Your Car Horn is an Archetype of Asocial Design

It doesn’t matter how well something “works” if it doesn’t give a damn about society

Photo: Daniel R. Blume on Flickr (CC)

I despise automobile horns. They pollute our urban soundscape; they frazzle our collective nerves; and they play a central role in escalating conflicts on the road. If they were actually designed to do all of this, I’d have more appreciation for them. But these devices, which are in theory intended to warn others of danger, are (in the US at least) most commonly used to broadcast impatience and aggression.

The automobile horn has become for me an archetype of asocial design. What I mean by “asocial design” is products, services, or any other artifacts that have been created with utter lack of regard for their broader impacts and implications in society. Yes, car horns are really good at making loud noise. Horn designers totally nailed that. The problem is, that’s all they seem to have been thinking about.

Car horns, like all asocial design, are not deliberately antisocial. They’re just socially oblivious.

So, when I woke up this morning to a satanic symphony of horns coming from an intersection near my home, I spent part of the day imagining ways to make car horns and their users better members of society.

Over the course of my morning coffee, I considered four possible solutions. Each had its own merits, but I ended up with a clear favorite.

My first idea was to make honking illegal in my neighborhood. This seemed like a good solution, but I quickly realized that it’s not very fair or consistent. Why my neighborhood and not all others? A bigger problem is that honking is sometimes actually necessary when true danger arises, and that can happen on any road in any neighborhood. A ban on using the horn kind of negates the one valid reason for honking.

My second idea was to make honking inherently costly for honkers. What if, for example, we designed every car horn to be powered by compressed air canisters that needed to be refilled after nine or ten honks? It would perhaps reduce honking, but it’s full of flaws. One shortcoming is that it’s regressive — people with less wealth would feel the cost of using their horn more painfully. And if people couldn’t afford to (or chose not to) replenish their horns they’d be worthless in a true emergency. So, that kinda messes up the whole purpose of having a horn.

My third idea was to try to change the way we all think about car horns. Here, I imagined something comparable to anti-smoking and anti-littering campaigns, directed evenly at all drivers everywhere. It could include elements like changing our terminology from “horns” to “emergency alerts” to better imply their socially appropriate use. But as I sipped my second cup of coffee, I decided that the shift in attitude could take a long time. And, even then, this wouldn’t necessarily discourage truly avid honkers from doing what they love to do.

That’s when I arrived at my fourth and final idea: DESIGN HORNS TO HONK INSIDE THE CAR AS LOUDLY AS THEY HONK ON THE OUTSIDE. OK, maybe coffee makes me vindictive. But midway through my second cup, it struck me that this inside-outside design is the best thing we could do to socialize car horns.

Listening to the honkers a few blocks from my house, I relished the idea of this new user experience and imagined it happening inside each of their cars.

Reforming Asocial Design

I know, I know. The idea of horns honking inside people’s cars is a fantasy — it probably could never happen. Still, the idea points to a pretty good starter list of prescriptions for reforming not just car horns but asocial design in general.

  • The stuff we design should intrinsically help to define its social purpose (i.e. how we do, and do not, want it to be used in the real world). Rather than relying exclusively on external rules or other corrections to define something’s intended role in society, a sense of social purpose should be built into the form and function of the thing itself. In the case of the inside-outside car horn, its intrinsic design would reinforce the idea that it’s not meant for routine, frivolous use.
  • The stuff we design should communicate its social purpose directly, immediately, and consistently to users. Lags and inconsistencies in signalling something’s social purpose muddy the message. In the case of the inside-outside car horn, the feedback mechanism would be immediate and leave no room for uncertainty — the message would be the same every time a user pushed the button.
  • The stuff we design should strive to be egalitarian. Design that affects us all should aim for fairness in the distribution of experiences and feedback. If the inside-outside car horn were an industry standard in every car, the in-car experience of honking would be the same whether the user drives a BMW, a Ford Fiesta, or a taxi.
  • The stuff we design should promote empathy for others affected by its use. Users should not be isolated from the impact of their behavior on other people. In the case of the inside-outside car horn, users would experience their honking as fully as people outside of the car.

Central to each of these prescriptions is the idea that efforts to socialize the stuff we create should start with the core artifact in question rather than the world around it. Sure, we can make laws about how people use things, or try to change the way they think about them — these approaches can certainly play a part in solving social challenges, but they are external to the real design problem. And when we focus on external patches, we’re simply giving a pass to asocial design and trying to socialize it from the outside in.

Good, socially responsible design starts with the possibility of making the things we create accountable to society, rather than vice versa.

Asocial design is all around us. There is more of it being produced every day. The thing is, it’s not always easy to notice because it’s often found in products and services that are so ubiquitous, standardized, or familiar that we forget to question them and demand that they be socially accountable.

So let’s start noticing asocial design.

And let’s start expecting better behavior not only from honkers, but also from horns.

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