“Ad absurdum”

So here’s a small gem that you can be sure is going to make it into the book. This piece showed up in my del.icio.us network the other day, and I was intrigued enough to do just a little digging. It turns out that the blurb is substantially accurate: responding to “rampant” vandalism, including at least one arson, Tiehallinto, the department responsible for maintaining Finland’s highways, has started fitting its more isolated rest-stop toilets with networked locks that disengage remotely when the word “open” is texted to a central service.

Now. It is true that over 90% of Finns own some kind of mobile device – the number stood at 87.6% by the end of 2002, the most recent figures I can find on the Ministry of Transport and Communications site – but still. People without mobiles never need to use the toilet? This is differential permissioning at its most thoughtless.

I have often enough, over the past several years of writing and speaking about such issues, been accused by audience members of resorting to reductio ad absurdum arguments when describing the potential pitfalls of poor ubiquitous design, of erecting straw men of one sort or another. From experience, I can tell you that this is exactly the charge that would be laid had I offered an audience the notional example of a remote rest-stop toilet that only unlocked in response to an SMS. I can tell you right now what at least one person in the crowd would be moved to say: “Nobody would be so heedless, so irresponsible as to design a system that way.”

No, apparently not.

The particular system in question appears to be problematic on more than one point: Tiehallinto has outsourced its management to a private company, who will maintain a “short term” register of every number used to unlock the system. The premise here is that if vandalism does occur, the bad actors will be able to be identified and held responsible – and not at all that some curious third party might ever notice your number in a log, and be motivated to ask what the hell you were doing all the way out in Paimio past midnight on a Wednesday. Because you know that’s just what’s going to happen with this system, and all the others like it that are sure to be installed over the next few years.

My issue with systems like this isn’t just that they’re badly designed. It’s that anyone trying to point out their manifest weaknesses beforehand is generally brushed off with the explanation that all the corner cases had been anticipated; that one can relax one’s nit-picky vigilance, because nothing will be allowed to go wrogn. It’s almost getting to be amusing to me, the unwonted generosity with which even technically-sophisticated audiences are willing to extend the benefit of the doubt to design organizations, as if history had never offered up the Edsel, the Challenger, the Palm Folio or the Zune.

On the contrary, my experience has been that no matter how, yes, absurd an idea is, even at first inspection, you can find some large design organization willing to sign off on it – gin up the most self-evidently harebrained idea you please, and I promise you that someone’s tried, or trying, to bring it to market. Greenfield’s axiom: it is almost impossible, in the domain of ubiquitous informatics, to devise a product or service so transcendently and obviously stupid that someone won’t think it’s worth devoting development resources to.

Along similar lines – although here I disagree that the idea is necessarily such a bad one – is the wail of that one indignant engineer in the audience for my LIFT talk last year who insisted that “nobody would ever be stupid enough” to install a fully-addressable network stack behind a light switch or a thermostat, because “what would the point be?” How I have often wished that I’d had my iPhone with me on stage that day, because literally ten seconds’ Googling later that evening was sufficient to establish that there is at least one commercial enterprise that offers just exactly that.

What’s going on here? Why are people so trusting of designers, when history is littered with evidence suggesting a contrary or at least a more nuanced take might serve us all just as well? I’m all for that combination of optimism, ambition and raw desire that allows designers to forge into the unknown with unproven, inherently risky propositions, but a little common sense wouldn’t be such a bad idea to deploy alongside them. Especially when the stakes are so high.

One response to ““Ad absurdum””

  1. Greg Borenstein says :

    There’s a big moral difference between applying this kind of idiocy to foolhardy startups and to mandatory government programs. The worst thing that can happen in the startup case is the invention of Yet Another Useless Gadget and the market will rapidly correct the situation by punishing the company. And, in the process, research and engineering work may get done that will be useful in the Next Big Thing that’s no one will see coming.

    The government case is a little different and a little scarier. Hare-brained schemes in that space have the potential to really oppress and disenfranchise people in subtle ways, as you describe, and in a manner that is really hard to undo because of the extreme disconnect between the people implementing the technology, the policy makers approving and funding it, and the public which has final sway over the lawmakers and (a tiny minority of which) is subject to the negative effects of these types of schemes. The technical nature and political obscurity of the flaws in the schemes makes it very hard for resistance to them to successfully navigate across all of those groups.

    On the other hand, it would great to create a process through which public agencies could experiment with these new technologies in order to learn about the possible advantages they might offer their constituencies as well as how best to avoid these kinds of downsides. And just as pacific surrender to design guru-dom represses vital critical thought on these issues, the flip-side reaction of hysterical panic also block reasoned development that could be incredibly beneficial.

    I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on computerized voting machines as a case study for these kinds of forces…

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