You do not want to be an edge case

Hilary Mason made an important observation on Twitter a few days ago:

You do not want to be an edge case in this future we are building.

Systems run by algorithms can be more efficient on average, but make life harder on the edge cases, people who are exceptions to the system developers’ expectations.

Algorithms, whether encoded in software or in rigid bureaucratic processes, can unwittingly discriminate against minorities. The problem isn’t recognized minorities, such as racial minorities or the disabled, but unrecognized minorities, people who were overlooked.

For example, two twins were recently prevented from getting their drivers licenses because DMV software couldn’t tell their photos apart. Surely the people who wrote the software harbored no malice toward twins. They just didn’t anticipate that two drivers licence applicants could have indistinguishable photos.

I imagine most people reading this have had difficulty with software (or bureaucratic procedures) that didn’t anticipate something about them; everyone is an edge case in some context. Maybe you don’t have a middle name, but a form insists you cannot leave the middle name field blank. Maybe there are more letters in your name or more children in your family than a programmer anticipated. Maybe you choose not to use some technology that “everybody” uses. Maybe you happen to have a social security number that hashes to a value that causes a program to crash.

When software routinely fails, there obviously has to have a human override. But as software improves for most people, there’s less apparent need to make provision for the exceptional cases. So things could get harder for edge cases as they get better for more people.

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5 thoughts on “You do not want to be an edge case

  1. My adopted sisters have the same first names up to one letter. Many a times my mother has had to call insurance and tell them their merged file is really two people. Certainly an edge case.

  2. Oh, as a left-hander I know how it is to be discriminated very often because obviously many people believe that only right-handers exist in this world or only right-handers are their user base. This is particularly obvious with several recent triple-A game releases that don’t allow you to change certain keyboard input controls and the developer assumes that everyone will be alright with their default, right-hander mapping.

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