Artemy Lebedev

§ 180. Aesthetics of control and restriction

September 9, 2014

Every organization—family, school, corporation, municipality or government—sometimes faces the need to control or ban something. Goals can be different—from angelically good to devilishly evil. We are interested in methods of introducing bans without aggravating those affected by them.

In Russia, restrictions are usually too in-your-face, rough and dumb. In the western world, control is traditionally implemented through discreet and even enjoyable measures. It is the aesthetics of achieving results that makes such a big difference between Russia and the USA (it is easier for the author to compare these two countries, as he is familiar with both of them.)

Let’s start with something simple. In Russia, a passport is the primary identification document. Without it you can’t buy a train ticket or enter an office building. It seems too severe a measure, especially for people who value their freedom. In the US, a passport is a document for travelling abroad. You can live in the States your whole life without one.

Then what about control? Every American citizen has an ID—identity document. But instead of a passport the primary ID is a driving license. Everyone has one—if someone doesn’t, it means they are barely out of diapers. What if someone can’t drive? Then they get a non-driver’s ID card. If the reader comes to the USA, he’ll be surprised to learn that an ID is required twice as often than a passport in Russia. (It should be pointed out that the purpose of the document inspection is different in each country, all we’re talking about is how to make the process less repulsive.)

And here’s another example—residence permit. A humiliating Russian procedure of tying a serf to his village. Sure there is no such thing in the liberal USA. But what if we decide to join an American library or enter a university? We’ll be asked to bring a couple of envelopes addressed to us and sent within the last several months to the address that we provided. The post office box doesn’t count; it should be an actual address. Receiving mail to an address proves to the authorities that we have a connection to it.

It’s the same residence permit, only backwards. You can trick the American system by sending letters to your friends’ address, or never show up at your registered address in Russia—in either case, they will find you if they want to.

Capitalists work better and more efficiently because the need to earn money in a highly competitive environment greatly encourages imagination. It’s no surprise that all global computer systems and services are American. Think, for instance, of Google. It is so good that everyone is using it. A search engine, email client, maps, videos — all in one place; it is so convenient and user-friendly that has de facto become a global standard. Why go somewhere else, when Google has everything? The main principle of Google (that, of course, isn’t written on its front page) is to keep all data in one place.

If the reader decides to delete all emails from his Gmail account, he won’t find it easy. Google strives to keep old emails in the recycle bin forever, and when the mailbox fills up, it will eagerly provide more disc space. If the reader decides to work with financial tables with no internet connection, he won’t succeed. Google allows the user to access only the information that is kept within Google itself. Why? All emails, docs, links, search queries and locations are linked to a particular user, which allows to better understand what he needs: what ads to display and which results to show first.

Any ban or restriction can be presented so elegantly that nobody will feel humiliated and forced to do something. Something unpleasant or boring should be served in such a way that everybody would look forward to it.

Let’s look at some real-life examples.

A boom barrier is ugly. A bollard that rises out of the ground is an elegant obstacle for a car that a pedestrian won’t notice.

Building a fence around the lawn is too crude. Bushes, on the other hand, look beautiful and natural.

A turnstile that hits you on the legs if you haven’t paid is inhuman. A turnstile that stays closed until you pay makes a clear and polite point.

Remember the episode when Tom Sawyer was told to paint a fence and he turned it to his advantage by convincing other boys to paint some part in exchange for their valuables? It is very often the essence of a designer’s job.

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