Paying People Not To Use Talk To Their Cellphones’ Virtual Assistants in Public

The NYT isn’t entirely worthless.  There’s a cute technology piece up on how irritated the reporter and his friends-on-the-street are by people who talk to their iPhone’s Siri when they could just as easily text.  As the Times puts it, this is a problem of unfelt externalities:

“James E. Katz, director of the Center for Mobile Communication Studies at Rutgers, said people who use their voices to control their phones are creating an inconvenience for others — noise — rather than coping with an inconvenience for themselves — the discomfort of having to type slowly on a cramped cellphone keyboard. Mr. Katz compared the behavior with that of someone who leaves a car’s engine running while parked, creating noise and fumes for people surrounding them.”

The piece goes onto claim that eventually, we’re get used to this noise pollution.  Perhaps we will!  But if we don’t, there are options other than anti-nuisance regulation.  After all, there are competing rights here: the right to speak so you don’t have to confront your inability to text without typos and the right not to hear what the person next to you on the subway wants for dinner.  Now, we could ban Siri-like Apps in public places.  But, as all good Coasians know, there’s another option.  We could decide that the Siri-ans should have the right to speak wherever they are: irritated hearers can simply pay the offending speaker not to talk into their iPhone in public.  In fact, I wonder if Apple could perhaps make an App for that.  Call it the “Shut Down Nearby Siris For Five Minutes Auction App.”  People could list the price at which they’d agree to be paid to be silenced; irritated listeners could either pay that price or bid at a lower rate.  If hearers and speakers matched, we’d achieve (in the Article’s words) the socially efficient outcome: back to the “old days when people just texted in public.”

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14 Responses

  1. Query whether (a) there would be an incentive to talk to your Siri in order to be paid off not to, (b) there would be a holdout problem, and (c) the resulting market clears.

  2. A.J. Sutter says:

    The proposed solution reminds me of my first week as an associate lawyer. In those pre email days when hard copies of court reporter updates, newsletters and everything else circulated throughout the office, my firm had these nifty pre-printed post-its with boxes you could check off like “when finished reviewing please return,” “please forward to next on circulation list,” “to accounting,” etc. I proposed to the office manager that they add a box for “Thank you”. She gave me a look that could kill. Sometimes efficiency is no substitute for civility.

  3. Brett Bellmore says:

    “the right not to hear what the person next to you on the subway wants for dinner.”

    Honestly? I don’t believe in any such right. So, no problem to solve.

    What’s next, the “right” not to see people in unfashionable clothing?

  4. Lea Shaver says:

    Sounds to me like a case study in market-based solutions being less efficient than old fashioned social pressure at preserving a commons. I’ve never yet had anyone refuse to turn down their music after a polite request, surely it works for Siri too.

  5. Matt says:

    I’ve never yet had anyone refuse to turn down their music after a polite request

    You must not ride on public transportation in Philadelphia, Lea! I try to spend my longish train ride doing work, and so try to sit in the “quite car” as much as possible, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t at least one jerk a day or more listening to music so loud that I can hear it several seats away, or yammering away on a cell phone. (Why do people talk so much louder on them? I think it’s because they can’t hear well, and so think they must talk loudly, too, but that’s wrong.) I often ask people to stop, but often they refuse. If you’re not on the quite car, there’s really no point in even trying to ask people to not be unpleasantly loud, I’m afraid.

  6. Ken Rhodes says:

    So Brett, when you go to the Symphony do you have a reasonable expectation that the boor sitting next to you will stop talking loudly into his cellphone?

    If it’s not your right, give it another name. But I think most of us would have that expectation, and consider we are *entitled* to it.

  7. Dave Hoffman says:

    Sure, but there is a cost in asking – social, risk of escalation, etc. This way, you can avoid the hassle.

  8. Brett Bellmore says:

    Ken: So, do you generally have trouble distinguishing between the subway and the Symphony? I’d get that checked on, might be something neurological.

  9. Ken Rhodes says:

    So Brett, do you have trouble distinguishing between noise and fashion. I’d get that checked on too.

  10. Brett Bellmore says:

    The point, of course, is that the symphony is a venue where people are present specifically to listen to something other than your dinner plans.

    The subway, in case this escaped your notice, is not.

  11. Ken Rhodes says:

    And my point, of course, in case this has escaped your notice, is that your “right” to make noise may reasonably be expected to coexist peaceably with my “right” to be undisturbed by inconsiderate behavior.

    You made your original point about the use of the word “right.” Stipulating for this conversation that you are likely correct that my “right” to be undisturbed by inconsiderate behavior was never delineated in the Bill of Rights, I think it is nevertheless a reasonable expectation.

    The problem with noise is that, unlike the inapt fashion analogy you introduced, noise cannot be avoided by merely averting your gaze. It is, therefore, a nuisance that might hypothetically be subject to regulation. Or perhaps, as Professor Hoffman mentioned, might be subject to some sort of Coasian bargaining, which would not require SCOTUS to eventually decide whether any “rights” were being curtailed.

  12. Brett Bellmore says:

    In the symphony, a reasonable expectation. Most other places, not. But, in none of those places, because you have a right not to be annoyed, (And I was speaking of natural, not constitutional, rights.) but rather, because other people have, due to the context, shed part of their freedom of speech.

    The problem with a right not to be annoyed, is that people are so idiosyncratic as to what annoys them. As well, extending people a right not to be annoyed simply makes being annoyed empowering, encouraging people to be annoyed more and more easily. Throwing sand into the gears of society, which requires of people tolerance, not hair trigger outrage.

    People talking on their cell phones in public is so far down any rational scale of annoyance, I suspect it would be of concern only to folks who’ve already had their capacity for annoyance inflated beyond reason.

    This is not to say that I’d object on principle to voluntary arrangements to prevent it, but the emphasis must be on voluntary. I mean, surely you don’t want to annoy people talking on their cell phones with requests that they STFU every time somebody who’s all bare nerve endings wanders by, right?

  13. jt says:

    I have found that the best way to quiet subway cell phone talkers is to enter the conversation.

  14. Ken Rhodes says:

    @ Brett: Your last post makes a good point, well stated. Far more effective than merely poking fun at the idea of a “right to peace and quiet,” you point out that the right not to be annoyed probably only extends to annoyance that can be seen as major, not the tiny peccadillos that fill our days. And I agree with you about subways, though I’m not sure whether an excellent and expensive restaurant falls closer to a symphony.

    @ JT: A favorite joke related to your comment:

    Fellow goes into a mens room, goes into a stall and sits.

    Fellow in the next stall says “Hi. How are you today?”

    First guy is taken aback, but answers “Fine, thanks.”

    Guy in the next stall says “How is your wife?”

    First guy, a little annoyed, replies “She’s fine too.”

    Guy in the next stall says “What are you doing now?”

    First guy shouts “WHAT THE HECK DO YOU THINK I’M DOING?”

    Guy in the next stall says “I’m sorry, Ray, I’ll have to call you back. The fellow in the next stall keeps trying to talk to me, and now he’s shouting at me.”