It’s the mid-90s, and I’m visiting a colleague’s house after work. He has an account with an Internet service provider; I don’t, and he has offered to show me what’s out there. So he fires up his computer, and we chat over the hiss, squawk, and chime of two modems flirting by phone. Once they’ve mated, they fall silent, and we turn our attention to the Netscape Navigator web browser. My pal has already discovered and bookmarked a number of sites on the World Wide Web that interest him. He shows me a few, and then I, impatient for a broader view, ask him if there’s a directory of some kind, like the ever-growing lists of computerized bulletin-board systems. How do you find a new place to go on the web, if you don’t know about it ahead of time? Simple, he says, taking us to a page with the excitable name “Yahoo!” at the top. The whole thing is simply a handcrafted list of other websites, organized into categories—just what we want.
There’s been a lot of talk lately about the recent discovery, by U.S. regulators, that Volkswagen’s diesel engine-management software cheats: it detects when a test is being conducted and limits emissions during the test to meet the standards, but it doesn’t do so the rest of the time. Why would VW do this? I haven’t read any details. Presumably the company reckoned that meeting the standards all the time would noticeably degrade the engine’s performance. This seems weird—the wrong way to think small. Diesel is a less expensive fuel than gasoline, and it gets more miles per gallon, but VW engineers would have to be employing a crude and clumsy means of emissions control for it to make an appreciable difference in fuel economy. Why don’t they just do their job right? (Which might also be said about another case recently in the news.)
Regardless, some people have gotten all upset over this. I saw a tweet yesterday reporting, I think, that the VW cheat put an extra million tons of pollutant into the air every year. That may sound like a lot, but if I remember correctly the scale of the numbers for automobile emissions, that would amount to very little. Likewise, someone else said we should reckon the number of people sickened or killed by this. Again, I’d think the difference would be tiny. If we want to talk about a single step that’d make an appreciable difference in combustion emissions—which is not really the way to go about warding off climate change—it’d probably do more good for the U.S. to raise its petrol tax to something like the level in Europe, or to institute some kind of overall carbon tax. For me, given what little I know so far, the reason to care about VW’s behavior is not the actual consequences but the principle of the thing: we’ve been deceived.
Addendum, 10:15 AM: My skepticism may be misplaced in this case. The Economist, in a brief report included in this morning’s Espresso, adopted a distinctly gloomy attitude; read it here.