Monday, February 21, 2005

Buggy Wheels, Automobiles, Bill Gates and Bernstein

Fair Warning: I'm about to violate the first commandment of blogging: Thou shalt only write what you know.

Professor Bernstein at Volokh.com has problems with this article on liability law and the introduction of cars. I am sure his criticisms of the literature are well founded, but my take differs from his and Prof. Clarke. I'm influenced by the writings of Profs. Henry Petroski, on the evolution of technology, and Clayton Christianson, notably "The Innovator's Dilemma". From them I take the lesson that technologies rest within a network of values, organizations, related technologies, etc. Innovations may evolve from experience and learning within a given environment, or break the context. Big innovations don't automatically represent progress, but a different package of costs, benefits and values than the dominant technology. And from Petroski, failure is necessary to learn.

The horse and buggy represented the dominant technology, with roads, watering troughs, oat fields, barns, manure removal, etc. all in place. The design of the buggy had evolved, and represented a compromise of materials for strength, lightness, cheapness, etc.

Comes the automobile and the roads are too bumpy, the gas pumps are missing, the oats are unneeded. Speeding along at higher speeds put new stresses on wheels and axles so that designs that worked for buggies wouldn't work for cars. Instead of being supported on four strong legs, the motive power is put in the carriage, increasing the load on the suspension and wheels.
Clarke states that: "Corporations thus faced a choice between acquiring the knowledge needed to design a safe product and exercising power in the market to impose the costs of defects on consumers...." and argues that they opted to impose the costs on consumers.

From the Petroski perspective, there was no realistic choice--in order to learn, the car manufacturers had to try and fail. In a theoretical world, they could have spent 20 years in the lab, testing the strength of materials. But in the real world, they relied on the early adopters to pioneer the systems needed for the car culture, the gas pumps, the better roads, the parts and service (remember the Jeff Bridges character in Seabiscuit). (Maybe, to males, the possibility of failure and accidents is an incentive?)

As I skimmed Clarke, there seemed a parallel to the world of PC's in 1975-95: lots of experimentation, lots of bugs, "never buy version 1.0 of anything", Bill Gates and his untested software. Just read your software licenses to see what rights you have as a consumer. What we end up with represents a compromise.

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