John T O'Farrell's Commentary On The Digital Space and Online Marketing

Verdict on Supreme Court Justices and Technology? Views from the Media and My Own Research.

Catching up on some of my marketing and technology podcasts this weekend and of course plenty of talk about the FCC's potential change in position on Net Neutrality  and the Supreme Courts oral arguments for the Aereo case.

On WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show during the “Goodbye Net Neutrality” segment (April 24th), the host Brian Lehrer interviewed New York Times reporter David Carr.  During the interview the Aereo case before the Supreme Court came up.  Knowing Mr. Carr was covering the case and attended the oral arguments, I was surprised to hear Mr. Lehrer, rather flippantly, ask Mr. Carr how the “octogenarians justices, sort of get the interwebs enough even to ask good questions” (sic).  (I’ll get to this comment in a moment but first Mr. Carr’s reply).  As Mr. Carr is a distinguished reporter for the New York Times I was distressed to learn about the Court’s capability to understand the technical environment. In particular and I think this sums up his thoughts on the matter, he stated “I don’t know if they have a full grasp of the world we are living in.”

My very next podcast I listened to was APM’s MarketPlace Tech Report for April 23rd “Aereo, ABC & the cloud”.   In this segment, host Ben Johnson interviewed Market Place Senior Reporter, David Gura on his coverage of the Aereo case.  Mr. Gura also was in person at the oral arguments last week.  Mr. Johnson asked Mr. Gura about the Court’s ability to understand the technical environment.  Expecting to hear an answer similar to Mr. Carr’s, Mr. Gura began by saying he was at the court a few years ago on case about cell phones and he “could really detect a number of them just didn’t get the fundamentals of how a cell phone works”.  However he went on to say “today was different....there were a few exceptions but it seemed like people were more read in and understood the technology better than they did just a couple of years ago”.

So what’s the verdict? 

How could two well established reporters come away with such divergent takes on how the Justices did when it came to technology?  A quick search on the web landed me on a Mashable article ranking the Justices by their “Tech Savvy in the Aereo Case”.  While the article was not overly informative it was far from damming and generally complimentary to the Justices. There were a few digs in there like the comment about Justice Scalia, “at one point he indicated that he did not know that HBO is a paid premium cable channel, thinking instead that it is available for free over the airwaves.”

With Mashable’s article not satisfying and leaving me a position unable to serve a verdict on the Justices’ grasp of the technical environment, I did what I learned in college and went to the original source document, the transcript of US Supreme Court’s oral arguments of the Aero Case, or as it’s known in official circles as “American Broadcasting Companies Inc, Et Al, Petitioners v. Aereo Inc, FKA Babboom Labs, Inc”.

After perusing the 67 page transcript, I came to the very clear conclusion that the Justices of the Supreme Court do have a grasp of the “world we live in” and asked some very good questions in regards to technology.  They also made it clear they are not experts in technology and voiced concern that their decision on this case could have ramifications far beyond the immediate case.  The comments on Justice Scalia and HBO are completely overblown (he incorrectly used HBO as an example during a line of questioning.  That Justice Scalia knows that HBO is a premium channel or not really was irrelevant to his line of questioning.)

Verdict: The Supreme Court is doing OK and “gets it" enough to apply the law on the case.

And guess what?  The Supreme Court Justices are a sharp bunch and really know the law and enough about technology to apply the law.  The questions they asked were sharp, to the point and more than often cited other cases and case law.

I began working in digital marketing in 1997 and consider myself somewhat of an expert and I learn new things every single day and I surely don’t know it all.

The “world we live in” is so ever changing that no one can keep up with the daily changes in technology, not Mr. Carr, not me, not the Supreme Court Justices. 

Mr. Carr has his opinion but after reading the transcript myself, Mr. Gura seems to have presented a far more factual, “real world” interpretation of what went on in the Supreme Court last week.

Regarding Brian Lehrer and his flippant and on reflection, needlessly disrespectful, question where he referred to the Supreme Court Justices as “octogenarian justices”.  It may surprise Mr. Lehrer that there is only one octogenarian on the Supreme Court.  She is in her first year as an octogenarian and asked some rather salient questions to both parties.  Yes, they get the “interwebs” (you do realize, Mr. Lehrer, that is a sarcastic term used to mock those unskilled in digital media, don’t you?) enough to even ask good questions.

And here’s another good one.  The Rolling Stones, on average, are older than Supreme Court Justices.  Rolling Stones average age 69, Supreme Court average age 67.

Full Disclosure:  I am a very big fan of The Brian Lehrer Show and perhaps this is why I was so disappointed and put off by the comments from him and his quest.  Not only were the question and answer disrespectful, the clear message these two professional news people presented was the Supreme Court Justices are old, ignorant and completely out of touch.  This is just not the case.