Maybe the folks behind Project Hieroglyph are right, maybe all those science fiction dystopias are giving us bad ideas about how to use (or misuse) technology, thus creating self-fulfilling prophecies. When I first heard this next story, all I thought was that it sounded like it was straight out of dystopian science fiction—Repo Man, to be specific.
We’ve all heard and/or experienced horror stories, about the financial ruin people with loans and mortgages endure, especially over the past few years. Countless individuals have been forced to leave their homes when the terms of their mortgages changed, often unpredictably and unfairly. A lot of those people had subprime loans—loans given to people with credit scores that aren’t so good. Of course, these people are generally higher-risk when it comes to loans, which is exactly the problem—it’s as though banks want them to default (I’m being generous here—I think a lot of what’s happened in the past decade is nothing short of criminal). Subprime loans don’t just affect the housing market, they also apply to automobiles. According to the New York Times, 25% of people who received car loans last year have subprime credit, and just as with homeowners, many of them aren’t able to make their payments. In addition to insane interest rates, they too are at risk for losing what they took the loan to obtain. And thanks to technology, it’s a lot easier for the repo man to get these cars—especially when they won’t start.
Turns out, some lenders have something called a starter interrupt device installed in the vehicles purchased or leased by subprime borrowers. This functions as a tracker, allowing the lenders to monitor the whereabouts of the car, which enables them to gather data on how much the vehicle is used, where it’s going, where it’s parked, and where it is in any given moment. But it does more than spy on and track the borrower—if someone is late with a payment, or drives too far away, the lender can remotely disable the vehicle’s starter. The New York Times recently reported on a woman who needed to get her sick daughter to the hospital, but who was unable to start her car because she was three days late on her car payment. In order to start the vehicle, she would have to pay $389—something that this particular single mom couldn’t do on the day her daughter got sick.
This borrower happened to be at home, but lenders can shut off vehicles when they’re anywhere—a grocery store parking lot, a highway rest stop, a car wash—leaving people stranded. The Times reported that one lender shut off a borrower’s car while she was driving, “‘sending her careening across a three-lane Las Vegas highway.’” Excuse me, but what the fuck? I mean, if the lender can see where the car is in real-time, why in hell would it choose to shut the vehicle off in traffic? It’s dangerous, it’s insulting, and it’s just plain inhumane, not to mention irresponsible. What about giving the borrowers a little bit of warning, even 24 hours notice? People are so worried about missing payments that they’re willing to shock themselves.
These technologies should be regulated, but they’re just a symptom of a bigger problem. Technology often works that way, both in science fiction and the real world. Technology itself is amoral—it’s how people choose to use that technology that’s the problem.