I’m Not a Lawyer; I’m a Geek

“What is intent?”


I repeated the question, “What is ‘intent’ “?

A moment of silence went by.  He didn’t understand my question.  I’m not sure I quite understood it, either.

I rephrased, “Well, when you say you do something ‘intentionally,’ what does that mean?”

I realized how ridiculous I must’ve sounded.  My grasp of English isn’t perfect, but I certainly understood the words “intent” and “intentionally.”  Or didn’t I?

I was hoping for a quick answer, just a simple definition, an affirmation that my knowledge was accurate.  The absence of reply meant that I would have to provide more information in order to get a response.  Context was everything.

“I was reading this website … wait, let me e-mail it to you … it had example scenarios for you to read, then you had to answer some questions at the end.  I didn’t get it.  I mean, I understood it, but I just didn’t arrive at the same conclusions other people did. It’s weird.”

I paused for a moment to listen to the sound of him checking his e-mail, then continued, “The article mentions the different answers that people come up with.  I came up with something completely different, something not mentioned.”

I gave my boyfriend two minutes to read the examples and questions that I had copied and pasted into an e-mail.  I left off the conclusions from the article to allow him the opportunity to arrive at an answer unbiased from what he was “supposed to” think.

The e-mail read:

The Free-Cup Case
Joe was feeling quite dehydrated, so he stopped by the local smoothie shop to buy the largest sized drink available. Before ordering, the cashier told him that if he bought a Mega-Sized Smoothie he would get it in a special commemorative cup. Joe replied, ‘I don’t care about a commemorative cup, I just want the biggest smoothie you have.’ Sure enough, Joe received the Mega-Sized Smoothie in a commemorative cup. Did Joe intentionally obtain the commemorative cup?

The Extra-Dollar Case
Joe was feeling quite dehydrated, so he stopped by the local smoothie shop to buy the largest sized drink available. Before ordering, the cashier told him that the Mega-Sized Smoothies were now one dollar more than they used to be. Joe replied, ‘I don’t care if I have to pay one dollar more, I just want the biggest smoothie you have.’ Sure enough, Joe received the Mega-Sized Smoothie and paid one dollar more for it. Did Joe intentionally pay one dollar more?

Reading these examples makes my initial question, “What is intent?”, sound a lot more valid.  I probably should have just e-mailed him the exmaples to begin with to save myself the embarrassment of asking inane-sounding questions.

The questions were from a Psychology Today blog called “Experiments in Philosophy.”  The article in question is called “Intentional Action and Asperger Syndrome,” written by Dr. Edouard Machery.   The point of the article and the exercises above were to illustrate differences in how people with Asperger’s (a mild form of autism) interpret intent compared to most other people.

After reading the examples, most people in Dr. Machery’s study would claim that spending an extra dollar for a drink was intentional, though obtaining the commemorative cup was not.  A person with Asperger’s would claim that both were unintentional.  (Please do not confuse these examples above with a diagnostic test for Asperger’s; answering “no” to both does not mean you have Asperger’s. Read the comments on the article if you want to learn more.)

It took my boyfriend about two minutes to carefully read through the examples and arrive at the same conclusion that most others arrived at: the dollar was intentional, the cup was not. My interpretation was very different from what he arrived at, and no, I did not believe both to be unintentional.

I thought both were intentional. The article didn’t mention anything about that.

A few short minutes later, I found myself in a heated debate with him over our interpretation of “intent” and about our respective answers to the aforementioned questions. I was struggling to defend my reasoning.

“Look at it this way,” I started to explain, groping for the right analogy.  “You walk up to a desk wanting something – let’s call that something ‘X.’  A desk-monkey tells you that in order to have X, you have to consent to doing or having something else, let’s call that ‘Y.’  You’re told: ‘To have X, you have to accept Y.’  It’s like saying you have to accept the terms of service of obtaining X, which includes consenting to Y.  You have been fully informed of the terms, and accept them.  Informed consent of terms is intent, in my book.  To get X, you have to intend to have Y, too. Those were the terms.”

Terms of service?  Of getting a drink?  What kind of strange, bizarre legalese is that?

I found the analogy I used really peculiar.  I’m no lawyer, but I do spend a lot of time on a computer, installing computer software somewhat frequently, and playing my fair share of computer games.  I’m just a general, run-of-the-mill geek.

Comic courtesy of XKCD (xkcd.com)Comic courtesy of XKCD

It got me thinking about how different the digital world is from the actual one in this regard.  You don’t have to agree to a Terms of Service 31 pages long in order to: buy a gun, bungee jump, play basketball, have sex, dye your hair, eat funky cheese that makes you breath smell bad the rest of the day, vote, smoke, lift heavy objects, or do anything else.

But to install simple software on your computer?  You bet like hell you do.

For example, World of Warcraft has a 17 page “Terms of Use” supplemented by 14 pages of a “End User License Agreement.”  We’re just pushing around pixelated avatars in a digital world, but we have to agree to a sum total of 31 pages of terms to do so.

And I’m willing to bet that no more than 1% of the players of the game have ever read the complete terms.

I remember reading about study done by Cornell University a few years ago where its law school students were asked about their knowledge and dealings with terms of service for “electronic goods.”  Not a single student admitted to having read through an entire End-User License Agreement, Terms of Use, or Electronic Contract for any electronic good. Not one.  And these are future lawyers!

I can’t claim that I am any better. I typically make a half-hearted attempt to skim through terms (and by “skim,” I mean mash ‘Page Down,’ reading about a line per page, until I get to the end of the terms or fall asleep, whichever comes first). I’m secretly hoping some cheeky software developer with more money than sense is offering free candy to those who actually read their Terms of Service.  One can only hope.

The point is, terms of use for software, websites, and games are just too long.  Who has the time to read that much every single time you install software?  Or visit CNN’s website?  Or patch World of Warcraft?  Reading and interpreting terms could be a full time job in and of itself!  And who knows what  you are consenting to!

Fortunately, there are solutions for people like me, who want to know what we are consenting to, but are too lazy busy to actually read the terms.  There is a nifty piece of software for Windows called EULAzyer that you can copy and paste Terms of Service into. It will analyze and alert you to anything suspicious.  (Here is a nice overview of how it works).  I love that I can use software to combat the burdens of other software.  Technology is a wonderful thing.

The question remains why such lengthy terms of service are so prevalent and are considered acceptable in the digital world, but are so rare in the actual one.  Could you imagine having to consent to a bizarrely large amount of terms just to do something simple, like purchase a drink? Thankfully, this isn’t the case, and hopefully it will never be.

Just because people are willing to press the extra “Continue” button when installing software should not make it okay to saddle them with a novella worth of terms to agree to.

Will I be reading the Terms of Service the next time I install software?

It’s not my intent.


16 Responses

  1. I knew there was a reason I liked this blog; you read xkcd!

    For the email, I could see it go either “both are intentional” or “both are unintentional”. But thinking about it for more then ten minutes is starting to give me a headache. I can’t wait to torment my friends by linking them to this (:

    I voted “The whole thing” on your poll; But I really like legal language for some unknown reason. So I’m not sure if my vote helped with a sample size of (currently) 14.

  2. The most likely reason why EULAs sprang up is that software is in effect just ideas.

    When you enter into a contract for exchange of physical goods (aka buy a drink – technically (at least in the UK) you’re entering into a contract) you’re exchanging tokens which represent work done (aka money) for something which someone else has made. In the case of a soft drink that’ll be a large number of people; in other places it could be that you’re paying for someone to walk down to the river and get you some water.

    With software you can make copies; the cost of creation is very high compared to the cost of production. Once its been created its relatively cheap to churn out more copies thanks to the digital nature of software.

    Back when the personal computer revolution was starting up in the mid 70s software tended to be copied, traded, etc in a very similar way as to what happens with open source software these days. Then business people and coders who could see the potential to make money (eg Bill Gates) got involved and started to put licenses onto the software and charge for it.

    The rest is kind of history

  3. I am a priest and am currently looking at law schools.

    Intent in criminal law is difficult to display, but you need to prove that their state of mind went beyond planning and show the desire to perform the specific act of which one is accused. Personally, I view neither as intentional.

    Tort law is a bit different and you only need to know the results of your actions prior to performing the act, so in that case the scenarios would be viewed as intentional since he was informed in advance of the result.

    From a legal stand point, it’s a bit different from the psychological though, I’d wager. I’m not sure from a psychological perspective if knowledge of act’s results is enough to define intent. I’ll have to ask a buddy in the psych dept.


  4. I am a lawyer AND a geek ;)
    Intent, intent, where to start… Intent under the law is a different thing that intent in real life. Odd, isn’t it? Anyways, just wanted to add my two cents, and say that I really enjoy the blog.
    All the best!


  5. A truely epic post, I tip my hat to you, dwarf priest.

  6. @Dwarf Priest: though out of character, I think your logic has mislead you here.

    How intention works: receiving a gift doesn’t require one’s intention; giving a valued possession away does.

    Notice the relevant differences in the examples given?

  7. I have to say, I agree with you, although I am looking at an everyday sort of intent rather than a legal definition of intent. If the cup was replaced with an Elephant, for example, I would definitely say he had showed intent to get the Elephant.

    As Bakunin says, I think people judge off getting vs receiving/benefit vs inconvenience.

  8. Intent….

    The thristy man’s goal was to obtain a liquid. His intent was to choose a smoothie as he walked into a smoothie store and specifially asked for a smoothie. He didn’t ask for any size smoothie, he asked for the largest one as he was very thirsty. He wanted the most smoothie he could get asap.

    His intent was to get a smoothie, not the cup.

  9. Intent (pt2)

    The man’s intent was to quench his thirst with a smoothie. If he wanted a cup (maybe he had no cups at home), he would have gone to a cup store.

    Here is another example:

    1) Man walks into a Honda dealership. He wants to get a car. He wants to get a Honda Civic. The man buys the car. His intent was to buy a Honda Civic.

    2) Man walks into a Honda dealership. He wants to get a car. He wants to get a Honda Civic. The car salesman says that the car comes with a full tank of gas. The man buys the car. His intent was to buy a Honda Civic.

    The intent was to purchase a car, not get a full tank of gas. If he wanted a full tank of gas, he would have went to a gas station.

  10. I understand the reasoning that most people use and the answers they arrive at in terms of intent. I just saw a stronger argument for the man not agreeing to the terms of service of getting a drink. It sounds ridiculous, I know. That’s the point. This is more a commentary on the abundance of electronic contracts in our digital world than me questioning the meaning of one word.

  11. @MK you can inform your bf random people online think you are incorrect in this debate as well :P lol ;)

    In “the extra-dollar case,” you simply can’t questions his intent by logical argument — he simply cannot give his money by a voluntary act without intending to do so. ‘Voluntary’ is key here.

    It’s the same rule for the e-contract. Giving one’s consent logically requires the intention to do so. It’s a matter of necessity: since ‘intention’ equals ‘volition’ or ‘will,’ one cant give something like consent or money without intending it.

    It’s different of course if one doesn’t know what the deal is or is forced or tricked into it. Obviously one might not necessarily intend nor agree on terms one isn’t aware of or have any choice in.

    “The free cup case” is not decided in terms of logical necessity, although it’s pretty clear: he doesn’t agree to the cup and says he doesn’t care about it. That he gets the cup in the end doesn’t seem to be his intention and it doesn’t have to be.

    I’ll resist going on about it, but the case is a good for cognitive science and has bearing on moral and legal philosophy (my areas of study). :D

  12. Sorry, Bakunin, I have to disagree with you.

    It all depends on how you interpret the “intentional”:

    Assuming it as “voluntary”, then of couse, giving the dollar voluntary, made this action intentional. However, accepting the cup voluntary made that action intentional, too. In both cases, he could have refused (with the probable side effect of not getting the smoothie), so it was intentional. I like the idea with the elephant that was brought up before. If the ‘present’ would have implied any obligations or problems afterwards (like caring for an elephant or even getting rid of it) nobody would question that he intentionally agreed to these terms. It’s the same with the cup. Just because you can get rid of the cup easily, doesn’t mean you didn’t accept it intentionally int the first place.

    Now, if you interpret intentionally in the way that he actually intended the action, I would say that both cases were not intentional. He did not intend to pay an extra dollar; he did not intend to buy a cup. However, in both cases he did not care. So in both cases it would be an unintentional action.

    Personally, I would interpret it in the first sense, so I agree with the dwarf priest there.

  13. Traikueyen, since there is some confusion, I will return to this once more to make sure I’ve been clear.

    First, there can not be multiple interpretations of “intention.” Try again if you like, but, as you can see, your second “interpretation” of intention only begs the question: it says ‘intentionally’ = ‘intended,’ which of course interprets nothing. To be sure, we can’t fully define it at all; it has only one meaning, it’s absolute, and known only in the first-person.

    That said however, ‘intention’ can in part be described as something like: “deliberate self willing or volition”; and it has a necessary inner logic to it.

    Such as: one cannot freely and specifically produce an act, such as payment, without intending to do so. This fact completely rules out the extra dollar case. It’s an intentional deliberate act by necessity: giving the dollar to get the drink.

    The free cup case doesn’t apply in the same way because volition or intention isn’t required by necessity in order to receive something. He may accept the cup as part of the transaction and receive it yet never intend for the given cup in particular at all.

    For analogy, cancer need not be intended by a smoker even if he absolutely knows he will get it by not quitting and yet refuses to do so. But obviously the same cannot be said in reverse, if his final aim were to get cancer by smoking.

  14. In these scenarios it seems, to me anyway, whether or not Joe had intent depends on both semantics and when you ask the question.

    In the first scenario, Joe did not enter the shop with the intent to obtain the commemorative cup, his intent was “to buy the largest sized drink available”, but after finding out that the largest sized drink available was the commemorative cup, he then, at some point, intended to obtain the commemorative cup.

    Same goes for the second scenario: again, Joe did not enter the shop with th intent to spend an extra dollar, his intent was merely “to buy the largest sized drink available”. However, at some point, after finding out that he would have to pay the extra dollar for the largest sized drink, he then intended to do so.

    Therefore, in my twisted mind, the answers are different depending on when you ask about Joe’s intent:if you ask the question, “Did Joe intend to obtain the commemorative cup (or spend the extra dollar) upon entering the shop”, the answer would be no to both scenarios. But, if you ask the question “Did Joe intend to obtain the commemorative cup (or spend the extra dollar) before leaving the shop”, then the answer to both is yes.

    That should clear it right up…

  15. @ Serm – Yes, that is the way I was thinking about it. And while I think both answers were “yes,” by the exact argument you gave, I can completely understand both answers being “no.” It all depends on when you evaluate Joe’s intent.

  16. I find it oddly amusing that MK’s logic follows the concept of programming: determining the truth of a query depends on -when- it is evaluated. I would go so far as to say you have a very fine discrimination ability that leads to you being an excellent gamer (among other things, no doubt.) I only bring this up because I had a few serious logic errors in my last program because I forgot how the computer evaluated my code. :-p Your answer seems to be the most correct given all contexts and I applaud the example of EULAs and TOS agreements. In fact, I’m going to send it to my gamer friend who’s studying to be a lawyer. Maybe his head will explode. -snicker-

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