Join the dots

Sitting in a soul-destroying traffic jam in Moate the other day, I realised that the design of cars is basically broken:

1. Metcalfe’s Law says that the value of a network increases in proportion to the number of nodes in that network. The canonical example is a global network of fax machines: one fax machine on its own is useless, two fax machines linked together is pretty useful, and a worldwide network of fax machines is incredibly useful. The more fax machines that get added to the network, the more powerful the network is.

2. The theory goes that this applies to online social networks too (the more people in the network, the more value it offers to each member), but in practice the overcrowding of social networks can lead to a noisy, jammed experience. Having many other nodes available to an individual user is indeed valuable, but having all of those nodes exposed is not very scalable for the user, who has to pay attention to them all. So a well-designed network protects users by allowing them to selectively filter out most of the irrelevant noise, setting their own threshold and listening to only some of the other nodes.

3. A network externality is the consequence of a transaction that indirectly affects an individual. No wait, come back! Network externalities are just a way of explaining the indirect knock-on effects of something happening – sort of like the butterfly effect in reverse, with the outcomes of everything else that’s going on combining to affect you individually. Positive network externalities are when these outside network activities have the effect of providing you with a better experience, and negative externalities result in a worse experience.

4. Roads are networks, and cars are the nodes that operate on those networks. There would be hardly any roads without cars, and cars would be almost useless without any roads. Especially considering the fact that car taxes are used to build roads, having more cars out there helps to create a mutually beneficial system for all drivers, by creating the infrastructure from the sum of all road users’ contributions. So more cars equals positive network externalities. But then there comes a point at which roads become overloaded with cars, and the value that the network provides to individual nodes begins to reduce. For cars, Metcalfe’s Law is in fact a bell curve that peaks at some happy medium of free-flowing cars on good quality roads, and descends steadily to eventually arrive at some point on the N6 heading east just outside Moate.

5. Therefore cars, as network objects, are intrinsically broken. Maybe not quite broken, because they still work to some extent, but after a point they definitely suffer from negative externalities as more nodes are added to their system. But despite the fact that cars are social objects, they have not at all been designed as such. Bound to the physical world, they can’t provide you with any way of setting a threshold and insulating yourself from an overloaded network the way a decent social network might. And that’s why the user experience of driving a car is often so shitty. Looking at it this way, the more nodes you add to the network, the less effective they individually become.

6. Thankfully I got out of Moate at around this point, so I wasn’t obliged to continue this train of thought any further and actually come up with solution. Not that I could. I suspect there isn’t one, and that’s why I said cars may be intrinsically broken. Public transport that works is a good bet, but is hard. MapReduce for travel? Or maybe public transport only needs to be better than cars; it isn’t right now, but as cars get worse public transport might become more attractive. That’s not really a solution though. There’s certainly lots of room right now for more intelligent cars that diminish the impact of heavily-loaded networks. Interconnected SatNav magic could divert cars along the most efficient route. Analysing traffic jams shows that they can occur just because of human driving styles that can be easily avoided with a little mediation.

7. Some caveats: The network itself can and should be better designed to handle larger capacities, but the design of roads is constrained by geography and there is always going to be a breaking point. Scaling is hard (just ask the Twitter guys). There are some small practical changes being made to the design of cars (smaller cars in cities, for example), but really cars as functional devices have changed almost imperceptibly over the last hundred years. And as petrol becomes an ever more scarce commodity that an ever-increasing number of cars are all vying for, which in turn drives the price of petrol further up for individual car owners… well, you get the idea. Bravery in car design may only arrive when forced, and when the problem of too many cars on the road is threatened with extinction.

— 13 Jun 2008