Buzz Off!

No, “buzz off” does not mean that I am being grumpy and telling everyone to Go Away. There are apparently a lot of other people out there who are grumpy about Mosquitos, but not the insect kind. The story (like most) gets complex very fast.

So. There are some young people who hang out in front of shops or public areas and are annoying, even to the point of committing misdemeanors. This is hardly a new problem of urban settings; doubtless ancient Greek and Roman shopkeepers complained about much the same thing. In addition to the primary problems of what the yobbos / chavs / hooligans (pick your fave term) may engage in, there’s the secondary problem of their presence intimidating customers and driving away trade.

Of course, not all young people act like this. In fact, very, very few do. And young people, like people of other age groups, like to get together with their pals and socialise. Of course, when you’re young you don’t have your own place, and not everyone wants to hang around the living room where dad’s watching Top Gear or yet another history programme about some war or another. So kids hang around in parks, on sidewalks, in malls, and other public areas. And then people complain because shockingly, there are kids hanging around. Well, duh; few can afford to spend lots of cash at movie theatres or pool halls or video game parlors, and if you’re not spending, they don’t want you there.

Back in 2005, Howard Stapleton realised that he could use teens’ better hearing against them. In theory, young people can hear up to 20 kHz (20,000 Hertz), but as people age they lose this ability due to presbycusis. Although most older adults can pass a basic hearing exam with flying colors, such exams only test up to 8,000 Hz, because audiologists are concerned with how well people perceive common speech and environmental sounds. (This concept also assumes that those targeted have not had any hearing loss due to listening to loud music in vehicles, headphones, and / or concerts.) Thus, the Mosquito device was born.

According to a distributor’s description, these speakers broadcast a 17.5-18.5 kHz tone at 75 decibels. Although not damaging, the whine becomes very annoying after a couple of minutes, and those who can hear it usually leave after a few minutes, although the unit runs for 20 minutes before shutting off. It can be heard 15 meters / 50 feet away, with stronger models audible as far as 90 meters / 300 feet away.

The Mosquito device proved popular with a number of shopkeepers and other business owners; some 3500 units have been installed around the UK, to prevent young people from congregating outside of stores, rail stations, car parks, industrial areas, city parks, and even school grounds (used after hours). Now it’s being sold in the U.S. and Canada as well.

Naturally, there were protests about the use of the devices. The prototype was banned in its place of inception, Newport, South Wales. Although legal elsewhere, other groups have taken up complaint, and not just young people:

Scotland’s Commissioner for Children and Young People, Children in Scotland, and the Scottish Youth Parliament fully support the campaign launched today in England against the use of the Mosquito device.

So too is Liberty, the National Youth Agency, the Children’s Commissioner for England, which is spearheading the Buzz Off campaign.

Frankly, I find the whole idea of using sonic deterrents as weapons (attack devices) against young people to be abhorrent. These things target and punish all young people present for the actions of a few. You get what you give, so how is being deliberately obnoxious supposed to encourage better social behavior in others? We don’t like it when people go around playing their music too loud, so why is it okay to broadcast high-pitched whines that are meant to get on people’s nerves?

Furthermore, the manufacturers and users assume that only young people can hear these sounds, and that simply isn’t true. I’m 47 and I can hear such frequencies (despite the tinnitus), and a 75 kHz noise is also pretty damn loud, even if it’s not technically at the damaging threshold. If I came across a shop that was using this sonic attack, the shopkeeper would certainly get an earful from me! There’s too much noise as it is, without adding gratuitous noise.

It’s not that I don’t sympathise with business owners and other citizens who are dealing with the effects of antisocial or criminal behavior. But this kind of antisocial retaliation hurts everyone, and is blatant discrimination.

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