Jan 7, 2019

The Case for a Technological Golden Rule

Jennifer Huddleston Research Fellow , Trace Mitchell Research Associate

A California wildlife refuge has fished more than 60 electric scooters out of a lake. Along with the growth of autonomous vehicles, there’s a new form of “road rage” in which people are attacking the technology by throwing rocks at it, slashing tires, or deliberately stepping in front of traffic. Often these problems are framed as evidence of the need to regulate these new innovations, but history shows these problems stem more from the time it takes disruptive technologies to develop the necessary social norms.

That’s not to say it isn’t important that we consider how technology impacts people and try to come to an equilibrium that can accommodate both old and new. But rather than assuming that the destruction of technology is somehow deserved because of the disruption it brings, we should consider why people are engaging in such behavior and how to deploy solutions to these problems that consider the needs of both people and progress. Despite 42% of Americans saying technology has done the most to improve people’s lives over the last 50 years, a small minority seems destructively hostile to such progress. Unfortunately, if we allow a small group to dictate the future of innovation and focus on the worst behaviors both by people and technology, then we may never experience the benefits of these new technologies.

The Rise of the 21st Century Luddite

Hostility to new and different forms of technology is not a new phenomenon. Throughout history, people have often aggressively opposed and resisted technological progress fearing it would displace workers, erode cultural institutions, decrease safety, or have some other negative effect. Today, we often refer to those who don’t adopt or delay adopting technology as “Luddites”—often without knowing the history of the term. The Luddites were an organization of laborers formed in the early 19th century who protested the use of machinery in the creation of textiles, and often vandalized or destroyed the machines that they felt were taking their place in the trade. Yet, these machines were part of a change that would ultimately make formerly rare and expensive goods available to more people.

When it comes to innovation today, modern Luddites tend to focus on the dangers to the most vulnerable among us and worst case scenarios of what could develop. Like their 19th century counterparts, they argue we are losing our humanity to technology. Arguments for the “right to drive” or basically a right to jaywalk could just as easily be arguments a century ago about the “right to ride a horse” or, in the case of the original Luddites, the “right to weave on a non-mechanized loom.”

Some critics seem particularly focused on exacerbating fears of disaster scenarios in the realm of transportation innovation. Trains were initially accompanied by concerns that their speed would cause women’s uteruses to fly out of their body. Subways were met with concerns about disturbing the dead or that the air underground could not be made properly breathable. The modern skepticism surrounding the risks of electric scooters, 5G, and driverless cars that often motivates vandalism and regulation is just the newest example of an age-old phenomenon.

Sharing Economy and Social Norms

But resistance to technological change is not the only reason for the vandalism and destruction of scooters and driverless cars. Many different aspects of the sharing economy have had to deal with property damage or destruction and overcome it. Bad Airbnb guests have caused $10,000 in damage to a host’s home, and rideshare services now charge fees for a variety of destructive or damaging rider behavior.

Perhaps what makes the destruction of scooters and driverless cars uniquely difficult to rectify is that it is not users who generally cause the damage. While we might complain if our neighbor’s kid left their bike on the sidewalk, most of us wouldn’t throw it in the lake because we know it belongs to someone else. But perhaps because people don’t see the “who” in property with micromobility and autonomous vehicle companies, when people are upset by others’ poor behavior they feel more comfortable or even justified taking it out on the device. Perhaps we need to remember that the Golden Rule applies to sharing economy property, even when the property owner is a startup and not our neighbor. 

Can This Problem Be Solved?

The good news is that social norms typically evolve and we find some compromise between those who prefer the old ways and the continuation of progress. Scholars have long debated the most optimistic and pessimistic views of the impact of a more technological future for humanity. Yet, human beings repeatedly show we are remarkably resilient in the face of technological change and are becoming adaptable to these changes in ways that enhance our lives at an ever-quickening rate. Adapting to new and particularly disruptive forms of technology is not always easy, but it is something that we have done successfully, from telephones and bicycles to the internet and ride-sharing. Our desires for increased efficiency and other social forces typically intervene to counteract destructive responses and allow technological progress to continue. Solutions arise and social norms evolve that prevent a small group from derailing technology that many consumers enjoy.

It’s important to recognize that despite the attention it often receives, the problem of vandalizing new innovations may not be as big or widespread as it seems. In general, the negative responses to new technology are reserved to a very small percentage of the population. For example, Lime stated in August 2018 that less than one percent of its fleet of scooters and bikes had been vandalized. The damage being done is rather small compared to the benefits of these new transportation options.

Educating riders and non-riders alike will help assuage problems that cause the tensions leading to destructive behaviors. For example, signage reminding riders that they are or are not allowed to ride scooters on the sidewalks can be helpful, since the rules vary city by city. Similarly, a Texas company, Drive.Ai, has placed signage on its autonomous vehicles to alert other drivers and pedestrians to the fact that the vehicle is autonomous and that it “sees” them, thereby encouraging better interactions with the technologies. This type of education and messaging can lessen safety fears and also prevent some of the anger about technology invading existing human spaces.

Cities and companies are taking steps to help promote good rider behavior and develop social norms to accommodate these new technologies. Electric scooter companies appear eager to promote good behavior, for example by requiring users to take photos of where they left their device. Waymo’s driverless taxi program in Arizona uses specific pick up and drop off points, limiting the potential interference with current pedestrian or traffic patterns at these locations. Some cities even have designated parking areas for dockless transit in heavily traveled areas to prevent it from cluttering the sidewalks, and entrepreneurs have offered to partner with cities to expand bike lane access to prevent riders from using sidewalks.

If we look at past examples, particularly in the sharing economy, social norms and existing tools like insurance can usually address the problem. These factors can provide incentives to correct many issues that might be prompting the current destructive reactions. Unfortunately, when these factors don’t address the issue or if destruction escalates, we could risk losing technologies that would have changed our lives for the better.

We often frame the destruction of scooters or the negative interactions of people with autonomous vehicles as problems with the technology, but in all honesty, they are social problems where we’ve forgotten to apply the basics of how we tolerate different approaches to life. Perhaps we as a society need to remember that these same rules apply even when it comes to technological developments. Distaste for some new form of technology does not give us a license to disregard basic principles of etiquette and take away the benefits from those that do enjoy it.

Photo credit: Drive.AI

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