Has Technology Really Made America Less Violent?

Has Technology Really Made America Less Violent?

This week, Anthony McKinney died in a Dixon, Illinois prison. The 53 year-old had been convicted of killing a security guard in 1978 when he was 18 and spent his entire adult life caged by men with guns on their hips. McKinney confessed to the killing after being beaten with a pipe by local police during an interrogation. There was no physical evidence to connect him to the crime and years later two eye-witnesses admitted they had lied on the stand and another person came forward to claim McKinney wasn't anywhere near the scene when the murder occurred.

Cases like McKinney's aren't recorded as acts of violence. They challenge the basic standards of our account-keeping because the violence experienced by one person forced into our criminal system is impossible to reduce to one, trackable act. We don't have words for the violence of living every day of your adult life surrounded by men equipped to beat you should you fail to follow an order, and kill you should you try and escape, all the while knowing your presence in that place was the product of a long trail of dominoes predetermined to fall against you. A World Justice Project report in 2011 ranked access to civil justice in rich countries and found America to be the fourth worst.

Lives like McKinney's break our data structures for violence, dwarfing them by an order of magnitude. And there are stories like his everywhere, from Tamon Robinson, the 27 year-old muffin shop cashier who was run over and killed by New York police for digging up decorative garden stones in his mother's apartment building, to Shane Reams, a man sentenced to 25 years-to-life under California's Three Strikes law for serving as a lookout during a cocaine sale worth $20.

Earlier this year, a video showed an undercover cop arresting a North Carolina man who was drinking an Arizona Iced Tea in a liquor store parking lot claiming he was trespassing in what is clearly public space. Where in our violence statistics do we put these cases? Where should we record all of the violent incidents in prisons—the rapes, the beatings, the murders, the thefts, the extortions? Because these happen in prison, we think of them as not happening in America, and so act as if they don't happen at all.

We have made America seem safer, but only through a magical bookkeeping where the worst kinds of violence are statistically invisible. In that light, the cultural advances of technology can be seen as abetting this broad sweeping expansion of state-driven violence by keeping those of us least likely to ever have to think about what is going on behind those ominous cement walls on the outskirts of town.

If technological distractions are having any meaningful nonviolent effect on their users while everyone around them is drowning in a sea of SWAT teams and stop-and-frisk, it may be worth counting that as one of our generational shames. 

Michael Thomsen is Complex.com's tech columnist. He has written for Slate, The Atlantic, The New Inquiry, n+1, Billboard, and is author of Levitate the Primate: Handjobs, Internet Dating, and Other Issues for Men. He tweets often at @mike_thomsen.

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