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Unintended consequences

May 2018

There are many invented ‘laws’ to guide us; they tend to be rather cynical, like Hutber’s law: ‘Improvement means deterioration’.  Patrick Hutber was City Editor of the Sunday Telegraph and noticed that when a company tells you it is ‘improving’ its service to you, it usually means that they will be doing less, or charging you more, or both.  As true now as ever.

My favourite law, however, is the law of unintended consequences.  Like common law, it is not written down but exists in the ether waiting to be discovered.  The digital world has plenty of examples.

I’m sure that you recall lava lamps, fashionable a while ago, in which a gloopy coloured substance floats around changing shape all the time.  A fairly useless decorative toy, you might think, but because the shapes made within the lamps are wholly random, they are now used to protect about 10% of all internet traffic.  Security company Cloudflare takes pictures of a wall of a hundred lava lamps and turns them into a stream of random data, which is then used to create unbreakable codes.  The shapes can’t be predicted, so the code can’t be broken.  Brilliant, but not what the inventor of the lava lamp had in mind, I think.

Then there are the unexpected benefits of texting, included on mobile phones as an afterthought, because the phone companies did not believe there was a market for it.  They had forgotten about deaf people.  Suddenly, a world of instantaneous long-distance communication was available to them, previously only open to the hearing world.

A much more recent example, and one I would commend to anyone with a smart phone (the ones with the screens) is not really an unintended consequence, more an unexpected use of technology invented for other purposes. Be My Eyes is a simple little gadget (app) that you can download to your phone for nothing.  You can then join a growing community of almost a million people; most have good eyesight, but over 60,000 members have trouble seeing.

If you are one of the sighted group, you just sit back and wait.  Sooner or later you will receive a call from someone with poor sight who needs a little help.  It might be they need to be told which of their cardigans is green, or which tin has tomatoes in it.  They show you the problem using the camera on their phone, and you solve it for them.  It only takes a moment or two, and if it’s not convenient to answer you need not feel guilty, as someone else will pick it up.

Members speak many languages and are spread across many countries, which means you will not be called in the middle of the night; the call is always routed to a country in an appropriate time zone.

Security is sensible, too; you are, after all, inviting a stranger into your home, but it is not possible for either party to identify the other or know where they are.

The founder, a Dane who has problems with his own sight, describes it as ‘crowdsourcing sight’ and ‘micro volunteering’.  You can do a lot of good with very little effort, using only a tiny bit of your time.

Be My Eyes is a non-profit organisation, supported by donations.  I’m not sure that I can think of a better use for a tiny bit of an internet billionaire’s money, so I fervently hope they are able to generate the modest support they need.

No one expected that when mobile phones and lava lamps were invented in the 1970s there would come a time when they would make life easier and safer for those who struggle to hear or see, but the happy, and unintended, consequences have been just that.


Key links to learn more:

A short video explaining the lava lamp encryption:  Click here

A more technical explanation: Click here

Be My Eyes founder: Hans Jørgen Wiberg speaking at TEDxCopenhagen:  Click here

Be My Eyes main site: Click here

Download Be My Eyes from here: Click here