Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Risk and Reticence

One of my favorite topics is technology. I work everyday with technology, I read news about current discoveries, and I drool over new inventions (and some new products), and dream of the possibilities. Why? I may be a pessimist, I prefer ‘realist’, about situations and being prepared, but I am optimistic about technology and that it can improve our lives.

I was talking to a friend and neighbor the other morning. He was kind enough to give me a ride as my car is in the shop and Jessie is out working. I have been thinking about conversations in general with people and realize that almost all of the conversations fall into complaining about things that will never change incrementally, or being excited by forecasted advances in technology. And I am tired of complaining without result.

The issue came up that technology removes the need to interact on a human-to-human basis. Specifically, self-driving cars will remove the need for us to interact with friends and family that need a ride because they themselves can’t drive. Broadly: we will incur less risk, or investment in those people that need help today. I agree to some degree, but I believe we are shifting risk and have to be willing to interact with others despite the enforced interactions slowly decreasing.


My brother is managing the mechanical side of a lab developing exoskeletons to assist people in walking. This is a great technology, imagine people who have never, or no longer have the ability to walk being able to walk independently other than an assistive set of legs. There are people already benefiting from this technology. But pessimistically: what does this mean in terms of interaction? This person being assisted by technology no longer has to ask for the same assistance as they did when they were in a wheelchair. Not so terrible. Really I think that there is really no real risk, in fact it helps these people go many places that the Americans with Disabilities Act never touched before: a friend’s house, trails, and many other places. Of course there is the risk that the battery may fail, or the apparatus may malfunction, but as long as they have a reasonable way to recharge it, like a standard plug, it is several steps above a wheelchair in mobility.

In the future this technology might be expanded to be helpful to people with more widespread paralysis. More independence for basic movement might lead to more ability to socialize.

Self-Driving Cars

Delving deeper into this idea. Everyone could make use of a self-driving car, but let’s look at previous advances in technology that have led this way.
  • Walking to riding
  • Riding to carts/wagons
  • Cars and other transportation
  • Self-driving cars
Each one of these advances we could say has cut down on our self reliance to some degree. Each advance in transport has added layers of support that we need in order for it to function, but it also gives us massive freedom. In fact today’s cars allow us to escape into our own world, even while driving through the real world. Look at a traffic jam, even though there is a shared frustration, each driver has their own music, audiobook, or conversation going on.

All things happening in a car is a distraction to driving, including driving. Looking to see if a lane is clear could mean that you smash into the car in front of you. Essentially we are our own worst enemies, and as a friend mentioned last night: “We put our lives in the driver’s hands.”

By switching to self-driving cars we will become even more reliant on a piece of complex technology to transport us. That is a risk, but to see that as any worse than right now suggests that somehow today’s cars and companies are more reliable than tomorrow’s self-driving cars and producing companies. This is false. Today’s cars are easily hacked/disabled to the point that we could be left with only cars running for people that haven’t upgraded in the last 20+ years or are interested in classic cars.

So what does the convenience of not driving actually shift the risk to? I think there will be many small shifts, but I don’t think that there will be any big risk socially, physically, economically that isn’t already present, and in fact it might allow for distracting conversations to happen in a car that might otherwise cause an accident.

Really Internet?

Yep, technology has allowed more socializing, maybe. Or maybe it is just interactions. I could go into the long debate about how the internet has made people more or less social, suffice it to say that it has certainly been the main technology in promoting asynchronous communication beyond the book, and books have long been blamed for “making” people anti-social.

It is a measure of risks and benefits. In most cases, realizing the risks and countering them is enough, but there are certain technologies that end up riskier than we first thought. Being well informed is our first defense. Developing a well informed, positive, constructive outlook can help.

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