Practice Makes Better: A silver lining to the quarantine

First among Nielsen-Norman’s ten heuristics for a good usability experience is “visibility of system status”, which is a fancy way of saying “feedback”: how clearly, how quickly, and how often is the system showing you its responses to your inputs? Dr. Rob Keefer includes an analogous principle — “Always know how things are going” — in his seven-part Harmonics Way philosophy.

There are a lot of unknowns floating around these days. Will we ever return to normal work and school lives? How much longer will we have to wear these uncomfortable masks whenever we go into a store? Where will the chain reaction set off by the coronavirus eventually take us? It is a time of uncertainty, and if we consider existence as one big system, the virus and its impact are certainly not helping the “visibility of system status”.

Simultaneously, the full days many of us now spend quarantined at home with our families afford us much more feedback about how we’re doing as property owners, as spouses, and as parents. This feedback is linked to the opportunity to practice and improve in these roles.

Musicians who shred for 30 or more hours a week not only get a more intimate feel for their instruments and the music they’re playing; they also get better faster than musicians who only put in an hour or two over that same timespan. In this same way, increased exposure to the “systems” of home life is allowing many of us to find out what we’re really made of when it comes to those areas, and then hopefully to improve.

This can be an intimidating and overwhelming process. Users aren’t (and shouldn’t be) judged by how well they interact with technical systems — for example, how easily they are able to use the checkout process on Amazon.com — but we are judged by how well we interact with our families, jobs, and how well we maintain our property. This creates added stress, especially when there are conflicts or setbacks, but (like most stress) may ultimately represent a chance for huge masses of people to become better homeowners, spouses, and parents.

Beyond the Trolley Problem: more ethical issues with driverless cars

I. The Trolley Problem

Much has been written about the ethical problems with driverless cars, but in most of those writings the emphasis is on a specific hypothetical “Trolley Problem” scenario where the car must decide between swerving to avoid a crash that would be fatal to the passenger, or allowing the passenger to die so that someone else (e.g. a pedestrian) is not killed.

The Trolley Problem itself is many decades old and ethicists are still not close to settling it. There’s no good reason why recasting it with driverless cars will suddenly inspire a solution. Besides, people die in car crashes every day, in situations of much greater ethical clarity; it doesn’t nudge our answer to the question “should we drive cars?”

Furthermore, the driverless car Trolley Problem scenario is unlikely to happen much, and even then it can be somewhat mitigated with more technology: better sensors to avoid road hazards, signage or barriers to limit pedestrian road access, better airbags, better brakes, etc. So what other, deeper ethical issues are raised by driverless cars?

II. Driverful and driverless cars cannot coexist

Research suggests that driverless cars are safer than human-operated cars–so long as the driverless cars are interacting only with other driverless cars. But when human drivers have to interact with driverless cars, that is the least safe scenario: human drivers have trouble “reading” driverless cars, and can get spooked by them, leading to accidents.

This means if driverless cars come into regular use, they may need to be mandated, at the exclusion of human-operated cars, at least within certain zones. For people living within those zones, the rule will be “driverless car or no car.”

III. “Ours,” not “yours”

Now consider the economics of owning a driverless car. The car itself will be expensive. While you are not driving it, a normal car is sitting in your driveway or in a parking space basically just leaking value and gathering rust. A driverless car, on the other hand, could be out acting like a taxi, making you money and helping to pay for itself.

Turning your driverless car into a taxi would require after-market alterations, some virtual hailing and payment services, and some additional legal and tax work, all with additional price tags. Driverless car manufacturers or dealers might anticipate the demand for this and price it into the vehicles as a standard feature package.

This creates a strong incentive for people who buy driverless cars to essentially start their own cab companies. Actual cab companies would probably just beat them to the punch, so long as unions don’t get involved (though if cab companies with actual unionized drivers have trouble competing with Uber it’s not clear how they could possibly compete with Ace Driverless Taxi Service).

So in a place where driverless cars are the only cars allowed, and where owning a driverless car has considerably more up-front costs than car ownership does now, the default way for most people to get around will be by hailing a driverless cab.

IV. Cascading effects – family impact example

A generation of DOD (driverless-on-demand) and you will see suburban and exurban homes built without garages, while new development will continue to be designed around cars. That will cement the DOD arrangement, because it will become even more costly to be one of those weirdos who wants a house with a garage, but it will also become even more costly to be one of those weirdos who walks or rides a bike places.

Living without a family vehicle in a city designed for cars means that having a family will become more costly too. Driverless cars might be built with fold-out kids’ seats like the newer Dodge Grand Caravans have, but anyone who has young kids and a car knows that the car is also a portable storage facility for toys, changing supplies, spare clothes, a stroller, and bunch of other things that would be a pain to lug in and out of the DOD car every time.

Having kids might therefore mean either putting up with a bigger hassle each time you travel, or having to shell out for your own driverless car–no more getting off easy with a used minivan or SUV. This adds up to one more excuse on the “it’s too expensive to have kids these days” pile, and as a result we might see lower fertility rates (at least among people who are future-oriented and careful with their finances).

V. The end of something beautiful

There’s something about being a teenager, craving freedom, learning to drive, and finally getting your license that is an essential part of the American experience. Another part of that experience being able to occasionally get out on the open road and command the movements of a machine that can take you across the continent. And there’s also something about when the machine is yours, putting the hood up and tinkering with it, changing its brakes and oil, even vacuuming it and washing it that millions of Americans find intoxicating and are able to bond over.

OK, maybe driverless cars will bring their own set of unique rituals and beautiful experiences and rites of passage that we can find culturally unifying. (Sure, maybe.) But driverless cars definitely spell death for driverful cars as an institution. This means the death of classic cars too. You can’t have classic cars without having cars that regular people can drive and own and maintain.

If you’ve never been to a classic car show, I highly recommend it. Sometimes they are quasi-spontaneous, so that one day there will simply be a few dozen spectacularly well-maintained half-a-century-old cars sitting one after the other in a parking lot as you pass by. Take a stroll through one of those shows. Talk to the owners. Look at those cars, their shapes and lines, the way they were built. With permission from the owners, feel some of the materials with your hand. When people say “They don’t make’em like they used to,” those aren’t hollow words. The whole character of those cars is different. It would be a tragedy to lose that piece of Americana or relegate it to museums.

In the end we are faced with a kind of Trolley Problem after all. Driverless cars do offer their advantages–any avid reader who has to drive places can understand that. By steering our technology adoption choices in that direction we assure ourselves some convenience, some safety, some freed-up time to be productive or to rest, maybe even some savings per mile traveled (averaged over our lifetimes at least). But is it worth what we would give up?

Setting a technology baseline

There are often good reasons to eschew the latest technologies in favor of older ones. As I think of these reasons, they seem to fall into various categories. Here are some of those categories, and an example of each:

  • Practical reasons. E.g. you don’t want to worry about running out of batteries or going out of service range with your GPS or smartphone so you use a paper map for navigation.
  • Emotional reasons. E.g. you feel you will enjoy your lawn more if you have poured your sweat into it, so you use an old-school reel mower.
  • Moral or ethical reasons. E.g. you listen to music on CDs instead of live streaming it using an Alexa or similar listening device which poses privacy concerns.

People can be observed lining up to buy the latest technology anyway. Apparently we are often swayed by new technology’s tempting offer of benefits. When we do forego new technology though, it is rarely in exchange for something more primitive than what we were accustomed to while growing up. (The resurgence of interest in vinyl records might be an exception.) For instance, I don’t use a smartphone, and at times I’ve considered just having a landline, but I have not entertained the idea of going without a phone altogether.

This makes it all the more important to think hard about what kind of technologies we give our children access to. With technology we don’t just give our children tools, we also give them a frame of what is acceptable or tolerable–in a sense, what is conceivable–for use. In the future our children may wish to retreat from some new technology (for practical, emotional, moral/ethical, or whatever other reasons), and what they feel comfortable retreating to is being decided right now, by us.