All posts filed under “Orwellian

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.

Mosquito controversy goes high-profile

Mosquito - image from Compound Security

The Mosquito anti-teenager sound device, which we’ve covered on this site a few times, was yesterday heavily criticised by the Children’s Commissioner for England, Sir Albert Aynsley-Green, launching the BUZZ OFF campaign in conjunction with Liberty and the National Youth Agency: Buzz Off logo

Makers and users of ultra-sonic dispersal devices are being told to “Buzz Off” today by campaigners who say the device, which emits a high-pitched sound that targets under 25 year olds, is not a fair or reasonable solution for tackling anti-social behaviour. The campaign… is calling for the end to the use of ultra-sonic dispersal device. There are estimated to be 3,500 used across the country.
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Smile, you’re on Countermanded Camera

IDPS : Miquel Mora
Image from Miquel Mora’s website

We’ve looked before at a number of technologies and products aimed at ‘preventing’ photography and image recording in some way, from censoring photographs of ‘copyrighted content’ and banknotes, to Georgia Tech’s CCD-flooding system.

Usually these systems are about locking out the public, or removing freedoms in some way (a lot of organisations seem to fear photography), but a few ‘fightback’ devices have been produced, aiming to empower the individual against others (e.g. Hewlett-Packard’s ‘paparazzi-proof’ camera) or against authority (e.g. the Backflash system intended to render a car number plate unreadable when photographed by a speed camera). The field of sousveillance – lots of interesting articles by Régine Debatty here – is also a ‘fightback’ in a parallel vein.

Taking the fightback idea further, into the realms of everyware, Miquel Mora’s IDentity Protection System, shown last month at the RCA’s Great Exhibition (many thanks to Katrin Svabo Bech for the tip-off), aims to offer the individual a way to control how his or her image is recorded – again, Régine from We Make Money Not Art:

With IDPS (IDentity Protection System), interaction designer Miquel Mora is proposing a new way to protect our visual identity from the invasion of ubiquitous surveillance cameras. He had a heap of green stickers that could stick to your jacket. Or anywhere else. The sticker blurred your image on the video screen.

“With the IDPS project I wanted to sparkle [sic.] debate about all the issues related to identity privacy,” explains Miquel. “Make people think about how our society has become a complete surveillance machine. Our identities have already been stored as data in many servers ready to be tracked. And our self image is our last resort. So we really need tools to protect our privacy. We need tools that can allow us to hide or reveal our visual image. We must have the control over it.”

“For example in one scenario a girl is wearing a tooth jewellery with IDPS technology embedded. So when she smiles she reveals it and it triggers the camera to protect her. With IDPS users can always feel comfortable, knowing that with a simple gesture like smiling, they are in control. The IDPS technology could be embedded in all kind of items, from simple badges to clothes or jewellery. For the working prototype I’m using Processing to track the stickers and pixelate the image around when it founds one.”

IDPS : Miquel Mora
Image from Miquel Mora’s website

While the use of stickers or similar tags (why not RFID?) which can be embedded in items such as jewellery is a very neat idea aesthetically, I am not sure what economic/legal incentive would drive CCTV operators or manufacturers to include something such as IDPS in their systems and respect the wishes of users. CCTV operators generally do not want anyone to be able to exclude him or herself from being monitored and recorded, whether that’s by wearing a hoodie or a smart black hat with maroon ribbon. Or indeed a veil of some kind.

Something which actively fought back against unwanted CCTV or other surveillance intrusion, such as reversing the Georgia Tech system in some way (e.g. detecting the CCD of a digital security camera, and sending a laser to blind it temporarily, or perhaps some kind of UV strobe) would perhaps be more likely to ‘succeed’, although I’m not sure how legal it would be. Still, with RCA-quality interaction designers homing in on these kinds of issues, I think we’re going to see some very interesting concepts and solutions in the years ahead…

Deliberately creating worry

A European airport

Swedish creativity lecturer Fredrik Härén mentions an interesting architecture of control anecdote in his The Idea Book:

One of the cafés in an international European airport was often full. The problem was that people sat nursing their coffees for a long time as they waited for their planes to depart. The café asked itself: How can we encourage our customers to vacate the tables more quickly?

Their first ideas were probably along the lines of uncomfortable chairs, a seat charge, clear the tables immediately and so forth. However, the idea they finally decided upon was this: to turn off the flight monitors in the café! This made people worry about missing their flights, which led to them looking for monitors that worked, thus leaving empty tables. When the café had enough empty tables, the flight monitors suddenly started working again to attract new customers.

Creating worry in the customers’ minds would certainly seem to be effective – perhaps more effective than simply deliberately uncomfortable seating, which we’ve come across a number of times before. But is it really a sensible tactic? Won’t those customers, if they use the airport again, consciously avoid “that café where we nearly missed out flight last time because they turned the monitors off”? Has it occurred to the café operators that, perhaps, their customers value sitting down to ‘nurse’ their coffees as part of the coffee-drinking experience?

Härén doesn’t comment on this ‘contempt for the customer’ issue directly, but he does go on to suggest more positive ways of addressing the ‘problem’:

Formulating a question in different ways can help you look at a problem from different angles. In the case above, for example, you can find new angles by putting the question in another way: How can we sell more? So, instead of finding solutions to the problem of getting people to vacate the tables more quickly, you can also come up with solutions such as set up a take-away stand so that people can have a snack or drink by the departure gates, or sell picnic bags that passengers can take onto the planes with them and so on.

Are there other ‘built environment’ examples of deliberately creating worry to force certain behaviour onto users? What about product design?

Of course, much pharmaceutical (and anti-virus software) marketing and government security/crime propaganda through the ages has taken this line (it’s almost expected), but physical examples seem rarer.

“You do not enumerate the freedoms you want”

'V' sign and hand in Englefield Green, Surrey

Crosbie Fitch, in the Atom feed summary for this post looking at how ‘freedom’ can and should be defined, says:

You see copyright’s suspension of your freedom to perform particular activities, and so for each activity you demand a specific freedom. This is how the GPL arose.
This is an inverted perspective from which to define ‘free culture’ (and free software).
To define freedom you define its constraints – you do not enumerate the freedoms you want.
This is because freedom is what we start off with in the first place. We constrain it to make it better. It is when we under or over-constrain it that we make it worse.

It’s the “To define freedom you define its constraints – you do not enumerate the freedoms you want” which especially stands out to me. This seems such an important principle, yet one which so many politicians entirely ignore when they talk about their commitments to ‘human rights’.

Am I being overly simplistic to equate this to the contrast between a ‘planned’ society – where everything is banned unless specifically permitted in an enumerated list of freedoms – and an ‘evolving’ society – where everything is permitted unless specifically banned? (Also: how does the contrast between codified Roman law and ‘evolving’ common law compare to this?)

Whatever the political and legal comparisons might be, the principle is certainly pertinent to the rise of architectures of control in technology. Up until just a few years ago, most technology was effectively ‘open’, assuming you could get hold of it. All of us had freedom to do what we wanted with it – take it apart, modify it, repurpose it, improve it, break it, even if the originators had never expressly intended anything like this, and even if it were ‘illegal’. Now, though, we have (some) technology into which intentions can be codified. We have products with hyper-restrictive End-User Licence Agreements which we must accept before we use them, and which can report back if we don’t abide by them. We have products which are intended to provide one-function-and-nothing-but-that-function, and are designed to frustrate or punish users who try anything different. We have politicians seeking to specify exactly what technology can and can’t do. How do I know what freedoms I want until I’ve experimented? How can I even explain them until I’ve experienced them? Should the progress of tomorrow really be shackled by registering as law the prejudices and errors of today?

Of course, in the context of this blog, I’m merely striking the key-note once again, and that can make for a very dull tune. But that phrase, “you do not enumerate the freedoms you want,” will stay with me. It’s important.

West Coast code meets Far East code

Thanks to Mr Person at Text Savvy, I’ve just learned that this blog is blocked in China:

Images from the Great Firewall of China test.

I don’t know if that’s good or bad. From a censorship point of view, it’s bad, but it’s certainly interesting to be able to say that the blog’s blocked in China, even if it’s just for a rather prosaic reason (using WordPress?) as Mr Person suggests, and not the incendiary demagoguery contained within these posts and comments.

(Additionally interesting is that as the whole of seems to be blocked, I might not have any more of my portfolio items appearing on Chinese design sites. One site even had me listed alongside Karim Rashid for a while, which was odd and flattering, perhaps, though I don’t think he’ll be losing sleep over it!)