A sketched picture of James' head

James Smith

Building a better future out of code

The machine that goes BEEP

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I commute into London a few days a week, and my nearest station is Littlehaven, a small station on the Southern network. Over the last little while, Southern have been introducing an ITSO smartcard called The Key, which is pretty great. Now that I have my season ticket on one, I don’t have a scraggly piece of card in my wallet, I feel safer if I lose it, I can order tickets quickly online, and other good stuff. In general it’s a good bit of kit.

However, there’s only one problem. At Littlehaven, the card readers are outside, and whenever I tap in and out, they beep really loudly. It’s so loud that it must disturb the people in the houses nearby, especially when they’re sleeping with their windows open in the current heat. I feel awful every time I tap in and out, I really do.

When putting these in, there was a failure to think about where these machines were going. On a platform in a large station, or inside a station building, no problem, but out in the open near houses is a bad idea. The externalities weren’t taken into account.

This has made me think about how we design and deploy technologies in general. In the past, the technology itself was often the driver of its form and function; nowadays we have a lot more user-centred design going on, where technology is designed to meet the precise and simple need that the user has. We need to remember to widen that though, to consider the wider impact our technologies have on the world around us; we need more society-centred design.

Technology is, I believe, a force for good, but we must remember what a powerful driver of social change it is, and that almost any technology choice has inherent assumptions about the society it fits into. When Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web, it came with a built-in set of assumptions about freedom, democratisation of information, and so on (good ones, in my opinion). When we use Facebook, we’re buying into the societal assumption that we are not citizens but products, whose information is handed over to trade to advertisers and others to build shareholder value for Facebook, and that that’s OK.

Ethics are important in technology; we need to be aware of what we’re building and the wider impact it will have on society at large if it succeeds. We can use technology to build a better society, or we can let it evolve along its own lines without making those choices. Personally, I’d rather be in a world of well-designed ethical technology that makes the world better, than surrounded by badly-placed machines that go beep.

In the meantime, I’m going to see if I can go back to a paper ticket until they turn down the volume. I don’t like waking up the neighbours simply to make my wallet neater.


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