Digital frontier technologies, society, and crime: A missing link

Above outlined radical transformation of contemporary societies, commonly dubbed the Fourth Industrial Revolution, has largely been underpinned by the development of emerging technologies. While there is no universal definition of frontier technologies, such technologies ‘have the potential to disrupt the status quo, alter the way people live and work, rearrange value pools, and lead to entirely new products and services’ (Manyika et al., 2013: 1). Frontier technologies are linked to the UN-defined Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as innovations that ‘will reshape industry' and communications and provide urgently needed solutions to global challenges’, while having ‘potential to displace existing processes’ (Ramalingam et al., 2016: 16). These technologies are fastchanging, with significant political and cultural impact and economic value. They' can improve humanity' by, for example, eradicating hunger and contagious diseases, automating manual tasks, creating new and better-paid jobs, reducing carbon emissions, prolonging life expectancy, and improving the overall quality of life (United Nations, 2018: 1). The impact of such technologies is on the individual, social, and global level, as they improve people’s lives, promote social prosperity, and protect the planet. Yet, we often do not know if the technology will be beneficial, detrimental, or both (and to what extent) until we see it used in an actual context (Matthewman, 2011).

A sub-section within frontier technologies are digital technologies that use algorithms or applications to perform tasks by generating, storing, or processing data. In 2016, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) classified digital emerging technologies as cloud computing, photonics and light technologies, blockchain, robotics, quantum computing, modelling simulation and gaming, grid computing, Al, loT and big data analytics (OECD, 2016). This book focuses on four DFTs, defined as such by the United Nations (2018):

  • • Artificial intelligence and machine learning;
  • • The Internet of things (‘ambient intelligence’, ‘smart devices’);
  • • Autonomous mobile robots—autonomous vehicles and drones (‘smart machines’); and
  • • Blockchain.

Most of the literature on the topic also identifies these technologies as leading or frontier (see, for example, Manyika et al., 2013; Briggs et al., 2019). Because of its size, this volume had to exclude some emerging DFTs such as quantum computing that is billions of times faster than an ‘ordinary’ computer, and as such can crack any encryption, including Internet banking, in seconds (Tvede, 2020). Pause for a second and think about the implications of this development for offending and crime control. I trust many upcoming volumes and research projects will engage with quantum computing and its social and criminological relevance.

Digital frontier technologies, thus, bring hope and risk. They constitute and modify people’s behaviour, identities, status, and surroundings. Just think of your smartphone: how much did you adapt to this technology? How much did you change habits because of it? How quickly did addiction and adaptation to the technology develop? Critically, ‘[tjhe affection we feel for our objects is greater than that which we feel for our fellow subjects’ (Matthewman, 2011: 42). These technologies are also powerful actors and help create power relations. They are inseparable from us and form much of our existence. As Verbeek (2011: 29) would have it,

‘[ojur reality is a web of relations between human and nonhuman entities that form ever-new realities on the basis of ever-new connections’. Yet, their impact on crime, offending, and victimisation has mostly been ignored. This book aims to fill this gap by examining the present and imagining the future, both hopefi.il and atrocious.

To do this is not an easy task. The book’s title is Crime and Punishment in the Future Internet so by default, the book is aimed at criminological and legal audiences. In the book, I apply a traditional definition of crime as an activity that is defined as such in the law. While aware of the limitations of this definition, and while for most of my criminological career I applied the definition of crime that bypasses the narrow, legal definition to include the concept of harm, I have decided the legal definition should be applied in this book to ensure the clarity of the analysis. Although the volume uses mostly criminological lens, one cannot write such a book without dipping into the literature, theory, and knowledge in a range of disciplines: science and technology studies (STS), surveillance studies, political economy, philosophy, sociology, and policy studies, to name just a few. This volume needs to cast a wide net to analyse artefacts and their impact on crime and punishment. One needs to delve deep into disciplines that are not the author’s area of expertise. Writing about mobile robots or blockchain is daunting for a person that, while early adopter of many technologies, has no expertise in these specific areas of academic inquiry. Indeed, for a criminologist, debating machine ethics or device communication in the loT network is equally as unnerving. Therefore, I hope the reader will be both patient and sympathetic to (m)any shortcomings they find in the book, however obvious they might be. Crime and Punishment in the Future Internet is not aiming to capture all, nor most issues, vis-à-vis DFTs. It will also be modest in providing answers. This book is a provocation. Its primary and foremost purpose is to commence a dialogue—both in terms of critique and future research. I hope that, after reading the book, scholars in social sciences, humanities, science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), as well as the public, will join the debate to further our investigation of the digital frontier technologies-crime nexus.

 
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