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Normalising paranoia

This is brilliant. Chloë Coulson, Erland Banggren and Ben Williams, three Ravensbourne graduates, have put together a project looking at the “culture of fear”, the media’s use of this, and how it affects our everyday state of mind.

The outcome is a catalogue, WellBeings™ [PDF link] accompanying a specially printed newspaper, The Messenger, designed to be used with special rose-tinted spectacles – simple, yet very clever:

Feeling brave? Read the paper as usual. Feeling fragile? Put on the rose-tinted spectacles to block out the bad news stories which are printed in the same hue as the lenses so it becomes invisible.

The products in the catalogue cater for people made increasingly paranoid by aspects of modern society, by ‘normalising’ paranoia – ranging from H-ear-Phones which allow you to hear what others are saying about you, to Rear-View Mirror spectacles to allow you to keep an eye on who might be following you. As Chloë puts it:

The whole project is about questioning attitudes – should we live in fear – are we safer that way, or should we live for now and not worry about what could happen.

There are also a couple of products in there which are actually defensive weapons – a pepper spray disguised as a perfume atomiser, and house-key-cum-knuckleduster, and these seem to go beyond mere paranoia. All of these products are very plausible, and indeed, some of them are probably commercially viable. Whilst none of these is an architecture of control as such, I felt that they deserved inclusion here – pertinent to the sousveillance discussion, and also the idea of users turning products against instrusive aspects of society, from relatively simple items such as the Knee Defender (prevent the person in front of you on an aircraft reclining his or her seat) to Limor Fried’s Design Noir work on using electronic devices to create social defence mechanisms.

Equally – while perhaps not the focus of the project – the rose-tinted spectacles idea parallels closely the phenomenon of increasing self-selection of the news we expose ourselves to, as the internet and hundreds of TV channels allow segmentation like never before. The idea of a newspaper bringing readers only ‘good’ news has been tried a number of times (a recent example one-off) and has inspired some interesting pieces, but modern media permits many more coloured filters than simply rose-tinting. Clearly, to a large extent, deliberate use of this segmentation can permit intentional reinforcement, entrenchment, even inspiration of certain views and behaviours. Self-selected exposure to propaganda is a curious phenomenon, but one with enormous power.


  1. TomC

    The knee defender sounds excellent (if it works) and I wasn’t aware such a thing existed! I have the very real problem of pain when someone in front of me reclines the seat. I like to pretend that I refuse to travel by air until they make seats that have enough room for my legs.

    However, I think I would feel guilty about using it, imagine the frustration of the person unable to recline!

    It did actually happen once – a woman repetedly tried to recline her seat but there wasn’t enough room with me sitting behind it. She thought the seat was broken and swapped with her partner so he could have a go, but failed. I felt bad, but not that bad because I never recline my seat anyway, as I don’t want to inconvenience the person behind me.

  2. Thanks for letting me know about Knee Defenders. I don’t know what hurts the worse, the metal rod suddenly being forced into one’s knees, or the fact that, when confronted, the passenger in front sometimes actually believes they have a right to recline their seat irrespective of my knees, as if their ticket to a reclining seat grants them that right. About time the normal upper bound for human height was increased from 1.7m to 2m.

    As for our ‘culture of fear and paranoia’ you do realise that a lot of the related ‘heightened security measures’ aren’t expected to counter terrorists, but to counter the ‘terror’ aspect only? It doesn’t matter whether the measures are actually effective against attackers or even cost effective. Sometimes the measures can actually increase the opportunity for terrorist attacks (creating queues outside airports). The primary benefit is to help people believe that the terrorists are being countered, and thus help people relieve themselves of ‘terror’ (and be thankful to their elected government). In this way terrorists are countered and reduced to mildly annoying mass murderers.

    So, rose tinted spectacles along with Douglas Adams’ fear sensitive sunglasses (as worn by Zaphod Beeblebrox in HHGTTG) demonstrate the same approach, i.e. fear can be more harmful to a society than the actual harm itself. Doesn’t help those who are actually harmed of course… :-/

  3. Dan

    Thanks Tom and Crosbie. I guess if the Knee Defenders were positioned so that the seat could be reclined a bit, but not much, people might just assume that the seat only went back that far.

    I like this idea of individuals imposing their own constraints on the technology around them – stuff like slave-flashes to prevent speed cameras reading number plates (or even the apparently legal angled transparent cover fitted to the early 1990s Lotus Elans – see here – image from Pistonheads).

    Of course you’re right Crosbie that most so-called security is merely security theatre, but sadly it’s a production we were not given the chance to decide whether we wished to attend.

  4. There is a solution to the aircraft seating problem without compromising too much on profits. Given the normal distribution of heights in passenger aircraft simply reserve the emergency exit and bulkhead seats for people above a certain height. If a tall person is accompanied, well they have a choice of suffering poor leg room with family, or sitting solo (or upgrading family to club class).

    Better still, they could have a progressive seat spacing arrangement, e.g. seats got progressively further apart the further away you got from the emergency exits (which were also far apart). Safer and you could probably pack passengers in even more closely once you took passenger height into account.

    Unfortunately, when Virgin noticed people preferred the emergency exit/bulkhead seats they had the bright idea of pricing them higher, hence ‘economy plus’, which puts money ahead of physiology.

    My strategy is to engineer the possession of a close relation who happens to be a member of aircrew. I then get to fly business class for half the price of economy class. NB Don’t get too envious though. The last time I exploited this was in 2001 on a transatlantic flight. You have the priority of freight, which means a lot of waiting in departure lounges and ad hoc sleepovers trying to get the heck out of the US when the flights are all full.

  5. While (whilst?) this might seem to be a bit of sarcasm, I truly do want to thank you for describing my invention, Knee Defenderâ„¢, as “relatively simple”. When I design something, I strive for simple.

    That said, a funny part for me is the title of your blog entry. Now I can say that, beyond the positive product reviews, Knee Defender has also received sociological analysis in a book entitled “Life’s Little Annoyances” and an essay entitled “Normalising paranoia”.

    It should be noted, perhaps, that my product is not one of the “little annoyances” of the book, but (the author indicates) an item that falls under the book’s subtitle, “True tales of people who just can’t take it anymore”. And, even that is somewhat off – though “revenge” is a favorite peg of the press.

    As a gene-pool-driven inventor I’ve found that, while someone else’s annoying conduct can inspire the problem-solving cogwheels in my head to start turning, the dominant primal urge is to merely find a solution for a vexing problem. Once I get to the “Yes, that works” stage, or even just, “Yes, that would work”, I have gained a satisfying (if (then) non-remunerative) reward.

  6. Dan

    Thanks Ira, it’s great to have a comment from the inventor himself. Please note, the ‘relatively simple’ was meant as a compliment. I’m not a sociologist, just a designer/engineer and researcher with an interest in this field of products designed to ‘control’ behaviour in some way.

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  8. While the Knee Defender is certainly a welcome product for many, I can’t help but observe that it is nevertheless a mechanism of control. Rather than engage ourselves in the possibly difficult communication of our discomfort with the seat-reclining offender, we readily prefer a technology that would prevent and eliminate the unwanted behavior altogether; indeed, it would eliminate all need for personal communication on the matter.

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  10. Leda, perspectives of seat reclining on airplanes seems quite like those in the story of the blind men and the elephant. Some think that reclining is "a right". So, from that perspective – as you note – Knee Defender™ could be seen as a "mechanism of control". Yet, one might well say that the person sitting behind a potential recliner is simply sitting there minding his/her own business, so why would the onus be on him/her to say something – that is, to take the initiative to say to someone, "Hey, please don’t hit me with your seat"? If using KD is controlling, then wouldn’t asking someone to not recline also be controlling, but by another means? If the other person says "Yes" then the situation has been controlled. If the other person blows off the request, then the first person seeks some other means of control – again, assuming that the person not wanting to be reclined upon is seen as the one seeking a "mechanism of control". If someone reclines his/her seat without at least looking back, if not first asking, is the seatback then a "mechanism of control"?

    Anyway, at my site I’ve posted an exposition – my take on the question of courtesy and communication. It is under the KD link, then Airplane Etiquette. (I’d embed a direct link, but as a guest here I don’t want to pimp the site.) In short, I agree that personal communication would be best, if only it was effective.

    Overall, I consider KD a device that is akin to a latch on a bathroom door. That is, while people should knock, too many don’t. So, a latched door is a defense against someone opening the door without first knocking. And, that is why I agree with Dan that (as the product name suggests) KD is "defensive".

    (Apologies if my HTML coding does not work here.)

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