Consequences

Paul Raven @ 12-03-2013

I do keep saying that futurism isn’t about making predictions, don’t I? Well, that’s because I really believe it. Prediction — in the sense of declaring with great certainty that [x] will come to happen — is a waste of time, because you have no way of accurately determining whether or not the prediction will be validated until the moment at which it is validated (or not). Stick to gambling on horses or stock prices, if gambling’s your thing.

I’m increasingly starting to think of futurism — or at least the sort of futurism I’m interested in doing — as being first and foremost about looking at consequences. This is an extension of the standard technological forecasting methodology, which tends to draw a temporal line through recent, current and projected technological developments in order to conclude that — at some point, however loosely defined — there will be a marketable technology that achieves a (seemingly) desirable goal.

Thing is, the desirable goal isn’t the end of the story. On the contrary, it’s only the beginning.

Example: driverless cars! Think how wonderful the driverless car revolution will be: you’ll be able to read a book or eat your breakfast during your commute! No more traffic jams! It’ll totally revolutionise personal transportation!

See the problem? This sort of thinking makes one exciting extrapolation against a freeze-framed status quo, and then extols the revolutionary change thus achieved. And much as there are days when I wish with all my heart that the world only changed in one measurable and discrete way at a time, it just ain’t so.

I can’t take credit for this particular insight, at least not independently; the redoubtable (and, even by my standards, prolix) Dale Carrico did a great job of shredding driverless car boosterism from his gadfly pulpit in the draughty towers of the White World Future Society. The critical point is this: making cars driverless doesn’t actually solve any of the biggest pressures on the private vehicle sector at all; it just ameliorates (or promises to ameliorate) some of the more unpleasant social side-effects attendant on the inescapable necessity of using what was once extolled as a technology that would improve lives by reducing journey times. (Oh, the irony.)

Making your car driverless doesn’t remove or reduce your need to be sat in the damned thing for hours twice a day; it won’t make your tanks of gas any cheaper or less environmentally damaging; it won’t roll back decades of suburban sprawl and expensive freeway infrastructure; and it’ll be a long time before the technology is cheap enough to make an impact on ordinary people, ie. those who would benefit most from reduced costs and more free time. By the time they’re widespread (if they ever are), the steady increase in the number of vehicles on the road will have countered any significant change in traffic loading; furthermore, those changes will be held back by the necessity of sharing the road system with manual ‘legacy’ vehicles.

The driverless car is not a revolution in personal transportation. It is merely a reinvention of the wheel, an iterative development — and a way of selling more new cars. Driverless cars may well change the world — but not for you, or at least not for your benefit.

This is what I mean about consequences; this is where futurism needs to make a point of bringing people — real, ordinary people — into the frame where the Brand New Shiny is being considered.

If you go and look at Carrico’s burner linked above, you’ll see a comment from Yours Truly where I did exactly that — shifting the predicted “disruption”* away from the average (and increasingly mythical) consumer and relocating it in those realms where big budgets and and slim margins make the cost of investing early look tempting. Driverless cars will only be available as commercial products to the super-rich, at least at first; driverless technology, however, will fit just as well into the trucks of the long-distance haulage industry, who have a whole laundry list of reasons to jump all over it at the soonest possibility: as fuel costs continue to rise, the prospect of a fleet of truck drivers who a) only require a one-off upfront payment at hiring time [ie. installation outlay cost], b) don’t need sleep, biobreaks or union representation and c) can drive around the clock with no drop in alertness is going to give haulage companies the biggest boner the poor bastards have had in years.

And hey, would you look at this?

Via Fast Company; OK, so these road trains still require one human driver in the lead cab, but I’ll bet my shoes and socks that’s more to do with allaying legislative (not to mention public) fears about the technology failing than a genuine necessity.

Ella Saitta once said to me that “the internet eviscerates everything it comes into contact with, and then turns it into something more like the internet”. The internet is all about cutting the need for human activity out of any commercial transaction, and about minimizing the length of supply chains.

If you think driverless technology is going to make your life better in the near future, you’re either a haulage company owner, or not paying attention.


* — The mutating semantics of the word “disruption” in the context of the tech-start-up scene is more than a little worrying to someone who spends a lot of time thinking about how language gets used; disruption is increasingly seen as a positive, a desirable thing, an opportunity to make a profit by eviscerating an existing industry that can’t compete with your new way of doing things. Which not only ties in with Ella’s observation, but also allows an insight into how some tech CEOs think: that collapsing a market is acceptable if you can then seize it wholesale.

Sounds a bit like US foreign policy during the Noughties, no?