Geek Safety

Sort of off-topic, sort of not. Tech photographer James Duncan Davidson got mugged outside the TED conference. Fortunately he came through okay, with nothing more than bruises and new things to think about.

No judgment here on how James handled it… none of us can know how we’d do in a situation until after we actually go through it. But some of the comments there alarmed me greatly — “yeah yeah fight fight!” is a loser’s game. Geeks are good people, valuable to the rest of the world, and it would be a shame to lose any more.

After sleeping on it, I think there are three important points: acknowledge that you’re a likely target; stay aware of what’s going on around you; and defuse rather than escalate any confrontation.

You are a target, and a fat, easy, rewarding target at that. Geeks have more income than street predators, and are usually carrying popular, easy-to-fence goods. Geeks have more cubicle-sense than street-sense, and most of their experience with physical violence has been at the movies. Convention areas are filled with tired, distracted travellers. Stop thinking “it can’t happen here”, and accept the predator’s logic that you’d make a good meal. (Bob Mah shows some additional reasons you may be a target.)

Pay attention. Know who’s around you and what they’re doing. Over the last six months in San Francisco there has been a dramatic increase in the number of people wandering around the sidewalks, staring at the device in their hands. Newspapers have told of cellphone vehicle accidents, and iPods snatched on buses — if you’re out in traffic you need to stay aware of your surroundings, can’t afford “device blindness”. Put yourself in a mugger’s shoes, and you’ll see who the easiest targets are on the street each day. Don’t be sorry, just Be Here Now.

You’ll lose at violence. If someone has been tracking you and already has you at a physical disadvantage, then this is not the best time to exercise your strong sense of moral outrage. He wouldn’t have taken you on unless he knew he had the edge. He wants a conference badge, your wallet, whatever, give it to him. Even if you beat the odds you’re subject to a Bonfire of the Vanities afterlife. If you weren’t alert enough to avoid a bad situation, and are trapped, your main goal is to get out safely.

Next time you’re in a geek-rich area — a workspace, a restaurant, a convention, even a sidewalk — look around at how other people are managing their attention. Some may be looking at their hand, others swerve without checking first — lots of accidents waiting to happen. When a wolf circles a flock, it’s the ones on the edges most at risk. Just by watching other geeks, and avoiding the more self-absorbed behavior you see, you can do a lot to increase your own odds.

Keep an eye on the street — staying aware and alert makes it easier to avoid problems. And if you can’t avoid a situation, then work to defuse it, reducing the risk rather than escalating it. Physical training can help beyond that, but your first steps are always awareness, avoidance, and defusing.

Not paying attention to your current surroundings is a good way to get targeted. And an empty sense of moral outrage is then a good way to get hurt.

We need every good geek we’ve got. Please stay safe out there!