Should we think more about the consequences of our designs even if it's not directly our problem?
SAN FRANCISCO--My brain is a sometimes scary place where even I fear
I can often be of two minds (journalism training perhaps) or more,
and the squash match that rages across my synaptic gaps and neurons
is vicious and exhausting. This happened today as I came across a
story about the government lawsuit against the addictive Buckyballs
product, which forced the manufacturer to pull them from the market.
What's the hub-bub behind the government strong-arming? Buckyballs
are small, magnetized balls you can form into any number of shapes.
Once you start, it's hard to stop, as I found by playing with my
cube mate's set (
see video). Unfortunately if you're a small child
or just stupid, ingesting these tiny balls can cause big-time
problems. Think about different parts of your intestines being
pulled toward each other in unhealthy ways. (In a ironic twist, it
turns out, according to our colleague R. Colin Johnson, that real
buckyballs might be hazardous to your DNA).
In the case of the play Buckyballs, the Consumer Products Safety
Commission said "bad, very bad" and pressured
the manufacturerinto ending production, despite obvious warnings on the
products. The libertarian
crowd is up in arms for sure, and parents organizations
are relieved. In my squash match, I'm thinking:
"This isn't plague.
There have been a dozen ingestions in three years. So, um, here's a
thought: Don't bring 'em home for the kids! You don't hand carving
knives over to the little ones do you?"
But on the other hand, these are pretty strong magnets and the balls are
really small (roughly about 1/8th of an inch by my eye). Some
parents are just stupid, and accidents do happen. Eliminating the
balls' manufacture will not pause the Earth's rotation, so why not?
I had two children. One tried to eat undesirable small objects. The other was pretty much the opposite, though both were taught in the same way. I don't think child education is enough. On the other hand, I have loads of those little pointy chips, batteries, sharp objects and just about everything other than Buckyballs and my kids weren't able to eat any of those.
I have a bunch of buckyballs and have let my boy play with them since he was 4... but only under strict supervision: I was looking at what he was doing with them the whole time and made it clear the fun would be over if the balls would leave the table and especially if they ended up anywhere near his face. I explained why this was the case and why they could be dangerous. He had a lot of fun with them and never attempted to do anything stupid. When we're not playing with them, they are literally locked away out of his reach.
As to teenagers putting them in their mouths to simulate piercings... if their stupidity is enough reason to shut down a company from making a toy, then PLEASE let's put the issue of those same teenagers getting a drivers license at age 16 on the table. That's not just their own safety at stake, but everyone else's too.
Innovation was the buckyball's demise becuase the real cause of the recall was teenage girls using them with tongue in the middle to simulate a piercing. This was more about the hazards of trying to impress and being stupid than hazardous waste. Guess this fact didn't make as good a start to your story line.
You missed a big part of the story. Teens were using buckyballs to imitate tongue piercings. That's why they're getting swallowed. This isn't about accidents with children. This is about teens doing something stupid on purpose.
I think that buckyballs probably are unnecessarily dangerous, to be sold publically as they are. And I also think that recycling of electronics products safely is an achievable goal. After all, recycling technology has improved so much that now we find ourselves putting a lot more trash in the recycling bin than we do in the regular garbage. Way more. This happened because our local trash pickup has gradually been removing restrictions on what could be thrown in the recycling bin. Why can't electronic product recycling also become more automated?
So I don't see a need to make this an either or proposition. The much more glaring hypocrisy is in the number of obscene, oversized, blunt privately owned vehicles we still see on roads. You'd think people would shame themselves into ditching such public expressions of "who dives a damn," even while they wax eloquent about their "concern for the environment."
It is true that some parents do keep track of where their kids are and what they are playing with. It is also true that some kids never learn to not put everything that they come across in their mouth. So how hard is it to keep something like that away from a kid? I have lots of things that kids should not eat, 8-pin dip ICs, LEDs, all kinds of chip components, and small batteries. Lots of things around that kids should not swallow, or dogs, nor cats. Many folks may have a bottle of booze, which is certainly bad for kids in excess.
My point is that there are all kinds of things around that can be really bad for kids to swallow. The alleged problem with the magnets is that two or more can attract across different areas and mess up somebodies insides with their attraction. Yes, that is probably true, and quite unfortunate when it happens. But should I be forbidden to drink HOT coffee because it could spill on some kid? How about if I just decide to keep it away from the kid, by being a bit responsible and a bit careful? The world is full of risks, and only a slobbering idiot believes that we must protect everybody who chooses to be stupid. Or, if not an idiot, perhaps a liberal who believes that nobody should be accountable for their actions.
Oh my, you expect people to behave with common sense. Shame on you. There are more then enough examples where people do incredibly stupid things that any intelligent person would not do.
It is not the Buckyballs fault, kids put small things in their mouths. It is what they do as part of their learning experience. After all, we cannot expect their parents to monitor them or anything, can we?
How dare we expect people to take responsibility for their actions.
What are you think?
PS, if you cannot tell, I love sarcasm.