All posts filed under “Prophecy

Interview with Sir Clive

Sir Clive Sinclair (BBC image)Chris Vallance of Radio 4’s excellent iPM has done a thoughtful interview with Sir Clive Sinclair, ranging across many subjects, from personal flying machines to the Asus Eee, and touching on the subject of consumer understanding of technology, and the degree to which the public can engage with it:

Your [Chris Vallance’s] generation really understood the computers, and today’s generation know they’re just a tool, and don’t really get to grips with them… When I was starting in business, and when I was a child, electronics was a huge hobby, and you could buy components on the street and make all sort of things, and people did. But that also has all passed; it’s almost forgotten.

It’s true, of course, that there are still plenty of hobbyist-makers out there, including in disciplines that just weren’t open before, and if anything, initiatives such as Make and Instructables – and indeed the whole free software and open source movements – have helped raise the profile of making, hacking, modding and other democratic innovation. It’s no secret that Clive himself is a proponent of Linux and open source in general for future low-cost computing, as is mentioned briefly in the interview, and the impact of the ZX series in children’s bedrooms (together with BBC Micros at school) was, to some extent, a fantastic constructionist success for a generation in Britain.

But is Clive right? How many schoolkids nowadays make their own radios or burglar alarms or write their own games? When they do, is it a result of enlightened parents or self-directed inquisitiveness? Or are we guilty of applying our own measures of ‘engagement’ with technology? After all, you’re reading something published using WordPress, which was started by a teenager. Personally, I’m extremely optimistic that the future will lead to much greater technological democratisation, and hope to work, wherever possible, to contribute to achieving that.

I’ve worked for Clive, as a designer/engineer, on and off, for a number of years, and it’s pleasing to have an intelligent media interview with him that doesn’t simply regurgitate and chortle over the C5, but instead tries to tap his vision and thoughts on technical society and its future.

Silicon Dreams

Incidentally, Clive’s 1984 speech to the US Congressional Clearinghouse on the Future, mentioned in the interview, is extremely interesting – quite apart from the almost Randian style of some of it – as much as for the mixture of what we might now see as mundanities among the far-sighted vision as for the prophetic clarity, with talk of guided 200mph maglev cars and the colonisation of the galaxy alongside the development of a cellular phone network and companion robots for the elderly. Of course, the future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed yet.

Talk of information technology may be misleading. It is true that one of the features of the coming years is a dramatic fall, perhaps by a factor of 100, in the cost of publishing as video disc technology replaces paper and this may be as significant as the invention of the written word and Caxton’s introduction of movable type.

Talk of information technology confuses an issue – it is used to mean people handling information rather than handling machines and there is little that is fundamental in this. The real revolution which is just starting is one of intelligence. Electronics is replacing man’s mind, just as steam replaced man’s muscle but the replacement of the slight intelligence employed on the production line is only the start.

And then there is this, which seems to predict electronic tagging of offenders:

Consider, for example, the imprisonment of offenders. Unless conducted with a biblical sense of retribution, this procedure attempts to reduce crime by deterrence and containment. It is, though, very expensive and the rate of recidivism lends little support to its curative properties.

Given a national telephone computer net such as I have described briefly, an alternative appears. Less than physically dangerous criminals could be fitted with tiny transporters so that their whereabouts, to a high degree of precision, could he monitored and recorded constantly. Should this raise fears of an Orwellian society we could offer miscreants the alternative of imprisonment. I am confident of the general preference.

The secret

“The secret to getting ahead in the 21st century is capitalizing on people doing what they want to do, rather than trying to get them to do what you want to do.”

(Glenn Reynolds of, in a Wired article quoted at the Public Journalism network)

I think this applies very much to issues of control in products, systems and environments, in addition to the blogging context in which it was spoken, just so long as people are aware that there are alternatives available which do let them do what they want. eMusic exists, with a DRM-free format, but more people still use iTunes. Why?

As Cory Doctorow has so often put it, “No-one wakes up in the morning wanting to do less with his or her stuff.” It will be especially interesting to see how businesses built on the model Reynolds expresses fare in the years ahead. Is this really the secret to getting ahead? Will we really have companies and governments succeeeding by striving to help and empower people, or will the lure of increased control prove too attractive?

BBC: Surveillance drones in Merseyside

From the BBC: ‘Police play down spy planes idea’:

“Merseyside Police’s new anti-social behaviour (ASB) task force is exploring a number of technology-driven ideas.

But while the use of surveillance drones is among them, they would be a “long way off”, police said.

“The idea of the drone is a long way off, but it is about exploring all technological possibilities to support our war on crime and anti-social behaviour.”

Note that “anti-social behaviour” is mentioned separately to “crime.” Why? Also, nice appropriation of the “war on xxx” phrasing.

“It plans to utilise the latest law enforcement technology, including automatic number plate recognition (ANPR), CCTV “head-cams” and metal-detecting gloves.”

This country’s had it.

We’ve got Avon & Somerset Police using helicopters with high-intensity floodlights to “blind groups of teenagers temporarily” and councils using tax-payers’ money to install devices to cause deliberate auditory pain to a percentage of the population, again, whether or not they have committed a crime. Anyone would think that those in power despised their public. Perhaps they do.

Has it ever occurred to the police that tackling the causes of the problem might be a better solution than attacking the symptoms with a ridiculous battery of ‘technology’?

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.


(*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?)

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.”


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

Transcranial magnetic stimulation

Remote magnetic manipulation of nervous systems - Hendricus Loos
An image from Hendricus Loos’s 2001 US patent, ‘Remote Magnetic Manipulation of Nervous Systems’

In my review of Adam Greenfield‘s Everyware a couple of months ago, I mentioned – briefly – the work of Hendricus Loos, whose series of patents cover subjects including “Manipulation of nervous systems by electric fields”, “Subliminal acoustic manipulation of nervous systems”, “Magnetic excitation of sensory resonances” and “Remote magnetic manipulation of nervous systems”. A theme emerges, of which this post by Tom Coates at reminded me:

“There was one speaker at FOO this year that would literally have blown my brain away if he’d happened to have had his equipment with him. Ed Boyden talked about transcranial magnetic stimulation – basically how to use focused magnetic fields to stimulate sections of the brain and hence change behaviour. He talked about how you could use this kind of stimulation to improve mood and fight depression, to induce visual phenomena or reduce schizophrenic symptoms, hallucinations and dreams, speed up language processing, improve attention, break habits and improve creativity.

He ended by telling the story of one prominent thinker in this field who developed a wand that she could touch against a part of your head and stop you being able to talk. Apparently she used to roam around the laboratories doing this to people. She also apparently had her head shaved and tattooed with all the various areas of the brain and what direct stimulation to them (with a wand) could do to her. She has, apparently, since grown her hair. I’d love to meet her.”

Now, the direct, therapeutic usage of small-range systems such as these is very different to the discipline-at-a-distance proposed in a number of Loos’s patents (where an ‘offender’ can be incapacitated, using, e.g. a magnetic field), but both are architectures of control: systems designed to modify, restrict and control people’s behaviour.

And, I would venture to suggest, a more widespread adoption of magnetic stimulation for therapeutic uses – perhaps, in time, designed into a safe, attractive consumer product for DIY relaxation/stimulation/hallucination – is likely to lead to further experimentation and exploration of ‘control’ applications for law enforcement, crowd ‘management’, and other disciplinary uses. I think we – designers, engineers, tech people, architects, social activists, anyone who values freedom – should be concerned, but the impressive initiative of the Open-rTMS Project will at least ensure that we’re able to understand the technology.