A quest to tame technology-driven interruptions and distractions in my daily life.

I’ve got a nagging suspicion that how we behave behind the wheel is a pretty good indication of how we act otherwise. Sealed away from other people—excluding stink-eye—we are quasi anonymous and tend to let our true nature come out. There are the benevolent ways like singing broadway tunes at the top of our lungs or waving at dogs… but then there are the uglier sides of ourselves.

January 1, Austin, Texas outlawed holding devices while we drive. I know, ’bout time, right?! We’ll see how the enforcement of that unfolds, but I am most fascinated by the reactions I read about in the paper and on social media. They generally go like “it is totally unreasonable that I drive from A to B without checking my phone! I need to be in touch!!”

What hits me about this idea is both its prevalence and how illogical it is… when you really break it down. As I often joke, unless you are an organ courier or a high-stakes stock broker, when do you NEED to get any call—much less a text? Think about it. Let’s consider a worst case scenario: driving to work and stuck in traffic, you get a text that your kid is really sick at school and you need to come as soon as possible. Or your sibling was gravely injured in an accident and the in-laws need your advice. Or the cops are at your house.

Wouldn’t these people call if they needed action or an answer right then? Or if they decided to text, isn’t it reasonable that you could just react/respond when you got to where you are going? I have a child with type one diabetes (a condition which has a risk of severe low-blood sugars leading to coma or death) and I don’t feel compelled to check every text immediately. Again, if it is urgent or life/death, I know I’ll get a call.

One of the initial and recurring realizations of cutting out a lot of the alerts and constant distractions of my phone is that most of those notices are really not that important. It doesn’t matter that I was just mentioned on Twitter or that a celebrity just died or that a client is upset or that our bank balance is low. I mean, some of those things matter later, but they are not truly time-sensitive. We tell ourselves (and each other) that they require swift action, but I have found that urgent is as urgent does. The world does not stop if we don’t answer a text. It does, however, slow down.

What I mean by that is the boomerang effect of interacting on messaging or social media channels drops off when I am not pushing the food pellet lever. This goes back to my theory about car habits and our true selves. If we get behind the wheel and are self-absorbed to the point of compromised safety for ourselves and others (oh, I HAVE to reply to this), then we need to take a long, hard at our priorities.
And by we I also mean me. I won’t lie… when the law went into effect, I thought to myself, “now it’s time to truly stop”. Mostly I have been disciplined about not using my phone while driving, but I had been taking calls in our older car without a speakerphone set-up and occasionally would start or finish a text while driving. I know.

For me, this self-assessment also goes beyond the phone. Am I driving in a way that is safe and is a good example for my son? Am I letting people merge in moments after I am furious that someone wouldn’t let me in? Aside: one has to wonder if early merging and late merging is a predictor of other behavior. Overall, what much of our digital bad habits point to is our low resistance to new social norms that make us increasingly selfish. Something about technology has a way of out-sizing its own importance. This is apparent in the “I’m on the phone!” attitude when people are, in fact, driving or in line someplace. Being on the phone is a secondary or tertiary luxury, not an inalienable right. The optimist in me believes people want to be a part of a civil and compassionate society. Then the pragmatist in me reminds the optimist to look around.

So, while this new hands-free law slowly becomes the new world order in my town, I am wondering about the logistics of a citizen’s arrest. But I am also wonder about where this road is taking us. In the rear-view mirror is an old-fashioned sense of ‘a time and place for such behavior’ and up ahead is probably more legislating people into good sense decisions. In the end, each of us has to decide how we want the world to become and if risking people’s lives is worth just one… more… Tweet.

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