We’re probably approaching a point where blue-collar crime could be eradicated, one way or the other. But the way does matter: we could eradicate crime through ubiquitous surveillance, or through drug treatments/targeted lobotomies to remove the urges to criminality, or through effective early identification of potential criminals and preemptive measures against them, or through skilled large scale social manipulation of attitudes, or even through reducing all human interactions to tele-presence.

All these methods are unpleasant and undermine our current notions of democracy, but persistent fear of crime (despite the persistent reduction in actual crime) means that politicians will find it extraordinarily difficult not to implement one of these measures, were it to work. Humanity will likely find itself in a crime-free society; the question is how.

To my mind, ubiquitous surveillance is the least unpleasant of the possibilities – it’s non-discriminatory, doesn’t interfere with people’s inner motivations, doesn’t involve sinister manipulations of social norms or loss of human interactions. Assuming we can’t hold the line, that’s where I would want it to be broken.

But we might have more influence if we surrender early. Saying “we’ll allow surveillance, but fight you tooth and nail and claw on the other methods” would make it much easier to ensure those other methods were not implemented. In exchange for cooperation, we could also push the surveillance state into more positive implementations of the policy – maybe achieving 360 degree transparency (we watch the rulers watching us) or treating recording akin to electronic medical records, only allowing them to viewed in specific circumstances.

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13 Responses to Surrendering to big brother might be the least bad option

  • Anders Sandberg says:

    There is another issue: what is defined as a crime? A tolerant transparent society can likely be quite liveable, while an intolerant one would successfully impose stifling restrictions on its members – and make it easy for people to show their loyalty by being holier-than-thou. A society where theft is impossible because every objects "knows" who owns it could work well if there is enough leeway for sane human interaction, but could equally well be a DRM-ed nightmare where large parts of culture and social interaction are locked down in proprietary ownership. Well-used therapy to cure sociopathy and some other personality disorders would be good, but it is far too easy to imagine declaring antisocial thoughts criminal and creating a self reinforcing dictatorship. Certain technologies will make it easier to handle or detect certain 'crimes', and this might affect their level of opprobrium.

    So the problem might rather be how the regulation of the crime category is done rather than what technology enforces it.

  • Anthony Drinkwater says:

    It’s very interesting to note that blue-collar crime is prevalent due to the lack of ubiquitous surveillance, or through umedicalised urges to criminality, or a deep-seated potentiality for crime, poorly manipulated attitudes, or indeed human interaction itself.
    (These conclusions could not, of course, apply to white-collar crime…)

    But surely, if you are right, the most effective solution would be to remove working-class children from their homes at birth. In total cost terms it would be much cheaper ; a period of seven years should suffice.

    • Stuart Armstrong says:

      >(These conclusions could not, of course, apply to white-collar crime…)

      White collar crime is a lot harder to catch, is enabled by advanced technology (fraudsters benefit from computers – muggers not so much) and shades into quasi-legal behaviour (for instance, we don't have laws against a lot of the dodgy stuff banks were doing). So I can realistically imagine a politician in a decade or so saying "my program will eliminate all violent crime (don't worry about civil rights)", but not the same thing about crime in general.

      >But surely, if you are right, the most effective solution would be to remove working-class children from their homes at birth. In total cost terms it would be much cheaper ; a period of seven years should suffice.

      No, that would be hideously expensive and counterproductive (and technology won't make it any cheaper or more effective). So no politician is ever going to seriously propose that. But the other ways I mentioned, if effective (or believed to be effective), would probably get a lot of support (and some of them could me much worse than your kidnapping scheme).

  • Matt Sharp says:

    Your argument is that because of the 'fear of crime', politicians will need to implement a measure to completely eradicate crime? But why not simply implement measures to reduce the fear of crime?

    Politicians will only find it 'extraordinarily difficult not to implement one of these measures' if the desire of the electorate to reduce crime/the fear of crime is much greater than the desire not to suffer the consequences of such measures. Do you have any evidence that people would prefer to live in a crime-free state with 100% surveillance than one with low crime but lower levels of surveillance? Because it strikes me as highly unlikely that most people would.

    • Stuart Armstrong says:

      >But why not simply implement measures to reduce the fear of crime?

      That sounds much harder than reducing crime – public education campaigns will be disbelieved (as they are now), and anything more coercive will be worse than total surveillance.

      >Do you have any evidence that people would prefer to live in a crime-free state with 100% surveillance than one with low crime but lower levels of surveillance?

      Britain over the last few decades. More and more cameras coming up all over the place. The most successful pushbacks at them has not been through defending civil rights, but pointing out that they don't work well to reduce crime (but total surveillance with smarter incident recognition software would likely work). People seem very willing to give vast amounts of information to Google, Facebook, the NHS etc… People photograph and film each other all the time and nobody seems to bat an eyelid.

      • Matt Sharp says:

        Britain over the last few decades would qualify as having "lower levels of surveillance" than a state with "100% surveillance". I think the reason people have not been massively concerned about civil rights is that state surveillance is limited to public areas. If the state started asking for surveillance inside people's bedrooms, it would be a whole different ball game. Some surveillance of public areas has always been accepted; that's why there's generally such strong support for having highly visible 'bobbies on the beat'.

        • Stuart Armstrong says:

          Good point; we might be able to contain it to "total surveillance of public areas" rather than "total surveillance". Might not make all that much difference in practice, but it is a plausible line in the sand that will catch most crimes that people worry about (apart from rape).

          • Matt Sharp says:

            Fair point, and I don't think we're actually that far from total surveillance of public areas, at least in UK cities. It would probably require upgrade of lots of cameras for them to be effective. I still imagine crime would occur though. Some crime are crimes of passion, and knowing that you'll get caught will have no deterrent effect. Some crime is probably committed because they want to 'fight the man' and as such would be intentionally visible, so this crime would still occur. If some crime still occurs, even if much less than at present, would the fear of crime go down?

            Well, I imagine that depends on how it is reported in the media. I think fear of crime could be reduced by highlighting poor use of statistics by politicians, and getting them to talk about long-term trends, rather than highlighting the small increase of very particular crimes on a year-by-year basis. Based on the BBC article you originally linked to, what is also important is a clear and consistent methodology over time. If people don't believe the method used is accurate, then they're not going to believe the numbers.

            It could ultimately simply be down to human psychology; I suspect we're more likely to remember bad things that have recently happened than bad things that happened years ago, so perhaps we shouldn't be so concerned about reducing the fear of crime. In fact, is 'thinking that crime is rising' even the same thing as 'fear of crime'? Could it not be the case that many people think crime is rising across the country as a whole, but the actual fear of crime in their local area has gone down?

  • Michael Gaddis says:

    Your reasoning is flawed on so many levels. You assume that crime is the most important concern we face. That, in itself, shows facile analysis. Crime in the modern age is nothing compared to the constant state of fear that existed in medieval times due, not only to those "outside the law" (outlaws) but also to the dangers from both the state (serfdom, lack of property and civil rights etcetera) and the church (heresy). To invite the statist to have their final victory, to abolish privacy for want of a perceived sense of safety is fallacious. You pose a choice between an evil (ubiquitous surveillance) and deeper evils (lobotomies, or state indoctrination,…really?) Those are not our choices. Choose freedom instead and fight for lawful protections for those freedoms. Freedom is not incompatible with technology (the instruments of your prescribed horrors). I marvel at the twisted logic inherent in your statements and wonder how you have reached such a state of confusion. Give up your rights if you wish and watch the expansion of what the state refers to as "crime." If they can surveil your person 24/7 then they can surveil your thoughts when technology allows. If that is our future then I will quote Thomas Jefferson, "When injustice becomes law, rebellion becomes duty."

    • Stuart Armstrong says:

      >You assume that crime is the most important concern we face.

      Not at all. I assume many people believe that crime is the most important concern we face. Or at least a major concern. That's the problem.

      >Choose freedom instead and fight for lawful protections for those freedoms.

      Many crusades have "chosen freedom" and failed. And now we don't even recognise them as fighting for freedom (anti-most government regulations, for instance). In the UK, anti-surveillance movements have been losing over a long time, and now the central consensus has been pulled very far in the direction of surveillance.

      So "choosing freedom" on everything will automatically fail, has failed, and will fail again. So the question is, is "choosing freedom" on these measures a good idea? I laid out a case why it might not be for surveillance; I can be convinced of the contrary, but need evidence.

      >(lobotomies, or state indoctrination,…really?)

      Really. Lobotomies were practiced for all sorts of things in the 20th century. Targeted lobotomies that actually work and have relatively small impact are something that we are likely capable of doing soon. And there will be strong pressure to use them, especially if we keep on medicalising criminal behaviours.

      State indoctrination is maybe a stretch, but again, we are on the cusps of perfecting a whole plethora of methods that actually work. If you define work as 'bring down the crime rate (damn the civil liberties)'. Then you would get those news stories of "Young Emily, aged 14 and with beautiful tearful white parents, was raped and murdered today, leaving behind articulate and photogenic grieving relatives. If the "no violence" drug had been added to the water supply, as some politicians advocated, such tragedies would have been averted. Let's ask the family for their views on the situation… Remember, if you're not prone to violence, the drug won't affect you, only those other, violent people…"

  • Wayne Yuen says:

    Where would surveillance end? Plenty of crime happens within private areas of spaces like dressing rooms of clothing stores, and such. Without surveillance of these areas, we wouldn't be able to catch shoplifters, but that seems to violate a person's privacy in a very direct way.

    Moreover, it seems like surveillance gives select people (those who staff the cameras) a means for stalking and possibly harassing individuals.

    How often do we see on TV, or Youtube surveillance video of people doing something silly? It wasn't a crime, but suddenly I can be publicly embarrassed, for eternity. Persistent surveillance may reduce certain crimes, but it may increase other kinds of crimes, or create a whole new class of crime all together.

  • Ade says:

    This debate is limited in scope due to the choices provided above. People have been fed on a diet of fear as a means to an end. The intention is that society will accept loss of liberty and intrusive remedial measures as a reaction to that largely media induced fear.

    Create the problem provoke the reaction provide the solution which always was the objective.

    "To my mind, ubiquitous surveillance is the least unpleasant of the possibilities – it’s non-discriminatory"

    Not the case if you lived in certain areas of Birmingham old chap. The police / council have been made to remove their intrusive surveillance equipment targeted at areas with a high percentage of Muslim / asian residents on the grounds that the installations were discriminatory.

    Surveillance is also an ineffective crime fighting tool there is little evidence if any that supports the costs vs the benefits.

    I have requested such evidence from my local authority and they are unable or unwilling to deliver.

    Concentrating effort on "blue collar crime" is in itself a wasteful diversion of resources. In terms of broader society the priority should be a top down approach. ie target the most harmful and costly crimes that affect the whole of society. If resources were targeted at this area a more equal society would result reducing the driving factors behind "blue collar crime".

    Surveillance would not detect the crimes of politicians, corporations and the financial industry how are they to be addressed ? These crimes are far more damaging than any other criminal activity including terrorism.

    For instance billions in drug cartel profits is laundered through the banking system every day and tons of illicit drugs are shipped with impunity around the globe yet the "drug problem" is deemed to be due to the users and hoodie wearing teenage gangsters a "blue collar" problem. The "drug problem" is tackled by coming down on these people at the bottom rather than addressing the problem at source and its economic underpinnings hence the cycle repeats and the problem persists and expands. The vast amount of illicit funds are then employed to undermine legitimate political and legal processes worldwide.

    For instance the $15 trillion laundered by European / UK banks hidden off the balance sheets of RBS at the time we forked out billions for a bankers bailout. RBS are said to have had $887 billion tucked away off balance sheet. Somewhere in that scenario serious crimes were committed and indeed are ongoing. Everyone except a very privileged few suffer harm as a result and every aspect of society is harmed and undermined.

    See Hansard HANSARD 16 Feb 2012 : Column 1016 5.20 pm Lord Blackheath

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