To worry is to be. To be is to worry.

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By Joel Klebanoff

Driving Emotion

Victoria, the unstinting, indefatigable editor, frequently sends me links to news stories that she thinks might provide fodder for these columns. That's very kind of her, but I have a sneaking suspicion that her motivation is less generosity and more a nagging fear that if she doesn't feed me ideas she might find one week that she doesn't have any words to insert into this space, a space that should be lousy with words every week. She could be right about that. On the other hand, some people argue that I never have a problem with the "lousy" part. I discount those sentiments because they are expressed only by people who have chosen to read my articles, and what does that choice say about them? But I digress.

Whether munificence or trepidation is the driving force, I hope Victoria continues to send me news links. They're always appreciated, and they're often useful. For example, one of her recent emails included a link to a story in an online publication, TechnoRide, about a gadget called Drive-e-mocion.

The best simile for Drive-e-mocion is that it's like emoticons for your car. Allow me another digression while I put on the record the fact that I'm not a huge fan of emoticons. For one thing, I usually can't recognize the emotions that the sender intended, and I'm far too lazy to look them up in one of the (sometimes contradictory) lists of emoticon meanings that are floating around the Web. Oh, I know that the combination of a colon and a closing parenthesis is a happy face. (Needless to say, when I use the word "colon" in this context, I mean the punctuation mark, not the body part. Ramming a closing parenthesis up against a biological colon might call for a strong laxative or, worse, a colonoscopy. I recommend to all sane people that they never intentionally create a need for either of those things, particularly the latter. I would recommend the same thing to insane people, but what's the point? They wouldn't listen.)

Another thing that bugs me about emoticons is that some people may see them where they aren't intended. I've never tried to hide the fact that I'm a worrier. Knowing the current high level of sensitivity to political correctness, I fear that when I enclose a complete sentence in parentheses, as at the end of the preceding paragraph, people will misinterpret it as me making fun of one-eyed people. Let me assure you that I would never do such a thing.

In the same vein, I worry that if I try to emphasize the fact that I think something is morally or ethically wrong by putting "(BAD)" after the offensive notion, someone will think that I'm making fun of flat-headed people. I also fret that if I'm less emphatic and use only the lowercase "(bad)" to express my feelings, someone will think I'm ridiculing people who like to wear their baseball caps so low as to cover their eyes and nose. Again, nothing could be further from the truth.

Getting back to Drive-e-mocion, it has two components: a small display that you stick on the back window of your car and a remote control that you use to trigger the display. Drive-e-mocion's repertoire of emotions is much smaller than the keyboard-assembled emoticons that are popular on the 'net. It displays only one of two icons, a smiling face or a frowning face, or one of two phrases, "thank you" or "back off."

I think this range is far too limited. It provides only a slight improvement over the tactic of honking your horn to send a message, which is truly moronic. People honk their horns to signal to other drivers that their taillights or headlights are out, their tires are flat, they're driving ugly cars, the light turned green a nanosecond ago, they're not giving the honker his or her due respect, or any one of millions of other possible conditions. Sometimes, drivers also honk to send a message to a pedestrian, such as "My 2,000-pound car trumps your silly crosswalk every time, so don't even think about stepping off the curb until I've gone by" or "You're cute; do you want to go out?" In the entire history of horn-honking, has anyone ever been successful at getting a date that way?

One of the problems with horn-honking as a message medium is that if a number of people are within earshot, they will each have one of two reactions. Most people will ignore the honk, assuming it's intended for someone else. In contrast, neurotic people (I'm speaking from experience here) will be absolutely certain that the honk was intended for them. They will then begin a long, painful process of agonizing over how they may have offended the honker. Neurotics may not recover from this experience for months, by which time someone else will have honked in their presence, reigniting the anguish.

Of course, even if the correct person does recognize that he or she is the intended target of the honk, there is still no indication of what message the honker wanted to convey. A way of expanding on the honk's information content would certainly help, which is probably what the developers of Drive-e-mocion had in mind. I don't know if that's true, but I do know that Drive-e-mocion's response range is insufficient to serve that purpose.

It seems rather silly to me. What is the driver behind you going to infer when you flash the frowning face at him? The article suggested that you might use it to "invite a fellow motorist to share in your frustration" when you are stuck in traffic. It's nice in theory, but how is the fellow motorist supposed to know that that's your intent? Maybe you flashed the frowning face because you took a look in your rearview mirror and wanted to show your disapproval of the driver's wardrobe. Or maybe you were trying to say that you're a severe manic depressive who is about to commit suicide, so if the other driver wants to go anywhere, he or she might think about driving around you. I'm sorry, but a frowning face clearly doesn't impart nearly enough information.

If the developers want to improve the product, they're going to have to stick with text and forget the asinine pictures. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but the understanding of those words is too often in the eye of the beholder. For example, I want a way to say in very precise, quickly recognizable terms, "Nobody worth talking to could possibly want to speak to you, so get off your damn cell phone and pay attention to the freaking road, jerk." How can you put that into a picture that everyone will immediately understand? You can't. Maybe you could hire a mime to act it out in your backseat, but that seems a little excessive. And, if you do decide to follow that route, when you leave the car to do your shopping, please remember to open the window a crack if you leave the mime in your car on a hot day.

Obviously, there are many other concepts that you might want to relate to other drivers. What's more, you may not want to express those ideas to only the person behind you. Drivers to the left, to the right, and ahead of you are also often worthy of your wrath. The following are just a few such messages that come quickly to mind:

One problem that I foresee with this sort of device is that a gadget with the ability to display, in the direction of your choice, a satisfying number of messages would also need one that reads, "Yes, I know I'm driving erratically. You'll have to excuse me. It's unavoidable. I need to focus all of my attention on operating the remote control for this stupid device."

This article originally appeared as part of a weekly series of "Tech Tirades" in MC TNT from MC Press Online. The first year's worth of Tech Tirades does not appear here. Instead, you can find them in BYTE-ing Satire.

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