Skip to Content

Unintentional Interfaces: Why Russian Dashcams Saw That Meteor

How Russia’s social and legal culture combined with technology to capture a once-in-a-lifetime event on video.
February 15, 2013

Earlier today I was wondering why Russia gets all the good meteor strikes–like this one, which looks like a viral promo for a sci-fi movie, captured from a dashboard-mounted video camera. What I should have been asking – and Wired did – was “why do Russian motorists have video cameras on their dashboards in the first place?” 

Apparently, Russia’s combination of geographic immensity and lax law enforcement incentivizes everyone to install these “dash-cams” in their cars. If you get into a he-said/she-said traffic accident in the middle of nowhere, you can use the video footage as proof of what actually happened. 

Arthur C. Clarke famously said that advanced technology may be indistinguishable from magic. But more importantly, it folds into local culture – and back again – in totally unpredictable ways. As Frederik Pohl (another sci fi author) remarked, good science fiction predicts the traffic jam, not the automobile. Who would have thought that the perfect system for visually documenting a historic meteor strike would be a nation full of drivers strapping cheap, flash-based webcams to their dashboards as a backstop against rampant legal corruption? 

Technology always has unintentional interfaces. And as advanced technology gets cheaper, more aware, and better networked, these weird affordances and their consequences will proliferate even more quickly. As the CEO of Datawind (which makes the famously cheap Aakash 2 tablet) recently told me in an interview (forthcoming in Technology Review’s business report on mobile computing), there’s no way to accurately predict – or relate to in advance, he admitted – how an illiterate person living on $200 a month in India will use a tablet computer. What technology is “for” is an emergent property. You have to be there. This is why a technology forecaster like Jan Chipchase is always traveling for research. But I doubt even he could have seen the Russian-dashcam effect in advance–any more than that guy driving down the road expected to see a meteor screaming down out of the sky in front of him. 

Keep Reading

Most Popular

This startup wants to copy you into an embryo for organ harvesting

With plans to create realistic synthetic embryos, grown in jars, Renewal Bio is on a journey to the horizon of science and ethics.

VR is as good as psychedelics at helping people reach transcendence

On key metrics, a VR experience elicited a response indistinguishable from subjects who took medium doses of LSD or magic mushrooms.

This nanoparticle could be the key to a universal covid vaccine

Ending the covid pandemic might well require a vaccine that protects against any new strains. Researchers may have found a strategy that will work.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.