Name: Matt Richtel
City: San Francisco
Position: Bay Area–based reporter for New York Times, author
J.: You won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for your series in the New York Times on distracted driving. You also have a new book, “A Deadly Wandering,” which is about that topic as well as technology’s role in our lives. How did you become interested in these topics?
Matt Richtel: I was writing about tech in San Francisco for the Times and I’m not super techie. I’m not all that interested in how many pixels a screen has, or how big the iPhone 6 is, which I know are religious matters for some. But I was always looking for how we were using technology and how it is changing us. This was something that was very interesting to me.
[Distracted driving] touches on some of the biggest issues in society: public health, parenting, our kids, schools, safety and the glorification of technology. Our relationship to our devices is not what it seems. I think we are still on the cusp of understanding what our relationship is to our gadgets.
Have you ever been tempted to text while driving?
MR: Tempted, yes, but I don’t, partly because I understand the mechanisms that are at work. I can see a lot of what I’m doing when I interact with my device. I know it’s feeding a stimulation loop, not necessarily responding to an urgent need to dispense information.
J.: What advice do you give to keep people from texting?
MR: I think the research shows that when you are on your device all the time, it is eating up brainpower — [including cognitive function] you might use to make sound decisions. I like how one scientist puts it: Bring boredom back. If you let yourself work through boredom and moments of silence, you wind up making better decisions. You are not best at your decision-making ability when you are constantly juggling information. I turn my phone off most weekends and take a 20-minute break in the afternoon to play tennis or meditate.
J.: What was your Jewish upbringing like?
MR: I had a bar mitzvah in Boulder, Colo., where I grew up and had a pretty strong cultural tie to Judaism. My dad is very culturally Jewish. In fact, he made aliyah and spends three months a year in Israel. My mom was somewhere between agnostic and atheist. Both of their roles played a big part in where I am today. My wife and I don’t belong to a synagogue, but when I’ve done High Holy Days in the Bay Area, I prefer progressive congregations. One that I went to in Berkeley had men wearing pink yarmulkes.
J.: What brought you to California?
MR: My folks went to U.C. Berkeley and I grew up hearing the Cal fight song. When it came time to apply to college, I knew in my heart that I belonged west of the Mississippi. When I’m in East Coast cities it sends my adrenaline haywire. The only thing I could successfully write if I lived on the East Coast would be angry letters to the editor because it would destroy my muse.
Did you always know you wanted to be a journalist?
MR: No, not at all. I’m the son of a judge and a social worker and was always surrounded by analytical thinking growing up. I think I instinctually gravitated to journalism because I was trying to honor my parents’ analytical thinking and sense of duty civic. Also, I wanted to honor a dormant part of me that was creative.
After five years with the Oakland Tribune, you became a staff writer for the New York Times in 2000. How did you get your start in journalism?
MR: It was a very serendipitous thing. I have always been surrounded by dumb luck. After Berkeley, I went to Europe with a friend. I had only applied to one graduate school, the Columbia School of Journalism, and it was completely audacious. I was wait-listed, and while I was slightly inebriated in a youth hostel in Rome, I wrote a postcard to the admission committee at Columbia: “If you don’t admit me soon, I will spend all my tuition money on wine.” When I get home, I was sitting in my dad’s striped bathrobe, wondering what I should do with my life, and the phone rings. The guy says, “I am the associate dean of admissions. I’ll be honest, you’re pretty far down on the waitlist. But the dean thinks you’re funny. What are you doing next week?” The lesson is, travel light, and I still do that today.
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