Books: A Point of View: Desirable Devices |
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Desirable Devices : on retributive technology

(S02E08, broadcast 10th and 12th August 2007)

"Off your trolley"
— shopping trolleys

On my way to work I made my weekly stop-off at the mega-super-hypermarket in the shopping area-precinct-mall just between the motorway exit from the north and the outer rim of the congestion charge zone. As I chose a shopping trolley from the ranks of hundreds of shopping trolleys in front of the vast retailing edifice, I at last realized the significance of the sign on the trolley that said it would stop when it got to the red line.

I vowed to be positive in this series and yet it’s taken me all this time to notice the most positive sign of the lot. For years I have been disgusted by the sight of shopping trolleys poking some of their structure above the surface of otherwise pleasant brooks and creeks in which they have been merrily immersed by the nation’s infinite supply of casual vandals. How can this be fixed? I would ask myself. It can’t, I answered, because so large a proportion of the population can’t be re-educated. But here we are already, looking at the day when nobody will be able to wheel a shopping trolley any further away from the supermarket than the red line before the wheels lock and the trolley stops. Unless the shopper wants to pick up the fully laden trolley and carry it to his boombox car, that’s where the trolley will remain. Triggered by the signal from the red line, the microchip built into the trolley has done its job. A problem posed by technological advance has been solved in the best way: by more technological advance.

Surely the best answer to the plastic-bag plague also lies in physics and chemistry, rather than in a change of morality. Ireland has got its total number of plastic bags down by about eighty per cent just by taxing them, but the twenty per cent left over are still enough to make the landscape hideous. Also it’s undoubtedly a huge fuss always to remember to take your durable shopping bag with you to the store.

I can’t remember whether I’ve said this before, but I’m getting to the time of my life when I can’t remember anything, and although I can see myself buying a designer-label permanent shopping bag, I can’t see myself remembering to have it with me. What I want, what every sensible person wants, is a plastic bag that biodegrades. Some of them claim to do that already, but only by a percentage. Again, it’s usually twenty per cent. If the bag starts its twenty per cent biodegradation immediately, you’re left holding eighty per cent of the bag, with one hundred per cent of your purchases all over the road. If the process takes time, then the effects will make little aesthetic difference. Nobody’s going to look at the hedgerow lining a narrow country road and cheer that twenty per cent of each plastic bag has gone, while there are still the usual few thousand plastic bags almost entirely present.

What industry has to do is come up with a bag that turns to a puff of dust after a certain date, preferably some time before the sea rises to drown civilization. It shouldn’t be all that hard and I’m sure some great globalized company is already working on it. Until then, boneheads with boombox cars will go on loading a dozen bulging plastic bags each into the back after the trolley has been abandoned, and will make sure, when they unload them, that the plastic bags are added to the landscape as usual. If people who travel in boombox cars were open to rational persuasion not to dump their junk, they wouldn’t be driving around in a broadcasting station.

What should be done, then, about boombox cars? Only a few days ago the car I was a passenger in was trapped just behind a four-by-four boombox car in a traffic jam. The bass notes of the witless hip-hop anthem it was transmitting along with its emissions hit me repeatedly in the stomach. When I was young I might have walked up and said something to them and got hit in the stomach for real. As things were, I sat there planning the technology to retaliate. It needs to be introduced into the boombox car at the point of manufacture. There will be set levels of volume and duration so that the prospective purchaser and his dreadful friends can briefly get the stimulus they find necessary to life, but at anything beyond those levels the air-conditioning system will instantly lower the temperature by 150 degrees centigrade. Suddenly they’ll be sitting there in a block of ice, silent for the first time in their benighted lives.

Public silence is a dying concept, as we know. We’ll never get it back if we rely on the return of good manners, because the people who make a lot of noise have no idea that they are crossing a boundary: they think they are exercising a freedom. People who yell into mobile phones would look sincerely puzzled if you dared to interrupt them. How can you be bothered by a little thing like noise? Only last week I was making a long train journey and there was a man in my carriage who maintained his cacophonous part in a single telephone conversation for a hundred miles. During this intermittent uproar I feebly worked on mental plans for the kind of Heath Robinson device that would deal with him.

The carriage would need a noise detector that reacted to any violation of a set limit by tripping a switch under the perpetrator’s seat that would eject it and him through a flap in the roof and out into the speeding landscape. But fitting every seat in the train with such a facility would cost too much, and there would be the problem of littering, as the plastic bags in the hedgerows were joined by all those startled bodies.

No, once again the matter will have to be dealt with by a technological advance included at the point of manufacture. What every new mobile phone needs is a small, simple, retractable hypodermic syringe to inject barbiturates into the phone user’s earlobe when he or she exceeds the volume limit. The howling monologue would thus rapidly be replaced by a deep silence. There could be a problem about the same system if the user is at the wheel of a car, because innocent people might be involved in the resulting crash. I’m still working on that, but there is no reason why competent engineers and pharmacologists should not be working already on the technology.

Public-address systems in the park are another threat that could be easily neutralized. The park in front of our house would be bliss in summer if not for a rising incidence, on the weekend, of pre-charity-run gatherings in which the chief irrepressible enthusiast of the local community-spirit committee asks the assembled multitude if they are all right. For some reason this worthily motivated pest always asks crowds of any size the same question, and at the top of her voice. She is already yelling when she asks this question of a group of three people she meets in the street, and when she is turned loose behind a microphone in front of three hundred people in the park she makes so much noise asking whether they are all right that she can probably be heard on the moon. What she needs is a microphone with a small attached reservoir primed to react to excess volume by plugging her mouth with a squirt of quick-drying polymer.

I should hasten to say, at this point, that I am not against charity runs. I am just against any attendant noise pollution, which exemplifies the difference between something we hope does good and something we know does damage. The polymer mouth-plug could be removed upon receipt of a written guarantee of silent behaviour and an undertaking to wear the plug prominently displayed, as a sign of repentance. Quite often the public nuisance is so dumb that he agrees to wear such a sign in advance. This is the useful aspect of the continuing tendency towards flaunting a face full of metal studs. People who do all that are telling you they are imbeciles from a hundred yards away and all you have to do is turn down an alley.

Another case of visibly identified imbecility concerns Lindsay Lohan, who has taken positive steps to redeem herself through technology, or anyway steps have been taken on her behalf. We are told that an anklet was fitted to Lindsay Lohan in order to monitor how much she drinks. Before I could figure out whether the anklet told the police or Lindsay Lohan, there was news that some of her fans were already copying her anklet. This seems likely to be the anklet’s most desirable function. The anklet was already useful to help tell us that Lindsay Lohan was in the vicinity, if we hadn’t already been tipped off by the approaching press conference, and now we will know if anybody who admires Lindsay Lohan has just joined us on the top deck of the bus.

Put your trust in our powers of invention. If the can of fizzy drink pointlessly carried by every cockily shambling young male dimwit could be rigged so as to degrade suddenly when the can was still half full, the disposal problem would be solved and the trousers of the can’s proud owner would be soaked in a suitably punitive manner. I can’t imagine that this smart-can technology would cost any more than redesigning the London Olympics logo.


Under the froth and bubble, the solemn undertow of this and several other broadcasts over the course of three years was my growing dread of the possibility that the concept of private space might disappear altogether from modern society, yielding nothing except a supposedly democratic ‘community’ in which nobody would be left alone because it would not be understood why anybody should want to be. Political theorists call such an alteration a ‘change of consciousness’. Sometimes a change of consciousness is for the better — it is an unmixed blessing, for example, that lynch law is no longer common in the United States — but a change of consciousness by which privacy has ceased to be conceivable is a threat to civilization. Nor do you need to be a fuddy-duddy to find it so. All you need to be is sensitive. Unfortunately (one of the key considerations in this matter) the sensitive are the people least likely to protest. Their silence is interpreted as assent, and so the depredation goes further. Not that they would have much effect if they spoke up. At best, they would be thought to have some mysterious illness.

The assumption that there should be no such thing as private space is intimately connected to the assumption that there should be no such thing as private communication. When one of Prince Charles’s private phone calls was printed in the newspapers back in 1992, not even one article was written about the only real ethical question involved, which was whether intercepted private phone calls should be treated as news. It was simply, and universally, assumed that they should be. The community, it is thought, has a right to know. Community rights trump individual rights every time. But what Alexander Zinoviev once said about the repressive system in the old Soviet Union applies equally, if in less immediately lethal form, to our fine freedom: any society in which collective rights outrank individual rights is a lawless society, and that’s that.