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16: The whys

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Today, we’re talking about the why

Specifically, does it matter if something “should” or “shouldn’t” work, when it does?

Show notes and links:
Episode 171: Johnnycab (Automation Paradox, pt. 2) by 99 Percent Invisible.


Full episode text

There are hundreds, if not thousands of things that we all interact with every day that we know just work, and aren’t necessarily sure exactly what all the details of how it works might be. After all, how many people do you know that intimately understand the functioning of your local water treatment plant, or how to create a lithium ion battery from scratch?

Some people call this the automation paradox. The more involved, complicated, and capable a system becomes, the fewer people understand it and make the assumption it should just work.

These assumptions – built on a combination of what we know and what we think – build our expectations for how the world works. When something breaks when we think it shouldn’t we’re left with a challenge. As one comment on this question put it:

“People need to be right. They can’t be happy if something works when it shouldn’t because it makes them wrong.”

Of course, the question gets even stickier when tackling ethical or moral questions, instead of logical or systems questions.