All posts filed under “Corruption

The Convention on Modern Liberty

Barricades, London

Britain’s supposedly on the verge of a summer of rage, and while like Mary Riddell I am of course reminded of Ballard, it’s not quite the same. I don’t think this represents the ‘middle class’ ennui of Chelsea Marina.

Instead I think we may have reached a tipping point where more people than not, are, frankly, fed up (and scared) about what’s happening, whether it’s the economic situation, the greed of the feckless, the intransigent myopia of those who were supposed to ‘oversee’ what’s going on, the use of fear to intimidate away basic freedoms, or a home secretary who treats the entire country like the naughty schoolchildren she left behind. In short: we’re basically losing our liberty very rapidly indeed. This PDF, compiled by UCL Student Human Rights Programme, provides a withering summary. As many have repeated, 1984 was not supposed to be an instruction manual. But, as Cardinal Wolsey warned, “be well advised and assured what matter ye put in his head; for ye shall never pull it out again”.

The Convention on Modern Liberty, taking place across the UK this Saturday 28th February, aims to demonstrate the dissatisfaction with what’s happening, and hopefully raise awareness of just what’s going on right under our noses. It features an interesting cross-section of speakers, and the speeches will be streamed on the site (tickets for the London session sold out very quickly).

I’m a normal person, trying my best to advance the progress of humanity, yet I feel that the government has contempt for me as a member of the public in general, on an everyday basis. Everywhere we go, we are watched, monitored, surveilled, threatened, considered guilty. We shouldn’t have to live like this.

P.S. I apologise for the lack of posts over the last week: my laptop’s graphics card finally gave in – it had been kind-of usable at a low resolution by connecting the output to another monitor for a while, but that too has now failed. Thanks to everyone who’s e-mailed and sent things: I will get round to them as soon as I can.

Ticket off (reprise)

Last year we looked at the way that the pricing structure of no-change-given ticket machines is often – apparently – designed to lead to overpayment, and I posed the question of whether councils/car park operators actually draw up their budget based on a significant proportion of customers overpaying.

Parking ticket machine in Totnes, Devon

Parking ticket machine in Totnes, DevonParking ticket machine in Totnes, Devon

I’m still no closer to answering that last question, but I was reminded again of this ‘the house always wins’ idea last week by this ticket machine (above) in Totnes, Devon. Look at the price intervals: 25p, 90p, £1.70, £2.55, £4.20, £5.75 – those are some rather odd figures. The price jumps – 65p, 80p, 85p, £1.65 and £1.55 – are odd in themselves, but given that the machine does not give change, it’s a fairly safe bet that,unless they carry a lot of change, many people parking for 1 hour will pay £1.00 rather than 90p, many 2 hour customers will pay £2 instead of £1.70, and many 3 hour customers will pay some amount larger than the very awkward £2.55. Why not £2.50? What’s the logic behind that extra 5p if not to force overpayment by people not carrying a spare fivepence?

One car park visitor was clearly sufficiently irritated to label the machine with exactly what he or she thought of the pricing policy (third photo above)!

Dublin Bus ticket details at Dublin Airport

An interesting case: Dublin Bus

One detail which was thrown up in the comments last time by Undulattice is that at least one no-change-given policy, that of Dublin Bus, is accompanied by the ability to get a refund if you really want, by taking your receipt to Dublin Bus’s headquarters (which are at least located in a fairly prominent place in the city centre), as explained on signs such as the above (photographed at Dublin Airport earlier this year):

Dublin Bus have operated an ‘Exact Fare – No Change’ policy for years now. In the case of over-payment, they issue a ticket receipt which can be exchanged at Dublin Bus HQ.
Oh, and they don’t accept notes either!

and Damien added this:

I can’t remember which one, but there was a charity in Dublin that started collecting the Bus refund receipts and cashing them as donations. Great idea.

The Jack and Jill Children’s Foundation, St Francis Hospice and Barnardos are among the charities actively asking for the receipts – as Barnardos says:

Did it ever occur to you that you are throwing away real money – and lots of it!

As much as €750,000 a year is going into rubbish bins across the county!!

In 2004 there were over 150 million passenger journeys on Dublin Bus routes right across the city. If ONLY 1% of those journeys were over–paid by 5c that’s a total of €750,000 that often ends up in the bins!

This forum discussion from 2004 suggests (how accurately, I don’t know) that Dublin Bus has more than €9 million in unreturned change. As with the car parking overpayments, how do accounting standards deal with this kind of overpayment arrangement? Can budgets be drawn up based on projections of massive overpayments along these lines? Are there businesses (bus companies, car parks, etc) that are only profitable because of the scale of overpayment? Some forum posts suggest that drivers may pocket and redeem a lot of the receipts themselves, which may further complicate the picture further.

The charity initiatives are a fascinating way to ‘fight the system’ and achieve some good – a mechanism for recovering overpayment en masse – and it does make me wonder just how much overpayment Transport for London’s bus ticket machines receive each year, and how that money is accounted for.

A different strategy

Back to parking ticket machines, Carrie McLaren of the brilliant Stay Free! commented that:

…in New York, like most major cities in the US, parking meters are priced way below their market value – so “the house always wins” claim wouldn’t apply here. Anyone able to find a metered spot is getting a real bargain, even if they don’t have the right change.

This is an interesting strategy, very different to that used by most car parking operations in the UK. Restricting the number of spaces and not deliberately overcharging for them seems to be clearly targeted at discouraging drivers from even thinking of driving into the city, while not ripping off those who need to do so. This generally does not happen in the UK, where parking charges (and fines) are a major revenue source for councils and private operators, and while high charges (and forcing overpayment) may pay lip-service to ‘discouraging traffic’, the still-full car parks would tend to show up that this does not work. I’ll look further at this, and ‘architecture of control’ strategies for parking, in a future post.

Ticket off

Parking meter in Salem - picture from Henry

Henry e-mails:

“Perhaps this is too obvious: parking meters; and I mean modern digital ones, enforce arbitrary limits on how much you can pay for at a time (4 hours). Is this to share the enjoyment of democratic parking (at a dollar an hour), or some social engineering ploy to force productive members of the workforce to enter the valet service economy, and thus a reminder of the fact that if they work harder, they could afford a driver?”

Tongue-in-cheek aside, there is something unhelpful, to some extent manipulative, designed into a lot of parking ticket machines (as well as some other vending machines). Take a look at the following machine I photographed this morning in a shoppers’ car park in Pinner, Middlesex, UK:

Ticket machine in Pinner, Middlesex
What's the excuse?

What’s the excuse for the ‘No change given – Overpayment accepted’ policy? It’s not as though it’s technically too difficult to give change: these aren’t mechanical penny gobstopper machines from the 1950s. Sure, it would make each machine a bit more expensive to include the change-giving function, but so what? If every one of the hundreds of people who park each day paid, say, 5 pence extra the cost of the more expensive machine would be recouped within a week or two, surely?

Of course, the real reason for the ‘no change given’ policy is that many customers who arrive at the machine without the 50p + 20p (or other combinations needed to make 70p) will put in £1 instead. Thus for a certain percentage of customers, the machine receives 1.43 times the revenue it ought to. I don’t know how many people overpay, but the point is, none of them can underpay. The system is asymmetric. The house always wins.

Does the car park operator (in this case Harrow Council) factor the extra revenue it receives from forcing overpayment into its projected revenues from the machines? Do they record how many people overpay, and use that statistic to plan next year’s budget? Or is overpayment treated as an ‘unexpected’ windfall? Or perhaps, just perhaps, without the overpayment the car park would make a loss?

Any more examples of awful ‘no change given’ implementations, or related anecdotes, musings, etc, much appreciated!

Review: We Know What You Want by Martin Howard

A couple of weeks ago, Martin Howard sent me details of his blog, How They Change Your Mind and book, We Know What You Want: How They Change Your Mind, published last year by Disinformation. You can review the blog for yourselves – it has some fascinating details on product placement, paid news segments, astroturfing and other attempts to manipulate public opinion for political and commercial reasons, including “10 disturbing trends in subliminal persuasion” – but I’ve been reading the book, and there are some interesting ‘architectures of control’ examples:

Supermarket layouts

We’ve seen before some of the tricks used by stores to encourage customers to spend longer in certain aisles and direct them to certain products, but Howard’s book goes into more detail on this, including a couple of telling quotes:

“About 80 percent of consumer choices are made in store and 60 percent of those are impulse purchases.”
Herb Meyers, CEO Gerstman + Meyers, NY

“We want you to get lost.”
Tim Magill, designer, Mall of America

Planograms, the designed layout and positioning of products within stores for optimum sales, are discussed, with the observation that (more expensive) breakfast cereals, toys and sweets are often placed at children’s eye level specifically to make the most of ‘pester power’; aromas designed to induce “appropriate moods” are often used, along with muzak with its tempo deliberately set to encourage or discourage customers’ prolonged browsing. There’s also a mention of stores deliberately rearranging their layouts to force customers to walk around more trying to find their intended purchases, thus being exposed to more product lines:

“Some stores actually switch the layout every six months to intentionally confuse shoppers.”

The book also refers readers to a detailed examination of supermarket tactics produced by the Waterloo Public Interest Research Group in Ontario, The Supermarket Tour [PDF] which I’ll be reading and reporting on in due course. It looks to have an in-depth analysis of psychological and physical design techniques for manipulating customers’ behaviour.

Monopolistic behaviour

Howard looks at the exploitation of ‘customers’ caught up in mass-crowds or enclosed systems, such as people visiting concerts or sports where they cannot easily leave the stadium or arena or have time, space or quiet to think for themselves, and are thus especially susceptible to subliminal (or not-so-subliminal) advertising and manipulation of their behaviour, even down to being forced into paying through the nose for food or drink thanks to a monopoly (‘stadium pouring rights’):

“One stadium even hindered fans from drinking [free] water by designing their stadium without water fountains. A citizens’ protest pressured the management into having them installed.”

Patents

The ‘remote nervous system manipulation’ patents of Hendricus Loos (which I previously mentioned here and here, having first come across them back in 2001) are explained together with a whole range of other patents detailing methods of controlling individuals’ behaviour, from the more sinister, e.g. remotely altering brain waves (PDF link, Robert G Malech, 1976) to the merely irritating (methods for hijacking users’ browsers and remotely changing the function of commands – Brian Shuster, 2002/5) and even a Samsung patent (1995) which involves using a TV’s built-in on-screen display to show adverts for a few seconds when the user tries to switch the TV off.

A number of these patents are worth further investigation, and I will attempt to do so at some point.

The book itself

We Know What You Want is a quick, concise, informative read with major use of magazine/instructional-style graphics to draw issues out of the text. It was apparently written to act as a more visual companion volume to Douglas Rushkoff’s Coercion, which I haven’t (yet) read, so I can’t comment on how well that relationship works. But it’s an interesting survey of some of the techniques used to persuade and manipulate in retailing, media, online and in social situations. It’s easy to dip into at random, and the wide-ranging diversity of practices and techniques covered (from cults to music marketing, Dale Carnegie to MLM) somehow reminds me of Vance Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders, even if the design and format of this book (with its orange-and-black colour scheme and extensive clipart) is completely different.

I’ll end on a stand-out quote from the book, originally applied to PR but appropriate to the whole field of manipulating behaviour:

“It is now possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing it.”
Edward Bernays

Some links: miscellaneous, pertinent to architectures of control

Ulises Mejias on ‘Confinement, Education and the Control Society’ – fascinating commentary on Deleuze’s societies of control and how the instant communication and ‘life-long learning’ potential (and, I guess, everyware) of the internet age may facilitate control and repression:

“This is the paradox of social media that has been bothering me lately: an ’empowering’ media that provides increased opportunities for communication, education and online participation, but which at the same time further isolates individuals and aggregates them into masses —more prone to control, and by extension more prone to discipline.”


Slashdot on ‘A working economy without DRM?’ – same debate as ever, but some very insightful comments


Slashdot on ‘Explaining DRM to a less-experienced PC user’ – I particularly like SmallFurryCreature’s ‘Sugar cube’ analogy


‘The Promise of a Post-Copyright World’ by Karl Fogel – extremely clear analysis of the history of copyright and, especially, the way it has been presented to the public over the centuries


(Via BoingBoing) The Entertrainer – a heart monitor-linked TV controller: your TV stays on with the volume at a usable level only while you keep exercising at the required rate. Similar concept to Gillian Swan’s Square-Eyes

Some interesting aspects of built-in obsolescence

A lot of wasted computing power

This San Francisco Chronicle review of Giles Slade’s Made to Break: Technology and Obsolescence in America (which I’ve just ordered and look forward to reading and reviewing here in due course) mentions some interesting aspects of built-in (planned) obsolescence – and planned failure – in technology and product design:
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