Book review: The Driver in the Driverless Car

I groaned through the first four chapters of Vivek Wadhwa and Alex Salkever’s The Driver in the Driverless Car before deciding not to continue. That is both a caveat to the review below, and a mini-review in itself.

The Driver in the Driverless Car is appropriate for readers who have very little familiarity with emerging technology and have never thought much about technology ethics issues. As someone who is doing research in these issues, I’m not part of the intended audience but I was prompted to try the book anyway because it seemed to specifically be addressing the issue of how we should choose which technologies to adopt. That is a very important question, and I was excited to see it posed by a book you might find in an airport terminal store.

Just a word of caution to anyone who might pick up this book for the same reason, though: the authors spend a lot of time familiarizing the reader with various emerging technologies and some of the most well-known ethical dilemmas those technologies pose — though not necessarily the most important ones. As they do this the authors (who admit to being early adopter tech-enthusiasts themselves) seem unable to stifle their excitement about the new technologies well enough to provide serious criticism at the same time.

So their attempt to be even-handed somewhat fails. But again, this might have been a deliberate choice, as the authors chose to match the attitude likely held by their target audience.

My problem with this book is not its dumbed-down-ness, but the authors’ rubric for how to assess technology. They propose a 3-question test of all new technology: Does it have the potential to benefit everyone equally? What are the risks/rewards? Does it create autonomy rather than dependence?

These are fine questions to explore, but they will never serve as a basis on which to build a useful technology adoption assessment. Aside from being indistinct and therefore redundant, the questions merely encode and promote the authors’ values (equality, rationalism, autonomy) rather than create a framework that accommodates values relevant to different users in a broad range of use contexts. Technology users and use contexts are extremely varied, so a technology that might seem fine to one user in one context might raise all kinds of red flags to another user in another context.

Like I said, it’s good that people are thinking about the question of how to assess technology for adoption. But I sense a danger in going about this the wrong way. Concepts like equality and autonomy are easily politicized; it’s easy to take them and run very far and very quickly, irreversibly, in the wrong direction.

I wish this book had been more about simply intentionalizing the process of adopting technology. There has been a flurry of writing in the past few years about technology’s implications for equality, fairness, privacy, autonomy, and so on. But very few people are saying “Buying the latest technology is not mandatory. The newest thing running on a computer, or with a computer in it, doesn’t have to take over. We can slow down and decide if we really want that new normal.” Maybe some day, somebody will write that book.


My social media quitting story

One day around 2012 I was walking to the corner store to pick up some beer. As I walked, I caught myself composing a status update (something about buying beer, probably) that I would type into Facebook when I got back home. At that moment I realized I had been doing this sort of thing for weeks or months, maybe longer: mentally translating my meatspace experiences into content to share on social media.

Facebook had influenced my day-to-day thought process in a way I hadn’t anticipated when I started using it. It had essentially rewired my brain, and I found this intrusive and disturbing. I also felt that by constantly mentally framing my experiences to support social media posting, I was diluting my connection to the world around me. It felt like a technology-induced mental disorder.

Fortunately it was a disorder I had the power to rid myself of. Right then and there on my way to the store I decided I was not going to post that status update. Instead I was going to delete my Facebook account and never look back. When I returned home, that’s exactly what I did.

Do you have a social media quitting story? Please feel free to share it and I will publish it here! Post it as a comment or email me.

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?

MWUX the morning after

My presentation was received relatively quietly as usual, but this is part of a pattern whenever I speak on the topic of technology’s impact on society and social values. Weeks, months, years, and many deep and challenging conversations later, I have cultivated a circle of colleagues who’ve heard my words on this topic and are thinking about the same kinds of technology ethics issues as me. They push me to examine new things and re-examine the old.

It isn’t a reward I can reap by glancing at Twitter the day after my talk; it becomes clear later on when I’m having those great conversations, and when I’m drawing on those important insights in my research and my daily work.

Thanks to everyone who’s taken part so far.

Personae, then and now

The first personas I ever created were based on a template I inherited. I was really just filling in blanks, except I redid the graphical portions of it. The original graphics had vertical sliders to show levels of some discrete qualities of the users. I replaced these with horizontal sliders in order to downplay the relationship between those qualities, because at a glance it erroneously looked like the curves created by the array of sliders had meaning. I determined this was less of an issue with horizontal sliders.

On subsequent projects, I created new persona formats for increased scannability, graphics that were more direct and transparent, and content categories based around information I knew my team and I would want to refer back to. This turned into an ongoing internal challenge: the quest for a more useful persona, one that isn’t just a perfunctory artifact designed to be shown once on a slide in a presentation to stakeholders, but an actual tool the UX team will use throughout the development of the system.

To do this we had to consider what kinds of information about users we likely need at a glance 1 month, 3 months, 6 months, or 2 years into a project. Some information might be useful now but not later, or later but not now.  Because of the way personas tend to get used by the business, we leaned toward information that was immediately useful near the beginning of a project but made sure to fortify it with content that would continue to be useful later on as reminders of important high-level information.

That’s where we started to get into things like work culture and values. To be honest, the best way to represent that in something like a persona is a challenge I’m still thinking through and have ideas about. It’s something I’d like to continue to work on in upcoming projects.