I recently came across a sharp editorial in the Los Angeles Times that made a compelling for why statewide ban is necessary to keep drivers from using their cell phones. I agree with the premise, of course cell phone -- and even hands free -- use is dangerous when you're behind the wheel. As the editorial relates, cell use causes driver impairment equivalent to a driver with a .08 blood-alcohol level.
Further, the whole argument for or against cell phone use is just frustrating. That people would risk their and others' lives for a few minutes of talk time in the car seemed idiotic. But then I came across the work of Amber Case, an anthropologist who focuses on the way we use interactive technology like cell phones and the Internet. Case will be a keynote speaker at South by Southwest's Interactive exhibit this March, and is at the fore of the movement to categorize and understand new behaviors that have emerged alongside faster, more powerful and more accessible interactive technology.
In her work, she describes an important shift in the way humans use tools. We used to use things like hammers, cars or even guns to augment our physical abilities. This was the paradigm for human tool use. But computers and phones augment our mental capabilities by allowing us to store and access extra information outside of our brains and to connect with our distant social circles. A computer doesn't make you stronger or safer, but it can make you smarter. Case calls these "extensions of the mental self."
This dynamic, Case says, makes anyone who regularly uses a smart phone a living, breathing cyborg.
I believe it also helps explain why cell phone use is so difficult to curtail even when the dangerous effects are obvious. Collectively, we don't see them as a tool we sometimes use, but an integral part of who we are and how we think.
Consider all the times you've Googled something that you can't believe you didn't know. Or the notes that, despite not being about a pressing matter, you texted someone rather than wait to tell them in person. The way we perceive reality has been shifted so that in our minds, we consider ourselves connected to a greater amount of information through our devices. These are not external, but a part of our internal knowledge. You know where the nearest restaurant is not because you can recall it immediately, but because you can use an Internet program to find the answer immediately. In function, there is no difference.
So when someone resists not using his or her phone while driving, it's because this technology is a part of our cognitive habits. It's not a hammer we pick up for a specific purpose then put back down, it's an extra lobe of the brain.
The implications of this reality, if we accept it, are pretty dramatic. It means we should stop building cars and roads for the humans we used to be, and start planning for cyborg life.
Beckley Mason writes a Bay Area street safety advocacy blog.
Follow Beckley Mason on Twitter: www.twitter.com/gjelblogger