Editor's note: Rostam J. Neuwirth is a professor of the Faculty of Law, University of Macau. The article reflects the author's opinion, and not necessarily the views of CGTN.
Presently, many concepts describing new technologies are being vividly debated around the world, such as "Artificial Intelligence ('AI')", "Machine Learning", "Big (Raw) Data", "Virtual Reality" or "Synthetic Biology".
Few, however, are aware that these concepts share a common linguistic feature, namely that they are oxymoron. Oxymoron is itself an oxymoron, meaning "wise-folly" and is defined as a self-contradicting word or phrase, i.e. a figure of speech which reveals a paradox.
For instance, AI was called an oxymoron because "Intelligence, by nature, cannot be artificial and its inestimable complexity defies any notion of artificiality". In addition to those mentioned, similar contradictions have been found to prevail in terms like "creative industries" or "sharing economy".
The "Age of Paradox"
What is less known is that their oxymoronic character is not a coincidence. It is instead part of a much broader trend, which covers beyond the scope of new technologies. Instead, it has taken its origins in philosophy, the arts and later also entered the realm of science and technology.
In 1995, the Irish philosopher Charles Handy detected this trend and published a book, in which he termed the present time as "The Age of Paradox".
Especially in business, several oxymora have been put to use as innovative and creative management tools, like "coopetition" (combining cooperation with competition), "crowd intelligence" (combining individual and collective intelligence), "glocalisation" (combining global and local levels) or "prosumer" (combining the role of producers and consumers of content, for instance like in social media).
Law in the Time of Oxymora
For the law, the rapid pace of change in science and technology means most of all a serious challenge to its integrity or role as a provider of legal certainty. In a recent book entitled Law in the Time of Oxymora, these dangers are examined from the angle of law and regulation in a wider societal context.
Put briefly, the law prefers conditions along dualistic thinking and free from contradictions, i.e., a scenario where a contract is either valid or void or a person either guilty or innocent but not both at the same time. In law, oxymora, therefore, cause confusion, which can be seen in the debate about the regulation of new technologies.
These new technologies share that they cannot be classified as either useful or dangerous, as belonging to science or technology, or, for instance, to the public or private or national or international law. These technologies usually transcend all existing categories based on dichotomies.
To give one example, so-called "novel foods", also known as "functional food" or "nutriceutics", combining elements of food and pharmaceuticals, which in most jurisdictions fall in different legal regimes.
The Acceleration of Time and the Regulation of New Technologies in the Future
These new technologies and the wider trend of framing complex problems by reference to contradictions in terms expressed through oxymora or paradoxes, therefore, call for a critical debate in law and legal practice. Law too needs to search for novel and innovative instruments.
Today's computers and machines already often use "fuzzy logic" beyond mere "black-and-white thinking". In the time of oxymora, law too must – when aiming for such innovative regulatory tools – transcend binary modes of thinking in terms of valid or void as well as right or wrong.
Most of all, it must give new meaning to old dichotomies, like those of private versus public law, national versus international law, or regulation versus deregulation. It must aim to find a consistent framework for these new technologies instead of the present patchwork of fragmented treaties, laws, and regulations.
Lawyers, like everyone else too, need to learn to embrace contradictions and not reject them right away. They must adopt a holistic or "oxymoronic" approach, namely one that identifies first the mutual exclusivity between apparent opposite terms and later proceeds to establish their mutual complementarity to be able to make a "wise" (and avoid a "folly") choice about their use.
When facing any problem, formulating it as an oxymoron marks the first crucial cognitive step to its practical solution. For law in times of faster changes, this method may help to connect the past and the future and to reduce the risks of uncertainty, because our best way of predicting the future is, perhaps, to regulate it.
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