By Simon Davies
Back in 2005, an entrepreneur by the name of Barry Stapleton came up with an ingenious plan to automatically ward off “unruly” children and young people loitering around high-end retail shops.
Stapleton’s idea was to build an ultrasonic device that could be heard only by people under the age of 25 (the alleged trouble-making demographic). If this device could be designed to produce a particularly irritating and grating sound – let’s say by pulsing the frequency – kids would simply find somewhere else to go. Adults would be none the wiser.
Physiology was on Stapleton’s side. The human ear degenerates over time, so that certain high frequencies simply cannot be heard by older people. By the time they reach mid twenties, most people have lost touch with anything over 15 kHz (kilohertz). Think of it like a dog whistle, which can’t be heard by the human ear. You can also think of it as a sonic weapon. Here is a 17kHz sine wave for those who can hear it.
A stereotypical unruly youth, as depicted on the Mosquito homepage. Note the terrible colour coordination.
Stapleton built the device, which he called “The Mosquito”. He designed it in such a way that the sound created a deeply unsettling feeling among the hearing population. The sound isn’t just annoying; it is disturbing. For some young people, deeply so. Imagine something five times worse than Tinnitus.
Retailers loved it; kids didn’t, which was the point of the exercise. Another population that didn’t like it were human rights advocates, child protection experts, lawyers and health workers. Campaigns and legal actions were sparked across the world. Some towns and municipalities have banned it outright. People with conditions such as Autism were particularly affected by the device.
I gave my first interview on The Mosquito to Canada’s National Post newspaper in 2008, in which I branded its use “criminal assault”. Given the weight of opposition to the technology at the time, I quickly moved on to other issues and never gave The Mosquito a second thought – until now.
The other week, I was browsing the pages of The Scotsman newspaper when I happened upon a report that Helensburgh railway station has just installed a couple of Mosquitoes (Helensburgh is a small Scottish town, famous as the birthplace of TV technology pioneer John Logie Baird). In the days since, various writers and advocates have raised exactly the same issues as those debated a decade ago. It seems The Mosquito has thrived off this controversy. Not only that, but its technology has evolved. The 17 kHz frequency can now be fused with music, so everyone except the kids can enjoy Vivaldi.
Exhaustive research shows that the Mosquito most definitely does not harm young people
Of course, innovative coders have also thrived off the controversy. In the true nature of Newton’s Third Law, kids can now download a high-frequency app that allows them to hear notifications of incoming texts and calls without teachers or parents ever knowing. Pure genius.
The device continues to cause controversy and legal action across the world, even in the smallest and most remote townships.
ScotRail, the company operating the Helensburgh devices, responded that they would use the technology only as a last resort (presumably, police are no longer useful in such matters). And after all, authorities have been using water canon and fire hoses for decades to remove undesirable people. Same principle.
This problem has traditionally been the domain of private security staff – at least in theory. The historic problem in small towns, of course, is that security staff are often just like the people they are supposed to control. Or they are their uncles (and, in some cases, their substance suppliers).
Retailers loved it; kids didn’t, which was the point of the exercise. Another population that didn’t like it were human rights advocates, child protection experts, lawyers and health workers.
Sadly, human audio functionality cuts across the spectrum and cannot be filtered to the “unruly” population. Everyone is affected – even nice, middle class, educated young people with ironed clothes. I recently learned this fact while travelling in Europe.
Consider the case of Tomberg, Brussels. Tomberg is about as respectable as you can find in Brussels. It is green and clean, manicured and well planned. From what I can tell, the last controversy there was in 1998, when a small and respectful demonstration occurred over a budget cut to the local heritage society. People with dreadlocks and tattoos apologise if they accidentally get in your way. Street folk don’t menacingly demand a cigarette; they politely ask to buy one – and then they apologise.
Despite this reality, the huge Carrefour Market store in Tomberg decided to install a Mosquito. It goes off indiscriminately, reducing infants to tears and traumatising anyone within hearing range. One problem is that youngsters start to cry inconsolably and their parents have absolutely no idea why. So, they stay there in front of the store – chatting with friends – while their kids go through hell. Carrefour hasn’t bothered to place a warning sign.
Hundreds of louts loitering outside Carrefour Market in Tomberg
The mere existence of the device is a mystery. In 2008 the Belgian Parliament passed a resolution instructing the government to ban the Mosquito. It seems the government couldn’t be bothered to do so. Having said that, Belgium was in political crisis at the time and was effectively being run by the monarchy – luckily for Stapleton.
Of course Stapleton responded years ago to such actions by urging EU and US governments to regulate his technology. What a nice, responsible guy! Though for the record, “regulate” means “create a legal footing”, which means “legalise”, and finally “state endorsed”. Just so we’re clear on that point.
Hey, but why stop at retail stores? Here are ten other uses of the technology that may well come to pass:
Website discrimination. Worried about pesky young people and their radical ideas? Concerned they may be reading your Republican stuff? Why not install mosquito as a site audio! With the help of a malicious coder you can also disable their audio functionality so they have to exit and go somewhere else.
Age verification. Why bother with all the hassle of checking ID at bars and liquor outlets, when you can just send an ultrasonic bolt through the brain. One twinge and the proof of illegal purchase is established.
Local Area Mosquito. Why stop at occasional loitering? Entire groups of young people can be assaulted and dispersed. University demonstrations – a thing of the past! Simply point the Mosquito at an unruly crowd of political science students and ratchet the output to 120 dB (decibels).
Workplace toilet control. Older people are responsible toilet users. They know the limits. Kids sit in there and read comics or do drugs. Set the Mosquito for three minutes in all cubicles.
Wide Area Mosquito. Send them a message in the style of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Do what they do in the Netherlands and have government controlled audio towers that emit a test disaster warning signal every first Monday of the month. This will teach them some respect for authority and make them think twice before rebelling.
Home discipline. Jonny not obeying orders? Sally coming home late? Make them sit through dinner with the Mosquito on. They can either conform or starve.
School discipline. Ever since the beginning of recorded history, kids have been sneaking out of class. Install Mosquito at 90 dB in the hallway and increase it to 100 dB as they approach the exit. They won’t get far.
Driver awareness. A simple tech fix. Link the Mosquito to your kid’s speedometer and set it to go off at 60 mph. It might result in a disaster, but we can never pay too high a price for responsible road use.
Lie detection and correction. Did you know that you can buy a semi-professional polygraph for less than $400? Using such a device on your colleagues and family is sort of fun, but there’s no closure. Link the polygraph to a Mosquito and the world of truth opens up to you!
Torture. Why not!. People have been doing it for years with far cruder devices. Security warnings at airports, elevator music, the Shopping Channel…
With special thanks to James Cohen for helping with this article