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Where Innovation Fits

A couple of years back, we asked our donors a pair of related questions.  The first was, “How much do you value the LII’s work on innovative features?” The second was, “How much do you agree or disagree that the LII provides useful, innovative features?”  I’ve been puzzling over the answers ever since.   On the one hand, it seemed as though you guys didn’t particularly value our work on innovative features.   On the other, it seemed as though you very much like the ones we provide.   It didn’t occur to me at the time, but I should’ve been looking at a third question, one we have asked in nearly every survey and fundraising campaign for the last 5 years: “What can we change or improve about the LII’s services”.   Overwhelmingly, people answer, “Don’t change a thing”.

You could read that in two different ways:  it’s either the highest possible endorsement, or a panic-tinged plea that we not break anything with some misguided feat of techno-hotrodding.  We have done our share of techno-hotrodding, heaven knows, and not a little of it has been misguided — but that stuff has almost always ended up on the cutting-room floor.  That said, we have some very definite opinions about where innovation fits.

A long time ago, almost a quarter century, I wrote the first web browser for Microsoft Windows.  It has gone to a happily anonymous fate, overshadowed by more famous contemporaries.  But it did a number of things that nobody else had done before, including background fetching and caching of web pages, search-engine integration, and most widely known of all, the “mailto:” link.   That’s the trick that allows you to send an e-mail by clicking on a link in a web document.  Something like it had been suggested by a few people, back in 1992, but we were the first to do it. And now, everyone in the world uses it, and nobody thinks much about where it came from.  And that is exactly what we want.

The best innovations do things that are obvious in hindsight, and they do them so unobtrusively that nobody really notices them.  That quality of readiness-to-hand is overwhelmingly important  to us (and yeah, you just caught an aging stagehand having a Heidegger moment).   There is, too, a kind of technologist’s Hippocratic oath:  first, do no harm.  The improvements can’t get in the way.

We don’t let that scare us off; we’ve seen what happens when others let the worst Luddites among their users blockade improvements, or neglect them altogether — just take a look at PACER, which has remained in technological stasis for more than a decade.  But it takes a long time.  Twenty-five years ago, Peter Martin could spend a winter afternoon putting a Supreme Court decision into HTML, with hyperlinks, and create a Web-wide sensation.  Today, something like the linked-definitions feature we just added to the CFR takes 3 years of effort by teams of student software engineers who go on to work for Amazon, Facebook, Oracle, and Google.   But we hope that by the time a new feature appears at your fingertips, it just seems… obvious.  

Just like it should have been there all along.

PS:  Bob Ambrogi, the noted legal-tech journalist, just published a piece on our guest-blog that talks about the LII’s history of innovation.  I recommend it.

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