Jack Ganssle, Editor of The Embedded Muse Jack Ganssle's Blog
RSS Feed This is Jack's outlet for thoughts about designing and programming embedded systems. It's a complement to my bi-weekly newsletter The Embedded Muse. Contact me at jack@ganssle.com. I'm an old-timer engineer who still finds the field endlessly fascinating (bio).

For novel ideas about building embedded systems (both hardware and firmware), join the 40,000+ engineers who subscribe to The Embedded Muse, a free biweekly newsletter. The Muse has no hype and no vendor PR. Click here to subscribe.

Tech and Us

June 5, 2019

" perhaps because the spate of events with which we attempt to cope and which we strive to control have far exceeded, in this modern age, the old bounds, that they have been swollen up to giant proportions, which, all the time, the stature and intellect of man remains unchanged." From Winston Churchill's eulogy for Lord Lloyd, 1941

We are really good at building human-sized systems. That enormous truck that can only operate in a quarry still has controls not unsimilar to that of the family station wagon. That station wagon travels reasonably safely at the posted speed limit of 60 MPH or so; a 200 MPH limit is simply beyond the abilities of most of us. A 72 meter-long A380 is flown by a cockpit crew of two manipulating controls that fit their hands.

But I worry that our technology may now be outstripping our human frailties. The canonical example, for me, is cell use and texting while driving. Consider these facts from here:

  • The National Safety Council reports that cell phone use while driving leads to 1.6 million crashes each year.
  • Nearly 390,000 injuries occur each year from accidents caused by texting while driving.
  • 1 out of every 4 car accidents in the United States is caused by texting and driving.
  • Texting while driving is 6x more likely to cause an accident than driving drunk.

Then there's this stunning factoid:

  • According to a AAA poll, 94 percent of teen drivers acknowledge the dangers of texting and driving, but 35% admitted to doing it anyway.

We all know how dangerous this is. Yet too many of us do it anyway. (And, yes, teenagers are idiots, but we see plenty of so-called grownups tapping away on their phones at highway speeds.)

One could cite excessive speed or tailgating as examples of driving foolishness. I would. But there are many who would dispute this as they feel gifted with supernatural skills.

But does anyone dispute that texting behind the wheel is not only foolish, but downright dangerous? And what is the upside? Given that texting is so incredibly fraught, one would think texting at speed would be reserved only for life and death messages - how many text messages are in any way important?

In the last decade or so the new, incredible technology of smart phones has appeared, and almost overnight most of us bought one (or more). In that tiny sliver of historical humanness so many have become so addicted they put their lives (and those of others) at risk to text some triviality.

Then there's the partial autopilots available in some cars. Again, everyone knows it's important to constantly supervise these systems. But some of us don't.

We know bad things will result if we do X. So we do X.

I think our tech is running afoul of our limited capabilities. We have limited human brains that can manage only so much at once. Ignore those limitations at our peril.

The addictive nature of cell phones is like Fentanyl: it's more than many can resist. Even more insidious: it's claimed that at least some social networking platforms are designed to suck us in. Those involved in creating these are working hard to seduce our worst impulses. How ethical is that?

There may be technological solutions to some of these problems, but the profit motive dominates business decision making.

I fully expect these problems to get worse as designers (in my opinion, unethically) create even cleverer algorithms to target consumers.

I'm an old guy who grew up when it was illegal in the USA to own a phone. If my parents weren't frail and in their 90s I'd leave the cell home most of the time. And even if it rang heralding some awful message, I won't answer till stopped. After all, though the message might be important, there's nothing I can do from the car that can't wait a few minutes.

It wasn't till I was in my 40s that most of us owned a computer. But I worry for youngsters whose entire life experience is that of being surrounded by the beeping tech that demands constant attention.

What is the answer? I sure don't know.

Feel free to email me with comments.

Back to Jack's blog index page.

If you'd like to post a comment without logging in, click in the "Name" box under "Or sign up with Disqus" and click on "I'd rather post as a guest."

Recent blog postings: