More Murder for Money

Murder-King There are two reasons to bother reading The New York Times.

First, it hosts and proudly (and entirely uncritically) displays major exhibits of overclass irrationalism.  In an age of peaking resources and rapidly worsening imperial decrepitude, keeping track of what the elites are thinking is more important than ever.

Second, the NYT sometimes hosts and proudly displays actual journalism.

A bit of the latter happened yesterday, December 6, 2009, under the headline “Promoting the Car Phone, Despite Risks.” As reported by Matt Richtel, this valuable story details how the capitalist cellular phone industry has known from day one that its product is seriously deadly.

Now, we’re not talking here about speculation on the effect of cell phone radiation on the human body.  No.  We’re talking about the cell phone’s long-understood status as a direct and certain cause of the thousands of annual deaths that indisputably result from its use inside moving automobiles.

As Richtel reveals, those who planned to make profits from cell phones knew from the very beginning that what they wanted to sell was going to snuff out many thousands of individual lives:

Martin Cooper, who developed the first portable cellphone, recalled testifying before a Michigan state commission about the risks of talking on a phone while driving.

Common sense, said Mr. Cooper, a Motorola engineer, dictated that drivers keep their eyes on the road and hands on the wheel.

Commission members asked Mr. Cooper what could be done about risks posed by these early mobile phones.

“There should be a lock on the dial,” he said he had testified, “so that you couldn’t dial while driving.”

It was the early 1960s.

Long before cellphones became common, industry pioneers were aware of the risks of multitasking behind the wheel. Their hunches have been validated by many scientific studies showing the dangers of talking while driving and, more recently, of texting.

And what do corporate executives do when their engineers express such concerns?  Do they, as long alleged by a range of economists and social scientists, balance the needs of their prospective customers with those of their firms’ shareholders?

Not so much:

Other early innovators of cellphones said they felt nagging concerns. Bob Lucky, an executive director at Bell Labs from 1982-92, said he knew that drivers talking on cellphones were not focused fully on the road. But he did not think much about it or discuss it and supposed others did not, either, given the industry’s booming fortunes.

“If you’re an engineer, you don’t want to outlaw the great technology you’ve been working on,” said Mr. Lucky, now 73. “If you’re a marketing person, you don’t want to outlaw the thing you’ve been trying to sell. If you’re a C.E.O., you don’t want to outlaw the thing that’s been making a lot of money.”

Revenue for wireless service providers was soaring — to $16 billion in 1995 from $354 million in 1985. The industry had revenue of $148 billion in 2008.

One researcher who spoke up about his concerns was quickly shut down. In 1990, David Strayer, a junior researcher at GTE, which later became part of Verizon, noticed more drivers who seemed to be distracted by their phones, and it scared him. He asked a supervisor if the company should research the risks.

Why would we want to know that?” Mr. Strayer recalled being told.

And what does the industry do when, 50 years later, the inherent danger has finally been publicly proved beyond a reasonable doubt?

They hire an ex-football star to tell active lies:

The industry notes that the mobile device has moved well beyond its origins as a car phone and argues that research on the dangers of distracted driving is inconclusive, even as wireless companies have spent millions on campaigns to educate drivers.

But the industry’s chief spokesman, Steve Largent, acknowledged in recent interviews that those efforts have fallen short. He said the companies plan to do more, particularly in light of the explosion of text messaging, which they say poses a profoundly serious risk.

The CTIA, the industry’s trade group, supports legislation banning texting while driving. It has also changed its stance on legislation to ban talking on phones while driving — for years, it opposed such laws; now it is neutral.

This was never something we anticipated,” said Mr. Largent, head of the CTIA.

I have an idea for a future book:  Capitalism’s own version of this.  Golly, I wonder if Harvard will want to publish it, too…

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