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Sometimes I Wish That It Would Rain Here

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

unintended consequences

my apartment complex recently implemented a new parking permit system. until last fall, residents received plastic hand tags with an pretty uniquely identifiable iridescent sticker (ostensibly making them difficult to duplicate). as September 2009, they switched over to an electronic system. residents enter their car's license plate number (or those of their visitors, with a limited number of visitors per quarter) online. cars from parking and transportation equipped with cameras and a specially designed computer vision system then drive around the parking lots, automatically issuing tickets for those parked illegally.

nevermind for the moment the surveillance and privacy issues. those are certainly pretty complex, but I feel like they're also some of the more obviously problematic aspects of this technology. what I want to comment on here is a somewhat subtler impact I noticed a week or two ago. it used to be that going to the grocery store, the movies, the dentist, or wherever, one would quite often see hang tags for the graduate student housing complex in which I live. it's not as if I know or am friends with a very large fraction of the hundreds of grad students that live there, but seeing those hang tags created something of a sense of solidarity, of community; it made me feel like I was not alone as a grad student and that, even in this hyper-planned suburban area in which I live, there was a group of people with whom I could identify.

however, since the deployment of this electronic system, no one needs to display hang tags anymore. I didn't even realize that something had been lost until recently when I saw someone who had an old tag up that she had not taken down, which made me realize that I missed the tags. it was interesting, because I'd heard lots of discussion among students and professors about the implications of the new system as related to privacy and surveillance, but I'd not heard anyone else mention the socio-emotional impact of not seeing grad student parking hang tags. I wonder if anyone else has had similar experiences. I find this a particularly provocative example of the development of sociotechnical systems. often times, designers are encouraged to consider the impact their designs may have, beyond just the technical, before deploying them. certainly, one could have hypothesized about or considered surveillance-oriented impacts, but the impact of the absence of visible hang tags would have been, I suspect, harder to anticipate and even harder to address. I wonder if there are better ways of predicting, and accounting for, such effects, short of actually deploying the system.

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