Don’t forget: April is Distracted Driving Awareness Month.
Contemplative computing may sound like an oxymoron, but it's really quite simple. It's about how to use information technologies and social media so they're not endlessly distracting and demanding, but instead help us be more mindful, focused and creative.
My book on contemplative computing, The Distraction Addiction, was published by Little, Brown and Co. in 2013, and is available in bookstores and online. This 2011 talk is a good introduction to the project and its big ideas.
Two contrasting pieces in the news recently. First, an Atlantic piece about a recent CityLab meeting:
Does mobile technology give people an excuse to isolate themselves, or is it an unprecedented tool for bringing people together?
Unsurprisingly, tech enthusiasts see new apps and mobile devices as a great way of building communities.... Specifically, location matters because robust digital networks can help people build better “real life” connections. The more smoothly people can transition back and forth between their communities online and their communities in real life, the argument goes, the less lonely everyone will be.
Then, The Verge had a piece about how someone was shot on a Muni train in September. Apparently there were no witnesses because everyone in the car was looking so intently at their smartphones.
Passengers... were so focused on their smartphones that they didn't notice a man drawing and pointing his gun until he shot university student Justin Valdez, District Attorney George Gascón says.... Security footage from September 23rd captured "dozens" of passengers apparently ignoring a man who drew a .45-caliber pistol several times, pointed it across the aisle, and eventually shot Valdez as he stepped off the train. "These weren't concealed movements — the gun is very clear," Gascón told SFGate. "These people are in very close proximity with him, and nobody sees this. They're just so engrossed, texting and reading and whatnot. They're completely oblivious of their surroundings."
Smartphones are the targets in something like 50% of all thefts in San Francisco now.
So not only can they distract you in a way that makes you a softer target for thieves, they can also distract you from other, even more serious crimes.
How long before there's an incident and all the potential witnesses claim to have seen nothing because they were on their cellphones? It could be the new "I was in the bathroom" excuse.
Yesterday Little Brown released the third and last of the propaganda posters.
Here are the other two:
Interesting aside: if the retweets of the posters are a reliable indicator, the distracted driving poster was far more popular with women, while the knowledge workers poster was more a hit with men.
On Thursday, two new distracted driving messages came out.
First, Little Brown released the second of its "propaganda posters" inspired by The Distraction Addiction, and reminding people of the dangers of distracted driving:
Second, the great filmmaker Werner Herzog released a short but very powerful documentary about the impacts of driving and texting:
Turns out distraction looks like a factor in that horrible train crash in Spain. The Independent reports that
The driver of a train that derailed last week, killing 79 people, was on the phone and reading a document as he travelled at 95mph (153kph) before the crash, a court was told.
Francisco Jose Garzon de Amo was allegedly... answering a call from the state rail company, Renfe, and consulting a paper document at the time. The driver is charged with negligent homicide.
I know I go on about this, but it's really important.
I know I just wrote about the AAA study on cognitive load and distracted driving, but Liz Gannes on All Things D (which has a brilliant editor) has a piece on driving and distraction that illustrates our somewhat schizophrenic understanding of what distraction is, and how to deal with it, that's too good to ignore.
When I drive my car, I have to command myself not to glance over at my phone. Was that email notification important? Should I let someone know that I’m running late? Has anybody posted anything cool to Instagram? Somehow, driving and listening to the radio seems like not enough to do anymore.
Obviously, I realize the dangers of distracted driving, and I know better. But I think that our tech tools could and should do a better job of helping us be safe.
I'll grant that distracted driving-- or multitasking while driving-- is pervasive: I was struck during our last trip to Disneyland how many people were texting on Autopia.
Anyway, the article touches briefly on a couple tools that put your smartphone in airplane more or disable other functionalities when you're in your car, but most of the time it assumes that tools that "do a better job of helping us be safe" need to take over the wheel, not help us be more focused when we drive.
More broadly, the article's overarching narrative about technology, attention and driving runs like this:
So we hear about programs that read your email to you, that "provide voice versions of news articles" (what in the olden days we used to call "the radio"), or help you interact via voice with your phone (though the AAA study suggests that these are actually more distracting than holding a phone and making a call).
Of course, you'll need these only until we automate the driving process enough to allow you to completely ignore the road and just get on with Facebook.
While I understand the desire to ease the pain of driving, and make the roads safer for cyclists (my wife was hit by a truck a couple weeks ago while on her bike; we consider ourselves lucky that she only broke her elbow and wrist), I have to question the premises on three grounds.
First, isn't it strange that when we are behind the wheel, we should treat driving as a distraction? Driving is a lot more dangerous and complicated an activity than we like to admit, and it really deserves our full attention; and driving well-- learning to feel the road through the wheels, to anticipate and respond to problems, to become one with the machine-- can be a real pleasure.
Using technologies to support "better" multitasking in the car on the grounds that most of us are already doing it is like Cosmopolitan arguing that because a quarter of people admit to answering their cellphones during sex, those people should wear Bluetooth headsets to bed. Or that we need smartphones equipped with sporks so we can more easily eat and text.
Second, automated driving systems are likely to make cars safer 99% of the time, but will also make for bigger, deadlier accidents. I've pointed to articles on the problems that pilots face when flying planes that are highly automated, and which largely fly on autopilot, and I don't see any reason to think that the dynamic will be different on the road rather than the sky. As I explain in my book,
A 2011 report by the International Air Transport Association, issued in the wake of the 2009 crash of an Air France Airbus off the coast of Brazil, warned that airplanes were becoming so sophisticated that pilots didn’t have the chance to develop and maintain advanced flying skills. They’re trained to leave planes on autopilot for most of a flight, so they have fewer hours’ experience flying manually and therefore have a harder time handling emergencies, especially when the emergencies are caused by problems with the autopilot or instruments.
In other words, safety systems that work great when things are normal erode pilots' capacity to deal with problems, which can turn dangerous but manageable situations into catastrophes (as seems to have happened with AF 447). Now, imagine this problem multiplied a millionfold, with people with far less training than commercial airline pilots, in environments with many many more obstacles, impediments, and things that can go wrong.
It's bad enough that pilots struggle to understand what's going on when their planes stall; if they were also distracted by live-tweeting, it would be really terrible.
Finally, the assumption that distraction is unavoidable, and that you can't muster the will to put the phone away-- even with the help of tools that automatically put your phone in airplane mode-- is just wrong, wrong, wrong. Distraction is not inevitable, inescapable, and overwhelming: we can all learn, through a combination of discipline and defaults and practice, to refocus, to use our attention rather than have it be torn away from us (and these days, repacked and resold in the "attention economy"). At least, we have that ability until the self-driving car with built-in Foursquare and self-tweeting functionality comes on the market.
*Well, the NTSB, AAA, and anyone who's lost a friend or loved one to a distracted driver might advocate switching off. But you know, whatever.
Think that Siri or a handsfree set makes it safe for you to send texts and do email in the car? (While the car is moving, not a traffic lights. From what I can tell, in Silicon Valley waiting until you get to a traffic light to check your email gets you a good driver discount with your insurance company.) Well, think again.
The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety released a new report arguing that the cognitive load on using handsfree sets and interacting through voice recognition systems really isn't much lower than using a cellphone the old-fashioned way. Both of them are distractions. As the AAA Foundation explains,
Using cutting-edge methods for measuring brain activity and assessing indicators of driving performance, this research examines the mind of the driver, and highlights the mental distractions caused by a variety of tasks that may be performed behind the wheel.
By creating a first-of-its-kind rating scale of driver distractions, this study shows that certain activities – such as talking on a hands-free cell phone or interacting with a speech-to-text email system – place a high cognitive burden on drivers, thereby reducing the available mental resources that can be dedicated to driving. By demonstrating that mentally-distracted drivers miss visual cues, have slower reaction times, and even exhibit a sort of tunnel vision, this study provides some of the strongest evidence yet that “hands-free” doesn’t mean risk free.
The report (.pdf) is also available, and goes into a lot more detail:
The goal of the current research was to establish a systematic framework for measuring and understanding cognitive distraction in the vehicle. In this report, we describe three experiments designed to systematically measure cognitive distraction.
The first experiment served as a control in which participants performed eight different tasks without the concurrent operation of a motor vehicle. In the second experiment, participants performed the same eight tasks while operating a highfidelity driving simulator. In the third experiment, participants performed the eight tasks while driving an instrumented vehicle in a residential section of a city.
In each experiment, the tasks involved 1) a baseline single-task condition (i.e., no concurrent secondary task), 2) concurrent listening to a radio, 3) concurrent listening to a book on tape, 4) concurrent conversation with a passenger seated next to the participant, 5) concurrent conversation on a hand-held cell phone, 6) concurrent conversation on a hands-free cell phone, 7) concurrent interaction with a speech-to-text interfaced e-mail system, and 8) concurrent performance with an auditory version of the Operation Span (OSPAN) task. Each task allows the driver to keep his or her eyes on the road and, with the exception of the hand-held cell phone condition, hands on the steering wheel, so any impairment to driving must stem from cognitive sources associated with the diversion of attention from the task of operating the motor vehicle.
The cognitive distraction level of each task was measured on a scale from 1 to 5. Listening to the radio and audiobooks (tasks 2 and 3) were the least distracting (scoring 1.21 and 1.75, respectively). Having a conversation, whether in person, holding a cellphone, or using a headset (tasks 4-6), scored between 2.27 and 2.45; and tasks 7 and 8 scored above 3.
Personally, I think it won't be too long before someone (Volvo? Hyundai, in an effort to get a jump on the next big thing) offers the opposite of in-car connectivity. For decades, Volvo has been making drivers safer from the dangers lurking outside the car; now, they're going to make them safer from the distractions awaiting them inside the car, and inside the driver's own mind. Rather than promising to make it marginally safer for you to get your email while figuring out whether given the traffic you want to take 85 to 17 or risk staying on 101, these cars would make you super safe by protecting you from all those distractions. You might have an app on your smartphone that put it in airplane mode when it sensed you moving, but kept the GPS and audio functionality on; or there might be a holder for the phone that doubles as a Faraday cage.
But given that up distraction is a factor in 25% of auto accidents that are bad enough to involve police reports, and is a factor in more than 75% of all accidents or near accidents, it's only a matter of time before someone makes a virtue of out disconnection in the car. And it can't come too soon.
I'll be on City Lights radio tonight at 7 pm, talking about digital distraction with Neema Moraveji and Stephanie Brown.
City Visions Radio presents: Texting and Tranquility: Finding mental calm in a sea of technology and distraction
Airs live on Monday April 15, 7:00 pm, KALW 91.7FM San Francisco
Call-in number: (415) 841-4134
According to an online survey conducted in 2010, over half of American respondents reported feeling “addicted” to the Internet, with an even higher percentage for young people. When the Pew Center Research Center polled smartphone users, they found that most people check their email every single time they receive a new message, and many recheck their devices up to 40 times an hour. Almost half of those polled also reported sleeping with their phones next to the pillow and also experienced “phantom rings,” where they reflectively check for new email or texts even when their phones make no sound.
Here in the Bay Area, we are especially wired to technology, with start-up companies and entrepreneurs launching new apps, products and programs on what feels like a daily basis. Yet many of us struggle to manage the demands of technology with the need to be mentally present, connect with family and make thoughtful decisions.
Why is it so hard to put down our iphones and unplug our digital devices? What does technology do to the brain that makes it so addictive? How can people balance the urge to be online with the need for mental calm? And what is the impact of our ever-connected lives on relationships, work and decision-making?
It should be fun, as I know Neema and his work, and have heard of Stephanie Brown's addiction clinic. Plus it'll be good to hear what questions and concerns people share.
04/15/2013 at 07:07 AM in Attention / Distraction, Conferences / Talks, Contemplative practices, Digital Sabbath and other responses, Drivers / Textestrians, Email, Mobile / personal / wearable devices, Neuroscience / Psychology, Reviews / Interviews / Press, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)
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Apparently there people who text while flying-- but it's worth noting the details in this story as well.
Federal safety officials on Tuesday blamed [helicopter pilot james] Freudenberg's crash [August 2011] in Mosby, Missouri, on fatigue, training, and, distracted texting.
To the amazement of safety officials, Freudenberg evidently sent several text messages with one hand while flying the helicopter with the other.
But those text messages in the air -- which ended 19 minutes before the crash -- turned out to be less consequential than text messages he sent and received while on the ground.
Investigators believe Freudenberg engaged in an extensive text conversation with a colleague about dinner plans while he was conducting mandatory pre-flight checks of his helicopter.
Because of those distractions, Freudenberg missed two opportunities to detect that his helicopter did not have sufficient fuel for his mission, investigators said.
When Freudenberg finally noticed his fuel was low, he was half-way through the first leg of his flight.
He arrived at the hospital, picked up the patient, and looked for an alternate, closer destination to refuel. But his 13-minute stop was again disrupted by a private text conversation, and he took off after miscalculating that he could reach his destination.
The LifeNet helicopter ran out of fuel a mile short of the destination -- within sight of the Midwest National Air Center.
The copter crashed into a pasture in mere seconds, killing Freudenberg, the patient he was transporting, and two medical personnel.
Cellphone use has made people forget how to walk in straight lines, walk more slowly, and of course become threats to public safety while driving. Last week, several people (including me) scratched their heads when Sergey Brin argued that smartphones were "emasculating."
Well, the joke was on us. Cue the new study!
A quarter of men admit to sitting down on the lavatory to urinate so they can have both hands free to use their mobile phones, a survey has claimed….
Three quarters of people of both sexes polled said they used their phone while on the lavatory, and half said they took their handset with them when they had a bath.
The survey found that 59 per cent of people admit to texting while on the lavatory and 45 per cent to sending emails.
Almost a third (31 per cent) admitted they had taken a mobile phone call and nearly a quarter (24 per cent) said they had made a call while on the lavatory, according to the poll by Sony and O2.
Granted it's a survey of 2,000 people in Britain, so my American readers can think snarky things about the masculinity baseline of the surveyed population, but still.
I also loved this little bit:
When asked why they use their phones in the bathroom, most said it was due to not having anything better to do.
During a panel I moderated with well-known blogger and tech expert Robert Scoble, he said there was no alternative to constant, ubiquitous engagement and held up a spare battery he carried for his smartphone, so he'd never run out of juice. No time to respond to tweets? Do it while you're walking down the hallway, he said. Plenty of people agree with him.
The dude practices what he preaches, I have to give him that. This is a picture I happened to take of him a few years ago, as he was walking to the Apple Store in downtown Palo Alto, recording a review of the new iPhone with his Nokia N95:
Nonetheless, I have to take issue with the idea that there is "no alternative." Free will, dude. And watch the car.
For those of you who don't like to get away when you're getting away:
It is the gadget that every workaholic will be clamouring for – a pair of ski goggles that let you read your emails while on the slopes.
The £500 Oakley Airwave has a fighter pilot-style screen on the inside of the lens, displaying a skier’s speed, location, altitude and distance travelled as they zoom down the slopes.
The goggles can also connect to an iPhone or Android phone or tablet, transmitting incoming calls to an earpiece.
Anyone who leads a life in which a device like this actually makes sense needs to 1) stay away from the slopes so you don't hurt other people, and 2) think about your life.
On a more serious note, this is an expensive and slightly extreme example of a problematic assumption: that everything is made better when you add connectivity. Driving somewhere? Have your GPS unit Tweet your location! Is tonight's sushi dinner delicious? Say it on Facebook!
A recent study by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute found that
people who were texting while driving were 23 times more likely to crash or nearly crash than non-distracted drivers. They also found that drivers who were texting spent 4.6 out of every 6 seconds staring at something other than the road, meaning that if they were traveling at 55 mph, they could travel the length of a football field without looking at the street.
C. J. Chivers, author of a great book about the AK-47, is in Syria, and got this picture:
Machine gun in right hand. Cell phone in left. On duty on the gun-truck’s machine gun, at 80 miles an hour into Aleppo, checking messages along the way.
Even as the war in Syria rages, large areas of the countryside have cellular phone coverage, and the fighters are constantly checking their phones. When they stop, many of them immediately look for ways to recharge their phone batteries. And, often as they move and enter an area with a strong signal, they commence texting back and forth.
"I need to quit texting, because I could die in a car accident," Texas college student Chance Bothe says he texted a friend just before distractedly driving his truck off a cliff six months ago.
As an April Fool's Day joke with a serious message, Philadelphia officials taped off an "e-lane" for distracted pedestrians on a sidewalk outside downtown office buildings.
Some didn't get that it was a joke.
"The sad part is we had people who, once they realized we were going to take the e-lane away, got mad because they thought it was really helpful to not have people get in their way while they were walking and texting," [deputy mayor Rina] Cutler said.
She added, "One of the messages will certainly be 'pick your head up'-- I want to say 'nitwit,' but I probably shouldn't call them names."
Though given that last year, a textestrian* fell off a subway platform in Philadelphia, maybe that wouldn't be a bad idea. However, this does appear to be turning into A Thing:
A University of Maryland study found 116 cases over six years in which pedestrians were killed or seriously injured while wearing headphones. In two-thirds of the cases the victims were men under age 30. Half the cases involved trains. In a third of the incidents, a warning horn was sounded just before the accident….
About 1,152 people were treated in hospital emergency rooms in the U.S. last year for injuries suffered while walking and using a cellphone or some other electronic device, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which receives annual data from 100 emergency rooms and extrapolates the information into a national estimate. But that's likely an underestimate because patients may not mention they were using a cellphone or other device at the time at the time they were injured, or the doctor or nurse may neglect to include the information in their report, said Tom Schroeder, director of the commission's data systems.
The cases include a 24-year-old woman who walked into a telephone pole while texting; a 28-year-old man who was walking along a road when he fell into a ditch while talking on a cellphone; a 12-year-old boy who was looking at a video game when he was clipped by a pickup truck as he crossed the street; and a 53-year-old woman who fell off a curb while texting and lacerated her face.
*I officially propose "textestrians" as the term for texting pedestrians. You're welcome.
In case you felt that Mitsubishi's idea of wraparound multimodal interfaces in cars wasn't going to be distracting enough, the Fiat 500L just announced its own entry in the "in-dash distractions" Olympics:
How often have you been on a long drive and wished that you had a hot shot of espresso to wake you up? Aside from the fact that spilling scalding coffee is a safety hazard, an extra appliance is a distraction, and drinking espresso will make you have to pee way more frequently, the concept of an in-car espresso maker sounds pretty good.
Fiat's 500L will be "the first standard-production car in the world to offer a true espresso coffee machine." The future is here, and it's highly caffeinated.
Awesome. For the record, this is how coffee should be enjoyed.
coffee in budapest, via flickr
Mitsubishi recently showed off a new concept car interior featuring wraparound displays, a yoke rather than a steering wheel, and buttons that appear or disappear depending on use context.
This last is getting some well-deserved heat. As one commenter summarized (accurately),
Variable controls and data are an insanely bad idea for a car. Insanely bad.
When driving, you want 100% consistency in your inputs and outputs. You want the same control to do the same thing every time. You want to look in the same place for the same data every time. This is because you don't have time to analyze in those moments when you MUST do something by reflex. Such moments occur all time time when driving.
As if we don't have enough distractions when driving, we need to design distractions INTO the driving experience.
I write about people, technology, and the worlds they make.
My book on contemplative computing, The Distraction Addiction, was published by Little, Brown and Company in 2013. (It's been translated into Dutch (as Verslaafd aan afleiding) and Spanish; Russian, Chinese and Korean translations are in the works.)
The Distraction Addiction
My latest book, and the first book from the contemplative computing project. The Distraction Addiction is published by Little, Brown and Co.. It's been widely reviewed and garnered lots of good press. You can find your own copy at your local bookstore, or order it through Barnes & Noble, Amazon (check B&N first, as it's usually cheaper there), or IndieBound.
The Spanish edition
The Dutch edition
Empire and the Sun
My first book, Empire and the Sun: Victorian Solar Eclipse Expeditions, was published with Stanford University Press in 2002 (order via Amazon).
PUBLISHED IN 2012
PUBLISHED IN 2011
PUBLISHED IN 2010
PUBLISHED IN 2009