Some implications of architectures of control

How will increased use of architectures of control in the design of products change the way we live?

Depending on how pervasive they are, and how feasible the alternatives are, there is the possible emergence of two tiers of technology consumers–those who embrace products with architectures of control, with the (real or imagined) benefits that may offer them (for example, exclusive content, the ‘security’ of trusted computing, or simply network effects)–and those ‘excluded consumers’ who either stick to using older technology free of control, or (depending on legality) buy new, probably premium-priced, ‘professional’ equipment which is similarly free of control. It may become a vanity for the technical connoisseur–similarly to the way that valve amplifiers or the ash frame of the Morgan sports-car are today revered.

But where would this leave consumers who actually depend on the freedoms that are taken away by many architectures of control, through disability, for financial reasons or simply for reasons of social good?Will a ‘technology underclass’ become apparent? Will screen-reader software for the partially sighted work in a world of tightly restricted eBooks?

Precedents set by existing DRM would suggest significant problems in this area–to the extent that the UK’s Royal National Institute for the Blind is currently compiling a report on “how widely used DRM systems block access by blind or partially sighted people” [91].Will sharing books be possible with Sony Librié eBooks that expire after a couple of months? How will the PCs currently being donated for educational use to developing countries worldwide be affected when everyone else is using ‘trusted computing’? And, as raised earlier, how will DRM and ‘unpublishing’ affect archiving and accountability?

One conclusion which it is possible to draw from many of the architectures of control examined so far is that the relationship between the consumer and his or her ‘products’ (and the content used on them) is gradually changing. Whereas buying an LP gave the consumer a permanent, physical copy of that music, which could be played on a variety of devices, and resold or lent or destroyed or recorded onto tape at will (whether or not each of those activities was legal), buying music or other content now is effectively buying a very limited licence to use it which is enforced by the architectures of control in both the content and the device on which it is used.

Extending this to some of the other architectures of control, it becomes a possibility that consumers are no longer buying products, but effectively licensing the functions those products provide [92]. This idea will be developed further in Case study: optimum lifetime products but it is worth noting here Bill Thompson’s tentative suggestion [47] that perhaps this is part of a wider trend of society moving away (or being moved away) from the individual sovereignty property régime of the last few hundred years–increasingly, control of the technology will be in the hands of the ‘experts.’

What do designers themselves think the implications of architectures of control might be? Do they see them as a useful set of additional tools for building into future products?

Chris Weightman, an industrial designer at London consultancy Tangerine, believes that outside of the companies that have gone strategically (and perhaps philosophically) down the DRM and restriction route, designers will generally tend to focus on making the product experience more attractive to the user, with easier interactions a goal of many briefs. This tends to work against many architectures of control: indeed, there may well be a commercial advantage to being ‘second’ in the market (a ‘me-too’ product) but offering a simpler, more open product:

“The only distinctive selling point of some companies’ products–particularly in the portable music player market–is that they allow the user to get round the restrictive architecture of the market leaders. If design can build on that distinctiveness by making the product appealing in other ways as well, then second place could well become first place.” [93]

All this assumes that there is still the legal freedom to pursue strategies outside of using architectures of control, which in certain sectors, may not be the case. If External Vehicle Speed Control (q.v.) becomes mandatory on new cars, for example, there is no legal market position for a company producing vehicles without EVSC (although one might suggest a limited market for a company which reconditions and refurbishes pre-EVSC cars to a very high standard–giving the ‘new car’ experience, complete with warranties, but on vehicles which are legally deemed to be ‘old’).

A parallel development may be the use of architectures of control to empower the consumer in some way–an example being the ‘knee defender’ now available for airline passengers to set the angle which the passenger in front can recline his or her seat [94]. Here, the consumer is applying an architecture of control, perhaps in an arbitrary way, but it sets the scene for a plethora of innovation, possibly from small companies, to impose control on the surrounding environment or overcome architectures of control that have been built into that environment by others.

It may spiral into a cycle of competing architectures and methods of defeating them–speed cameras, then the slave-flash for car number plates which would defeat the speed cameras [95], and so on. Indeed, the opportunity may be there for innovative small companies to exploit the concern or paranoia which has led to the imposition of the architectures of control in the first place. It may be an entrepreneur whose breathalyser interlock persuades legislators to regulate on this issue, for instance.

Or, by extension, a small company which offers large corporate customers a way (real or perceived) to reinforce the superiority of their product (e.g. music, films, consumer electronics and even cosmetics) over illegal copies, could be extremely successful. Hamish Thain, a designer at the innovative packaging firm Burgopak [96, 97], makes the point that by offering third parties a distinctive, patented packaging system, those third parties can enhance and protect the value of their own products when compared to unauthorised copies or ‘knock-offs.’ Targeting clients (including Microsoft, Sony and numerous record companies) who are at the forefront of the intellectual property protection debate leverages–and satisfies–that corporate concern, whilst at the same time enabling a smaller innovator to succeed.

Whilst this may not be Burgopak’s explicit strategy–and is, of course, not an architecture of control in itself–it demonstrates the fluidity of a situation where the motivations that lead to architectures of control can be exploited.


This has been a rapid look at product design in some diverse areas, with the architectures of control perhaps, initially, not obviously sharing many characteristics. However, a picture does emerge from the glimpses of fields ranging from motoring to the music industry, exercise promotion to the environment.

Control of the public’s behaviour–whilst nothing new–now has the potential to be much more widespread, through the use of design and technology to change the relationship between consumers and products. Whether for purely commercial benefit or ‘the greater good,’ whether by companies or by governments, architectures of control have the power to affect our lives. The phenomenon deserves recognition.

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References | Acknowledgements