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Commentary: Technology always sprints ahead of guardrails

By John Diers Nov 25, 2019

All my dad wanted in a new car was a heater and a radio, and, after World War II, that’s exactly what he brought home in a brand new 1947 Nash.

Like father, like son. My wife and I bought a new car last year with a heater and a radio — and a lot more. It’s a compact, practical vehicle, suitable for septuagenarians. We like it, even though it comes with a lot of glittering gadgetry that’s downright irritating. Dad would not have been pleased, and neither am I.

I am a pragmatist and a believer in simple solutions that are appropriate for the problem. Thoreau said, “Simplify, simplify,” and as I get older and, hopefully, wiser, I’ve come to more and more understand the wisdom in his words.

I’m not alone.

A Nov. 9 feature in the Boston Globe and a study by Liberty Mutual Insurance Company found more than one in five drivers disables electronic features on their new cars, presumably because they’re a distracting nuisance. By age group, 35% of Millennials and 18% Gen Xers do so. Only 10% boomers do —because, as the article notes, younger people might be more likely to have the technical skills.

My special peeve is the blind-spot detector that beeps and flashes a light in the side view mirrors when a car comes near on the left or right. It previews what we’ll have in self-driving cars, except, in a self-driving car, a computer will be in charge, itself a frightening possibility.

I wanted to banish the beep and substitute a simple spot mirror, but I was told legal and warranty issues made it unwise to do so. I did turn off the Bluetooth feature that allows hands-free cellphone conversations. It’s an option and, when we bought the car, the salesperson took care of it. Hands-free, or not, using a cellphone while driving is dangerous. I wanted no part of it.

However, I do wish the same salesperson would have demonstrated how to change the clock from daylight saving to standard time. The manual for the car is upwards of 300 pages and is so filled with acronyms and abbreviations, and poorly organized and indexed, that I had to look through three chapters to discover how to make the switch.

Whatever happened to concise technical writing?

For the record, I am not a Luddite. I have a university degree and technical credentials. I understand the difference between Ohm’s Law and a cheeseburger. My discomfort goes to our worship of technology and the unintended consequences that come with it. Technological change is a trade-off and a Faustian bargain — a blessing and a curse.

Substituting a sensor for a spot mirror is a tiny example, but think about technological change over the past 700 years. The printing press brought universal literacy and spread scientific knowledge throughout Europe and the world. It was the mentor for Shakespeare, Copernicus, Galileo and Sir Isaac Newton.

It’s why we have a Constitution and a republic, but it also fomented political and religious discord, enabled the Inquisition, encouraged ignorance and promoted the will of tyrants.

Consider railroads and the radio. Railroads came along in the 1830s, grew the national economy and settled the continent, but it took the Hepburn Act of 1906 to tame them for the common, economic good.

Marconi perfected the radio and transmitted the first transatlantic signal in 1901, but it required legislation in 1910, 1927 and the Communication Act of 1934 to put up the guardrails and set standards for use of the radio spectrum.

The International Telecommunications Union, founded as the International Telegraph Convention in 1865, has responsibility through the United Nations for international regulation of the radio spectrum.

This isn’t about stopping technological innovation or the spread of invention and new ideas. That’s an idiotic notion, and its folly to even try. Rather, it highlights how, throughout history, invention and technology sprint so far ahead of our institutions and our laws that it takes decades, even centuries, to catch up.

The internet had its beginnings linking scattered research centers in the 1960s. The number of users and interconnections grew in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Then, in the early 1990s, it emerged as the World Wide Web. The internet opened every library in the world, but it also spread the likes of Facebook, Twitter and other social media and allowed foreign interests to meddle in our politics and elections and take away our privacy.

Today, that genie is out of the bottle and has raced so far ahead and so fast that, short of pulling the plug, our institutions and our laws may never catch up. Google “internet regulation,” and you’ll find 880,000 entries and 880,000 different perspectives on the issues and what to do about them. There is no consensus. There may never be one. For now, it’s a free and open market, the wild, wild west — capitalism at its best, but users beware.

Please read more from the Prior Lake America: https://www.swnewsmedia.com/prior_lake_american/news/opinion/columnists/commentary-technology-always-sprints-ahead-of-guardrails/article_95e2b8e7-888d-53ba-abf4-4f697ba8d9a9.html

John Diers is a Prior Lake resident who spent 40 years working in the transit industry and is the author of “Twin Cities by Trolley: The Streetcar Era in Minneapolis and St. Paul” and “St. Paul Union Depot.” To submit questions or topics for community columnists, email editor@plamerican.com.