Unintended Consequences

Researchers at MIT, who are at the forefront of autonomous vehicle technology, have noticed that paradoxically when a little bit of assistive technology is added to a car, drivers become less safe. In other words, when people feel like technology is behind they wheel they are more likely to be more distracted drivers and thus many of the autonomous technologies that are intended to make people more safe actually do the opposite.

This is a classic unintended consequence of technology, like the ones described by Edward Tenner in his 1997 book Why Things Bite BackTo combat this issue, the smart folks at MIT decided to put a human facing camera in a vehicle, which would look for distracted driving and compensate accordingly, as seen in this YouTube video. Rather than asking, what are the social and psychological reasons that drive people to engage in distracted driving, so that these reasons might be minimized, instead the best solution was determined to be adding another layer of technological assistance to the issue. Technology to solve the problem created by technology.

A screen capture from the MIT Human-Centered Autonomous Vehicle demo video, available from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OoC8oH0CLGc



And what might be an unintended consequence of human facing cameras in semi-autonomous vehicles? Surveillance? Inequitable car insurance rates? Something else as of yet unpredictable? Unintended consequences are difficult to foresee, but we can expect they will be an issue. And I can’t help but think issues like these could be minimized or avoided if instead of layering technology over a technological problem, we started looking more at the human social and psychological drivers of technologically mediated behavior. More technology isn’t always the answer. Maybe people engage in distracted driving because we live in a distracted society. Maybe the real problem is smart phones rather than smart cars, or maybe smart devices writ large need to be rethought.

We’re never going to be able to answer these questions, however, if we simply adopt new technological band-aids to fix the unintended consequences of previous technologies.

McLuhan reminded us that a rear-view mirror approach to technology will not help us to understand or adapt to what’s coming. Similarly a rear facing camera in your car will not help you to become a better driver or technological citizen.

Unintended Consequences

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