Friday, September 6, 2013

Et tu, Seth Godin?

Seth Godin, the marketing and entrepreneurship genius -- not to mention the author of about half a dozen books in my library -- has finally said something that I can't fully support.

Let's start with the good stuff. Texting, emailing and for that matter talking on the phone while driving is a stupid and potentially expensive, crippling and even deadly act. It doesn't even rise to the level of selfish.

(And I don't even think it's OK on a hands-free device. Plenty of people drive just fine with one hand. Not so many people can drive well even with both hands while involved in a conversation more complex than placing a pizza delivery order.)

And how common this crazy behavior is says something about our culture -- something even worse than the things Godin lists.

He says texting while driving is woven so deeply into our culture that we'll need a technological fix. Since mobile phones are all tracked by location -- and by extension speed, too -- he suggests two:

(1) Any phone that is moving would automatically include an alert to that effect into every text and email it sends. Godin points out that if you yourself aren't driving, but you know (or have reason to know) that the person you're talking or texting or emailing with is actually driving, you can be held liable in certain jurisdictions. (In fact, he wants it to result in a trip to the Greybar Motel.)

Keep in mind that one can be moving at highway speeds without actually driving.

(2) Phones can be configured to simply not do certain things while they're moving.

Now, I'm OK with people doing this on a voluntary basis with their own (or their teens') mobile phones and/or their cars. People have a right (generally) to restrain themselves, and this might be what it takes for some people.

But he's not stopping at encouraging people to adopt that technological fix one individual at a time as they see fit. He makes crystal clear that he wants it to be the law.

And he only seems to care about one side of the equation:

"People won't die as a result.

"It won't cost the companies a penny in profit.

"And defenders of the status quo will scream about freedom and access and rights and how it used to be. They will worry about people on trains or passengers in carpools.

"But you know what? It's better than being dead. Better than being the victim of the one out of three drivers I see who couldn't wait..."

Let's skip to the second point: profit. He doesn't seem to have given it much thought.

Last time I checked, when costs go up, unless revenue also goes up by at least that amount, profits go down. Also last time I checked, technical fixes aren't free. Finally, a phone that won't make or receive calls or allow reading or writing of texts or emails while in motion is probably going to be less popular (in general, anyway) than a phone which does those things even when in motion.

So demanding those changes probably will cost quite a bit of profit. However important or unimportant you think that is -- and keep in mind that at least within a certain range, things like jobs, investments and pension benefits are tied to profits -- it tells us something about Godin's approach.

Namely, looking at the first line above, saving lives is the only thing that counts.

Not only that, he dismisses petty concerns like convenience, speed and even individuals' freedom and rights. 

Again, at least as of now and probably some time to come, a phone can only "tell" how quickly it's moving and where it is on the map...but not where it is in relation to the driver's seat. So say goodbye to calling ahead if your bus or train or carpool (or plane?) will be late*, or getting some one-to-one communication or even a conference call, blog post or livetweet or three done during your downtime.

It's all worth it 'cause it saves lives, right?

That's why we don't allow left turns, or right turns on red, or anything > 55 mph anywhere, right?

That's why we have zero tolerance buzzed-driving laws...any BAC > 0 and you're automatically legally drunk, right?

Heck, speaking of technological fixes, that's why all cars have ignition interlocks, so you have to blow into 'em (and thus prove you're sober) before you can start the engine, right?

Looking at our own personal lives, that's why we all eat low-carb, high-protein diets, not too much not too little, always exercise plenty every day, always demand HIV/STD testing right before having sex with anyone we're not married to (or maybe just strike those last four words)...right?

Because saving life and limb is so all-important! 

Look, freedom is not the be-all and end-all of life. That's why we have these things calls governments in the first place. And Heaven** knows we need safety regulation. (Heck, Emily gives me a hard time about how slowly I drive.)

What sticks in my craw, though, is being treated like a child. Restrained like someone who can't be trusted not to do bad stuff, just because there are some folks out there who do. Not to mention, should I dare "scream" about freedom being important, getting not a reasoned, balanced response but rather derision bordering on contempt.

Our society has way too many of those types making way too many of our laws and rules these days. I was hoping Seth Godin was an exception.

[*] One time, I was late for work because the bus was slow. The manager insisted I should have called to let them know...even though I didn't have a cell phone. (Of course, she expected everyone to have one.) And that was a decade ago.

[**] After all, St. Peter can easily do the daily head-count!