Distraction Free Reading

Speed-Bump, Meet Knee Defender

Bruno Latour’s Science in Action remains an unparalleled introduction to science studies because of its conversational style and clever use of the conventions of the “how-to” genre. And Latour has other shorter, more pedagogical, articles that show wonderfully how non-living objects are deeply embedded in complex social relations. But I sometimes wonder if his examples–the door-closer, the speed-bump, or sometimes, even the gun — are too simple. I worry about teaching these examples to savvy undergraduates in an introductory STS class. Will they just laugh it off dismissing it as obvious? Will they look at it as philosophy, as a conceptual case, rather than as anthropology? Could there be a more immediate example where the politics is not abstract, but more concrete? Where the students can use the immediacy of their own experience, but also where the stakes are higher?

So I was overjoyed the other day (I mean pedagogically!) when I read about the recent incidents on airplanes with passengers fighting about legroom and reclining space. Apparently, three such incidents have occurred recently–and in each case, this has led the flight-crew to execute an unscheduled landing. One of these cases involved a little device called the Knee Defender, created by an enterprising little company. Available for $21.95 + taxes, this little gadget “has been helping airline passengers around the world protect themselves and their things,” circa 2003. Basically, you attach the device to the seat in front of you so that it doesn’t recline and deprive you of your legroom. The use of Knee Defenders might be adding extra spice to what might just routine arguments about legroom and reclining space.

I submit that the Knee Defender might be a great test-case for an introductory STS class (right there with the speed-bump) to teach undergraduates about the relationship between technology and politics. Three reasons: there is a big-picture story about the air-line industry that undergraduates might enjoy parsing; there is a concrete material environment–the inside of an aircraft–that the Knee Defender operates in; and finally, debates over this device can be a great introduction to the vexed concept of ideology.

The Big Picture

Unlike door-closers, and speed-bumps (guns are another matter, especially in the United States) which almost seem like universal devices, there is a specific story to the use of the Knee Defender. One can’t really understand the deployment of this device without understanding the travails of the airline industry. The key event is often considered to be its deregulation in 1979 by the Carter Administration–part of a larger series of deregulatory moves that happened in this period (in transportation, communication and energy, according to Wikipedia).

Yet, the effects of airline regulation seem to be debated. For instance, blogger Matthew Yglesias suggests that overall it’s been a win for consumers.  Some of the “deals” and cheap fares we are now used to were only possible because of deregulation. But it’s not worked out so well for airline employees.

But the lower fares do come at a cost: lower wages and worse working conditions for employees. Breyer says now that “no one foresaw” how much deregulation “might unfairly harm workers in the industry.” But it’s difficult to see what was so unforeseeable about it. Back in the old cartel days, labor and management were fighting over how to divide the extraordinary economic surplus granted them by regulators. Introducing competition lowered fares and eliminated the surplus, forcing the rounds of givebacks, bankruptcies, mergers, and liquidations the industry has been experiencing for decades.

But Doug Henwood, author of Wall Street, says that even the decrease in fares is debatable. If I understand him right, he is saying that the decrease in fares was accompanied by a decrease in the quality of travel, which is equivalent to no decrease in fares.  His argument is fairly technical:

First prices. Between 1963 (when the figures begin) and 1979, the airfare subindex of the CPI grew 25% more slowly than the overall CPI. Since 1979, it’s growth 2.4 times as fast as overall inflation. A major reason for this is that there are many fewer nonstop flights than in the regulated days, and far tighter advance purchase restrictions. To the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which computes the CPI, such quality decreases are the same as price increases. (This is the opposite of the logic prevailing in computers, where rapidly increasing power is the same as a price decline.)

Hmmm.  However, David Richards, an economist, says that airline fares were going down anyway pre-1978, and therefore the decrease in fares post-deregulation had nothing to do with deregulation itself. The only event that caused airline fares to fall more than they did before was 9/11.

It never stops, does it, the number of confounding factors? But my guess is that undergraduates would love the topic and would discuss it to death. And just in case, they start getting too technical with their CPIs and their economics, the wise STS instructor can always get a bit Socratic with them.


I take “materiality” to mean: when things, or people, or organizations, push back at you when you try to make them do things. Not because you’re pushing them beyond their “natural” state.  But because you’re pushing them beyond their current state–which is something contingent on past choices and present circumstances.

And there’s a lot of pushing back with airplanes. The airplane itself can be a certain shape.  Again, not because there’s a straightforward line from Bernoulli’s Principle to the shape of the plane.  But because, certain choices were made along the way, for one reason or the other, and these choices have given us the airplane we know. There are safety regulations and there’s cost: how might an airline recover what it spends on fuel and wages from the ticket prices? How big should a plane be? How many seats should it carry? Really complicated and historically contingent decisions, that are nevertheless hard to reverse, that push back at you.

And of course, the seat itself pushes back at you. The passenger seated next to you pushes back at you (I personally have done my share of passive-aggressive elbowing on flights.) Taking a flight is a complicated social ritual: there are standards of behavior, of politeness, to negotiate. What happens when the Knee Defender comes into this space?  Is its use governed by airline regulations? Or is it governed by the more inarticulable social norms that regulate our actions in a closed space? Will the Knee Defender ever come to have a routine existence like the door-knob? What will that world look like?

[Pessimistic blogger Kevin Drum says it will never happen: airlines will just stop having reclining seats and they will decrease legroom to squeeze in more seats, so that we’ll all be worse off than ever.]

I am less sure how much undergraduates will enjoy this, but I think it could be a fascinating discussion topic.

Ideology and Legitimacy

And then, of course, there’s ideology. My favorite piece of writing on this whole airplane-seat affair has been this op-ed published in the NYT by heterodox conservative journalist Josh Barro. Titled “Don’t Want Me to Recline My Airline Seat? You Can Pay Me,” Barro says that this whole affair is an excellent case study for Coase’s Theorem. Here’s Barro:

I wrote an article to that effect in 2011, noting that airline seats are an excellent case study for the Coase Theorem. This is an economic theory holding that it doesn’t matter very much who is initially given a property right; so long as you clearly define it and transaction costs are low, people will trade the right so that it ends up in the hands of whoever values it most. That is, I own the right to recline, and if my reclining bothers you, you can pay me to stop. We could (but don’t) have an alternative system in which the passenger sitting behind me owns the reclining rights. In that circumstance, if I really care about being allowed to recline, I could pay him to let me.

Some economists (and economic sociologists) have been scathing in their criticism of this, arguing that Barro has misunderstood what Coase’s theorem is all about.  (Other economists approve. And there has been commentary arguing that knee-space is important, perhaps more than the ability to recline.) Me, I marvel at the world that Barro lives in.  Yes, I could pay the person sitting in front of me to not recline, but that seems like doing one of Harold Garfinkel’s famous breaching experiments. And how much would I pay anyway? And now that I think of it, instead of paying the person, perhaps I could make him (or her) a sandwich or bake cookies? If I was an economist, I would model this extreme disinclination on my part to offer money to the person sitting in front of me to not recline (which I will assume that the readers of this blog-post share), as a huge, gigantic, transaction cost.

But I digress. What’s interesting here, pedagogically, is how material artifacts like the Knee Defender can play a role in debates about what what matters to human beings (in this case, the right to recline) and why. The primary property right, Barro says, is the chair-holder’s right to recline. In Latourian terms, one might say: (person + chair) is more human than (person + knee-space). I imagine this might inspire some debates in the classroom.

I do have a sneaking sympathy for Barro’s piece though because he smuggles in some amount of egalitarianism through the back-door. The Knee Defender, he argues, is mostly a device for tall people.  After all, they’re probably more likely to buy it. And tall people, he also argues, citing an econometric finding, tend to be more successful than shorter people, on an average. So legitimizing the Knee Defender is an indirect subsidy to an already more successful group. Personally, as a short person, I thought: he has a point!


So there you have it. To make the essentially Latourian point that material objects have agency and can be put to a variety of uses (which he calls “translation”), the Knee Defender is a great pedagogical tool. It brings out a variety of issues that the door-closer or the speed-bump don’t: the big-picture debates about deregulation and the free market and consumer welfare, the materiality of the airline-ecosystem, and finally, that debates about this little object (and about leg-room and reclining chairs) are really about contrasting ideas about value and human-ness.


Perhaps there are other objects, other pedagogical case-studies that you can think of? Or are there other issues that the Knee Defender brings to mind, that would be great to set out in an introductory STS classroom? Please let me know in the comments!


  • A C Metcalf says:

    Well, I could go on and on, but I’ll just comment that after my son and I deplaned just yesterday, I thought about the knee-defender and how cheered I’d been when I first read it about a few month ago.

    I commented to him that I could not imagine what it must be like for someone, even 5’10” or taller to be stuck in that itsy-bitsy space, because at 5′ even I find it barely tolerable on a one-hour commute!

  • ARS says:

    Interesting post. I once witnessed a somewhat similar “problematized” airline seat incident. Shortly after airlines began charging for “extra space” seats (not unrelated to Barro’s issue), I was on a sparsely populated plane from Boston to DC. JetBlue, I think but I’m not sure. None of the “even more space” seats were sold, but after the cabin door was closed an attendant announced that since the plan was only half-full people were free to move to another seat if they wished.

    I did not scruple to move to an extra space seat, but one guy did, an econ major I think. The attendant asked him to move, as the permission to occupy a different seat didn’t extend to those premium seats. (As presumably it wouldn’t have to first class, had the plane had those category seats). But as all of the extra space seats were otherwise empty, he pointed out something I couldn’t follow about marginal cost and marginal utility, as well as making the reasonable point that when the announcement was made, no mention of not sitting in these seats was part of it. No notice that the behavior was prohibited and no harm, or at most notional harm to the idea of premium seating in the minds of the participants.

    He continued to sit there through the flight, getting glared at by the crew–and no extra snacks needless to say. But there is something interesting about how seating patterns, willingness to pay for some actual or notional differential, etc. gets encoded in all kinds of things. How are they valued and why?

    Theaters, opera houses, and symphonic halls all have these patterns of seats, cost, location, status, and it turns out to be a tricky problem to actual find a defensible way to talk about the cost and value (in multiple dimensions) of an occupied vs. an empty seat. Performing arts managers (like airline managers) talk about inventory and excess capacity etc., but a seat is not a good like say a gallon of oil (although maybe that’s also problematic in its complicated “use case”) so a seat does not necessarily represent a straightforward category of good.

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