Code is law. The case of law 36.

Larry Lessig’s Code and other Laws of Cyberspace of remains one of the most important books written about how software impacts law.  Lessing and other academics have shown how code has fundamentally changed copyright law.  The design of technology, especially software, changes the nature of regulation and enforcement of laws.  My academic work is in part about applying the insights of Lessig and others to enterprise software.

I have a habit of seeking out weird metaphors to explain things, sometimes in a long, convoluted fashion.

Readers of this blog will know that I am a fan of cricket.  Today, I have SA v India and Australia v England on in the background.

Law 36 is the leg before wicket law (LBW) in cricket.  Here is the law, explained brilliantly by the brilliant Stephen Fry.

Over the last few years technology has come to play an ever more significant role in determining the LBW decision. I’m generally a fan of DRS, the Decision Review System.  There are a variety of technologies in use today. Slow motion review, infra red cameras, edge detection and ball tracking. In many cases, it has made decision making fairer, and it adds to the fan experience. But DRS is not without controversy.


Ball tracking example. from DRS website.


Infra red (hot spot). (image via global cricket community)

Related image

Snickometer. (image via skysports)

In the Guardian today, a leading English cricketer, Jonny Bairstow “spoke of inconsistencies in cricket’s decision review system “messing with careers and livelihoods”

The article noted.

  1. It is not always clear with edge detection technology as to whether sound is from the ball hitting the bat, or from the pad or clothing noise. (for more on the acoustic theory, and how edge detection could be improved, see this post)  and this paper.
  2. There are different technologies in place around the world, and these work differently.
  3. the parameters of the same software are set up differently in different countries.

 Back to the metaphor, and some observations.

Code has partly replaced the umpire as the arbiter of the LBW decision. The programmer who codes the algorithm is now umpire. Code is Law 36.

Code creates an aura of infallibility that is not always earned. The algorithms are model representations of the real world, not the real world. It is a black box and unless you have an advanced degree in physics, impossible to understand or challenge. The fact that the technology is improving, by definition means that is still not infallible.

Consistent procedures around the code’s deployment are important in determining perceptions of procedural fairness. Standards, consistently applied,  are key.

People are willing to abdicate to code, provided that they perceive that the code and supporting procedures act consistently.

Making judgements with the input of technology takes practice, especially where the decision is not clear cut. For instance, interpreting sound wave curves requires training.

The technology can change faster than the law can adapt to it.

The use of the technology has changed the game. How batsmen respond to spin bowling has changed. The former England captain, Andrew Cook had this to say. 

“It has changed the way you play spin over the last couple of years,” Cook said. “You have to keep your pad out of the way and it certainly doesn’t matter how big your stride is because gone are the days when you would say, ‘Well, he’s a long way down’.”

More broadly than cricket.

As we build code to replace or augment human decision making, we need to hold those building the code and the processes around it to high standards. Jonny Bairstow has a point, when it is wrong,  you mess with people’s livelihoods. Law 36 is a fine example of the rather messy place where law and code meet.








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