Saturday, July 31, 2010

Sonic Youth

The Pathfinders Column from the July 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard

What do you do if you’re young, you’ve got no money, and you want some kind of social life that actually involves human to human interaction? You can’t go to pubs, restaurants, clubs or the cinema without money. Parks close after dark. You can go to a friend’s house if the parents allow it but it’s hardly neutral ground and in any case you can’t meet a whole group that way.

There are places in this country which are so dull, so devoid of sheltered places to meet, so lifelessly unlit after dark, that many young refugees from the parental TV sofa end up hanging around outside the local supermarket. This is not because they have a love of supermarkets. They’re certainly not going to buy anything. The neon light attracts them like moths, because the alternative to hanging around in a lit area is hanging around in a dark one. And if you’re young and you do that, chances are you’ll get arrested on suspicion of being a mugger or a rapist. Either that, or what’s infinitely worse, you could get mugged or raped by the genuine article.

So the answer to the question, what you do with no money and a desire to be sociable, is hang around in a shop doorway admiring cornflake box pyramids and BOGOF promotions. That is, until the proprietor calls the police and you get moved on or pulled in.

For, not surprisingly, the supermarket owner is not keen on seeing a bunch of hoodies loitering about in his shop doorway, since he knows it to be a scientific fact that two or more adolescents when combined together exhibit a strong repulsive force on passing trade. Even one hoodie is enough to make senior citizens scurry nervously away from the premises, he reasons, while three is definitely a police matter and five a civil emergency.

This is not very conducive to good relations with the society that has forced this lifestyle on you as a young person. The more you exert your ‘right’ to a social life the more likely you are to end up with a police record. Unfortunately it’s your own fault for not being a rich kid with a car and a fat allowance.

As this problem is deeply annoying for everyone involved, one might expect it to be solved by local authorities providing suitable meeting shelters, but that would be far too simple. Instead, displaying a genius for discriminatory technology that only capitalism could possibly come up with, there is the Mosquito. The Mosquito is a recently invented device which exploits the mildly interesting fact that the human audio range deteriorates with age. The philanthropic inventor realised that by zeroing in on high frequencies that only under 25s can usually hear, he could devise a hugely irritating sonic weapon that would be unheard by most shop users but would drive any adolescents crazy, presumably as well as any passing dogs.

It’s not quiet either, with a maximum output potential of 108 decibels, according to the manufacturer. This is a rock-band-in-your-living-room noise level. An airliner’s jet engines at one nautical mile before landing deliver around 106 dB while a helicopter 100 feet above your head gives 100 dB. Decibels are an expression of ratios, not a straightforward arithmetic scale, so the Mosquito is, for instance, 16 times louder than a domestic 70 dB vacuum cleaner and 8 times louder than a typical 85 dB household smoke alarm.

3,000 have already been sold in Britain for installation outside Spar shops and the like, while controversy has mounted over human rights and safety questions. No testing for health risks took place before the Ig Nobel prize winner went on sale, and some councils have reacted by banning it, although the government in 2008 declared that it had no intention of imposing any ban.

Those over 25 with no kids and no particular concerns about letting off jet-engines near babies might want to worry nonetheless that the Mosquito has another frequency setting, this time one which we can all hear. This is the shape of things to come, as the technology of non-lethal weaponry becomes ever more sophisticated. Military-grade 150 dB sonic weapon LRAD has already been used as ‘crowd-control’ against desperate civilians after the Katrina hurricane disaster, as well as in warzones and against Somali pirates, and is the weapon of choice on luxury liners (‘Cruise lines turn to sonic weapon’, BBC Online, 8 Nov 2005).

As every capitalist knows, what’s great about non-lethal weapons is that you can use them whenever you like on the great unwashed without (much) fear of legal difficulty. Pretty soon landowners will be able to save a fortune on guarding their estates by installing weapons that make trespassers throw up, soil themselves, go blind or feel as if they’re on fire. With new ‘Phasr’ dazzling laser-guns already being tested by police and other military products like the Active Denial System (a microwave pain ray) likely to follow suit, the social unrest widely anticipated due to savage government cutbacks may well stimulate a huge growth market in such weaponry.

Meanwhile, the young people congregating outside supermarkets with the ear-defenders under their hoodies might be wondering why society hates them so much. But really, society doesn’t hate young people in particular. Capitalist society just hates anybody who doesn’t have any money, which in general terms is most of us. Young people grasp situations quickly, as evidenced by the fact that some of them are now downloading the Mosquito frequency as a ‘silent’ ringtone so they don’t have to turn their phone off in school. But what they really need to grasp is that capitalism is their class enemy, and that isn’t going to change as they get older.