Electronic Design

Just Because We Can Do Something, Should We?

Designers have always pushed the leading edge in their quest to build the fastest, smallest, lowest-power, or lowest-cost product. This has led to many advances over the decades—the transistor, the integrated circuit, the microprocessor, and much more. These advances have translated into many products that entertain, measure, compute, communicate, and serve us in almost every aspect of daily living.

Many of these developments purport to make our daily life easier—from smart coffee makers and rice cookers to cell phones and pocket schedulers. I bet, however, that more than a few of us have considered throwing our cell phone or other electronic gizmo out the window, especially if it's hard to control or it's delivering poor performance.

As many of the systems get smarter, thanks to the use of more-capable embedded processors, systems can do more to make us comfortable by controlling thermostats, adjusting seats and amenities in cars, and even helping us navigate unfamiliar roads. But is there a point at which marketing (greed) takes the technology too far and instead of serving us, it entraps us?

Recently, one particular development in this area piqued my attention. The latest generation of vending machines is more intelligent. With an internal modem or IP address, this generation can communicate with a remote host system. Typically, a database update informs the host of used stock and requests replenishment of the various items that are running low or depleted. Or, the machine can request repairs to replace a failed component. These aspects ensure that machines will less frequently run out of goods or be out of service, and provides us with the instant purchase gratification many of us have become accustomed to.

But what irks me is the vending companies' desire to go to the next level and add external temperature sensors. So, a vending system dispensing sodas or juices now can raise the price of the product as the day gets warmer. Granted, every company has the right to make a profit on the goods it sells. But is there a point when the right to make a profit turns into what might amount to what we call a rip-off or price gouging?

I know that once technology is out in the open, it can't easily be constrained. And, there's probably a 100% chance that companies will come up with even more irksome applications of technology as time goes on. But just because we can build systems like the temperature-sensing vending system, should we? Or should we put our proverbial foot down and resist the temptation?

How much say or impact can we, as designers, have on what the final function or features of the product will be? Should we or can we take a more active role in determining where to apply technology during the product definition stage? Should we protest or reject options or features that perhaps go against our personal moralities?

What are your thoughts?

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