Unintended Consequencies

Tribrid_CarI write a lot about new technologies that are likely to impact our daily lives or the small carrier business over the next decade. It’s very easy when looking at new technologies to only think about the positive aspects of the technology and to not consider the negative or unintended consequences. And to be fair, both the positive and the negative should be considered when talking about new technologies – because transformational technologies always have unintended consequences.

A great example of an unintended consequence is the impact that owning smartphones, tablets, and similar electronics has had on children. I rarely see kids playing outside where I live. My wife swears that there are kids living all around us, but I must take her word for it since I never see them. Certainly when smartphones and other electronics were invented they were not intended to transform the way our youth spends their lives – but the unintended consequence of the technology has been to keep kids inside.

There are a number of major technologies that we are going to be seeing a lot more of within a decade such as self-driving cars, artificial intelligence, gene-splicing, etc. I read articles all of the time talking about the benefits these technologies will bring into our lives, but I rarely see anybody talking about the flip side.

Consider driverless cars. There are a number of benefits that can be envisioned for the technology. Self-driving cars will enable the elderly to be self-sufficient for longer. Self-driving cars will eliminate drunk drivers and texting while driving and will drastically cut down on traffic fatalities. But I can also think of a number of possible unintended consequences of driverless cars.

One of the big touted benefits of driverless cars is that they will increase urban driving efficiency since self-driving cars can move en masse without gaps between cars. But for anybody who has ever lived in a city, this could end up increasing gridlock rather than decreasing it. It’s not hard to imagine people going to the store and having their car circle the block endlessly until they are ready for it. There could be hordes of such empty cars driving in circles and clogging city streets.

Driverless cars also will free people up to do something other than driving. For people who commute this might mean extending the work day. I picture conference calls (voice and video) and other communication being scheduled during driving time.

Another unintended consequence of moving the home or office into the vehicle could be the death of traditional radio – a medium that is already struggling against streaming music and podcasts. Radio mostly thrives today based on advertising to people while they are driving. You can listen to radio without much physical interaction with the radio. But if driverless cars free people up to work or to do things they would have done at home, then the need for radio largely disappears – there are a lot of better ways to get music, news or entertainment if you are not occupied with driving.

Carried to extremes it’s not hard to imagine people living in their driverless cars. Take out the steering wheel and traditional seats and a car could be turned into a cozy cave. One could picture people adopting a totally mobile lifestyle using solar powered self-driving cars. It’s hard to imagine the effect on society of having a lot of nomadic car-people with no loyalty or identity to a fixed address.

I’m not particularly picking on the idea of driverless cars because I fully expect the benefits to outweigh any negative impacts. But some of these unintended consequences are not inconsequential. People will always find ways to use new technologies in ways that were not envisioned. I can make a similar list of for every other major technology that we are expecting to see in the coming decade. Not all unintended consequences are bad, but it’s likely that some of the incidental consequences of new technologies will have more impact on society than the intended ones.

The telecom industry is not immune from unintended consequences. For example, consider the deployment of fast broadband and the fact that fast broadband technologies are expensive to deploy. While broadband has brought great benefits to communities that have it, those parts of the country without it are starting to see big impacts from the lack of broadband. This isn’t something that anybody intended to happen, but it is a natural result of the expensive cost of deploying the new technology.

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