1980 called… It said that it's living happily down at the County Courthouse.
One day this week, I spent seven hours fulfilling my civic duty by participating in jury duty. Thankfully – is it okay to say that? – I was not impaneled on the jury. This trial was projected to be a seven-day hearing focused on issues surrounding eminent domain, easements, property owner rights, and land value. Respectfully… Not my first choice as to how I wanted to spend seven days of my life. Thus, my relief about not being chosen.
But the hours did contain one fascinating aspect for me. That is: the experience was virtually devoid of technology.
Be patient with me as I walk you through this.
I received my notice of jury duty through the mail. On this notice, I was asked to use a pen in order to fill out the enclosed form with all of my pertinent information. I presented this form, as requested, to the clerk when I appeared at the courthouse.
Once the clerk used the perforations to separate the form from the rest of the notice, she placed it next to her on a pile with other jurors' forms. She then handed me two questionnaires and instructed me to fill them out – more personal information. Clipboards and pens were on the table to my right. Once completed, I was asked to place these in the basket provided on the counter in front of her.
Periodically, while we all waited in the holding area (my term, not theirs) people would come give us instructions, in person, standing in front of the entire group. Often, they would be apologetic or make jokes to the effect of, “We know you don't want to be here, but we appreciate your patience and cooperation.”
They would sometimes read notes or requests from the judge off of a piece of paper. Once it was time to transition into the courtroom, they read names from a paper list and gave us very specific, directive instructions about how to line up in the order they called our names. One of the explicit instructions they gave us was to TURN OFF our smartphones when we were in the courtroom so they would not become any form of a distraction.
Inside the Voir Dire: Attorneys' Traditional Note-Taking Methods
During the voir dire process, attorneys had laptops on the tables in front of them, but I don't recall them spending much (any?) time using them. Instead, they had spiral notebooks, three-ring binders, and sheets of paper all around them. As answers were given to the questions asked of jurors, attorney notes were meticulously made with different colored pens on the previously described papers and notebooks.
While at the podium, attorneys shuffled through these stacks of paper pertaining to jurors' information as they thought about appropriate questions to ask. Charts of potential jurors' names and their seated location in the box were scrawled with different colored notes hastily written by the attorneys and their assistants.
Jury Duty in an Analog Courtroom: Traditional Methods Amidst a Digital World
I'll wrap up this portion of the evidence by saying that between the attorneys, the judge, and the clerk assisting the judge, there never seemed to be a phone, pad, screen, computer, or other electronic device used to convey information between us or them, throughout this proceeding. Everyone seemed to refer exclusively to the stacks of paper they were holding. Even the official process of attorneys whittling down the jury to the final seven winners was done on a piece of paper passed back and forth by the clerk in charge of passing pieces of paper back and forth between the attorneys' tables.
What was so fascinating about this, for me, is that we live in a world where grocery lists are read from screens. Bills are paid, money is transferred online and many people don't even own a checkbook. Communication – perhaps a word that should be used lightly in many contexts – is done electronically in a variety of ways. Relationships with friends, spouses, relatives, acquaintances, and love interests are often conducted either significantly or entirely through a digital, virtual world. Sadly, these relationships often don't go very well as a result.
As I used my time to over-think these observations, I wondered:
Why would the people in charge of this courtroom rely so heavily on such an outdated format of storing and communicating information when, in the context of their jobs, nothing was more important than this communication? To be honest, I really don't know the real answer to my question. But, since I'm a therapist I applied what I do know and understand about people. I like what I came up with…
The courts need jurors – people – to provide the service of jury duty. Most of the time this is against the jurors' desire to be there. They need tasks performed and information understood in very specific, succinct ways in order to conduct effective trials – very official business! But it also needs to be done in ways that don't ask too much of us, the jury duty people. Information needs to be succinct, clear, and somewhat spontaneous. It is also helpful to those of us in the holding area that someone somewhere understands that all of this kind of stinks for us. The human interaction they provided was important for any of this compassion to be experienced – especially among strangers. A rolling electronic sign on the wall that says, “Sorry you have to be here,” would not suffice.
Digitizing all of this information would take time and expense without any real advantage other than this information was now digitized. Analog to digital requires a step – sometimes a relatively complex step compared to simply using pen and paper. Also, the experience of someone literally writing down what I say seems more inclusive than clicking down the same information on a keyboard as I say it. Shuffling through stacks of paper is often more efficient than trying to remember where someone stored a document on a virtual desktop.
Emphasizing Human Interaction Over Digital Tools
Despite what seems like our best efforts, we literally still live in an analog world. When it really matters, the most efficient way to communicate with humans is in a format we all can identify with. The format without extra, often convoluting steps involved. This old-school format is face-to-face or at least voice-to-voice.
I'm not naive enough to believe that the courts never use digitized information. Obviously, they do. But in this situation, they did not. So what is the difference between a digital world and the world of analog that I experienced this week?
A lot of real people were involved in my day at the courthouse. And we all – the court and the rest of us – needed to pass very specific information between each other. It was important that directions be communicated effectively and understood. All of this needed to be in real-time. With real, human interaction is required to effectively understand each other. The ability to ask questions and interact right now was essential. Needs (“May I use the restroom?”) spoken. Facial expressions, body posture, and vocal tones were experienced.
There was no time for misunderstandings among this group of seventy people who they were trying to organize in a relatively short period of time. These kinds of misunderstandings seem like they might occur if a voice from somewhere else in the building barked directions through a speaker mounted on the ceiling. Failed batteries can't be tolerated. Computer crashes – none! Convoluted texts because the writer's intentions weren't read as they were intended, weren't a problem. Lost notes because they were accidentally closed without saving were not a factor. There were no browser or server errors. No I.T. support was needed or summoned.
In short, this 1980 system of analog communication was the most direct, efficient, and effective way to communicate with people when it mattered most. It also must be the best way for judges and attorneys to keep and track information that is important to them
in that moment – people whose livelihood it is to keep this information accurate.
Jury Duty Insights: The Value of Human Interaction Over Technological Efficiency
For a relationship guy like me, it was a wonderful experience.
My conclusion: The sterility of technological “efficiency” tends to come at a cost. That cost can be a loss of human understanding, connection, and sometimes yes, even efficiency. When getting the heart of the matter is important, put down the technology and just interact with each other – talk! Ask questions. Take notes with pen and paper if you need to. This is all-important if we want to actually understand each other.
If people in charge of a courtroom know this, it seems like something the rest of us could understand it too.
By: Jeff Walz, MA, LPC
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