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The ethical spin on spinners

The ethical spin on spinners

by Karl D. Stephan | August 21, 2017

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The first time I saw one in a store, I couldn't figure out what it was for and I had to ask my wife. "Oh, that's a fidget spinner," she said. "You don't need one." She's right there.

As most people under 20 (and a few people over 60) know, fidget spinners are toys that you hold between your finger and thumb and spin. That's it—that's the whole show.

When the fad showed signs of getting really big, somebody rushed into production battery-powered Bluetooth-enabled spinners. My imagination obviously doesn't run in mass-marketing directions, because I couldn't think of what adding Bluetooth to a spinner could do.

Well, a quick Amazon search turns up spinners with little speakers in each of the three spinning lobes (playing music from your Bluetooth-enabled device), spinners with LEDs embedded in them and synced to the rotation somehow so that when you spin it, it spells out "I LOVE YOU," spinners with color-organ kind of LEDs that light in time to music—you name it, somebody has crammed the electronics into a spinner to do it.

But all this electronics needs super-compact batteries, and where there's batteries, there's the possibility of fire.

Already, there have been a couple of reports of Bluetooth-enabled spinners catching on fire while charging. No deaths or serious injuries have resulted, but the US Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has put out a nannygram, as you might call it: don't overcharge the spinner, don't plug it in and leave it unattended, don't use a charger that wasn't designed for it, and so on.

I am not aware that teenagers are big fans of the CPSC website, but nobody can say the bureaucrats haven't done their job on this one.

The Wikipedia article on spinners discounts claims that they are good for people with attention-deficit disorder, hyperactivity, and similar things. Seems to me that holding a spinning object in your hand would increase distraction rather than the opposite, and some high schools have agreed with me to the extent of banning the devices altogether.

As a long-time manual tapper (no equipment required), I think I can speak to that aspect of the matter from personal experience.

Ever since I was a teenager or perhaps before, I have been in the habit of tapping more or less rhythmically on any available surface from time to time. My wife is not exactly used to it—she will let me know now and then when it gets on her nerves—but it's no longer a huge issue between us. Often when she asks me to stop, it's the first time I've fully realized I'm doing it, and that's part of the mystery of tapping or doing other habitual, useless things with your hands.

The most famous manual fidgeter in fiction was a character in Herman Wouk's World War II novel The Caine Mutiny, Captain Philip F. Queeg, who had the habit when under stress of taking two half-inch ball bearings out of his pocket and rolling them together. (Queeg lived in an impoverished age when customized fidget toys were only a distant dream, so he had to use whatever fell to hand, so to speak.)

During the court martial that forms the heart of the novel, a psychologist is called to the stand to speculate on the reasons for Queeg's habit of rolling balls. The doctor's comments ranged from the sexual to the scatological, and will not be repeated here. But it appears that psychology has not made much progress in the last 70 years to find out why some people simply like to do meaningless motions with their hands. That hasn't kept a lot of marketing types from making money off of them.

Fidget spinners are yet another example of the power of marketing to get people to buy something they didn't know they wanted till they saw one. I don't know what the advertising budget was for the companies that popularized the toy, but I suspect it was substantial.

For reasons unknown to everyone but God, the thing caught on, and what with Bluetooth-enabled ones and so on, the marketers are riding the cresting fad wave for all it's worth before it spills on the beach and disappears, as it will. Somehow I don't think we're going to see 80-year-olds in 2100 taking their cherished mahogany spinners out of felt-lined boxes for one last spin before the graveyard.

Like most toys, fidget spinners seem to be ethically benign, unless one of them happens to set your drapes on fire. Lawsuits are a perpetual hazard of the consumer product business, but the kind of people who market fad products are risk-takers to begin with, so it's not surprising they cut a few corners in the product safety area before rushing to the stores with their hastily designed gizmos.

By the time the cumbersome government regulatory apparatus gets in gear, the company responsible for the problematic spinners may have vanished. Here's where the internet and its viewers' fondness for exciting bad news can help even more than government regulations.

When hoverboards started catching fire a year or two ago, what kept people from buying more of the bad ones wasn't the government so much as it was the bad publicity the defective board makers got on YouTube. And that's a good thing, when consumers who get burned (sometimes literally) can warn others of the problem.

As for Bluetooth-enabled spinners, well, if you want one, go get one while you can. They'll be collectors' items pretty soon. And those of us who learned how to cope with tension the old-fashioned way by drumming on a table-top can at least rest assured that they aren't going to take our fingers or table-tops away. But they might tell us to stop tapping.

Karl D. Stephan is a professor of electrical engineering at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas. This article has been republished, with permission, from his blog, Engineering Ethics, which is a MercatorNet partner site. His ebook Ethical and Otherwise: Engineering In the Headlines is available in Kindle format and also in the iTunes store.

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