Has Technology Really Made America Less Violent?

Has Technology Really Made America Less Violent?

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.

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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