Stop letting danger pay attention to you

Making better decisions in a mediated world

“The free man is not the man who rids himself of commands after he has received them, but the man who knows how to evade them in the first place.”
— Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power

There’s a teenager driving down the road, smiling that big teenage smile, and he’s about to die.

This was on TV.

He’s watching the road (as one does), but he’s also carrying on a lively conversation with a friend who’s sitting just off camera in the front seat.

He’s looking back and forth, back and forth, from the road to the friend, from the road to the friend. His teeth are Chiclet-white.

And as he tells his story, our pretty-toothed teen gets more animated and more animated and more animated. He’s clearly having a fun conversation, the time of his young life.

But then the camera switches to the view out the windshield and, suddenly, the minivan in front of the kid’s car brakes, and hard.

You hear the squeal of tires and a series of beeps, and the camera switches to the dashboard where a red light is urgently flashing — BRAKE BRAKE BRAKE!

The kid brakes. The car stops. Everybody lives.

As the gravity of the situation slowly dawns on our hero, we see the relief on his face. He exhales, and his eyes slide nervously towards his friend off camera.

Dude. Phew. Disaster averted, right?

Nobody loses their pearly whites.

Then comes the voiceover: “something something pre collision impact warning on something something model name, that’s why we received esteemed award by esteemed award-giving organization, brand name, slogan, see your local dealer today.”

And scene.

Credit: Fabian Oefner

This is a compelling piece of cinema.

But this compelling piece of cinema is selling a shit piece of technology.

It’s not a shit piece of technology because it doesn’t work. The technology does, in fact, work. The lights will flash and the beeps will beep and you will slam your foot on the (brake-assisted) brake.

It’s a shit piece of technology because it’s training you to pay less attention to the road, not more.

You may call bullshit.

You may call bullshit especially if you’re the parent to an easily distractible, gleamy-toothed teen who not only drives like Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman, but also is too young to get that reference. Every parent wants their kid to be safe.

Why, the parent’s question goes, would you ever choose less potential safety over more potential safety?

It’s a good question. But wonder, perhaps, whether the expectation shouldn’t be safety. Wonder, perhaps, whether the expectation should be agency.

Whether the expectation should be to pay attention, so that in unpredictable situations you might have upside — rather than expecting less downside from fucking up.

Anyway if you still think pre-collision warnings aren’t training you to pay less attention to the road, ask yourself why you use Google Maps even though you already know the way home.

Meet Graham, the body designed to expect zero downside from fucking up while driving.

Release the Drachten!

Speaking of going home.

While getting a ride, recently, from my ancestral home in Virginia to the grimy climes of Brooklyn, my friend, the driver, objected to my peculiar dislike of pre-collision warnings.

We were driving on I-95, a straight shot we’d driven countless times before. She kept Google Maps open and her phone on her lap.

You could make this argument about street signs, she said.

Yes, you could.

But one, you must actively pay attention to street signs to heed them. You’re the decision maker.

Two, street signs maybe hurt more than they help, anyway.

Hence roundabouts.

And hence the Drachten Experiment, in which a town in the Netherlands removed street signs in the city center.

Result: fewer accidents.

A funny thing happens when you pay attention.

Credit: Nicolai Howalt

This is like an Amazon recommended purchase

The only thing the pre-collision warning actually does is to remind you to make a decision (lights, buzzes, brake assist).

This is true whether you were paying attention or not, and it’s true whether the almost-crash is your fault or the fault of someone else.

One way to say it is this: a pre-collision warning makes you “feel” more quickly (lights, buzzes) so that you will act more quickly (press brake, maybe don’t die).

Another way of saying it: the lights and buzzes are saving you time. They get you from emotional state A (not paying attention) to emotional state B (“oh balls”), and quick.

They’re a convenience. They’re saving you the worry (time) of figuring it out yourself.

In this way, pre-collision warnings are like an Amazon recommended purchase:

People who don’t like dying also bought press the fucking brake pedal.

You’re letting danger pay attention to you

So pre-collision warnings are not training you to make good decisions. Pre-collision warnings are training you to rely on pre-collision warnings.

They’re training you to rely on a representation of the world instead of the world itself.

That representation of the world doesn’t always have your best interests at heart.

The representation of the world just wants you to use it, so it can filter things for you, so that it becomes your arbiter of information. The more you rely on it, the less you rely on the self. Thus the representation of the world becomes its own kind of peril.

As if to say: don’t you worry darling, you don’t need to pay attention to what is dangerous.

What is dangerous will now pay attention to you.

Credit: Nicolai Howalt

The world becomes a pre-collision warning

Push notifications, breaking news alerts, tweets, living in your inbox, text messages, comment notifications on Google Docs, those double knock knock sounds in Slack.

All of these things, like Canetti once wrote about soldiers, are commands.

They are telling us what should be done, or what must be done, and when it should or must be done. They are imperatives (do this) or prohibitions (don’t do that). Every day there are more of them. They surround us with their chimes.

We adapt ourselves to these commands until we don’t mind them. Until we don’t fight against their intrusion. Until they fill the air around us and begin to define, stereometrically, our shape.

We become defined by the technology we use. We pay attention to the pre-collision warnings instead of paying attention to the world.

Google Maps.

Speaking to you.

When you already know the way home.

Credit: Nicolai Howalt

Maybe don’t be lazy

The argument is not that all external commands are bad, or that we should stop paying attention to them, or revert to some blissful pre-technological time (which didn’t exist anyway).

The argument, rather, is this: with each additional command from outside, we must develop greater self-reliance.

The trick is not to expect less downside from bad decisions.
The trick is to expect more upside from making good decisions.

And to realize that mediating technologies that purport to describe the world for you — pre-collision warnings, Facebook, whatever—may not be helping you to make the best decisions for yourself.

Ah yes, it’s fucking boring isn’t it. Just bring on the self-driving cars already. Traveling through physical space is so redundant.

And as for our teenage friend.

With the Chiclet-white smile?

He may be scared for a while.

But he’ll always know, somewhere down in the flanks of his brain, that he can make good decisions a little less, because he’s letting danger pay attention a little more.

More stories about stories:

Like what you read? Give Steve Bryant a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.