Texting Isn’t The Distraction, Driving Is: A Parable For Social Business

William Saletan, The Body Electric

Two years ago, in his book “Rocketeers,” Michael Belfiore celebrated the pioneers of the budding private space industry. Now he has returned to explore a frontier closer to home. The heroes of his new book, “The Department of Mad Scientists,” work for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, better known as Darpa, a secretive arm of the United States government. And the revolution they’re leading is a merger of humans with machines.

The revolution is happening before our eyes, but we don’t recognize it, because it’s incremental. It starts with driving. Cruise control transfers regulation of your car’s speed to a computer. In some models, you can upgrade to adaptive cruise control, which monitors the surrounding traffic by radar and adjusts your speed accordingly. If you drift out of your lane, an option called lane keeping assistance gently steers you back. For extra safety, you can get extended brake assistance, which monitors traffic ahead of you, alerts you to collision threats and applies as much braking pressure as necessary.

With each delegation of power, we become more comfortable with computers driving our cars. Soon we’ll want more. An insurance analyst tells Belfiore that aging baby boomers will lead the way, enlisting robotic drivers to help them get around. For younger drivers, the problem is multi­tasking. Why put down your cellphone when you can let go of the wheel instead? Reading, texting, talking and eating in the car aren’t distractions. Driving is the distraction. Let the car do it.

This is a great example of the figure/ground shift of meaning when you adopt a completely different perspective about some social issue, in this case texting while driving.

The typical response to these shifts casts the new practice, in this case texting, as a negative impact on the more established practice, in this case driving. This is followed by calls for new laws and new penalties for those attempting to mix the two.

Don’t get me wrong: I agree that texting while driving is dangerous. But other practices that have long been tolerated, like changing radio stations or eating while driving, are dangerous too. However, these are grandfathered because they are as long-established as cars are. No one freaks out because someone has an accident while eating a danish: it’s just accepted as part of the baseline hazards of driving, like fender benders in parking lots.

The revolution in perception is to consider driving the car the distraction that takes your attention away from texting. Then the push is on to invent new technologies to change the basis of driving, instead of regulating texting.

In the social business context, this is similar to the acceptance of the personal element of social networking online, the acceptance that human life is lived in specific connections with other specific people, not in some generalized business context where workers are interchangeable parts.

Management often responds to the adoption of social tools the way that public policy has responded to texting while driving: they make it illegal to be social while working. 

The far-sighted response will be to make it easier to gain the benefits of social business, and to rethink the organization and management of work around human nature instead to persisting in trying to ‘rise above’ what makes us people in the first place.

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