Technology + Society + Policy

Many of us working in technology-driven industries like to think that we will change the world.

Sometimes it's just a grand delusion that we tell ourselves or anyone who would listen, but, once in a while, it's actually true and something we create does change the world completely. 

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Since I am currently working for the world's oldest automaker, I'll use the automobile as an example. 

The Benz-Patent Motorwagen, considered to be the first automobile, was built in 1886 and was awarded the German patent #37435.

 A city street circa 1890. 

A city street circa 1890. 

At that time, "modern" cities looked like this – buildings flanking dirt or cobblestone streets with horse-drawn carriages going every which way, leaving manure all over the place, with people weaving through it all. The good ol' days. 

Over a hundred years later, our cities now look more like this – sprawling buildings along endless asphalt roads that are often clogged with that modern byproduct of the automobile, traffic. 

It took a long time for this innovative technology to change the world. In the early days, the automobile was considered to be a dangerous, children-murdering, mechanical toy for the rich. Back then, streets were commonly used as a place to hang out and play, and when automobiles started traveling at previously unheard of speeds, deadly accidents happened. 

Society had to learn to both accept and want it, entire ecosystems had to be created to support it, and policies had to be put in place to allow these machines to integrate into our lives and, ultimately, change it.  

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Technology

In a previous post called User Delight I described a framework for thinking about designing delightful user experiences. This Venn diagram shows the conceptual relationships of Useful, Usable, and Beautiful that combine to create Delight: 

  • Useful: fulfills a user need. It adds value and provides utility. 
  • Usable: easy to use, intuitive, easy to learn. 
  • Beautiful: aesthetically and emotionally pleasing. 

Together they create the conditions for Delightful user experiences. You really need all three as the lack of any one creates a sub-optimal condition.   

  • Without Useful, it's just frivolous
  • Without Usable it's just frustrating
  • Without Beauty it's functional

As much as I'd like to say that by doing the above is good enough, it may not be.   

Comedy Central: Jason Jones investigates Google Glass.

I have had the chance to live with Google Glass for a bit. If you ignore its current product limitations (horrible battery life, protruding camera & lens among them), it would likely still fail because of how it made other people feel. Even if and when the tech becomes invisible, managing the societal expectations for having an always-on camera on your face will be a challenge and require explicit and implicit guidelines. 

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Society

Our collective cultural beliefs and expectations need to want, or at least accept, the change that we want to happen; if society is ambivalent or hostile to it, it’s nigh impossible to have broad impact. To design for society means designing for: 

  • Aspiration: is it something people would want? 
  • Connection: does it create or enable connections with other people?  
  • Trust: will people place their confidence in it? 

Popular media is a powerful influencer for creating aspiration; it's why advertising and marketing are such massive industries. Movies and TV also shape our expectations. After Minority Report came out in 2002, anyone working on user interfaces had to contend with the request to deliver that gesture interface. 

These days, we want Tony Stark's interfaces from the Iron Man and Avengers movies, but if you've had an opportunity to try any of the consumer products with gesture interfaces, none of them come close to delivering what we have come to expect after a decade's worth of movies and demos.  

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Policy

It's easy to underestimate the importance of policies to enable or encourage change, but we do so at our peril. I'm not a policy expert, but I have learned to appreciate how powerful they can be. When I think about designing for policy, the important concepts that come to mind are: 

  • Safety: does it protect people from danger, risk, or injury?  
  • Security: does it protect from threats and actions caused by other people? 
  • Public Good: does it benefit the human condition? 

Just like the other two concepts above, you can go too far in policy and get it completely wrong, especially when the societal aspects aren't properly considered. 

Not too long ago, we found out that the National Security Agency was spying on... all of us. And apparently it was completely legal. I'm sure there were/are people who think that this advanced our collective safety, security, and the public good, but it was obviously not a universal feeling. 

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Putting It All Together

The modern automobile took a long time to become ubiquitous as it developed from an eccentric mechanical invention to a personal mobility solution. Those developments had to happen across the spectrum for it to change the world.  

Technology 

  • Useful – the utility of the automobile for personal & professional mobility is rather obvious.  
  • Usable – the early automobile was complex but now we require only minimal training & knowledge to use it. 
  • Beautiful – is there any doubt that the car represents one of the top forms of aesthetic expression of modern culture? 

Society

  • Aspiration – for decades, the car represented entry into the middle-class and, for the luxury automobile brands, something to aspire for.  
  • Connection – the transportation of people & goods connected communities and businesses in ways previously impractical. 
  • Trust – the reliability of our cars is extremely high; we can expect seven-plus years (or much more) of daily use through seasonal and weather conditions. 

Policy

  • Safety – seatbelts, airbags, crumple zones, headlamps, etc. 
  • Security – traffic laws that prevent total chaos and mayhem, liability and insurance to place responsibility when something does go wrong.  
  • Public Good – affordable personal mobility allowed people to live and work in ways they couldn't before.

These are but a few examples that made the automobile such a world-changing invention, but it's clear that working on the product technology by itself wasn't enough.

One of the most interesting and challenging things we are working on at Mercedes-Benz Research & Development is the self-driving automobile. I believe that the technology to enable full autonomous driving will come to pass before society and policy does. When they do, our world and our relationship to the automobile will fundamentally change once again.