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Earache for teenagers

The BBC today
calls to scrap an acoustic device designed to disperse crowds of
troublesome teenagers. There are 3,500
such ‘Mosquito’ devices in use in England, which work by emitting a
sound normally audible only to those under the age of 25. The sound is turned on for 20 seconds at a
time, and becomes irritating after around 15 seconds, causing those who can
hear it to move away. Typically, the
devices are installed in areas where groups of teenagers gather, such as
shopping precincts.

As reported
by the BBC, the campaign to scrap the Mosquitos is based on the view that it is
unfair to youngsters: the irritating sound does not discriminate between those
whose behaviour is objectionable and those who are well-behaved, and the use of such a
device encourages the view that young people are a nuisance. It also does not tackle the ‘root cause’ of
the undesirable behaviour.

One thing
that is interesting about this story is the way in which the piece of
technology at its centre seems to have magnified the extent to which familiar
and age-old issues are sinister and threatening. Of course it is unfair to assume that all youngsters
are up to no good; but shopkeepers have been chasing teenagers away from their
premises for generations without stopping to consider whether or not they might
be well-behaved, as testified by the abundance of small shops displaying
notices that legislate ‘Only one schoolchild in the shop at a time’. And, of course moving troublesome people or activities
away from one’s own vicinity does not tackle the ‘root cause’, but people have
long objected to such things as mobile phone masts, detention centres, and
nuclear power stations being brought to their area. It is probably sensible that society does not
encourage such attitudes, but neither do people usually campaign against them.

Why, then,
should the use of a machine to enforce familiar prejudices cause such an
outcry?  One explanation is that the
machine provides a focus that is lacking in other cases in which these attitudes are expressed: get rid of the machine and you have, in one fell
swoop, condemned the attitudes.  But this
seems wrong: the ‘Only one schoolchild in the shop at a time’ notices provide a
similar focus, as do residents’ meetings and petitions objecting to mobile
phone masts being built nearby, but these have not been the subject of
campaigns for fair treatment of others.  More plausible is that the strong objection to
the Mosquito has to do with its being a piece of technology, the intricacies of
whose operation remain mysterious to most people.  The literature on the psychology of risk
perception abounds with examples in which people’s views about risk seem skewed
by irrelevant factors: people who view living near a mobile phone mast as
unacceptably risky nevertheless are often happy to accept the comparable risk
of using a mobile phone; people who are horrified to learn that harmful
chemicals have been dumped in their area are nevertheless happy to ingest similar
chemicals when they occur in apparently benign contexts, such as in peanut
butter (1);
and people will accept ‘voluntary’ risks (those arising from activities in
which people can choose whether or not to participate, such as rock climbing)
roughly 1,000 times greater than ‘involuntary’ risks (risks arising from
activities imposed on people by society, such as ingesting chemicals added to
tap water) (2).  Similary, perhaps, people who view using an acoustic device to disperse potentially troublesome groups of people as unacceptably prejudiced and unconstructive do not view the practice of displaying signs in shops to discourage youngsters as quite so serious.

In the case
of the Mosquito devices, it seems that campaigners object to the attitudes
embodied in the use of the devices, rather than to any novel issues raised by the
technology itself.  Because of this, and
in order to remain rational and consistent with our treatment of the way in
which those attitudes are expressed in other cases, it is perhaps helpful to
consider how we might view those attitudes in the absence of the technology,
and to respond accordingly.


(1)  Cass Sunstein (2005) Laws of Fear:
Beyond the Precautionary Principle
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

(2)  Chauncey Starr (1969) ‘Social Benefit versus Technological Risk’, Science 165: 1232-1238.

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