Juror sent to jail April 22, 2013Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202, STV302 , comments closed
Wired notes that young Benjamin Kohler was recently sent to jail for two days. His crime? He was found in contempt of court for texting during a trial at which he was a juror:
When prosecutors were playing a video-taped interview with the defendant, Judge Dennis Graves suddenly halted the trial after noticing a light glow around juror Benjamin Kohler’s chest. The judge, who had previously instructed jurors to pay attention and not to use mobile phones, immediately halted the proceeding and ordered everybody to vacate the courtroom except Kohler, the Sheriff’s Department said.
As Kohler could not give a satisfactory explanation for his actions, the judge jailed him in order to give him time to reconsider them.
Traditionally, jurors on duty are separated from their other affairs so that they may concentrate on their role in the court. It was once possible to achieve that separation straightforwardly by constructing isolated court rooms and buildings. Of course, in the era of wireless networks and portable smart phones, four walls will no longer do the trick.
The mismatch between the expectations of judges and those of jurors can be quite serious. Kohler was sent to jail. A British woman was convicted of contempt for contacting the defendant via Facebook during trial. In a case in Arkansas, the judge ordered a new trial for a defendant accused of a capital crime because a juror was caught tweeting about the proceedings.
The role of juror is basically to comprehend and weigh evidence presented to them in order to generate a justified verdict. Mike Masnick at TechDirt has argued that jurors should be able to use the ‘net to achieve this end. The more information they bring to bear, the better their decisions will be.
Although this argument makes some sense, it sets aside the problem of due process. As noted above, the traditional role of juror requires a fair degree of isolation and attention. Smart phones undermine both: They connect people constantly and ubiquitously, and they divide attention the same way. Responses in the legal system have generally been to uphold the traditional model, as the Kohler case suggests. Could the role of juror be re-conceived, to make it more compatible with the realities of modern life?
One possibility would be to crowdsource jury duty. Put a camera in the courtroom and allow any willing person to watch the proceedings. Those who watch for long enough (and fulfill some other preconditions) would be permitted to vote on the verdict. Allow jurors from developing countries to participate and the cost of jury deliberations could be lowered considerably!
Another possibility would be to gamify the process. Jurors could earn badges for assessing evidence and making arguments on the trial’s Facebook page. Those who advance enough levels by the end of the trial would be allowed to vote on the verdict. That would help to address the problem of paying attention–make jury duty more compelling.
Any other ideas?
Woman falls off pier while texting! March 22, 2012Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV302 , comments closed
I am sure this headline is one that every editor has secretly desired to write. Unfortunately, it accurately captures an incident in St. Joseph, Michigan, in which a woman fell into Lake Michigan while texting and walking along a pier. Her husband and a passerby jumped into the water to save the victim, and both were rescued by emergency responders summoned by a call to 9-1-1.
Because no serious injuries resulted, the incident can be viewed with amusement. It is also reminiscent of other times when people became too distracted for their own good while walking and texting.
What to do? Some intrepid app creators have tried to make the phone part of the solution instead of part of the problem. For example, there is the Walksafe app that uses the camera on a smartphone to try to detect and warn the bearer of oncoming vehicles as they text and walk heedlessly. How, though, will they deal with clients walking along piers or around shopping malls?
I would suggest a new approach to the problem: flip it! People are generally better at contextual awareness than are phones, whereas phones can generate text messages more efficiently than people can. What we need, then, is an app that writes and sends text messages for the client, while the ambulatory client watches out for traffic and water, thus keeping the phone safe from harm. Call it “AutoText”. There is now a smartphone at the bottom of Lake Michigan that would agree with me, I am sure, if it could.
Is phoning/texting while driving addictive? December 20, 2011Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202, STV302 , comments closed
Here is an interesting piece from the New York Times on how to understand why drivers use their phones while driving, even when they understand the issues attached to that behavior. The debate over driving while distracted by networked gizmos is not new (see here, for example). As distracted driving continues to contribute to accidents, calls for action increase. The NTSB recently called for a ban on talking or texting on phones while driving throughout the US. Ontario recently enacted a ban on hand-held cell phone use while driving.
However, such laws seem to be honored more often in the breech than in the observance. Drivers in BC, for example, seem to be largely ignoring the ban in their province. Furthermore, it is not clear how well such a ban could be enforced.
So, why do people engage in behavior they know to be risky and that has, in some places, been made illegal? Driving while texting has often been compared with driving while drunk, which poses a similar risk of injury. Yet, the analogy does not help to explain the behavior, as Dr. Greenfield of the University of Connecticut School of Medicine notes:
… people who drive drunk do not find any satisfaction in doing so. In contrast, checking e-mail or chatting while driving might relieve the tedium of being behind the wheel.
Instead, Greenfield and others compare driving while distracted with smoking, an addictive activity that some people also enjoy in the car.
Although cell phones are clearly not narcotics, they do have qualities that could make them addictive or, at least, habit-forming:
Part of the lure of smartphones, he said, is that they randomly dispense valuable information. People do not know when an urgent or interesting e-mail or text will come in, so they feel compelled to check all the time.
“The unpredictability makes it incredibly irresistible,” Dr. Greenfield said. “It’s the most extinction-resistant form of habit.”
In other words, cell phones provide a randomly scheduled operant conditioning regime to the user, a well-known and powerful way of creating behaviors that become ingrained and are difficult to undo (“extinguish”).
Dr. Paul Atchley of the University of Kansas argues that addiction is not the right notion, instead preferring an economic analysis. In his view, people respond quickly to cell phone beeps and burps because the information they provide rapidly loses value. A text that has just arrived may contain “hot news” that is most informative if read right away. The same text becomes less informative or valuable if the user puts off reading it for a while. It gets stale, and newer items pop up in the meantime, which tends to devalue the old ones.
Along the same lines, Clifford Nass of Stanford University points out that texts contain not just any old information but often convey information from friends. Because people are social animals, such information is important to them and, thus, they are responsive to it:
Drivers are typically isolated and alone, he said, and humans are fundamentally social animals.
The ring of a phone or the ping of a text becomes a promise of human connection, which is “like catnip for humans,” Dr. Nass said.
“When you tap into a totally fundamental, universal human impulse,” he added, “it’s very hard to stop.”
Each of these explanations suggests various approaches to address the problem. Perhaps cell phones could have a “driver mode”, like airplane mode, that disables or re-schedules the behavior of the cell phone. If the cell phone provided messages on a regular schedule, say every 5 minutes, then the compulsive reinforcement could be reduced or avoided. The phone could even generate boring auto-messages (spam) for the purpose. After a while, perhaps drivers would no longer care so much about that last beep and leave the phone on the “hook”.
Outgoing texts or calls could also be diverted to a temporary storage queue, for delivery after the driving mode is turned off. In that way, there would be less motivation for sending the message during driving itself instead of simply waiting for a break in the trip.
Of course, measures like these would work only so long as drivers honored the “drive mode”. They could cheat just by turning drive mode off and returning to normal operating mode. Dr. Atchley’s work suggests that there might be a way of dealing with this problem also. He tested teens to see if they would accept some sort of reward in lieu of receiving a text right away. He found that they would. Perhaps turning on “driving mode” could be associated with a reward which would be diminished or lost if it is turned off before the trip is over. We might, in effect, gamify driving without texting.
I note that this approach is taken by the TextNoMore Android app. It will be interesting to see if it works.
There is one more factor that may contribute to texting/phoning while driving. We have all seen other people doing so while driving virtuously ourselves. Next time you are on the road, glance at the drivers of other cars around you and you will soon note some who seem to be looking down at their flies quite a bit, or who have a phone nailed to their ear. Being social animals, people will always feel the sting of seeing scofflaws getting away with something. A natural response is to feel that this situation is unfair: Why do they get the benefit of texting while driving without suffering any penalty, while I do not? One way in which people seek redress is to engage in the illicit behavior themselves.
Perhaps a way to address this issue is to publicly shame those who text and drive. I do not mean they should be put in the stocks in the town square. Think instead of those radar speed signs that measure and display your speed as you pass them by. These signs seem to be somewhat effective in getting people to slow down. I suggest that similar signs be developed that can detect the presence of phone/text signals emanating from cars in traffic and display this fact for all to see. In that way, transgressors can be reminded to use “drive mode” and everyone else can see this occur. Then the appearance of unfairness is also addressed. Of course, the coverage of such signs must be limited, so it is not a perfect solution.
Does your gear do some of your thinking for you? December 13, 2010Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV203, STV302 , comments closed
A little piece from NPR highlights how social media sites like Facebook can distract people from work, thus making them less productive:
Nielsen, the media research firm, calculated that one in every 4 1/2 minutes online is spent on blogs and social networking sites.
So, Fred Stutzman, a software developer, created an application to combat all of this time wasting. It’s called Anti-Social.
Enable Anti-Social and it’s impossible to access Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and any other site you specify — without rebooting your computer.
Whether the app is really effective remains to be seen.
(Image courtesy of Kimkha via Wikimedia Commons.)
The Anti-Social app relates to a previous thread on human augmentation. Human beings have always been dependent on technology for survival. What is remarkable about apps like Anti-Social is the extent to which computerized gadgets are becoming integrated into our mental functioning. The point of Anti-Social, after all, is to outsource an individual’s attention-allocation mechanism to his or her gear. We rely more and more on Facebook to tell us what information is notable, and then on things such as Anti-Social to avoid becoming too engrossed in Facebook activity.
But Anti-Social seems rather crude: It shuts down Facebook access entirely. Mark Zuckerberg would probably say that it needs to get “social.” So, how about a filter app that uses inputs from your friends to figure out which updates and posts to ignore?
Anyway, the notion of cognitive prostheses with such power over your mind raises an interesting metaphysical issue: Can these prostheses actually become part of your mind? Would you say that your mind is contained entirely in your head? Or does it extend outwards, into your body or even into your gear? The view that your mind, perhaps just the unconscious part, is not limited to your noggin is known as embodied cognition or externalism. Have a look at Andy Clark’s recent piece in the New York Times on this perspective of the mind-body relation. If your mind really can extend into external stuff, especially computerized stuff, then you can radically alter the character and content of your mind by installing new apps like Anti-Social. Changing your mind has never been easier!
Dristracted driving update July 8, 2010Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202, STV302 , comments closed
Well, the industry coalition formed to fight legislation regarding distracting technology in cars (discussed below in this blog) has been disbanded. Apparently, the disapproval of the Transportation Secretary gave the group second thoughts. Or else they had already succeeded in achieving their goals:
In a statement, Babak Zafarnia, the coalition’s spokesman, said the proposed coalition had been a success, despite its quick demise.
“We are pleased that the concept has met its goal of expanding dialogue on distracted driving, therefore the proposed coalition is no longer being pursued,” the statement said. “We commend Secretary LaHood for his leadership in bringing a comprehensive view to this complex issue.”
Distracted driving or user error? July 6, 2010Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202, STV302 , comments closed
I have already noted that the iPad was installed in people’s cars soon after its appearance. Of course, how people are supposed to drive properly while playing with an iPad is hard to imagine. It seems like an act of the highest irresponsibility. That, of course, won’t prevent people from doing it. Each offender will simply tell herself that she is so good at multitasking that nothing bad can happen.
Now there comes news in the New York Times that auto industry lobbyists in Washington are seeking to portray those concerned about the growing distractions in cars as a bunch of Chicken Little types out to stymie innovation in in-car technology.
The goal of this auto industry group is to avert the danger of legislation banning or restricting the use of cell phones, iPads, and what not, while driving a car. Instead, the group proposes that the problem is not the technology but the usage of it.
Babak Zafarnia, a public relations executive hired by Seward to be the coalition’s spokesman, said the idea was to emphasize driver education and to focus on broad driver-distraction laws, rather than focusing on the use of particular technologies.
“You can’t anticipate every possible scenario. Distraction is distraction, period,” he said, adding: “Why don’t we modernize the education curriculum to teach drivers to deal with all in-vehicle distractions?”
In other words, let’s educate drivers to deal appropriately with distractions, without legislating against any particular source of distractions.
The position is somewhat disingenuous. Sure, having another person in the car to talk to can be a distraction. However, a second pair of eyes in the car also forms an addition safety device: The passenger, out of a sense of self-preservation, often provides warnings about potential problems on the road ahead, e.g., “Look out for that car!”
I am also reminded of the history of anti-lock braking systems in cars. As documented in Ann Johnson’s recent book, Hitting the brakes, anti-lock braking systems were originally developed, starting in the 1950s, to make cars safer but without the need to re-train drivers or get them to change their habits. Recent evidence suggests that the hoped-for safety benefits have not materialized. If anything, driving in cars equipped with anti-lock brakes is marginally less safe, for reasons that remain disputed. As Johnson notes, car manufacturers have recently taken the line that drivers need to be re-educated in order to work the brakes properly, so that their safety benefits can be realized. Of course, drivers should be educated in safe driving, but not as a way for car designers to mask their technological failures.
The desire to shift blame onto users is not limited to the auto industry. Lauren Willis has recently argued, for example, that the calls of financial institutions for more “financial literacy education” for the masses seem like attempts by the banks to shift their responsibility for the recent financial crisis onto customers who were so persuasively urged to take on sub-prime mortgages that they could not afford. Of course, there is blame enough to go around. Yet, it seems that the designers and sellers of those unintelligible new financial instruments would prefer not to shoulder their share.
All of this discussion centers on the claim, noted before on this blog, that technology is “just a tool”. One of the implications of this view is that the impacts of a given product are the results of how it is used, not how it is designed. If so, the inference goes, then blame for errors attaches to the users, who determined how they use things, and not the designers (or others). Thus, the auto industry seems to argue, the problem is not that in-car technology seems designed to distract people but that people decide to indulge in distractions. The fix, then, is not to blame the technology but to blame the user and send them in for
However, technology is not just a tool. The design of a piece of technology can have a crucial impact on how it is used, along with users’ preferences and other circumstantial factors. In that case, the designers of a technology have a share in any blame for its failures and, I might add, any credit for its successes. So, what we need is a mature discussion of the pros and cons of technology in cars, and not some bullsh*t dog-and-pony show by industry lobbyists.