All posts filed under “Killjoy technology

Anti-teenager “pink lights to show up acne”

Pink lights in Mansfield. Photo from BBC

In a similar vein to the Mosquito, intentionally shallow steps (and, superficially at least–though not really–blue lighting in toilets, which Raph d’Amico dissects well here), we now have residents’ associations installing pink lighting to highlight teenagers’ acne and so drive them away from an area:

Residents of a Nottinghamshire housing estate have installed pink lights which show up teenagers’ spots in a bid to stop them gathering in the area.

Members of Layton Burroughs Residents’ Association, Mansfield say they have bought the lights in a bid to curb anti-social behaviour. The lights are said to have a calming influence, but they also highlight skin blemishes.

The National Youth Agency said it would just move the problem somewhere else. Peta Halls, development officer for the NYA, said: “Anything that aims to embarrass people out of an area is not on. “The pink lights are indiscriminate in that they will impact on all young people and older people who do not, perhaps, have perfect skin.

I had heard about this before (thanks, Ed!) but overlooked posting it on the blog – other places the pink lights have been used include Preston and Scunthorpe, to which this quote refers (note the youths=yobs equation):

Yobs are being shamed out of anti-social behaviour by bright pink lights which show up their acne.

The lights are so strong they highlight skin blemishes and have been successful in moving on youths from troublespots who view pink as being “uncool.”

Manager Dave Hey said: “With the fluorescent pink light we are trying to embarass young people out of the area. “The pink is not seen as particularly macho among young men and apparently it highlights acne and blemishes in the skin.

A North Lincolnshire Council spokesman said: “[…]”On the face of it this sounds barmy. But do young people really want to hang around in an area with a pink glow that makes any spots they have on their face stand out?”

With the Mansfield example making the news, it’s good to see that there is, at least, quite a lot of comment pointing out the idiocy of the hard-of-thinking who believe that this sort of measure will actually ‘solve the problem of young people’, whatever that might mean, as well as the deeply discriminatory nature of the plan. For example, this rather dim (if perhaps tongue-in-cheek) light in the Nottingham Evening Post has been comprehensively rebutted by a commenter:

Trying to use someone’s personal looks against them simply because they meet up with friends and have a social life…

If this is the case then I would personally love to see adults banned from meeting up in pubs, parties and generally getting drunk. I would also love to see something making fun of their elderlyness and wrinkle problems.

I don’t understand why Britain hates its young people so much. But I can see it storing up a great deal of problems for the future.

Photo from this BBC story

“Steps are like ready-made seats” (so let’s make them uncomfortable)

Image from Your Local Guardian website

Adrian Short let me know about something going on in Sutton, Surrey, at the same time both fundamentally pathetic and indicative of the mindset of many public authorities in ‘dealing with’ emergent behaviour:

An area in Rosehill, known locally as “the steps”, is to be re-designed to stop young people sitting there.

Not only will the steps be made longer and more shallow to make them uncomfortable to sit on, but no handrail will be installed just in case teens decide to lean against it.

Explaining the need for the changes, St Helier Councillor David Callaghan said: “At the moment the steps are like ready-made seats so changes will be made to make the area less attractive to young people.

It’s well worth reading the readers’ comments, since – to many people’s apparent shock – Emma, a ‘young person’, actually read the article and responded with her thoughts and concerns, spurring the debate into what seems to be a microcosm of the attitudes, assumptions, prejudices and paranoia that define modern Britain’s schizophrenic attitude to its ‘young people’. The councillor quoted above responded too – near the bottom of the page – and Adrian’s demolition of his ‘understanding’ of young people is direct and eloquent:

One thing young people and older people have in common is a desire to be left alone to do their own thing, provided that they are not causing trouble to others. People like Emma and her friends are not. They do not want to be told that they can go to one place but not another. They do not want to be cajoled, corralled and organised by the state — they get enough of that at school. They certainly do not want to be disadvantaged as a group because those in charge — you — are unable to deal appropriately with a tiny minority of troublemakers in their midst.

EDIT: Adrian sends me a link to the council’s proposal [PDF, 55 kb] which contains a few real gems – as he puts it:

I really have no idea how they can write things like this with a straight face:

“It is normal practice to provide handrails to assist pedestrians. However, these have purposely been omitted from the proposals, as they could provide loiterers with something to lean against.”

and then,

“The scheme will cater for all sections of the local community.”

Wow.

“It’s a weak society that sees removing them as the solution”

West Hampstead Library - photo by Pashmin@ Following on from our recent look at the strategic design of public benches, BBC London’s Jimmy Tam let me know about this story in the Camden New Journal:

A public bench has been removed from outside West Hampstead Library [photo from Pashmin@’s Flickr] after it became a magnet for street drinkers.
The Town Hall now plan to use “perch” benches in the area in a bid to cut anti-social behaviour.

Singer-songwriter David Thompson, 52, of Sumatra Road, has penned a song called Menches on Benches, celebrating the camaraderie among users of public benches. He said: “A lot of people who are down and out or just high on drugs sit there at night which might be the reason they took them away, but it’s a weak society that sees removing them as the solution. You have a fellowship on the bench.”

Norma Sedler, who lives in Hillfield Road, added: “Just because a few druggies and winos started ­sitting on the seats the KGB come along and take away our lovely seats with proper backs and slats and all we have left is to sit on the pavement. When I was a kid there were always old people watching the world go by. Now I’m old myself, it’s nice if you’re going on an errand to sit down on a bench.”

Is it not the council’s action which is the anti-social behaviour here?

Rolling bench

On completely the other side of the coin, this (via) – thanks to Ray Stone for telling me about it – seems a clever piece of design which actually benefits the user: the bench surface can be rotated after it’s rained, so that a user need not sit on a wet surface. Some of the comments at YankoDesign do suggest that the underside could actually get wetter due to water running down the surface and not evaporating in the sunlight; this might be a valid concern.

Rolling Bench

Interesting, though, how quickly it was before someone commented “How long would it take before somebody rolled a homeless guy off the bench?”

Bench design by Sungwoo Park, Yoonha Paick, Jongdeuk Son, Banseok Yoon, Eunbi Cho & Minjung Sim.

The right to click

English Heritage, officially the Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission for England, and funded by the taxpayer and by visitors to some of its properties, does a great deal of very good work in widening public appreciation of, and engagement with, history and the country’s heritage.

But its ViewFinder image gallery website* sadly falls into the trap of trying to restrict public engagement rather than make it easy. Yes, someone specified the old ‘right click disabled‘ policy:

English Heritage Viewfinder: right-click disabled
Screenshots of this page, launched from this page.

Now, the image in question – here’s a direct link – which happens to be an engraving of the former Datchet bridge**, in 1840 according to this page (with a colour image) is, even taking English Heritage’s “1860-1922” suggested date range, surely out of copyright, so presumably there cannot be any ‘legal’ question over ‘letting’ people save a copy (which is easiest to do by right-clicking on the most common operating systems and browsers). Using Javascript to remove the browser toolbars and menus also hides the ability to print the image for most users, presumably also deliberately.

Yes, of course, many (most?) readers of this post will know how to get around the no-right-click architecture of control, but you’re reading a technology blog; think of whom the site is presumably aimed at. It is supposed to be a resource to encourage public engagement with history and heritage. Most users will be computer-literate enough to know how to search and probably familiar with right-clicking, but not to mess round with selectively disabling Javascript. Why should they have to? Incidentally, if you do disable Javascript entirely, you can’t even view an enlarged image at all:

English Heritage Viewfinder

What actual use to the public, other than for momentary on-screen interest, is a photo archive website where nothing can be ‘done’ with the images? What is a child doing a local history project supposed to do? Order a print at £18.80 for each photo and then scan it in? Does English Heritage really think that the ability for someone to save or print or e-mail a low-resolution 72 dpi image is going to devalue or compete with the organisation in some way?

It’s ridiculous: such a short-sighted, narrow-mindset policy removes a significant proportion of the usefulness of the site. I don’t know whether the site developer did this with or without English Heritage’s instruction or cognizance (and it was in 2002, so perhaps different thinking would apply today), but it seems that no-one bothered to think through what an actual user might want to get from interacting with the site.

In fact, regardless of the fact that this particular image (as with many others on the site) is in the public domain, even the images which are still under copyright (or “© English Heritage.NMR” as the site puts it, NMR being the National Monuments Record) should, of course, be freely downloadable, printable, and do-whatever-you-want-able. Their acquisition, preservation and cataloguing were paid for by the public, and they should all be available as widely, and easily, as possible. As it is, I would call the website a waste of public money, since it does not appear to offer what most intended users would expect and need.

Still, at least the site’s not one giant bundle of Flash. That would make it marginally more hassle to extract the images.

*Partially funded by the Big Lottery Fund, and thus not entirely directly taxpayer-funded, unless one regards the National Lottery as an extra tax on the hopeful and desperate, which some commentators would.
**Almost exactly the spot where I’ve been testing a prototype radio-controlled toy for a client this very afternoon, in fact, though the bridge is long gone.

A vein attempt?

Blue lighting makes it more difficult to see veins
Blue lighting makes it more difficult to see veins

Blue lighting is sometimes used in public toilets (restrooms) to make it more difficult for drug users to inject themselves (veins are harder to see). The above implementation is in Edinburgh, next to the Tron Kirk.

It was more difficult to see my veins through my skin, but there was normal-coloured lighting in the street outside, and one would assume that the users would thus just go outside instead, though the risk of detection is greater. (An additional result of the blue lighting is that, on going outside after spending more than a few seconds in the toilets, the daytime world appears much brighter and more optimistic, even on an overcast day: could retail designers or others make use of this effect? Do they already?)

So the blue lighting ‘works’, but is it really a good idea to increase the risk that an injection will be done wrongly – maybe multiple times? This is perhaps a similar argument to that surrounding delibrately reducing visibility at junctions: the architecture of control makes it more dangerous for the few users (and those their actions affect) who ignore or bypass the control. This seems to be an architecture of control with the potential to endanger life, although the actual stated intention behind it probably includes ‘saving lives’.

Without knowing more about addiction, however, I can’t say whether making it difficult for people to inject will really help stop them doing it; it would seem more likely that (as in the linked Argus story), the aim of the blue lighting is to move the ‘problem’ somewhere else rather than actually ‘solve’ it – as with the anti-homeless benches, in fact.

Another example in this kind of area is the use of smoke alarms specifically to prevent people smoking in toilets, e.g. on aeroplanes (the noise, and embarrassment, is a sufficient deterrent). There’s even been the suggestion of using the Mosquito high-pitched alarm coupled to a smoke detector to ‘prevent’ children smoking in school toilets (I’d expect that quite a few would deliberately try to set them off; I know I would have as a kid). A friend mentioned the practice of siting smoking shelters a long way from office buildings so that smokers are discouraged from going so often; this backfired for the company concerned, as smokers just took increasingly long breaks to make it ‘worth their while’ to walk the extra distance.

Review: Made to Break by Giles Slade

This TV wasn't made to break

Last month I mentioned some fascinating details on planned obsolescence gleaned from a review of Giles Slade‘s Made to Break: Technology and Obsolescence in America. Having now read the book for myself, here’s my review, including noteworthy ‘architectures of control’ examples and pertinent commentary.

Slade examines the phenomenon of obsolescence in products from the early 20th century to the present day, through chapters looking, roughly chronologically, at different waves of obsolescence and the reasons behind them in a variety of fields – including the razor-blade model in consumer products, the FM radio débâcle in the US, the ever-shortening life-cycles of mobile phones, and even planned malfunction in Cold War-era US technology copied by the USSR. While the book ostensibly looks at these subjects in relation to the US, it all rings true from an international viewpoint.*

The major factors in technology-driven obsolescence, in particular electronic miniaturisation, are well covered, and there is a very good treatment of psychological obsolescence, both deliberate (as in the 1950s US motor industry, the fashion industry – and in the manipulation techniques brought to widespread attention by Vance Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders) and unplanned but inherent to human desire (neophilia).

Philosophy of planned obsolescence

The practice of ‘death-dating’ – what’s often called built-in obsolescence in the UK – i.e., designing products to fail after a certain time (and very much an architecture of control when used to lock the consumer into replacement cycles) is dealt with initially within a Depression-era US context (see below), but continued with an extremely interesting look at a debate on the subject carried on in the editorials and readers’ letters of Design News in 1958-9, in which industrial designers and engineers argued over the ethics (and efficiency) of the practice, with the attitudes of major magazine advertisers and sponsors seemingly playing a part in shaping some attitudes. Fuelled by Vance Packard’s The Waste Makers, the debate, broadened to include psychological obsolescence as well, was extended to more widely-read organs, including Brooks Stevens (pro-planned obsolescence) and Walter Dorwin Teague (anti- ) going head-to-head in The Rotarian.

(The fact that this debate occurred so publicly is especially relevant, I feel, to the subject of architectures of control – especially over-restrictive DRM and certain surveillance-linked control systems – in our own era, since so far most of those speaking out against these are not the designers and engineers tasked with implementing them in our products and environments, but science-fiction authors, free software advocates and interested observers – you can find many of them in the blogroll to the right. But where is the ethical debate in the design literature or on the major design websites? Where is the morality discussion in our technology and engineering journals? There is no high-profile Vance Packard for our time. Yet.)

Slade examines the ideas of Bernard London, a Manhattan real estate broker who published a pamphlet, Ending the Depression through Planned Obsolescence, in 1932, in which he proposed a government-enforced replacement programme for products, to stimulate the economy and save manufacturers (and their employees) from ruin:

“London was dismayed that “changing habits of consumption [had] destroyed property values and opportunities for emplyment [leaving] the welfare of society … to pure chance and accident.” From the perspective of an acute and successful buinessman, the Depression was a new kind of enforced thrift.

London wanted the government to “assign a lease of life to shoes and homes and machines, to all products of manufacture … when they are first created.” After the allotted time expired:

“these things would be legally ‘dead’ and would be controlled by the duly appointed governmental agency and destroyed if there is widepsread unemployment. New products would constantly be pouring forth from the factories and marketplaces, to take the place of the obsolete, and the wheels of industry would be kept going… people would turn in their used and obsolete goods to certain governmental agencies… The individual surrendering… would receive from the Comptroller … a receipt… partially equivalent to money in the purchase of new goods.”

This kind of ultimate command economy also has a parallel in a Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World where consumers are indoctrinated into repetitive consumption for the good of the State, as Slade notes.

What I find especially interesting is how a planned system of ‘obsolete’ products being surrendered to governmental agencies resonates with take-back and recycling legislation in our own era. London’s consumers would effectively have been ‘renting’ the functions their products provided, for a certain amount of time pre-determined by “[boards of] competent engineers, economists and mathematicians, specialists in their fields.” (It’s not clear whether selling good second-hand would be prohibited or strictly regulated under London’s system – this sort of thing has been at least partially touched on in Japan though apparently for ‘safety’ reasons rather than to force consumption.)

This model of forced product retirement and replacement is not dissimilar to the ‘function rental’ model used by many manufacturers today – both high-tech (e.g. Rolls-Royce’s ‘Power by the Hour’) and lower-tech (e.g. photocopier rental to institutions), but if coupled to designed-in death-dating (which London was not expressly suggesting), we might end up with manufacturers being better able to manage their take-back responsibilities. For example, a car company required to take its old models back at their end of life would be able to operate more efficiently if it knew exactly when certain models would be returned. BMW doesn’t want to be taking back the odd stray 2006 3-series among its 2025 take-back programme, but if the cars could be sold in the first place with, say, a built-in 8-year lifetime (perhaps co-terminant with the warranty? Maybe the ECU switches itself off), this would allow precise management of returned vehicles and the recycling or disposal process. In ‘Optimum Lifetime Products‘ I applied this idea from an environmental point of view – since certain consumer products which become less efficient with prolonged usage, such as refrigerators really do have an optimum lifetime (in energy terms) when a full life-cycle analysis is done, why not design products to cease operation – and alert the manufacturer, or even actively disassemble – automatically when their optimum lifetime (perhaps in hours of use) is reached?

Shooting CRTs can be a barrel of laughs

The problem of electronic waste

Returning to the book, Slade gives some astonishing statistics on electronic waste, with the major culprits being mobile phones, discarded mainly through psychological obsolescence, televisions to be discarded in the US (at least) through a federally mandated standards change, and computer equipment (PCs and monitors) discarded through progressive technological obsolescence:

“By 2002 over 130 million still-working portable phones were retired in the United States. Cell phones have now achieved the dubious distinction of having the shortest life cycle of any consumer product in the country, and their life span is still declining. In Japan, they are discarded within a year of purchase… [P]eople who already have cell phones are replacing them with newer models, people who do not have cell phones already are getting their first ones (which they too will replace within approximately eighteen months), and, at least in some parts of the world, people who have only one cell phone are getting a second or third… In 2005 about 50,000 tons of these so-called obsolete phones were ‘retired’ [in the US alone], and only a fraction of them were disassembled for re-use. Altogether, about 250,000 tons of discarded but still usable cell phones sit in stockpiles in America, awaiting dismantling or disposal. We are standing on the precipice of an insurmountable e-waste storage that no landfill program so far imagined will be able to solve.

[I]n 2004 about 315 million working PCs were retired in North America… most would go straight to the scrap heap. These still-functioning but obsolete computers represented an enormous increase over the 63 million working PCs dumped into American landfills in 2003.

Obsolete cathode ray tubes used in computer monitors will already be in the trash… by the time a US government mandate goes into effect in 2009 committing all of the country to High-Definition TV [thus rendering every single television set obsolete]… the looming problem is not just the oversized analog TV siting in the family room… The fact is that no-one really knows how many smaller analog TVs still lurk in basements [etc.]… For more than a decade, about 20 to 25 million TVs have been sold annually in the United States, while only 20,000 are recycled each year. So, as federal regulations mandating HDTV come into effect in 2009, an unknown but substantially larger number of analog TVs will join the hundreds of millions of computer monitors entering America’s overcrowded, pre-toxic waste stream. Just this one-time disposal of ‘brown goods’ will, alone, more than double the hazardous waste problem in North America.”

Other than building hundreds of millions of Tesla coils or Jacob’s ladders, is there anything useful we could do with waste CRTs?

Planned malfunction for strategic reasons

The chapter ‘Weaponizing Planned Obsolescence’ discusses a CIA operation, inspired by economist Gus Weiss, to sabotage certain US-sourced strategic and weapon technology which the USSR was known to be acquiring covertly. This is a fascinating story, involving Texas Instruments designing and producing a chip-tester which would, after a few trust-building months, deliberately pass defective chips, and a Canadian software company supplying pump/valve control software intentionally modified to cause massive failure in a Siberian gas pipeline, which occurred in 1983:

“A three-kiloton blast, “the most monumental non-nuclear explosion and fire ever seen from space,” puzzled White House staffers and NATO analysts until “Gus Weiss came down the hall to tell his fellow NSC staffers not to worry.””

While there isn’t scope here to go into more detail on these examples, it raises an interesting question: to what extent does deliberate, designed-in sabotage happen for strategic reasons in other countries and industries? When a US company supplies weapons to a foreign power, is the software or material quality a little ‘different’ to that supplied to US forces? When a company supplies components to its competitors, does it ever deliberately select those with poorer tolerances or less refined operating characteristics?

I’ve come across two software examples specifically incorporating this behaviour – first, the Underhanded C Contest, run by Scott Craver:

“Imagine you are an application developer for an OS vendor. You must write portable C code that will inexplicably taaaaaake a looooooong tiiiiime when compiled and run on a competitor’s OS… The code must not look suspicious, and if ever anyone figures out what you did it best look like bad coding rather than intentional malfeasance.”

There’s also Microsoft’s apparently deliberate attempts to make MSN function poorly when using Opera:

“Opera7 receives a style sheet which is very different from the Microsoft and Netscape browsers. Looking inside the style sheet sent to Opera7 we find this fragment:

ul {
margin: -2px 0px 0px -30px;
}

The culprit is in the “-30px” value set on the margin property. This value instructs Opera 7 to move list elements 30 pixels to the left of its parent. That is, Opera 7 is explicitly instructed to move content off the side of its container thus creating the impression that there is something wrong with Opera 7.”

Levittown: designed-in privacy

Slade’s discussion of post-war trends in US consumerism includes an interesting architecture of control example, which is not in itself about obsolescence, but demonstrates the embedding of ‘politics’ into the built environment.The Levittown communities built by Levitt & Sons in early post-war America were planned to offer new residents a degree of privacy unattainable in inner-city developments, and as such, features which encouraged loitering and foot traffic (porches, sidewalks) were deliberately eliminated (this is similar thinking to Robert Moses’ apparently deliberate low bridges on certain parkways to prevent buses using them).

The book itself

Made to Break is a very engaging look at the threads that tie together ‘progress’ in technology and society in a number of fields of 20th century history. It’s clearly written with a great deal of research, and extensive referencing and endnotes, and the sheer variety of subjects covered, from fashion design to slide rules, makes it easy to read a chapter at a time without too much inter-chapter dependence. In some cases, there is probably too much detail about related issues not directly affecting the central obsolescence discussion (for example, I feel the chapter on the Cold War deviates a bit too much) but these tangential and background areas are also extremely interesting. Some illustrations – even if only graphs showing trends in e-waste creation – would also probably help attract more casual readers and spread the concern about our obsolescence habits to a wider public. (But then, a lack of illustrations never harmed The Hidden Persuaders‘ influence; perhaps I’m speaking as a designer rather than a typical reader).

All in all, highly recommended.

Skip

(*It would be interesting, however, to compare the consumerism-driven rapid planned obsolescence of post-war fins-‘n’-chrome America with the rationing-driven austerity of post-war Britain: did British companies in this era build their products (often for export only) to last, or were they hampered by material shortages? To what extent did the ‘make-do-and-mend’ culture of everyday 1940s-50s Britain affect the way that products were developed and marketed? And – from a strategic point of view – did the large post-war nationalised industries in, say, France (and Britain) take a similar attitude towards deliberate obsolescence to encourage consumer spending as many companies did in the Depression-era US? Are there cases where built-in obsolescence by one arm of nationalised industry adversely affected another arm?)