November 27, 2005
The Way We Live Now
By ROB WALKER
Free Play Radio

On an abstract level, everyone understands that the world is full of risks and dangers. If you don't, tune in to a few minutes of CNN's jittery "Situation Room," where Wolf Blitzer and his guests remain standing, as if they might have to flee at any moment from the torrents of alarm pumping through multiple video screens. But what to do about threats, known or imagined? Some of the efforts to come to grips with a perilous world fill an interesting design exhibition now at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, titled "Safe: Design Takes on Risk."

The show presents a kind of continuum of threats and responses. There are items that are immediately useful (a terra-cotta water container with a filter to block out arsenic, used in Bangladesh), the vaguely paranoid (the "Stop Thief!" chairs with built-in hooks to thwart purse-snatchers) and the merely convenient (the "BananaBunker," a plastic container that keeps nature's best-designed fruit from being bruised in an overstuffed bag). One featured product stands out for addressing -- and even cleverly exploiting -- this entire continuum, from present to potential dangers: the FreePlay radio.

FreePlay Energy was founded in 1994, partly with a grant from the British government, with the idea of distributing "self-powered" radios in Africa. The radios, designed by an inventor named Trevor Baylis, are juiced up by winding a hand crank (or by solar power). The humanitarian goal was to use the radios to spread educational messages about AIDS, which was not a theoretical threat but an acutely tangible one, in areas where electricity is rare. "You put the radio in somebody's room and bring the kids in, and that becomes a classroom," Cameron Sinclair, founder of the nonprofit Architecture for Humanity, says in an interview in the catalog to the "Safe" exhibition. Then he adds something interesting: "I have one." And he paints a different scene, in which he listened to public radio broadcasts on his stoop after the 2003 blackout in New York City.

FreePlay depends on this model, using money it generates by selling some of its products to consumers (in the U.S., Europe and elsewhere) to finance the distribution of other products to people in the developing world who cannot afford to buy them. FreePlay now works with a variety of designers and offers a range of radios, flashlights and other devices with solar or hand-crank power (or both). The company says it has sold more than 3 million such gizmos to consumers, and a current favorite is the EyeMax, a radio with a built-in flashlight that sells for about $60 on Amazon.com. Whether most consumers who buy these items will ever really need them is beside the point: paranoia or preparedness are equally valid sources to tap. Profits from those sales, after all, help pay for the models FreePlay distributes in the Third World.

It's easy to imagine that the degree to which we think we might need an EyeMax radio is affected by, for instance, seeing a lot of victims of hurricanes (or bombings or tornadoes or tsunamis) on television. The MoMA exhibition, originally to be called "Emergency," was first proposed in March 2001 -- and called off during the planning stages after Sept. 11 of that year. Paola Antonelli, the MoMA curator who organized the revived show, says that in the new version, what united the wide range of objects that were ultimately chosen was not fear but hope. We all live with various degrees of awareness of the threats around us, yet we remain "optimistic, despite everything," she says. "This exhibition taps into that. Designers are the most constructive and positive of human beings, in a way."

Writing recently in The New Republic about threats like natural disasters, avian flu and terrorism, Richard A. Posner contended that "Americans simply do not accept the inevitability of disaster." He was looking at systemic preparations, and he had a point: massive infrastructure planning in anticipation of something that may never happen is, politically, a hard sell. But on an individual level, we are quite receptive to the idea that this or that consumer purchase might be just the thing to prepare us and protect us -- at least from the threats we are able to imagine. The BananaBunker, for instance, is flying off the shelves at MoMA's design shop.