Solving Yesterday's Safety Problems Tomorrow

Edward Niedermeyer
by Edward Niedermeyer

Though I’m generally too much of a libertarian to be a huge fan of the work of the neo-prohibitionists at Mothers Against Drunk Driving, this in-car breathalyzing technology is definitely the kind of active-safety mandate I can get behind. After all, the social debate over the the effects of and responsibility for drunk driving has taken place, and despite heavy penalties against it, drunk driving still kills too many people. Unfortunately, since this technology won’t be usable for another ten years, we’re all going to have to live with the risk of drunk drivers for quite a bit longer… and by the time this hits the streets, you had better believe that distracted driving will be a far more relevant risk factor. After all, if the current state of debate over distracted driving were compared to the drunk driving debate, the automakers would still be arguing that in-car kegerators help keep the danger out of in-car drinking… and the government would be working to set voluntary safety standards for those kegerators.

The moral of the story: by the time we recognize societal safety problems as real problems, we are already halfway to solving them… and the final 50 percent of the problem can take years afterwords to solve.

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  • Philosophil Philosophil on Feb 01, 2011

    "The moral of the story: by the time we recognize societal safety problems as real problems, we are already halfway to solving them… and the final 50 percent of the problem can take years afterwords to solve" I have to challenge this. There are lots of people working in various fields who recognize and are able to make reasonable predictions about potential safety and other problems (e.g., ethical, legal, political, and so on) associated with the introduction of new forms of social life (particularly as relates to the introduction of new technologies) long before those problems are fully realized and recognized at a public level. There are many, for example, who claim that the best way of preventing many of these problems is to regulate or restrict the development of new technologies in the first place. Most people react strongly against this of course, because they think technological research and development should occur entirely within the free market and should not be regulated in any way. This is usually supported by the deep-seated belief (a kind of 'technological faith') that technological progress is necessarily good. So deep-seated is this belief that many people think that progress is technological progress (and can have no other form). But there are a wide range of people who challenge these beliefs and the questionable assumptions upon which they rest and who say that, because of the large scale social, legal, ethical and political impacts that new technologies have, then issues related to technological research and development should be recognized as a social and political issues, and not merely as engineering issues or as simple matter of private enterprise. Many argue, for example, that because of the potential severity of the problems some technologies bring about, that these kinds of technologies actually lay the groundwork for justifying increase levels of government regulation and police surveillance precisely because of the increased dangers the technologies pose or permit. If true, then this would be a good reason for thinking twice about developing such technologies. I realize this is going to raise the ire of some people here, but I would suggest that this is due to the fact, at least in part, that most people have not reflected deeply and seriously enough about the powerful role that modern technology plays in shaping social life. The impacts of new technologies tend to be broad and long lasting (e.g., the social effects of the automobile in North America vs mass transit in parts of Europe and Asia) and this makes them political issues and not merely engineering or free market issues. This kind of critical reflective stance is not anti-technological, by the way, but is trying to get hold of the technologies upon which we have become so dependent so that we can begin to stand in a better, healthier, more autonomous relation to the technologies we employ. Your claim that safety problems are halfway to being solved by the time they are recognized sounds more ideological than factual. In my experience this kind of claim tends to rest upon a strong faith that technology will be able to solve all the problems that it creates (such as the problem with distracting information technology). This tends to be a deep-seated belief among technofiles and society at large, and embodies the spirit of instrumental thinking writ large. This technological faith also tends to be associated with a libertarian belief that all problems are best solved within the free market, a position that rests upon overly simplified and extremely problematic conception of human nature and the myth of the atomic, rationally self-interested individual. You can make this kind of claim, of course, and will likely have many here who will support it, but I will suggest that as a general rule (you will always find a few exceptions here and there) it simply will not hold up under more careful and rigorous scrutiny. For those supporters of an unregulated free market I will add here that even if it is true that safety problems are being solved as they are being discovered (a claim I would seriously challenge), then it is also clear that the urge to solve them is not coming directly from the marketplace itself, but from a marketplace that knows that, because of the government emphasis on safety, they will have to meet safety regulations related to these problems and so plan to meet them early in their development.

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    • Philosophil Philosophil on Feb 02, 2011

      "You can’t hire a bunch of philosophers and poets – unless they have relevant experience with the technology or industry in question – to manage the introduction or rollout of new technology. Any other belief is hopelessly naive." I never said this, nor did I suggest it. The research, design and development of new technologies should be placed in the hands of those best qualified for such things. Engineers, computer scientists and other such people are usually quite bright in certain things and tend to be very good at what they do, which is how we should want it to be. But as talented as they are in their fields of expertise, I don't want the future direction of society being shaped solely or even primarily by engineers. Similarly, entrepreneurs, CEO's and such tend to be very good at assessing and promoting conditions conducive to maximizing profit. In other words, they're good at making money. But I don't want the future direction of society being dictated by CEO's. We should all have a say in the future direction and shape our society takes, and that includes everyone from engineers and CEO's to philosophers and poets. Your emphasis on WANTS (your emphasis) is extremely problematic. Not only is it often extremely hard to distinguish between wants and needs (partly because what was once a 'want' can very quickly become a 'need'), but also because it is often very hard to tell when the so-called 'objective' WANTS that you keep referring to are in fact 'natural' or constructed.' It is a common platitude in marketing schools that while some business people may respond to wants, others create them. Further, given the complex nature of social forces it is not clear whether an alleged 'want' is an expression of an person's individual 'nature,' or whether it is a product of the social/political environment in which they have been raised and that has helped shape their expectations and values. Taking about WANTS as if they were the simple and pure expression of an individual's 'nature' is to remain blind to the kinds of social, market and other forces that can be involved in the construction of such things. People don't always act on their own 'personal' or 'individual' wants, they also act on wants that they have been conditioned to accept as desirable measures of social and other forms of success, and it is very difficult if not impossible to distinguish 'genuine' wants from those that are the result of social conditioning from market forces and other kinds of cultural contexts. And you don't need to look very hard or very far to find endless examples of the sort of things I'm talking about. So please don't speak of WANTS as if they represented some kind of primitive, natural fact about human beings that the market responds to in a purely reactive way, because the evidence weighs too strongly against it. I find it ironic that you end your last post with a disparaging remark about philosophers (and poets) because the very ideas and principles upon which your own market-oriented, libertarian position rests is itself grounded in the work of philosophers, and in particular the political philosophies of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (e.g., Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Adam Smith--whose work was heavily based on Locke, Hume and others--and a range of other lesser known figures). It is the ideas of these men (and it is largely 'men' too, by the way), that serve as the basic assumptions upon which much thinking today rests. In fact, the thinking of this period is so deeply ingrained in our current mindset that it almost appears 'natural' to some. But there has been considerable work done within philosophy since then that has brought to light severe and troubling problems in some of the basic assumptions upon which these traditional political philosophies/theories rest (one of the foremost being the 'myth' of the self-interested, atomic individual). Unfortunately, however, it usually takes a long time before philosophical ideas and principles enter into the public mindset, so most people are still working from these older, more questionable theories. I've said that engineers, computer scientists, business people, and other types all tend to have various talents suited to their purposes and functions. All of these people with all of their talents have an important role to play in helping to maintain the advance a well-ordered society. But I would also add that philosophers have talents and expertise of their own that is often quite distinct from those of other people and professions, and among these are the capacity for critical reflection, a willingness to examine and critique the deep-seated assumptions that underlie a given social order, as well as a knack for being able to view things systematically and with an eye to long as well as the short term ends. Philosophers are often among the first to point out problems and flaws in a given world view, and are often reviled and dismissed because their ideas do not accord with and support commonly held beliefs, standing instead as a challenge and a threat to the status quo. It often takes many decades, sometimes even hundreds of years for an genuinely new philosophical outlook to take hold, but I am willing to venture that the ideas you are here defending will be viewed in a very different and less 'acceptable' light in the hopefully not too distant future.

  • Andy D Andy D on Feb 01, 2011

    meh, amachoors. Early in my mis-spent youth, I dabbled in psychedelic recreational drugs. Compared to driving on bootleg LSD, driving drunk is a picnic. It was simply a matter of realizing you are effed up and your reaction time is not so good. Sorta like driving on ice, only different. I wouldnt be any good at auto-cross when drunk, but getting home was no problem. Please note my usage of the past tense

  • FleetofWheel FleetofWheel on Feb 01, 2011

    Fingerprint scanner technology is usually meant to prevent someone else from accessing a system. In the case of a chronic DUI person, the fingerprint owner himself would have motivation to make a moulding or latex cast replica of his fingerprint to evade the lockout system. He has total access to his car and finger tip and could work on this at his leisure.

  • Texan01 Texan01 on Feb 01, 2011

    Ok, so you mandate this voluntary piece of equipment. What happens is you force the people that don't want the system, but are not prone to driving drunk or drinking at all to have to pay for a feature that they don't want or need. They in turn buy older cars just to avoid the crapware that has been shoveled on cars in the last 10 years. Id rather have the stereo installers hack up the interior of the DWI/DUI persons car than the automakers add yet another 'feature' that is such an annoyance that people look for ways to circumvent them, and they will. Im all for progress, but I am against the nannyfication of the world to do it.