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Thursday, June 18, 2009

Am I A Conspiracy Theorist?

I don't think so, but sometimes I see things around me for which I have only one explanation that sounds like a conspiracy and I start wondering if there are any other plausible explanations that I am missing in my haste to cry wolf.

The latest thing that triggered these kinds of thoughts happened the other day when my car's Check Engine light came on. It started after I got an oil change at a Jiffy Lube and they attached a computer to the engine port and told me what the error code was. They then looked up the code in a dog-eared book of codes and verified that the code meant my catalytic converter had failed. If it had not happened right after the oil change, Jiffy Lube might not have been so cooperative and I might have had to pay an independent mechanic to tell me what the error code was. Luckily, my car was still under warranty, so I took it to the dealer and got the converter replaced. End of problem. But it got me thinking...

The car has a computer inside it that controls all kinds of things about the car. This computer keeps track of mundane things like whether the door is open or what gear you have placed the computer in, and drives corresponding displays in your dashboard to inform you of the state of the car. This is the computer that prevents you from manually locking the car when the door is open with the key in the ignition. It keeps track of the settings of the security system, montiors and runs the automatic temperature control in the car, makes sure your traction control and anti-lock brakes work like they are supposed to and on and one. This computer does a myriad other things that I am probably not even aware it does.

Obviously, this computer started out weak and puny. It was perhaps not even a computer to begin with. Just a set of switches wired together to drive simple decisions (such as turning the lights on when you open the door just because a switch is positioned in the door jamb and turns the circuit on or off depending on whether the door is closed or not). But I am pretty sure cars nowadays have a computer with a CPU that is at least as powerful as early model PC's or PDA's. At least as powerful. I have a suspicion they are a lot more powerful.

Now, given this, think about the situation: your car radio probably has no processor to speak of, but it has a display that tells you exactly what frequency you are tuned to. This computer in the car that is a few orders of magnitude more powerful, though, is smart enough to figure out whether there is a fault in one of thousands of onboard systems on the car, and store the fault code (in fact, multiple codes) in memory, but is too weak to do anything about it other than light up a lamp in your dashboard telling you there is a fault. How difficult could it be to have a digital display that actually told you what the fault code is (in fact, how difficult would it be to have a scrolling display that tells you in words what the fault is)?

But no, having such a display would mean that you can actually diagnose problems yourself without the help of your friendly neighborhood mechanic. You would not have to pay him $100 to read the fault code out and then look up what that code means in his special top-secret book of codes. Now, that would be very unfair to this hard-working mechanic and his ilk.

Am I really wrong in dreaming up a conspiracy in this case? Imagine that all your computer programs, instead of giving error messages, just lit up an "error pixel" on your screen (or a special yellow light on the computer's case). You would need special equipment (available only with your local electronics store) attached to your computer to read out what the error code is and then a special book to look up what that error code means. Perhaps, you forgot to save your word document before trying to exit: there goes the error pixel. Carry your computer to Best Buy, get the error diagnosed for $100, and hit Y or N to save the document (or not) and get rid of the error. You entered the wrong formula into a cell in Excel. Oops, your error pixel just came on. Perhaps you made a spelling error in your email: uh oh, there goes the error pixel again. You get the idea.

It is not just the unfairness of this that stinks. Car companies are obviously actively participating in a transfer of money from you to their dealers and other mechanics by crippling the car's systems and built-in capabilities deliberately. It is unfair because it is as if your butler (who you are paying a handsome salary to) decides that he will only speak klingon around you (even though he has an advanced degree in English), and you have to hire his brother (and pay him a handsome salary too) to translate the klingon to English. And he refuses to switch to English because it is financially better for him and his family to make you pay twice for the same service.

What stinks even more is the fact that car companies have such a low opinion about the general intelligence of their customers. We are intelligent enough to make sense of trip computers and multi-function buttons that do 85 different things depending on precisely how much pressure you apply to the button for how long, but we are too dumb to know what to do if we actually knew what the computer thought was wrong with the car rather than being told just that there was something wrong. Why should we show you what the error is? You are too stupid to deal with it anyways. We are being magnanimous enough to tell you that there is a problem, just leave the actual diagnosis and solution to higher minds than yours. Or maybe the car companies think that we are too stupid to know that it is possible for them to show us what the error is instead of just lighting a lamp in our dashboard. We really would give you that capability if we could, but our technology just isn't capable enough. That is the attitude that really riles me up.

It is obviously financially lucrative for the auto dealers and other mechanics to act as middlemen in this interpretation and translation game. So, there are vested interests in keeping the status quo. Things are not going to change unless people band together and demand an end to this. Then, perhaps, people can stop spending $100 to find out that they had not twisted the gas cap on beyond 3 clicks the last time they filled up gas in their cars.

Am I really a conspiracy theorist? I doubt it very much...

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