Two things seem to be really trendy these days, if you don’t count bashing Muslims (I’ll talk about that one and why it’s so wrong in a different post). Serial the podcast (which I discussed at length in November) and speculation on why murder rates have crashed all over urban America. Malcolm Gladwell discussed the latter in his latest pop-stats book, David and Goliath, which I read last year, it’s the front page story in one of the surviving New Orleans papers today, and I’m sure NYPD thinks they’re single-handedly going to reverse the trend by refusing to shoot any unarmed people for a whole week.
These things all seem pretty related to me, in a fairly intuitive way. And no, it’s not that people are not murdering people because they fear being analyzed in a 12-week podcast and having all their friends interviewed. If anything, that’s probably going to create a slight uptick in the interest in domestic murder.
People thought a lot of things while listening to Serial. Indeed, the fact that it prompted speculation of all kinds and thus inspired countless unending discussions and debates in homes all across America was a key ingredient of its immense popularity. I almost laughed aloud when Koenig dismissed her wildest thoughts and speculations in the waning minutes of the final episode by saying “So who are we to put this theory forward? This is the very obvious problem with speculation, especially of the emotional variety. You can’t prove it, so you have to drop it.” It’s like Facebook dismissing the opportunity for someone’s link to go viral on their site as not very important to their site. Are you kidding, Koenig? Speculation is everything that Serial was about and that made it great.
But one of the things I think people thought most about Serial is what it would have been like in their high school. For most of the people I know, that’s a time roughly contemporary to the murder depicted in Serial, and I think that made Serial really interesting to a lot of my friends and to me. I can’t imagine loaning my car to anyone, certainly not someone who wasn’t a close friend, so the idea that Jay and Adnan barely knew each other seems ridiculous. For some Serial listeners, an era of cell phones at school is incomprehensible, because cell phones came later. And for some Serial listeners, many who I know, they can’t imagine using a cell phone so little as Jay/Adnan used Adnan’s cell that fateful day in January 1999. There were only, what, 29 calls? Today, there may be no calls at all, or a couple, but there would be about 110 texts, plus Google searches, Angry Birds games, and other unending streams of data pinging away at those cell towers like a GPS tracker of the phone’s movements.
Which gets us to the reality of the panopticon that seems to exist in modern society. I don’t have a smartphone, but I acquiesced to get a cellphone in late 2010. And while I don’t interrupt live conversations to use it and I don’t play games on it or surf the web on it, I sure do text a lot and have it on me most all of the time. And I am considered one of the most luddite, anti-cell people anyone knows. My fellow hold-outs, Russ and Gris, now carry cells, and Russ’ at least is a smartphone too. Sure, my parents and a lot of other people in their generation still lack the cell trackers, but I think we can safely say we’re a couple decades from everyone in society having a perpetual GPS tracker in their pocket. And functionally, we’re just about there already.
Despite what some aspects of Serial may seem to imply, it’s hard to get away with murder. But it’s really hard to get away with if you have a device in your pocket constantly telling the world where you are. And it’s really hard to get away with when everyone has such a device in their pocket, a device they’re expected to use regularly to tell a wider swath of the world where they are specifically, to discuss their feelings, to respond to texts, and to dial 911 at the first sign of danger.
This is the biggest single reason why murder rates are falling everywhere in the country, regardless of whether they have a “three strikes” law or not, regardless of whether their police force is slaughtering innocents who brandish sticks and toy guns or not, regardless of whether there’s broken-windows enforcement in the district or virtually no enforcement. It’s because the technology let loose in the society is creating a community that is sufficiently integrated to police itself, or at least do so against the most dramatic of crimes. It’s made the task of abducting or killing someone vastly harder. And that’s a really good thing.
What it hasn’t prevented, however, is the kind of murder that has experienced a huge uptick during this time of generally crashing murder rates. Which are mass-murder sprees that end in the suicide of the person perpetrating them. Now there are a whole bunch of other reasons for that uptick that I’ve discussed previously in the wake of some of these mass-shootings, but I think it’s telling that basically no one, except I guess the Aurora shooter, even tries to get away with them. Mass-shootings almost universally end in suicide because the idea of getting away with it is totally ludicrous. (And also, notably, that a lot of these are committed by people who have given up on life for one or another reason already.) And it’s not just because a mass-shooting leaves a particularly large trail of evidence, though it does. It’s because any murder leaves behind enough instant evidence that it’s almost impossible to imagine anyone getting away with it, so why bother?
This is part of what has fueled so much outrage at the police officers who the state has failed to hold accountable for their murders of unarmed individuals. Because the same kind of evidence, of recording, of instant awareness of these murders has existed for police-committed crimes as well. But instead of being used by law enforcement to bring the perpetrators to justice, it is ignored in favor of solidarity among those in authority. I discussed this at length a month ago, so no need to review. But the particular outrage is so high because it contrasts so fully with what happens to other murder cases. The mountain of technological evidence is used to throw the book at regular citizens, but to protect and obfuscate when the perpetrators are the police.
Which brings us to the only real danger of the death of privacy: asymmetry. This is hackneyed territory for me at this point, but it bears repeating when people cite the panopticon as an agent of oppression rather than protection. The problem with publicity of information, whereabouts, etc. is when they are wielded asymmetrically. When wielded symmetrically, when there is a similar expectation of publicity among all citizens, whatever their status or rank, and all corporations, governments, and other operating entities in our society, then publicity and a lack of privacy is freeing. When it is wielded asymmetrically, it can easily be a tool of oppression, domination, and disaster.
We’re somewhere in the middle right now with a lot of this. Facebook, Twitter, phone records, and the constant-communication society are functionally pretty symmetrical. Sure, the companies running the systems have a bit more knowledge/power, but not grossly more so, perhaps not even meaningfully more so. And while there are certainly drawbacks and problems with the constant-communication world, it has knitted together a fabric of society that seems so interconnected that it is very hard to be very bad therein, at least if you care about what happens to you afterwards. I truly think this is a wonderful development that is saving tons of lives.
However, there are areas of asymmetry still lurking, bolstered by draconian punishments of whistleblowers levied by both governments and corporations. The police remain utterly immune, as do high-ranking government officials (except when Chelsea Manning or Wikileaks or Edward Snowden can occasionally sneak something out, and then those people have to not care what happens to them as well). And this is problematic and needs correcting. But the correction should not be to push us all back into the shadows where murderers can hide and no one knows where we went. The solution, rather, is to push everyone out into the sunlight where we can evaluate the quality of everyone’s actions. Those in power ought most closely be scrutinized. If we push for this rather than hand-wringing about a “privacy” that we couldn’t currently retrieve if we wanted to (without an irreversible knockout EMP, at least), then everyone might stop murdering people, even the police.