On Stealing Cheese, Technological Determinism and Distracted Driving

Most people don’t steal cheese. It’s expensive, bourgeois stuff. It’s easy to pocket. Still, it’s wrong and most people don’t do it.

But suppose you were walking out of the grocery store with your bags and you realize “Oh! Here is fancy cheese and I did not pay for it”. You might just keep walking. Or again, if you got home and realized it — probably you’re not going to turn around and return to pay for the cheese. In terms of the effects, all three scenarios are the same — the grocer loses out and you eat the cheese. Despite this, people would act differently in these different scenarios. If it is easier to do the wrong thing, more people will do it.

When I was working at Apple in 2008, I casually proposed an idea on a company list-serve. Our iPhones have Airplane Mode, I reasoned, why not add a Driving Mode for that far more dangerous and likely scenario? Perhaps we could automatically determine the user is in a car and then present a prominent button to silences notifications and potential distractions until they arrive. Make it easy to do the right thing.

The response from other engineers was telling. The feature idea was paternalistic. It wasn’t Apple’s place. It was annoying. Apple didn’t cause distracted driving and wasn’t responsible for doing anything about it. Almost no one tried to think of alternatives or ways to improve the feature.

To be fair to my Apple colleagues, distracted driving existed long before smartphones and there is no reasonable way to force people to stay focused while they drive. And there are many factors behind distracted driving — normalization of deviance, fear of missing out, exceptionalism. It is complicated.

But Apple could absolutely do something about this problem. Why don’t they? Perhaps one reason is an assumption that technology makers have no responsibility or control in how their technology is used. The ineluctable forward march of technology makes it seem like we cannot or should not resist its baser repercussions. But the fact remains: smartphones have made it far easier for us to do something that is dangerous and selfish. And many more people are doing it.

There are many ways we should fight distracted driving, but most of them involve negative incentives — shame, guilt, regulation and enforcement. Technology makers are in the unique position of offering a positive incentive. What if the decision to drive distractedly was explicit instead of implicit? What if driving safely was as easy as tapping a button instead of continually fighting an impulse? Perhaps even a simple feature could result in a profound behavoir shift. Most people don’t want to kill someone with their car. Most people don’t even steal cheese.