Yesterday's Reach: How Legal Institutions Keep Pace with Technological Change

53 Pages Posted: 16 Apr 2021

See all articles by Justin Key Canfil

Justin Key Canfil

Columbia University, Department of Political Science; Harvard Kennedy School

Date Written: January 2, 2020


The idea that law struggles to keep pace with technological change is all too common a refrain among policymakers and pundits. Opportunistic actors, it is believed, can use technology to exploit ambiguity in the law. In practice, however, many of our seemingly most ambiguous legal institutions are remarkably resilient to technological disruption. I argue that agents’ perceptions about the nature of new technologies is shaped by the prism of their expertise. For legal professionals, legal text benchmarks argumentative credibility. This mechanism can be shown to be psychologically prior to political incentives. In this case, highly specific laws – long believed to enhance compliance – are particularly sensitive to technological surprise. To test this proposition, a sample of elite law students and graduates is randomly commissioned to write persuasive advisory briefs across 2^3 formally-motivated, factorial controlled conditions. Statistical and text analytic results strongly support the notion that the push for more international legal specificity in recent decades may actually undermine law’s durability to a rapidly changing world, and that generality may help minimize evasion, even when the political stakes are high. Implications for emerging technologies are discussed.

Keywords: international law, law, arms control, diplomacy, compliance, national security, emerging technology, military innovation, game theory, survey experiments, disarmament, nuclear strategy, defense, foreign policy, hypernym, interdisciplinary, political psychology

Suggested Citation

Canfil, Justin Key, Yesterday's Reach: How Legal Institutions Keep Pace with Technological Change (January 2, 2020). Available at SSRN:

Justin Key Canfil (Contact Author)

Columbia University, Department of Political Science ( email )

New York, NY
United States

Harvard Kennedy School

79 JFK Street
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

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