A close look at the connection between technology and the supposed decline in violence.

 

The claim is often made that violence in America has dramatically decreased over the last several decades. The murder rate dropped by almost half between 1989 and 2009, while violent assault, robbery, and rape have all experienced incremental drops alongside.

In a story for The Verge, Ben Popper considers the idea that the recent growth of the "sharing economy" might have contributed something to the statistical drop by creating economic incentives for people to trust one another. Through services like Lyft, Sidecar, Airbnb, and even Craigslist, Americans are more likely to pay a relative stranger for a personal service, which has helped break down old and irrational fears about kidnappers, serial killers, and other boogeymen.

Steven Pinker made a similar observations about the decline of violence in modern times, arguing that humans have both an inextinguishable capacity for violence that is coupled with qualities like empathy, reason, and self-control meant to control it. But rather than attribute the decline in violence to some entrepreneurial basket of iPhone apps, Pinker admits the "most obvious of [the] pacifying forces has been the state, with its monopoly on the legitimate use of force. 

 

We have made America seem safer, but only through a magical bookkeeping where the worst kinds of violence are statistically invisible.

 

Before people were trying to prop up the collapsing values of their salaries with a few extra dollars from renting out a spare room, the wild growth of prisons and police has contributed massively to the presumptive decline in violence. The number of people in prisons in America more than quadrupled between 1980 and 2008, going from 500,000 to 2.3 million. America is responsible for 25 percent of the world's total prison population, and spending on corrections rose by more than 600 percent between 1982 and 2006. In 2008 blacks and hispanics accounted for 58 percent of the total prison population. And while five times as many whites use drugs, blacks are convicted of 10 times more drug offenses every year.

America has gotten safer in recent years then, but only if you ignore the people for whom it's gotten increasingly more violent. And for them, the violence has become increasingly systemic. And in recent years, that system has become ever more intimidating, with a dramatic rise in military weaponry being distributed to police in the years following 9/11.

If you're someone who, by dint of skin color and demography, won't experience the suspicious glare of men with heavy weaponry and a vast machinery of obscure laws and regulations to legitimize almost any aggressive act, maybe America does feel like a safer place. But it would be an absolute perversion of fact to suggest that the country as a whole is less violent. Rather than addressing the long and complicated socio-political contributors to violence in America, we have simply legalized its most common forms so that we don't have to keep count anymore.

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