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What Annoying Tech Behaviors Should Be Outlawed?

Rob Walker
Tech Columnist
January 7, 2014
What Annoying Tech Behaviors Should Be Outlawed?

In 2013, when the Federal Communications Commission concluded that there no longer seems to be any technical reason to ban airborne cell-phone calls, everybody freaked out.

"The government isn’t going to ban in-flight cell phone calls?” a dismayed public cried. Usually we complain about government regulation. This time, we were shouting for it. 

You could sense the relief when the Department of Transportation piped up, essentially saying that if the FCC dropped its ban, DOT might just impose one itself. Phew!

This is incredible, given that everybody pretty much agrees that the core issue is merely whether or not in-flight calls are annoying. As a society, we don’t usually resolve matters of annoying-ness with the force of law.

But since we’re now evidently willing to embrace the rise of the Miss Manners State, let’s make the most of it! Here are some more annoying tech-related behaviors that a federal agency might see reason to restrict, regulate, or outright ban.

As long as we’re on the subject of loud cell phone calls, shouldn’t those be restricted in all public spaces — not just airplanes? Perhaps DOT could advance a general set of standards, based on your decibel level and your distance from other humans: Shout all you like in empty field, for example, but keep in down on crowded sidewalks and on the bus. Similarly, while the agency probably can’t ban cell phone walk-and-talk-(or text)-ers, it could also set out a series of escalating fines for those who bump, block, or otherwise impede other pedestrians in the process. 

I think the agency can go ahead and ban those silly Bluetooth headsets outright, at least in public.

We can also safely ban answering calls in a movie theater: The FCC can set the fine, payable to the Motion Picture Association of America. And the Treasury Department should levy fines on people who insist on trying to “bump pay” with their smart phones, wasting the time of everyone queued up behind them while the transaction drags on and on, needlessly.

Perhaps the Department of Health and Human Services can handle this one: If two or more people meet in a restaurant, bar, or similar venue, spending time on your device should require advance consent from a majority of the party. And as a corollary for alpha geek types: Let’s simply outlaw bragging about how you and your friends are just so crazily tuned into new tech that you have to resort to piling your gadgets mid-table and making the first person to crack pay for dinner. You all love your cell phones; we get it. 

What else? Well, social media is clearly begging for annoyance-curbing reform. But it’s tricky. Twitter and Facebook and their cousins would obviously collapse if irritating communication were banned outright, and we don’t want regulation to wipe out thriving enterprises. So here, instead of draconian rules, the FCC could step in with some sort of carbon-emissions-exchange-like scheme: Everyone gets a certain number of “annoyance credits,” and those who feel the need to keep blurting annoying things after their allotment is spent can acquire more credits from more taciturn social media users on the open market.

Not all the regulations have to be restrictive. In fact, having observed tablet devices’ remarkable pacifying effect on screaming toddlers in airplanes and restaurants, I’d advocate having the Department of Education making them mandatory: If your child is old enough to be distracted by moving pixels, and too young to respond to the command “be quiet,” you must have an iPad or similar product with you when taking that child out in public. If this requires government subsidies, so be it.

Some tech grievances are more esoteric, and regulating them would have to entail a more public discussion, perhaps through the legislative process, to determine where social mores really stand, and which arm of government should handle the details. For instance, Atlantic writer Alexis Madrigal has complained about uncreative mobile device signature lines. Nick Bilton, of The New York Times, slammed email and text users who had the temerity to send “thank you” missives. I’ve ranted about my dislike of the term “longread.” Obviously we’d all like our pet peeves made punishable by hard time — but we should proceed with caution to make sure we don’t overreach and blow this golden opportunity.

As for the person who should obviously oversee this effort: Well, I’m happy to say that he is recently out of a job. Clearly, it’s Mike Bloomberg. He is the greatest advocate and most skilled practitioner of behavior change via rule of law in our time. So he’s the perfect guy oversee this shift in the way we think about government and tech — from worrying about Big Brother, to praising Big Scold.

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