Dire Bullshit

by Alicorn1 min read15th Apr 20184 comments

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Mechanism Design
Personal Blog

When I bought my kid a door jumper (basically a bowl with leg holes dangling from a spring that could be attached to a doorframe) I read all the safety warnings.

Here they are.

In case you don't want to read all of them, there's a bunch of obviously legitimate and potentially legitimate safety warnings, and there's:

"NEVER use optional playmat with any product other than the door jumper."

To be clear, the described item is a rectangle. Of vinyl-or-something-backed fabric.

And this throws all the other safety warnings into question. They're taking their opportunity to warn me about danger to my child, and they're using it to sneak in imperatives about combining a harmless rectangle with other objects. This doesn't happen when you buy a yard of muslin from the store because you don't expect a yard of muslin to come with any safety warnings at all. But when you look to a source for advice, and have reason to take it seriously, it may accumulate cruft:

  • Recipes on food packaging that call specifically for their brand, of that ingredient and any others the company sells. (If you've been carefully purchasing NESTLE® TOLL HOUSE® chocolate chips because you believe they're essential to the recipe, good news, they are not.)
  • Institutions like banks and insurance companies, which might mail you important information you'd want to have, and might just be stamping "URGENT" on the envelopes because this improves some metric by getting you to open their random crap.
  • It's happened to me in a medical setting, ROT-13 if you want the extra example; cbfgcneghz, n ahefr gbyq zr gung rirel gvzr V hfrq gur onguebbz V unq gb fcenl jngre ba zlfrys nf n fbeg bs znxrfuvsg ovqrg. "Sbe ubj ybat?" V nfxrq, nffhzvat guvf unq gb qb jvgu urvtugrarq puvyqovegu-eryngrq vasrpgvba evfx. "Nyy gur gvzr," fur fnvq, "Sbe gur erfg bs zl yvsr?" V fnvq, naq fur abqqrq, naq V arire yvfgrarq gb nalguvat fur fnvq rire ntnva.

This is epistemic poison, but it's all over the place. Attention is memetic energy; memes will evolve to grab it as necessary. Refer your friends (through privileged one to one channels they don't tune out yet, of course) to gain in-game prizes! The next train is in two minutes on platform one, and remember, if you see something, say something. And we learn to saccade over ads and prune our Twitter feeds and filter safety warnings with our own judgment about the hazard level of vinyl-backed fabric rectangles so we can slog on through polluted informational waters, throwing out a few babies with the bathwater because the bathtub specified a brand of soap before reminding us not to bathe children near open windows.

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3 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 3:58 AM
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I agree. Things like this also make it difficult to tell what rules are actually rules for reasons, that I would be punished for breaking, or are things that an organization would just find it convenient for people to do or thinks they should probably tell people to do but don't really care about.

I'm tired of needing to look up whether there is actually any reason not to refill a pump-soap dispenser with a different brand of dish-soap (they claim it might damage the pump mechanism, it's buried deep on their website, although I'm not sure if I believe them), or having to guess whether various innocuous items are at all likely to actually cause cancer (the answer is almost always "no" except if something is going into your body), and needing to make quick decisions about whether an email from someone official marked URGENT or EMERGENCY needs to be responded to at all, let alone in a timely manner.

There are a very unreasonable number of messages that just openly lie about whether they are important. I'm not sure what a good way to discourage this behavior would be. I don't think it's illegal to give unnecessary safety warnings, just to not give something that might be a worthwhile safety warning.

I'm sorry, not being dense, but what is with the last bullet point being all garbled? Do I need to decode that somehow?