John Pavlus

A View from John Pavlus

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. 

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