we need a Usability Amendment
The public right to information means less when you need a PhD to understand your DMV or your HDL. Reading about the White House push to make credit card agreements simpler, I began to wonder if at this point life as we know it needs a Read Me file.
All of us in Gen X and Y cherish memories of explaining VCRs to our parents, but, in my memory at least, complex things that needed laborious documentation were the exception. We all got computers and figured them out.
Now, between Facebook’s privacy settings and the Do Not Call list, it’s as if we all need to get engineering degrees to build bulwarks against corporate incursion into our lives.
As “users” of this system we’re getting smarter too. Verbs like “delete” and “unsubscribe” and “filter,” are no longer for techies and adolescents. Even if only a tiny fraction of Wikipedia users are creating the information, more of us are using Wikipedia and Google as reference sources than ever would have gone to the local library to learn something (or known how to use the library once they got there).
For more about the geek-ification of regular people, see Steven Johnson’s great 2005 article about how popular TV is training smarter audiences.
But unless the norms change, the burden will keep shifting onto individuals to opt out of a system that defaults to risk-laden medications, blood-letting bank practices and, of course, carcinogens. As laws become more permissive, tempered only by some rules about citizen warnings, we get closer to a system where rules really are made to be broken.
Not to descend into politics, but how does the small-government crowd reconcile the baseline American libertarianism of property rights with the deregulation that exposes our bodies and bank accounts unless we get Continuing Ed classes in privacy, opt-outs and personal finance?
We may have reached the point where we need a Usability Amendment. One that establishes the right to comprehensibility and operability in the rules and mechanisms that keep our lives and property from overexposure.
The alternative is to hope that all of us are rugged enough to learn the 21st century equivalent of frontier survival, hunting through user agreements, building our own firewalls, and homeschooling ourselves on nutrition and history.