Wednesday, May 22, 2013

A smart post from Felix Salmon

Felix Salmon:

My point here is that technology has a tendency to create its own norms. The classic example is the automobile — a technology which kills more than 30,000 Americans every year. From the 1930s through the 1990s, societal norms about who roads belonged to, and what people should do on them, were turned on their head thanks to the new technology. The dangerous new activity allowed by the new technology became the privileged norm, to the point at which just about all other road-based activity — and roads have been around for thousands of years, remember, since long before the automobile — essentially ceased to exist. Eventually, we reached the point at which elected representatives were happy saying that if a bicyclist gets killed by a car, it’s the bicyclist’s fault for being on the road in the first place
.I think that this is a very interesting point at two levels.  One, is that it does point out that society can change around innovation just as much as innovation can change society.  I think that this will be broadly applicable to innovations like driverless cars that are legal nightmares now, but could easy become the standard with enough adoption.  It's never clear when a technology will win this sort of breakthrough success (the innovation grave-yard is full of such examples).  But it does point out that some classes of argument are less likely to succeed.

But the second point is also really salient -- it is often amazing how much we overlook the subsidization of activities are social norms.  We don't see the use of roads for cars and not bicycles as a subsidization of the car.  Heck, I am often annoyed by bicyclists who can't decide what set of rules they are following (when they switch back and forth between being a fellow vehicle and a pedestrian it makes me nervous as I have a life-long goal to never hit a cyclist).  But the roads could just as easily be claimed by walkers, horses, bicycles and so forth in a much easier form of mixed use. 

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