Category Archives: Europe

Friday quote: Super-Cannes by J G Ballard

A street in Cannes, autumn 2005

J G Ballard, Super-Cannes, chapter 29:

Thousands of people live and work here without making a single decision about right and wrong. The moral order is engineered into their lives along with the speed limits and the security systems.

Re-reading Ballard’s excellent Super-Cannes, since the way the winter afternoon sunlight suddenly caught a building a few days ago made me think sharply, momentarily, of the vast technology parks of Sophia-Antipolis. The above quote describes, essentially, architecture of control in a structural, sub-surface, context: in the sense of Robert Moses‘ low bridges, perhaps. Not just artefacts with politics, but entire environments and systems with agendas.

More on Ballard at the brilliant Ballardian.

(This is the first Friday quote for a long time. In fact there’s only been one previously; I’ll try to make it a regular feature of the blog. They won’t always be about architectures of control, but I’ll endeavour to make sure they’re always interesting.)

Locking users in by making it difficult to leave

eBay's 'My Account' section has no 'Delete account' facility

Privacy International has a report, ‘Dumb Design or Dirty Tricks?‘ on the practice of a number of popular websites – most notably eBay and Amazon – of lacking an easy or obvious way for a user to delete his or her account:

“Amazon provided the most blatant example of companies that refuse to provide account delete facilities… creating an account is relatively simple… However nowhere on the site can a customer actually delete an account. A trawl through all the ‘useful information’ statements (‘customer charter’, ‘privacy notice’ and ‘privacy policy’, ‘security guarantee’ and even ‘sign out from our site’) reveals nothing about closing your account, deleting your personal details, or terminating your relationship with Amazon. Even the site’s search function is useless for this: you can only search for products for purchase, not for information on how to manage your account. In fact, a search for ‘delete account’ even points to advertisements from ‘sponsors’ on how to open bank accounts.”

It is, of course, in no way ‘dumb design’, as the omission and obfuscation is entirely intentional: it is cunning design, frustrating a user’s attempts at exerting control by making it hard to leave. Just look at the efforts another high-profile name goes to for customer retention. It’s another feature deletion example, similar in spirit to, say, disabling the fast-forward button on PVRs.

(It’s unclear exactly what the immediate benefit is to Amazon or eBay to retain customers who want to leave and presumably are not going to be spending any more, except that a bigger customer base allows higher advertising rates, and also, as noted by PI: “The size of an online company’s customer base is a key element of its market value. Maintaining growth of that customer base is therefore a core indicator of their financial worth”; I suppose there is also the likelihood that customers may return at some point, and having an extant account removes one ‘hassle’ barrier to entry.)

PI believes that the absence of an easy account closure mechanism:

“breach[es] key elements of the Data Protection Act. No customer could reasonably be expected to invest the considerable time and effort required to investigate these sites, nor in our view should any responsible company create such obstacles.

As a consequence of this research, Privacy International has lodged a complaint with the UK Information Commissioner, requesting a formal investigation. This will be a test complaint, and has been directed at eBay.co.uk, which claims a user base of over ten million UK consumers.”

These are interesting examples of systems being designed to restrict users’ behaviour for commercial reasons, in an – on the face of it – extremely blatant way. There is some difference between a system which requires continuous payment, such as AOL, being designed to be difficult to cancel, and the eBay/Amazon examples, since the user is not locked in to paying a fee every month. But the effect for the locker-in is the same: more customers retained. There are plenty of parallels in designed-in lock-ins from other industries, from cigarettes and ink cartridges to deliberate software incompatability – even in Web 2.0 – and vendor lock-in generally.

Spiked: ‘Enlightening the future’

The always interesting Spiked (which describes itself as an “independent online phenomenon”) has a survey, Enlightening the Future, in which selected “experts, opinion formers and interesting thinkers” are asked about “key questions facing the next generation – those born this year, who will reach the age of 18 in 2024″.

The survey is ongoing throughout the summer with more articles to be added, but based on the current responses, I can find only two commentators who touch on the issue of technology being used to restrict and control public freedom. Don Braben, of the Venture Research Group, comments that:

“The most important threat by far comes to us today from the insidious tides of bureaucracy because they strangle human ingenuity and undermine our very ability to cope. Unless we can find effective ways of liberating our pioneers within about a decade or so, the economic imperatives mean that society’s breakdown could be imminent.”

However, it’s Matthew Parris who hits the nail on the head:

“Resist the arguments for increasing state control of individual lives and identities, and relentless information gathering. Info-tech will be handing autocrats and governments astonishing new possibilities: this is one technological advance which does need to be watched, limited and sometimes resisted.”

Embedding control in society: the end of freedom

Bye bye debate.

Henry Porter’s chilling Blair Laid Bare – which I implore you to read if you have the slightest interest in your future – contains an equally worrying quote from the LSE’s Simon Davies noting the encroachment of architectures of control in society itself:

“The second invisible change that has occurred in Britain is best expressed by Simon Davies, a fellow at the London School of Economics, who did pioneering work on the ID card scheme and then suffered a wounding onslaught from the Government when it did not agree with his findings. The worrying thing, he suggests, is that the instinctive sense of personal liberty has been lost in the British people.

“We have reached that stage now where we have gone almost as far as it is possible to go in establishing the infrastructures of control and surveillance within an open and free environment,” he says. “That architecture only has to work and the citizens only have to become compliant for the Government to have control.
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Policing Crowds: Privatizing Security

Policing Crowds logo

The Policing Crowds conference is taking place 24-25 June 2006 in Berlin, examining many aspects of controlling the public and increasing business involvement in this field – ‘crime control as industry’. Technologies designed specifically to permit control and monitoring of the public, such as CCTV and many RFID applications, will also be discussed.

The conference takes as its starting point the techniques and policies being used to control and monitor the massive crowds currently descended on German cities for the World Cup, but extends this view into the broader implications for future society:

“The global sports and media mega event is also a mega security show. Essential part of the event is the largest display of domestic security strength in Germany since 1945: More than 260,000 personnel drawn from the state police forces (220,000), the federal police (30,000), the secret services (an unknown number), private security companies (12,000) and the military (7,000) are guarding the World Cup. In addition, 323 foreign police officers vested with executive powers support the policing of train stations, air- and seaports and fan groups. The NATO assists with the airborne surveillance systems AWACS to control air space over host cities. On the ground Germany is suspending the Schengen Agreement and reinstating border checks during the World Cup to regulate the international flow of visitors. Tournament venues and their vicinity as well as “public viewing” locations in downtown areas are converted into high-security zones with access limited to registered persons and pacified crowds only. The overall effort is supported and mediated by sophisticated surveillance, information and communication technology: RFID chips in the World Cup tickets, mobile finger print scanners, extensive networks of CCTV surveillance, DNA samples preventively taken from alleged hooligans – huge amounts of personal data from ticket holders, staff, football supporters and the curious public are collected, processed and shared by the FIFA, the police and the secret services.

Studying the security architecture and strategies tested and implemented at the World Cup is more than focusing on an individual event. It is a looking into a prism which bundles and locally mediates global trends in contemporary policing and criminal policies. Thus, we have chosen the context of the World Cup to outline and discuss these trends in an international and comparative perspective.”

The sheer scale of this planned control is certainly enough to make one stop and think. It is, effectively, an entire system designed for the single purpose of controlling people within it.

If it’s possible during a major event, it’s possible all of the time. Not sure I want to be living near Heathrow come the 2012 Olympics in London.

Thanks, Jens.

New Scientist : Crowds silenced by delayed echoes

Via Boing Boing‘Hooligan chants silenced by delayed echoes’, a New Scientist story looking at the work of Dutch researchers who are using out-of-sync replayed sound to disrupt synchronised chanting at football matches.

“Soccer hooligans could be silenced by a new sound system that neutralises chanting with a carefully timed echo.
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