care.4 In other words, the lawyer draws connections between legal principles to argue by analogy: when viewed in a certain way, this problem is similar to some other problem, therefore the legal reasoning governing resolution of that other problem should govern the resolution of this problem. If enough lawyers make the same argument in enough cases, then the courts might agree, and recognize a new legal duty where none existed before.

Understanding connections between disparate things is essential to critical analysis. What does it mean to “think outside the box?” Do not merely connect dots, follow well-worn paths, or draw obvious connections. Find instead new, non-obvious, novel connections, different analogies, new metaphors, unexpected solutions. To find non-obvious connections requires one to understand disparate topics. A person who possesses little curiosity and meager intellectual capital will uncover fewer and less meaningful connections than an inquisitive person with broad knowledge.

This semester’s readings may offer a journey through themes drawn from Walter Isaacson’s The Innovators.

  • The Digital Revolution and the Information Age
  • Social Media Beyond #ThatsGold
  • Collaboration and Poetical Science, or What Would Ada Do?
  • Human-Computer Symbiosis
  • Control versus Freedom

There’s nothing magical or non-obvious about these themes. Your list of themes might be different, but not radically so. And yet, each topic’s wording reflects an intellectual decision. Why draw special attention to the Information Age? Isaacson addresses Claude Shannon and Information Theory, but they are no more central to his narrative than other topics. Why “Beyond #ThatsGold,” with its implicit critique of business use of social media and well-known events to sell products? Ada Lovelace may be a fascinating character, but why elevate her concept of Poetical Science to prominence? What more can one say about artificial intelligence? Why highlight the tension between control and freedom?

Your charge is to think why the topics are presented as they are, and not follow a by-the-numbers approach. Doing so requires, first, being thoroughly conversant with each topic. Start with the assigned reading, but reach beyond it as necessary to understand its context. Next, consider the implications of each topic’s wording. What does it include? What does it imply? What does it omit? Each topic is open-ended, and somewhat opaque, for a pedagogical reason. Part of your charge is to identify that reason.

Perhaps your answer is “there is no reason,” or “the reason doesn’t matter.” Perhaps your answer is “Randall assigned them, so I need to come up with something.” I will be disappointed if these are your only answers, but I’ll survive. As I said to a few particular students so many times that they gifted me a plaque with the words when they graduated, life is full of disappointments.

The challenge is for you to figure it out for yourself. Ask yourself: What would Ada do? There is no right answer hidden in the course materials. There are, however, wrong answers—those that fail to respond to the challenge. My goal is that you connect these topics in ways that make sense to you. I want you to assemble a narrative arc that encompasses their themes—be they overlapping, reinforcing, or disparate—into a coherent whole. The narrative arc you assemble may be different than your classmates’, or mine, but that doesn’t matter. As Ralph Waldo Emerson may have said, and as Aerosmith definitely said, “life’s a journey, not a destination.”


  1. This is just one of many possible paths.
  2. For example Jennifer Lawrence links to Kevin Bacon in three steps. Not actually interesting, but that’s not the point.
  3. On the other hand, “It’s a Small World” makes me cranky. One definition of a curmudgeon: someone who does NOT believe Disneyland is The Happiest Place on Earth
  4. Of course the defendant’s lawyer would argue that this relationship bears no resemblance to such other relationships. Lawyers refer to the process of explaining why one example is not like another as “distinguishing the facts.”

Rod Stewart Jennifer Lawrence Ronnie Wood Maggie May Dem Bones Questrom SM233