Friday, January 07, 2005

The Legal Bee Hive: Law & Network Structures

Some years ago I got Kevin Kelly's Out of Control for my birthday. I was on a paid vacation in France, cleaning the pool and dusting sport cars for a friendly couple, who were a lawyer and dentist in Cannes. They had obviously never read the book, which was picked from their small library, and neither have I. I didn't make it beyond the introduction, and just skimmed some pages on bee hives and how ecology and natural networks related to what was to become the internet as we know it today.

The last week I was reminded of Kelly's book by Susan Crawford's postings on, what she calls, the "internet as giant complex adaptive system" theme. She's attending class at MIT called Complex Physical, Biological, and Social Systems and made the following definition/metaphor:
Yesterday, I tried to define a complex adaptive system -- I said it was made of autonomous agents whose interactions produced emergent properties that couldn't be explained by looking at the agents individually. The guy I was talking to was a string quartet player (a real one), and he said, "Like a string quartet!" Exactly like a string quartet.
Or, like a bee hive, Kelly might have said.
From bee hives and string quartets to the web, and now from the web back to law. The network structures in American case law emerge from a paper by Thomas A.C. Smith, posted on SSRN: The Web of Law. From the abstract:
The network of American case law closely resembles the Web in structure. It has the peculiar mathematical and statistical properties that networks have. It can be studied using techniques that are now being used to describe many other networks, some found in nature, and others created by human action. Studying the legal network can shed light on how the legal system evolves, and many other questions. To initiate what I hope will become a fruitful new type of legal scholarship, I present in this article the preliminary results of a significant citation study of nearly four million American legal precedents, which was undertaken at my request by the LexisNexis corporation using their well-known Shepard's citation service. This study demonstrates that the American case law network has the overall structure that network theory predicts it would.


The Web of Law is in substantial part a scale-free network, organized with hub cases that have many citations and the vast majority of cases, which have very few. The distribution of citation frequency approximates a power-law distribution, as is common with real scale-free networks, with truncations at either extreme of its distribution, which is also common.
Years after my birthday in sunny France I think I'll finally plunge deeper into network theories (& law). This paper looks promising, if not in the last place for its colourful graphs.


Blogger Maarten Overdijk said...

Indeed, a system cannot be taken for the sum of its parts. Moreover, emergent properties of a system cannot be explained solely by looking at (autonomous?) agents as a group. What should be taken into account here are historically developed rules and resources present in a (social) system. By acting on these rules and resources, agents produce and reproduce structure. Development, the issue essentially at stake here, should not be conceptualized simply as adaptation to structure. Rather, object and subject (individual – environment) are reciprocally constitutive. A string quartet engaged in performance will in most cases reproduce structure. Their activity is the result careful planning and deliberation. In general, the string quartet will not be doing much improvising on opening night…

9/1/05 14:02  

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