Monthly Archives: August 2011

You may think you want the death penalty but you don’t have the stomach for it

Surveys suggest that a majority of ordinary Britons want a return to the death penalty for the most heinous crimes (this online poll on The Sun’s web site has 80% in favour). And, thanks to the government’s rules for e-petitions, our legislators may soon be obliged to debate the topic again. Some of them may even vote for it. I’m opposed to the return of the death penalty and I find the pop media’s pro-execution rhetoric to be chilling and inhuman but I’m certain that it will never happen. Britain just doesn’t have the stomach for the cascade of secondary decisions that we’d have to make in order for it to become law:

Who will do it? A court-appointed executioner? How about a group of ordinary citizens pressing buttons at home, none of them knowing whose button actually does the deed? Or the victim’s family? I’ll suggest that executioners are drawn by lottery from the list of people who’ve expressed support for the new law. That sounds logical: it surely can’t be OK to vote for the death penalty and expect someone else to despatch the condemned, can it? If there’s a chance that you’ll have to squeeze the syringe, will you still vote for it? And, once appointed, how will the executioner cope with the attention of the media? Will he or she be allowed to sell the story of the condemned’s last moments? Or will the law mandate anonymity? And what will happen the first time the family of an executed criminal brings a civil case against the executioner or the prison or everyone involved in the deed?

How will we do it? A lethal injection? Electrocution? Hanging? None has a great track record. None is humane. How will we decide? It’ll take a decade. High-tech solutions will be proposed (shot into the vacuum of space? Instantaneous robotic dismemberment? Nanoexecutioners?). The debate will rage. Campaigners on both sides will mount judicial challenges. It’ll be chaos and, as soon as the first horrendous screw-up happens, it’ll all start again.

Will we do it publicly and who will observe? I’ll argue that judicial killings should be streamed online from multiple angles (in 3D) and that a panel of ordinary citizens should be obliged to observe from close quarters – selected by the jury service process, perhaps.

And will a doctor be present? Someone will need to ensure good practice and certify death. Does the Hippocratic oath permit that? Will the BMA? And if they don’t, will rogue doctors show up to do the honours or will we have to create a new class of state-appointed ‘execution doctors’?

What will we do with the body? Will we consign the dead to a secure prison graveyard or permit shrines to arise in public cemeteries? How about mandatory cremation and scattering? Will we forbid elaborate funerals and celebrations of the lives of the wicked deceased?

What will we do the first time an innocent person is executed? Will the new law have provision for automatic compensation? Will executions cease while standards of evidence are examined and investigations reviewed? Could the death penalty actually survive a mistake? Or would we be back at square one?

And what about death row? Will there be a single, national facility (designed by a rockstar architect, perhaps, with an atrium) where the condemned work through their decades of appeals? Or will each prison keep a mini-death row of its own? Will the inhabitants be allowed access to the media, web sites, Twitter accounts? Will there be a reality TV show?

There are other questions: will we execute young people or people with learning disabilities? Will we execute mothers of young children? Will we execute foreigners? Will the new law require derogation from international human rights law? Will Britain become a pariah once it rejoins the club that includes all the most hideous regimes on earth (and the United States)? Will the first executions for nearly fifty years bring about civil unrest? Can a civilised state tolerate the introduction of state-sanctioned killing? Will it dehumanise us and our children? Will MPs even contemplate the prospect of another nasty and divisive debate about the grimmest of all subjects? Who will draft the bill, draw up the regulations, implement the policy? Will civil servants and prison officers who object be forced to implement the law? Will employment tribunals consider the dismissals of conscientious objectors? And so on. And so on. Like I said, we don’t have the stomach for it.

Steampunk radio



A remarkable story about Victorian platform innovation

Radio is in flux. The first digital radio platform – DAB – is in danger of being eclipsed before most of us have even bought one. The second wave is evolving fast, but widespread Internet radio is years away so radio stations are investing in web sites and mobile apps. Meanwhile, audiences for radio everywhere are steady but looking fragile and everyone’s waiting for a persuasive package of content and convenience to justify the switch to digital. And billions of cheap-to-own FM radios constitute a huge impediment to switchover.

130 years ago, nearly thirty years before the first public radio broadcast, at an international electrical exhibition in Paris, entrepreneur Clément Ader prototyped a package of content delivered via a new platform, the telephone. He called the prototype a ‘telephonic opera’ service because opera performances were the primary content (just as they had been in Zurich in 1878, when a performance of Don Pasquale was relayed via telephone only months after its invention). The prototype became a commercial product later in the decade under the name Théâtrophone.

Subscribers to the service, including, I kid you not, Marcel Proust (in his cork-lined room at 102 Boulevard Hausmann), dialled in from their home telephones (a technology that was only a decade old itself) and asked to be put through to one of the participating theatres. They then listened to the evening’s performance live. In stereo. At the time of the original demonstration, Scientific American said:

The singers placed themselves in the mind of the listener, some to the right and others to the left. It’s easy to follow their movements and to indicate exactly, each time that they change their position, the imaginary distance at which they appear to be.

Two separate telephone lines delivered signals from two stage microphones: one right, one left (this Wikipedia entry suggests eighty microphones and, since they weren’t really microphones, just crude acoustic receivers, that doesn’t sound unreasonable).

A subscriber to an equivalent service in London, Electrophone, described the process:

You lifted your ordinary telephone receiver and said ‘Electrophone please’ and in a moment you were asked which theatre you wanted and in another moment you were in your armchairs around the table listening to musical comedy at the Adelphi…

Theatres, music halls – and, later, places of worship, all over London were wired up to the Electrophone exchange at 34 – 35 Gerard Street in Soho and Electrophone attendants (we’d call them Studio Managers or OB engineers) were stationed in each to position mics and connect subscribers.

Electrophone listeners in 1901

If you’d lived in Budapest in the 1890s (and been a wealthy gadget freak) you’d have subscribed to a service called Telefon Hírmondó which, you’ve got to admit, was startlingly like a modern radio network, with content organised into ‘channels’, a daily schedule (including stock quotes, local press, finance, theatrical and sporting news) in addition to the usual operatic performances (what is it with the opera?). There were children’s concerts, acts of worship, folk music, recitals. Advertisements, inevitably, were inserted between juicy news items. The company employed 100 people, with job titles like ‘editor’ and ‘programme controller’ and, at its peak had 6,000 subscribers.

The Théâtrophone receiver

The Théâtrophone receiver

But what’s remarkable for me about these services (there were dozens worldwide) is how closely they resemble the ones we’re building now on The Internet. Clicking ‘play live’ for Radio 3′s nightly live concert is essentially the same as asking the Electrophone ‘attendant in charge’ to put you through to the Wigmore Hall – a personal, two-way circuit connecting you to a live event a long way from home. Nineteenth Century opera nuts were using two-way telepresence to enjoy remote performances that were significantly more immersive than what was to come from terrestrial radio decades later. The spatial separation and specially-designed in-home kit (the ‘Electrophone table’ and Théâtrophone’s special receiver) that came with these services must have made these experiences extraordinarily vivid. Vivid enough for Proust to listen to a performance of Pelléas and Mélisande all the way through in 1911.

They even had pretty sophisticated tiered business models – an extra £5 per season for Covent Garden, for instance (no freemium as far as I can tell, though). These pioneers built a highly immersive Victorian cyberspace on the first of the really big wired networks – and, let’s face it, mostly because they misunderstood what people would actually wind up using their telephones for. The implications for the services we’re designing and promoting now set the mind reeling.

  • Google ‘Théâtrophone‘, ‘Electrophone‘ or ‘Telefon Hírmondó‘: you’ll find plenty of web sites about these pre-radio experiments. Here’s a good technical overview of Electrophone, for instance. I owe the inspiration for this post to a terrific Sunday Feature from Radio 3 last year called The Pleasure Telephone, presented by Edward Seckerson. The programme is sadly unavailable. Hunt down a recording if you can find one.
  • The picture at the top shows a coin-operated Théâtrophone receiver of the kind that would have been installed in cafes and special listening rooms. All the pics are from the Wikimedia Commons.