Design as Social Control

Social Control Through Design
Dan Ryan
27 February 2004
We know that behavior can be regulated by internalized norms and by laws and punishments. But it can also be controlled by the design of objects. An obvious example is the use of, say, opaque walls or windows that make it impossible to look where one ought not look. Another might be graffiti-proof surfaces for the cladding of buildings. The purpose of this project will be to identify a behavior that "needs" to be socially controlled and to propose a design solution.
Some examples
• toilet seats that raise or lower appropriately
• social mobiles that encourage good cell phone usage
• keypad guards that prevent credit card thieves from reading numbers punched into telephones
Divide into two areas — design that inhibits breaking a norm and design that encourages following a norm. The former — governor function (like the valve on a steam engine that releases pressure if it gets too high). Prevent nonconformity or encourage conformity. Consider question of whether this amounts to quashing creativity in some cases (in favor of uniformity). I don’t think that’s true in every case. But it opens up a Foucaultian line of investigation. Design that ensures regularity. Lines in parking lot? I think they don’t quite qualify.

• Non-re-usable needles to prevent needle sharing.
• Bad light in bathroom stalls might prevent lingering. Good light might discourage sexual encounters. Taking doors off in highschool was intended to prevent smoking (I think). Hand dryers rather than towels was to prevent litter (why not bidets for same reason?)
• Pylons (is that what they are called) prevent cars from going onto sidewalks and spikes keep cars from going out the wrong way at rental car lots.
• I would omit things like the use of design in shops to get you to notice certain goods because this behavior is for private purposes. No way to argue that it is “social control” in the sense I mean. But I need to find a clearer way to articulate that.
• Consider the old urban myth that the pool water has something in it which will turn bright colors if you pee in the pool. This is in the category of detection by design. Same thing in putting.
• Putting arms on the chairs at airports and bus stations to prevent people from sleeping on them. And too to encourage people to share them and make it easier for someone to identify the fact that there is still space left.
• Acoustic insulation that prevents conversations from being heard through doors or walls. Less absolutely we have use of lighting in restaurant to direct our optical and acoustic gazes into our own space.
• Clothing that forces correct posture. And, not in the posture category, but Iris M. Young’s “Breasted Experience” argues (among other things) that bras help to enforce idealizations of breast size and shape. This suggests further that fashion might be its own line of inquiry here.
• The use of fill in forms (and little boxes on forms or even pull down menus) so as to standardize responses, prevent people from being too verbose, and so on.
• Enforcing sociability by placing of staircases, entrances, mailboxes and so on? This may encourage behavior but I don’t think I’d say it is socially controlling it.
• Highway entrance ramps without shoulders might discourage hitchhiking, streets with plantings and such except at crosswalks discourage jaywalking.
• Any other ways to use design to prevent everyday incivilities like littering, cursing, smoking, spitting? How about other forms of getting us to clean up after ourselves?
Remember that we are only concerned here with behavior that would fall under the realm of social control. What is our criteria? Something like can have a moral judgment attached to it? So, I don’t consider it social control design if my cell phone has keys that make it more likely that I will enter numbers correctly or my car has better breaks that make it more likely I will stop in time.
Let’s look at an example. Consider the question of getting people to reasonably share the overhead bin space on an airplane. How do we encourage “pro-social” behavior – that is, bringing only one’s fair share. One effort in this direction is the one that has little “this is how big” bins by the checkin line but this is really only a (1) courtesy and (2) sort of a bit of public exhortation insofar as one has to walk one’s big bag past this. One could also make the overhead bins tighter. One might number them per seat (but this might incur deadweight loss since it might prevent the reassignment of space would not happen). Can we imagine a social mobile type solution? Bags that scream if they have to squeeze them in? Or can we only imagine “social control” solutions in form of organizational means (flight attendants enforce rules) or public shaming (a public relations campaign that encouraged people to hiss at over-stuffers). Is there, especially, a way to solve my pet peeve problem: how to allow me footroom if I am careful to bring very little on board rather than telling all passengers to put first bag at their feet?
But back to design. Spikes on walls where they don’t want people to sit. Spacing things on benches that encourage people to share the space.
Important Points
1. Not every behavior control problem has a design solution.
2. Helpful to identify ways that design can interface with other solutions.
3. Should design be strictly unobtrusive control?


1. IDEO Website? Book?
2. Somers?
3. Gary T. Marx "Technology and Social Control: The Search for the Illusive Silver Bullet " In the International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences, 2001
4. Foucault Discipline and Punish section on compartmentalization
5. "Defensible Space" by Oscar Newman []
6. "A Defensible Space Project: Deterring Crime and Building Community in Rogers Park" A project conducted by the Rogers Park Community Council in partnership with Loyola University Center for Urban Research and Learning []
7. Brooks Gardner, Carol. 1990. «Safe Conduct: Women, Crime, and Self in Public Places», Social Problems, vol. 37, no. 3, pp. 311-328.
8. "The New Urbanism and the Communitarian Trap : On social problems and the false hope of design" by David Harvey Changing Cities Number 1, Winter/Spring 1997 []
9. Ockham's Razor - 15/08/1999: Chunking and Channelling

CPTED ~ pronounced \sep-ted\ ~ has as its basic premise that the proper design and effective use of the physical environment can lead to a reduction in the incidence and fear of crime, thereby improving the quality of life. []

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