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iNeed: Technology, Theft, and Desire?

Design Observer has a well-intended article this week about Apple’s profitable and in-demand iPod and how the product relates to design, social responsibility, theft, and security. These are all big issues that deserve investigation.

Cheryl Towler Weese’s article begins by addressing iPod theft, moves into discussions about social responsibility (such as Apple’s reluctance to eliminate toxic chemicals from its manufacturing process), and then concludes with more opinion about iPod theft. Putting on my Roger and Me baseball cap, and doing my best Michael Moore impression, I wonder why she bothers to source from MSNBC where that M stands for Microsoft, and the NBC station is the same one that broadcasts the tabloid-television show To Catch a Predator.

Since we brought Microsoft into the picture, what about the Zune? Are those disappearing too? Getting stolen for being desired? If Microsoft and the NBC team feel so strongly about this, why don’t they solve the hardware security problem? Something tells me that a ratings boost carries more value for the shareholders.

Now that my Michael Moore impression is over, I could add plenty of my own skepticism and cynicism about the sources, but I don’t need to. Many of the Design Observer comments are doing a better job than my smart-mouth could ever dream of. They’re having no mercy on Weese’s article, with one comment lambasting it as the dumbest ever. Others are swearing left and right although censoring themselves with dingbats, like foul cartoon characters. Such feedback is unfortunate because it belittles the readership and bemoans Cheryl’s intentions.

I sincerely applaud Cheryl for bringing these ethical issues to our attention, as they make me ask some tough questions. What’s the lifecycle of the stolen gadgets? Whether iPod, Zune, or Playstation portable? Some of them may head back to a snazzy Soho Loft with the new owner, who dressed in a hundred-dollar pair of jeans, syncs it through their MacBook Pro using iTunes. On the other side of the coin, where thieves have neither a MacBook Pro nor expensive jeans, the devices get sold for cold hard cash so thieves can eat, drink, pay off gambling debts, pay rent, or get a fix. (And don’t get me started on blue collar crime, where those with over-the-top credit card debt steal to pay off their minimum monthly balance.) Stealing is stealing, whether you work at a design agency or live in an underdeveloped neighborhood. Even if these gadgets had security, would said thieves steal less?

When it comes to theft, I see students loose personal items nearly once a week on the campus where I teach. I see them cry about it. And I’ve also been the victim of theft many times over: each time I up my security a little bit more by being more proactive and guarded. You want the truth about security? It is an Illusion with a capital ‘I’ that can always be unlocked by specialists, whether they want to break into your home or break into your purse to steal an iPod.

Having learned more about Cheryl and Studio Blue, I very much appreciate her humanistic approach to these issues of desire, social responsibility, and design. And I wholeheartedly believe something can be done. We could as she suggests “use our design skills to develop equally innovative solutions to issues of larger human consequence”. Amen, but let’s not waste our time with the iPod, that’s Apple’s problem. Forget about security: leave it to the information technology and criminal law practitioners.

Let’s devote our time to children, families, and environments where crime is a problem. Forget for a minute about all of the not-for-profit creative-freedom brochures-and-posters that you could take on as a designer. Want to work pro bono? Want to do something that feels good? Heard of art therapy? Here’s another one, design therapy. Programs like the Inneract Project provide resources, activities, and belief systems to encourage children to grow into responsible Citizens.

After reading the Design Observer article, following its sources at MSNBC & the New York Times, and then reading the scandalous iCrime report, I am tired of seeing labels like “thugs and gang members” in the comment & forum replies. These “thugs and gang members” are people, and many of them are children or teens.

Give them a creative outlet. Let a younger generation design objects with real meaning (less desire and more humanity). Show them how to communicate about theft, ethics, commerce, or popular culture to motivate change for the better. Maybe they can grow up to earn a living as an artist, writer, journalist, or designer. Now that’s an iNeed that beats stealing.

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PUBLISHED ON Jan.12.2008 BY Jason A. Tselentis
alex’s comment is:

I personally grow weary of those pointing fingers at Apple. It is always those on top who receive the most attention and then to follow the most negative attention. Apple has created an icon of our society. The one single thing that almost everyone can use and wants. Of course they are going to be stolen. Did Apple foresee this? No. Have they been slow about providing a solution? Yes. Are they turning people into criminals? No. "Security" is to deter honest people from making a mistake. Criminals will find a way around security (as pointed out). If you have seen the NBC expose ICrime or whatever, you realize that all these people that were caught stealing simply let their desire take hold of them. They were kids mostly. It's not Apple's fault people steal. Jason is right it's not about Apple or iPods, it's about values. What are we teaching our families at home? It's a bigger comment on society than one company's social responsibility. Apple is just easier to blame than oneself.

On Jan.12.2008 at 01:42 PM
Hank’s comment is:

I have to agree that problems should start out being addressed at the core levels. Though the core levels can be elusive they are often the point where a real difference can be made. I also argue that stealing isn't necessarily on the part of the blue-collars or the gang members and thugs. They are probably just easily identifiable. I also think that there are more issues than just one which lead people to taking what isn't their's. Part of what fuels this is our capitalist society where greed is more often rewarded and finding the easiest way to find a means to your end is ofeten found as respectable. I don't hate capitalism but I do feel that the perpetuation of this type of ignorance is going to allow white collar corporates, blue collar workers and the oft suspected thugs and gang members an arena to work their magic. One way to lessen that practice could very well be creative outlets, the seem to help people get in touch with whats most important time and again.

On Jan.13.2008 at 08:53 AM
Kevin M. Scarbrough’s comment is:

Bryony was the first seminar speaker at Portfolio Center I saw (where has the time gone?). After her wonderful lecture I asked her: "Can design save the world?"

She thought for a moment, "No. But people can."

I love the idea of giving the community a creative outlet. Growing up, the majority of "bad kids" weren't bad, they were either bored or frustrated at their surroundings and felt powerless to change them.

On Jan.13.2008 at 08:36 PM
Pesky’s comment is:

I've always believed in the transformative ability of people to change themselves - regardless of harsh circumstances - and, to a limited degree, to change others, one-by-one but not masses in a broad vague way. Good intentions turn into imperatives. Smoking is an example of that.
So I see starting where one CAN be successful and that is on oneself.

On Jan.13.2008 at 09:10 PM
Sean Flanagan’s comment is:


THIS is what Ms. Weese' article should have been. It's well-though-out and poignant, just as discourses regarding design for change should be. Well done, sir.

On Jan.14.2008 at 10:41 AM
Jw’s comment is:

I think the article failed by, perhaps unintentionally, focusing too much on the very specific "iPod causes muggings" idea. It's hard to get past that to a bigger picture, which is more a failing of the writing than the idea.

Responsibility is a major issue- so much so that when a company or organization or individual actually accepts responsibility for something, we are all shocked. If everyone considered themselves responsible, rather than looking to place the blame elsewhere, I think solutions to these sorts of social problems would come quickly and easily.

On Jan.14.2008 at 11:34 AM
adam’s comment is:

people get robbed because i thief sees their ipod.

people also get robbed who arent even carrying ipods.

people used to get robbed for wearing air jordans.

aside from the silly chicken or the egg blame game, i think the original essay (which i just read before i came over to speakup) was meaning to point out that now that ipods are obviously a criminal target, designers can, and should, "design" something to try and combat this issue.

isnt that the whole point of being a designer? trying to figure out a solution to a problem? maybe you have to register the ip addresses you will use your ipod on. maybe each ipod comes with some sort of ipod serial number-specific key you need to install on your computer to use it.

at first, i was like everyone else, thinking about the absurdity of the article. but then i got to thinkin... designers designed the ipod. whats the big problem with designing a solution to a new issue? isnt that what we do everyday? if an ad campaign doesnt work, dont we just create a new campaign?

On Jan.14.2008 at 12:53 PM
Jason Tselentis’s comment is:

Sean, the fact that you identified this means that you too care about the issues. Ms. Weese does, and I do, but we just took different approaches, that's all.

On Jan.14.2008 at 01:04 PM
Darrel’s comment is:

Apple deserves all the heat it gets for no other reason that they've managed to get consumers expectations so high. That's not a bad thing, I don't think.

I love my new iPod, but there are some very obvious (IMHO) design mistakes in it and while they probably pale in comparison to every other iPod on the market, because it's on an Apple device, it really does bother me. And we complain because if ANY company cares about bad design, it would be Apple.

And yea, there are ALWAYS bigger problems to worry about...but that's nothing new.

Not sure how to make an iPod less 'theftable'. Though given that my Honda was stolen Sunday--the second time it has been stolen with nothing more than a rock and a screwdriver--I'd probably vote that Honda spend that energy on 'thief proofing' before Apple does. ;o)

On Jan.14.2008 at 02:06 PM
Greg Scraper’s comment is:

I couldn't figure out what was bothering me about the DO article. I mean, it's noble to try and combat social ills through design, and through the iPod example it was obvious that products that drive consumerism lead to theft. Then a train of thought led me down a different path.

It's been noted several times that this isn't the first time this has happened. It's not exclusive to the iPod. So I have a tough time hanging the blame on the designers or the iPod itself. I started wondering how much the marketing practices that made it a "craze" item were, in fact, more to blame; the iPod's exorbitant price, coupled with the marketing campaign that was everywhere, including places where the median income didn't really afford the extra $400 it would cost in the monthly budget. But, in order to recoup the costs of manufacture and keep the prices low enough to be marginally affordable to most middle class people, there had to be a lot made, and in order to justify making a lot of them, there had to be a huge campaign to drive demand. But just driving demand among people who could afford the technology wasn't going to be enough. Someone, somewhere, had to have realized that they'd have to drive demand in the demographic that couldn't afford the product, in order to keep the costs low enough to keep it from being a rich man's bauble (i.e., something you'd only see in a sharper image catalog). And that's where the theft comes in. Apple (and many companies before it), knowingly or unknowingly, created a market for its product that encouraged theft.

I don't imagine a lot of the Art Director's in the iPod campaign over at TBWA/Chiat/Day were really in on the media meetings; if they're like me, even if they were invited, they skipped it. And that's where I find fault with the article over at DO. It's inferring that the product designers at Apple are responsible for the actions of the media team at TBWA/Chiat/Day and upper-level management at Apple. What really should be at issue is marketing practices. Don't get me wrong, I agree that designers have a responsibility to affect social change. But the iPod example doesn't really prove that.

On Jan.14.2008 at 02:24 PM
Mark Notermann’s comment is:

I know this is supposed to be a serious discussion about applying design thinking...but seriously I can't believe no one has posted this iPod anti-theft device yet.

This is brilliant design thinking.

On Jan.14.2008 at 02:54 PM
Hex’s comment is:

My bike got ripped off when i was 12. i cried.
Is it Raleigh's fault? Not anymore than Apple's fault.

On Jan.15.2008 at 01:08 PM
Tselentis’s comment is:

It was the lock designers fault.

On Jan.16.2008 at 03:40 PM
kimberley’s comment is:

Greg Scraper makes an interesting comment. I have heard something similar about some US clothing brands "knowingly or unknowingly" supporting the theft of their clothes by people who had more cool cachet than actual cash. This would then raise the status of the brand as an item of cool amongst the more mainstream market.

Not sure where I heard this though. Urban myth or real marketing technique? Who knows.

On Jan.16.2008 at 11:17 PM
JJ’s comment is:

I think it is ridiculous to blame some product manufacturer for the stealing habits of the population. That is a social problem, not a product design one. And if it were, then let's just design ugly, crappy stuff so that nobody wants it.

The truth is, you people have a big social problem in USA and it's spreading to other countries. I can't recall having anything stolen from me in the past few years (I remember, though, a "knight rider" car toy that was stolen when I was around 8), and I feel safe leaving my laptop unattended at the study room while I go to the toilet.

In a society where money is all that matters, and having expensive material things is what give success, nothing good can happen. That damn MTV and the hip hop/gangsta model should not be emphasized as it is, and priority should be given to other more transcendental aspects of life.

On Jan.21.2008 at 03:09 AM
Ken Westin’s comment is:

There has been technology readily available to recover stolen iPods and other devices such as cell phones. GadgetTrak ( www.gadgettrak.com ), launched a theft recover solution in February that does this very thing.

On Jan.21.2008 at 03:41 AM