They’re all trying to kill me, even when they’re not

It’s a sunny Friday afternoon in April and I’m pootling down a residential street in the town next to mine on my way home from work…

There is a kid, maybe nine or ten years old with a basketball in his hand, standing on the grass on that corner to the left.  A white, ludicrous-sized SUV (maybe a Tahoe?) is in the lane approaching me.  I’m doing about 40km/hr towards this seemingly innocuous scene when the kid (who is looking the other way and hasn’t seen me at all) decides to throw the basketball out in the street right in front of the SUV just to see what it’ll do.  You could see him standing there doing the math before he chucked the ball.

The Tahoe driver has that vacant I’m-in-a-giant-box-and-don’t-need-to-pay-attention look you see in a lot of SUV drivers.  Generally, the larger the box they’re in, the less they seem to care what happens outside it.  He suddenly keys in that a basketball is going to hit his precious status symbol, so he swerves out of his lane and right at me, except I’m not there.

A couple of things inform my ESP on the road.  Firstly, Conestoga’s Motorcycle Training courses did a great job of getting me to threat assess and prioritize what’s going on around me.  For less than the price of a decent helmet you get experts with decades of experience getting you started.  Motorcycle training courses should be mandatory for anyone wanting to ride on the road.  They give you the best chance to survive the often ridiculous circumstances you find yourself in.

The second piece is something that Matt Crawford mentions in one of his books.  He has a mantra he chants when things get dodgy, and I’ve found that it helps remind you to never, ever depend on the skills or even basic competence of the people driving around you.  When things get sticky Matt mutters in his helmet, “they’re all trying to kill me, they’re all trying to kill me.”  It’s the kind of gallows humour that most motorcyclists would find funny, but it’s also sadly true.

A few weeks ago a kid made a mistake in school but it was excused as an accident by one teacher because the kid wasn’t intentionally trying to hurt anyone.  Another teacher pointed out (rightly I think) that not properly preparing for a task, or doing it half-assed isn’t an accident, it’s incompetence, and that person’s intentions are irrelevant, they are at fault.  The word accident removes blame and makes everyone feel better, it covers all manner of indifference.  No where is this more true than on a motorcycle.  Any experienced motorcyclist will tell you that it doesn’t matter if you have right of way when you pull out and get clobbered, or whether the distracted driver that side swiped you while texting shouldn’t have been.  You’ll loose any physical altercation you have with a car (or a 3 ton Tahoe).  It’s on you, the rider, to avoid these idiots.

On a quiet back street in Fergus, Ontario I could very well have ignored the abject stupidity unfolding in front of me or spent my energy assigning blame, but I didn’t.  The child’s profound ignorance and vicious curiosity (great job with that one parents) along with the Tahoe driver’s distracted, indifferent approach to operating a six thousand pound vehicle could have very well ended me (80km/hr closing speeds between two vehicles won’t end well for a motorcyclist).  As it was, I’d pulled over to the curb and was stationary as the Tahoe went by in my lane, looking surprised and freaked out that his precious truck almost got hit by a basketball.

I could have gesticulated, but I just stood there at the curb shaking my head as the freaked out driver rolled past.  You’re not going to convince someone like that to be better than what they are.  The kid ran out into the street (he still hadn’t looked my way), and grabbed his basketball.  I could have talked to him, or eventually his parents, but there’d be little point to that either.  Blame is a waste of time.

Even when they aren’t trying, they’re all still trying to kill you, keep your head up.

Notifications Off

While away in the States recently I turned off notifications in the various apps on my phone to save on data, and then turned off notifications entirely when I got home, I found I was enjoying the silence.

In that silence I started thinking about operant conditioning and just how wired to our personal devices we’ve become.  Digital distraction is a cultural phenomenon with people wringing their hands over rising vehicle accident rates and people falling into open manhole covers.  We tend to forget that looking at a screen when we should be doing something else is a choice.  We’d rather play the victim than accept that kind of responsibility.

The dreaded notification is at the core of this idea of being victimized by digital distraction.  There is a simple fix though: turn them off.  Your social media is all still waiting there for you, the only thing you’re missing is immediacy, but that urge to respond quickly points to a deluded sense of self importance; despite what you think, most people aren’t pouring over their social media waiting for you to post something.

I didn’t get data while I was away, I figured I’d get by with wifi when I could find it.  This quieted the noise even more, making me wonder why I’d want a device constantly demanding my attention in the first place.  

The lack of data made me very conscious of the urge to post as events are happening.  You see this all the time at sports events.  A game winning goal gets scored and instead of cheering people are taking bad photos and spending time putting them online.  It happens in concerts too.  People spend bucket loads of money and time getting to these events only to view them through a smartphone screen, or ignore it entirely while they create social media posts.

You get this urge when you’re in the middle of something fantastic to want to share it immediately like a live news broadcast, but your social media audience isn’t watching a show, they come and go.  Audiences on social media aren’t like audiences on broadcast media, they are never all in the same place at the same time.  That sense of urgency is you misunderstanding how social media is different from broadcast media.  Sure, take a picture, but if you don’t post it in the next 30 seconds your ratings aren’t going to drop.  Your production team isn’t going to be out of a job.

Social media is inherently addictive.  It is designed to provide an
unconditioned stimulus response.  It doesn’t take long to tie the
notification to that initial, unconditioned response.

Our approach to smartphone use needs to evolve.  Having a general purpose, networked computer in your pocket shouldn’t mean you’re on the social media hook 24/7.  A good first step is to try and view your social media use from a more accurate perspective, don’t get sucked into a false sense of immediacy with it.  Enjoy being where you are, maybe snap a picture to share later when you’ve got a quiet moment.  Whatever you do don’t miss what you’re doing because you’re viewing it through a smartphone screen, or ignoring it while you’re making social media updates about it.  In spite of what you might think, you’re not a media personality, even if you do have 1000 friends on Facebook.

A good first step is to turn off notifications.  It’ll all still be there waiting for you, but you won’t be a Pavlovian experiment in distraction when you interact with it.  This will probably upset mobile service providers who are making a mint from over-priced travel packages designed to keep you ‘connected’.  You’ll probably also find your interactions take on a more nuanced and thoughtful appearance; something else it would be nice to see more of on social media.