Pick your neighbors carefully

October 31, 2018

Dockless scooters are currently the biggest nuissance in my life.

They wouldn't be, if their riders were considerate of others, as I'm sure they are in many places. I have no doubt there are many places where scooters have brought nothing but delight. Whereas here in Oakland, it's a daily game of pedestrian bowling, as kids careen down 3-foot wide sidewalks at 15-20 mph, doing their best to dodge pets, delivery drivers, young children, and people entering/exiting offices.

Riding scooters on sidewalks in Oakland is not only dangerous, it's illegal. But since most people who do it are young Black Americans, law enforcement action is deemed "hateful" (children) and "racist" (due to the color of their skin). Even if the cop simply stops the kid and asks him to slow down, or ride in a bike path, on the street.

I don't really see a way out from this problem. Technology is another word for "tool"; as more tools (technologies) come to market at an accelerating rate, their users will be empowered to do more things, with greater power and speed, than they were before. The same force that makes scooters a nuissance—increasing access to more and better tools—underlies fake news on Twitter and facebook. Giving everyone access to powerful tools might be a net positive thing, but there will be some negatives, too.

Pathological optimists (like the people here), think the law can solve these problems. I doubt it; there are too many new things appearing too quickly, and even if we could keep up, regulation of every tiny aspect of life is unenforceable. And also, not very fun. I don't want to live in a place with police everywhere.

In Code 2.0, Larry Lessig lays out four ways to regulate behavior: law (make it illegal), norms (make it taboo), economic (make it too expensive), or what he calls "architecture" (make it impossible via fences/gates/software). Of these, I think architecture is our only hope to preventing misuse. That requires active effort from the businesses who make this stuff, which seems unlikely. Can you imagine a cigarette company making cigarettes that are less pleasurable to smoke? I can't.

Maybe the only solution is to live with people whose norms are similar to yours—in other words, pick your neighbors carefully. In any case, law won't solve our problems.

In fact, even that won't be enough. We'll have to worry not just about new things, but also about existing things becoming more addictive. That's what bit me. I've avoided most addictions, but the Internet got me because it became addictive while I was using it.

—The Acceleration of Addictiveness

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