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Looking at a see-through world

January 31, 2008

In my column in today's Guardian, I look at transparency's unintended consequences:

As GPS transceivers become common accessories in cars, the benefits have been manifold. Millions of us have been relieved of the nuisance of getting lost or, even worse, the shame of having to ask a passerby for directions.

But, as with all popular technologies, those dashboard maps are having some unintended consequences. In many cases, the shortest route between two points turns out to run through once-quiet neighborhoods and formerly out-of-the-way hamlets.

Scores of villages have been overrun by cars and lorries whose drivers robotically follow the instructions dispensed by their satellite navigation systems. The International Herald Tribune reports that the parish council of Barrow Gurney in southwestern England has even requested, fruitlessly, that the town be erased from the maps used by the makers of navigation devices.

A research group in the Netherlands last month issued a study documenting the phenomenon and the resulting risk of accidents. It went so far as to say that GPS systems can turn drivers into “kid killers.”

Now, a new generation of sat-nav devices is on the horizon. They’ll be connected directly to the internet, providing drivers with a steady stream of real-time information about traffic congestion, accidents, and road construction. The debut of one of the new systems, called Dash Express, at this month’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas led to claims that the new technology might “spell the end of traffic jams forever.”

That would be nice, but I have my doubts. When we all have equally precise, equally up-to-the-second information on traffic conditions, the odds are that we’ll all respond in similar ways. As we all act in unison to avoid one bottleneck, we’ll just create a new bottleneck. We may come to look back fondly on the days when information was less uniformly distributed.

That’s the problem with the so-called transparency that’s resulting from instantly available digital information. When we all know what everyone else knows, it becomes ever harder to escape the pack.

Just ask the hardcore surfers who dedicate themselves to finding the best waves. It used to be that they could keep their favorite beaches secret, riding their boards in relative solitude. But in recent months people have begun putting up dozens of video cameras, known as “surf cams,” along remote shorelines and streaming the video over the net.

Thanks to the cameras, once secluded waters are now crowded with hordes of novice surfers. That’s led to an outbreak of “surf cam rage,” according to a report last weekend in the New York Times. Die-hard surfers are smashing any cameras they find in the hope that they might be able to turn the tide of transparency.

But the vandalism is in vain. For every surf cam broken, a few more go up in its place.

There is, of course, much to be said for the easy access to information that the internet is allowing. Information that was once reserved for the rich, the well-connected, and the powerful is becoming accessible to all. That helps level the playing field, spreading economic and social opportunities more widely and fairly.

At the same time, though, transparency is erasing the advantages that once went to the intrepid, the dogged, and the resourceful. The surfer who through pluck and persistence found the perfect wave off an undiscovered stretch of beach is being elbowed out by the lazy masses who can discover the same wave with just a few mouse clicks. The commuter who pored over printed maps to find a short cut to work finds herself stuck in a jam with the GPS-enabled multitudes.

You have to wonder whether, as what was once opaque is made transparent, the bolder among us will lose the incentive to strike out for undiscovered territory. What’s the point when every secret becomes, in a real-time instant, common knowledge?

A see-through world may not be all that it’s cracked up to be. We may find that as we come to know everything about everything, we all end up in the same mess together.


Excellent Post. Perhaps as a culture we never consider the ramifications of what we purpose. Some look purely at the financial gain and never look at the possible sociological impact.

Posted by: Kaoticfen [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 31, 2008 09:46 AM

The current navigation systems are only half of the solution. Ideally they will be able to balance the traffic based on the number of requests for a route and its maximum throughput.

Only subscribing to the premium package will actually give you the best route. Or does that break 'road neutrality'?

Posted by: Ivan [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 31, 2008 10:59 AM

great article, Nick!

reminded of this post from a while back, by a great writer on biking...


here's a paragraph, and it's worth reading the whole thing...

For better or worse, we build the future. Stumbling, our tracks are something others follow, assuming we must have known something they do not. Can we tell them that our maps work best because of the empty spaces, because of the spots marked "Here Be Dragons?" They wouldn't believe us if we did. And years from now, when these tracks are well tread, we will have fled, "No one goes there any more, it's too crowded."

as for me, have made use of mapping data in a different way, as have been cycling to work for the last 2.5 years - it's 3.25m driving, and have found a route of 6.25m cycling that avoids all traffic lights and the most drivers possible - they're all steamed up at each other, distracted by their in-car gadgets, best avoided if at all possible, and bonus miles are fun!

Posted by: jromeh [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 31, 2008 12:41 PM

I agree with you that all of the consequences of new technologies cannot possibly be forecasted in advance.

However, I find it funny how people focus on these minimal negative consequences without taking into account the benefits which FAR out weigh the negatives.

For instance, let's look at e-mail and SPAM. When e-mail was created, the creators didn't forsee SPAM, and SPAM is annoying, however, the benefits of e-mail FAR OUTWEIGHT the negatives of SPAM.

The same is true w/ GPS technologies, the thousands of people who can more efficiently and effectively find their way vastly outweight the possible negatives that certain areas that previously had no traffic now have new 'visitors'...

Posted by: John [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 31, 2008 01:22 PM

Hi Nick,
I agree with the sentiment of other readers that computers can optimize a metric and thus avoid the heard rushing off to the next bottleneck. But what is the best metric? We may not all agree on a single one, such as minimal distance, minimal time, minimal stop lights, minimal left turns, maximal scenery etc.

Perhaps a map that shows time rather than distance would be more meaningful...congested roads become long segments and fast paths become short ones.

Posted by: molecat [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 31, 2008 02:13 PM

I had to stop using a GPS with voice in my motorbike. It was too proforma. I like getting lost.

Posted by: abm [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 31, 2008 02:34 PM

The road safety issue is a real one. Road planners rely on the obscurity of local traffic networks to minimise use of quiet suburban streets by high speed through traffic.

GPS systems subvert that intent. There will clearly be two responses to this. First, local councils will become more aggressive in protecting quiet streets, with active traffic calming.

Second, national legislators will eventually force GPS providers to honour the intent of road planners.

There are other issues here too. GPS systems privilege the wealthy over poor people, and will probably reduce incentives to fix problematic roads, since politicians and journalists will escape the worst effects.

Posted by: Tony Healy [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 31, 2008 06:25 PM

Interesting article. But another way to look at it would be that if 'what was once opaque is made transparent', the challenge is for the dogged and the resourceful to discover new secrets and avenues that, inspite of the current scenario, they manage to keep their own.

Surely that will please them even more.

The story of evolution: Faced by new challenges, the fittest find new ways to overcome them...

Posted by: shyam [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 1, 2008 04:13 AM

Nick, it's like people who complain about crying babies on a flight. Get over it or go get a private plane. Roads are not private property but you can lobby to have speed bumps and lowered speed limits to disincent people from going through your neighborhood.

Don't kill the technology..ideally we see local authorities and TV stations etc adopt similar or better technology and guide traffic through alternate routes rather than let each consumer make his/her own decisions

Posted by: vinnie mirchandani [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 1, 2008 02:20 PM


>> Millions of us have been relieved of the
>> nuisance of getting lost ...

... and the joy of finding some wondrous new place by accident....what if Columbus had GPS? ... hummm.....

>> That helps level the playing field....

Also, very handy for terrorists that need up-to-date surveillance information on the US ...

Posted by: Linuxguru1968 [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 1, 2008 07:33 PM

Great post. I'm impressed I somewhat missed it two days ago.

Regarding traffic, I believe it will hardly be a problem: with reasonable software, you can have the portions of the cars diverted on several routes — but the local council need to have authority over the Routing software: expect some fight between mayors about his, though. Better road description, random penalties, . I'm expecting autonomous-driving vehicles soon, too (hopefully sooner with a faster renewal of the fleet thans to a Zipcar-like system).

Regarding crying babies in a plane: it's unacceptable to force that onto all the other trapped passengers; not as much as a 10-y.o. who shoots in the back of your chair and keep on complaining for the whole flight (Why does he *always* seat behind me?). Is this trip worth enough for a toddler to ruin hours for dozen of people? Some companies hopefully have policies against too young passengers, and some air hostesses still have reasonable expectation regarding education being a step towards behaving in public. But maybe I should expect a software solution to that too. Or the introduction of the right to vote a passenger off the plane by the qualified majority of the people on board.

Surf cam is a big issue. I don't surf, but I really hate crowded beaches, and I appreciate the concern. Public access to sattelite imaging won't help. I can't see another solution that a Coasean ownership — and I can't resolve to making all the best beaches private... Sad story, indeed.

Posted by: Bertil [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 1, 2008 09:48 PM

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