Thesis 73

Everyware must default to harmlessness.

The first of our principles concerns what happens when ubiquitous systems fail. What happens when a critical percentage of sensors short out, when the building's active lateral bracing breaks down, when weather conditions disrupt the tenuous wireless connection? Or what if there's a blackout?

"Graceful degradation" is a term used in engineering to express the ideal that if a system fails, if at all possible it should fail gently in preference to catastrophically; functionality should be lost progressively, not all at once. A Web browser might be unable to apply the proper style sheet to a site's text, but it will still serve you with the unstyled text, instead of leaving you gazing at a blank screen; if your car's ABS module goes out, you lose its assistance in autopumping the brakes ten times a second, but you can still press down on the brake pedal in order to slow the car.

Graceful degradation is nice, but it doesn't go nearly far enough for our purposes. Given the assumption of responsibility inherent in everyware, we must go a good deal further. Ubiquitous systems must default to a mode that ensures users' physical, psychic, and financial safety.

Note that this is not an injunction to keep subjects safe at all times: That is as ridiculous as it would be undesirable. It's simply, rather, a strong suggestion that when everyware breaks downas it surely will from time to time, just like every other technical system that humanity has ever imaginedit should do so in a way that safeguards the people relying on it.

What precisely "safety" means will obviously vary with place and time. Even as regards physical safety alone, in the United States, we find ourselves in a highly risk-averse era, in which public fear and litigiousness place real limits on what can be proposed. (A playground surface that no German would think twice about letting their children frolic on simply wouldn't fly in the States, and I sometimes wonder what our media would do to fill airtime were it not for flesh-eating bacteria, bloodthirsty sharks, missing blonde women, and al-Qaida sleeper cells.)

Coming to agreement as to what constitutes psychic and financial safety is probably more culture-dependent still. So it's entirely possible that working out a definition of safety broad enough to be shared will leave few parties wholly content.

But the ubiquitous systems we're talking about engage the most sensitive things in our livesour bodies, our bank accounts, our very identitiesand we should demand that a commensurately high level of protection be afforded these things.

Everyware. The dawning age of ubiquitous computing
Everyware: The Dawning Age of Ubiquitous Computing
ISBN: 0321384016
EAN: 2147483647
Year: 2004
Pages: 124
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