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‘What Does It Allow Us to Ignore?’

The philosopher Jacques Ellul once posed “76 Reasonable Questions to Ask About Any Technology,” one of them being: “What does it allow us to ignore?”

In a typically good essay in the WSJ, titled “Machines That Won’t Shut Up,” Christine Rosen raises Ellul’s question in the context of any number of devices that we now talk to, or that talk at us. Some, of course, are driving-related:

When the Canadian technology company IMS recently began selling iLane — a hands-free device that links to your BlackBerry and allows you to use voice commands to open, listen to and respond to your email while driving — it likely fulfilled the wishes of many a time-stressed commuter. According to Discover magazine, the average U.S. city commuter now loses 38 hours every year to delays caused by traffic. ILane offers its users the alluring promise of making safe and efficient use of that time, with the bonus of feeling like Captain Kirk issuing orders from his command chair.

The demonstration video featured on IMS’s Web site shows a stylishly dressed businessman responding to iLane’s overtures about a new email as he cruises along a tree-lined boulevard. “What would you like to do?” murmurs iLane, in its uxorious synthetic female voice. “Check messages,” says our hero, briskly. And he does, with abandon, scheduling appointments, confirming travel arrangements and returning phone calls, his hands never straying from the steering wheel. The company’s marketing materials tout the device as “a true technology breakthrough in personal productivity.”

But there are problems, as Rosen notes:

And there are reasons for concern, too — not least the effect on other aspects of life as those strange artificial voices compete for our attention and require us to enter feedback loops normally reserved for, well, actual human beings.

Their claims to safety notwithstanding, for instance, technologies such as iLane are potentially dangerous distractions for drivers. The research on multitasking is clear: Even when we use hands-free devices for our cellphones, there is something so deeply distracting about carrying on disembodied conversations while driving a car that the National Safety Council has recommended a ban on all talking and texting activities behind the wheel.

What these technologies seem to allow us to “ignore” is the drudgery of the everyday act of driving, as every added bit of multi-tasking leaves us with less cognitive resources for the varying demands of the road.

Rosen’s essay reminded me of some interesting work by Stanford University communications researcher Clifford Nass, who has been studying the dynamics at work in driver-car communication.

One finding:

In tests of volunteers driving automobile simulators in the lab, researchers put their subjects into stressful situations and tested out potential responses from the voice. For example, some drivers received a reproachful warning: “You’re not driving very well and you need to pay more attention.”

“Well, you won’t be shocked to learn that people got angry and actually drove worse,” laughed Nass as he told the story. As the voice ratcheted up its rhetoric (“You really need to be more careful!”), the driving deteriorated further. Finally, when the voice began insisting that the drivers pull over to the side of the road, they responded by getting into accidents.

Nass contends that we can’t help but respond to an in-car computer voice as if it were human; this itself raises all sorts of concerns, like when BMW was having trouble with its 5-Series “voice,” as apparently drivers didn’t like taking directions from a woman (why a person would want yet more chatter in their life is beyond me, but that’s another story).

The gender stereotypes that tripped up BMW also have come through loud and clear in Nass’ experiments, to his dismay. Volunteers are more likely to perceive a male voice as authoritative, even when male and female voices speak exactly the same words.

But if we perceive the car voice as human, which voice should it be?

After deciding that the new voice in the BMW should not be the car itself (as in the TV series Knight Rider), Nass and his colleagues considered other candidates—a golf buddy, a chauffeur, a pilot (dominant and not very friendly) and a person riding “shotgun” (talkative, not very smart)—before settling on a co-pilot, who could take over when the driver was in trouble but who understood that the driver (the pilot) was in charge. The chosen voice was male, somewhat friendly, and competent. He was a hit.

I didn’t see this particular bit studied, but I’d be curious to know about how people’s reaction times vary to a “voiced” warning versus a beep or a whistle, etc. Is there more “processing” that goes on because we do understand it as human?

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This entry was posted on Monday, April 13th, 2009 at 7:33 am and is filed under Cars, Drivers. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

2 Responses to “‘What Does It Allow Us to Ignore?’”

  1. Brad Templeton Says:

    We manage to have safe conversations with other passengers in the car all the time, but not with remote people and probably not with remote computers.

    The passengers know the situation. They know when to shut up because you have to focus on driving. You know they will not be bothered when you stop talking to engage in some atypical driving situation like changing lanes or turning, so you don’t even think about the courtesy issue of stopping.

    Perhaps a voice controlled computer would be better if it was able to sense this as well. If you should turn, or brake, or change speed, or put on a turn signal or move your eyes in certain patterns, it could stop talking. And of course it should never be annoyed if you pause your talking. And of course a quick command “hold” or similar, should get it to stop talking while you focus on the road.

    In the long run, of course, the car computer will get smart enough to know when driving is easy or complex, but that’s a few years away.

  2. Nick Says:

    The whole notion of “hours lost to traffic” is pretty amusing. Trying to put a precise number — 38 hours! — on a concept that has too many variables to even really think about.

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How We Drive is the companion blog to Tom Vanderbilt’s New York Times bestselling book, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), published by Alfred A. Knopf in the U.S. and Canada, Penguin in the U.K, and in languages other than English by a number of other fine publishers worldwide.

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