The Internet and the Unfathomable Crime Drop
Mike Sutton. (30.3.2011)
Farrell, Tilley, Tseloni and Mailley (2010) lament the fact that criminology has failed to explain why crime has been falling since the 1990's. They further acknowledge that criminology cannot explain some increases in crime - such as mobile phone theft and Internet crime -that have bucked the general downward trend.
In the fourth edition of Crime and Everyday Life, Felson and Boba (2010) write only of the problems that the internet may have caused for society and nothing of the possible criminological benefits (for some at least) of the possible unintended consequences of the advent, and increasing popularity, of the internet alongside the huge rise in mobile communications technology and the media entertainment revolution.
Since the Routine Activities Theory (RAT) is a theory of how crime shifts and changes in relation to changes in society - and according to Felson and Boba (2010) the key to such changes is the technology of everyday life - then a significant amount of online activity and games console playing at home might be keeping people off the streets for significant periods every day and reducing the amount of hourly availability of victims and offenders in the offline world, while ensuring homes are occupied more. If it is, and yet that is not responsible for the currently unfathomable 15 year decline in violent crime, car crime and burglary in the Western world then routine activities alone may be nothing like as a good an explanation for high volume crime as its adherents think it is. Of course, the 15 year crime drop in the offline world may be taking place in a direct inverse relationship with online facilitated offending such as fraud, stalking, virus spreading, hacking and copyright theft etc - which RAT would explain. This appears to be an important issue with huge implications for criminology and crime reduction policy making.
We might have expected crime to rise dramatically from 1995 as a whole new environment called cyberspace opened up for people to exploit in criminal ways old and new. Felson's Routine Activities Theory (RAT) certainly sees that it should be that way( Felson and Boba 2010 p.111):
"The age of speedy Internet communications provides new options for youths to break laws, often operating out of their homes. They can produce their own pornography. They can view pornography by others. They can sell themselves as prostitutes. They can make sexual liaisons with those of their own ages or well beyond their own. They can send and/or receive threats via the Internet and buy or sell contraband goods. They can, at a young age, learn how to hack the computers of others or distribute computer harm in various ways. They can participate in cyber chat rooms to discuss all of this."
Is the RAT in the net?
Strangely in his published work to date, Felson appears not to have considered that his own RAT would suggest that all this time spent online must equate to less time on the street leading to less potential offending time and a smaller population of available victims of violence and robbery.
Farrell et al (2010) do ask whether new (debut) offenders may have chosen cyberspace as a place to offend and whether the internet may have facilitated a new crime form that is replacing others such as car theft. But strangely, Farrell et al (2010) do not go on to consider whether the internet has opened up a whole new avenue for offending for those who have not in the past been defined as high risk groups, although this was a question asked 13 years earlier by me and David Mann (Mann and Sutton 1998).
We need to ask whether the internet and the revolution in new entertainment media through games consoles and recordable high definition satellite TV and DVD might be providing a substitute for offending in terms of relieving youth boredom that might otherwise have found outlets among the 'usual suspects' for prolific crime in opiate misuse, violence and real world grand theft auto. Apart from one passing reference to teleworking, Farrell at al (2010) do not consider whether there has been a general population shift towards spending more time indoors, which would mean fewer victims and offenders on the streets for fewer hours than in the past.
There are some interesting avenues for research here. How for example do the possible crime reduction and displacement effects of the communications and entertainment revolution fit the conclusions in Jane Jacobs's classic work (1961), which in no small part blamed the built environment and huge popularity of television watching on there being more people staying indoors with fewer eyes on the street and fewer capable guardians against crime? And how , and with what effect and understanding, does the communications revolution and the meteoric expansion of media entertainment choice fit McLuhan’s (1964) prophetic announcement that television has created a global village?
If we are all now living in a global village then some journeys to crime are going to be considerably shorter than was found by Wiles and Costello (2000) to average around 2-3 miles. In the global village of cyberspace the journey to crime, unless conducted at a cyber cafe, may involve no more than a few paces to the keyboard, or a stretch to the android phone keypad, where fingers do all the walking.
The huge popularity of the internet, entertainment media and video gaming may not turn out to be a major explanatory factor in the crime drop, but RAT suggests these things should be. A most important issue for dysology is to examine why Felson himself, and so many other 'experts' seeking explantions for the greatest crime drop in recorded history failed to ask whether the RAT might be in the Net. These issues are explored in more depth in my paper which is critical of the limitations of 'opportunity' related explanations of crime and goes on to propose that the solution is that we need to develop a Dynamic Victimisation theory to explain and forecast crime. The paper provides an outline of what this data hungry theory might look like.
Farrell, G. Tilley, N. Tseloni, A and Mailley, J. (2010) Explaining and sustaining the crime drop: Clarifying the role of opportunity-related theories. In Crime Prevention and Community Safety. Vol. 12. 1. 24-41.
Felson, M. (1998) Crime and Everyday Life. Thousand Oakes. Pine Forge Press.
Felson, M. and Boba, R. (2010) Crime and Everyday Life. Fourth Rdition. Thousand Oakes. Sage.
Jacobs, J. (1961) Death and life of great American cities. New York. Random House.
Mann, D. and Sutton, M. (1998) >>NetCrime: More Change in the Organization of Thieving. British Journal of Criminology. Vol. 38. No. 2. Spring.
McLuhan, M. (1964) Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man.London. Routledge,
Sutton, M. (2010) Routine Activities Theory, The Internet and the 15-Year Crime Drop. Criminology: The Blog of Mike Sutton
Wiles, P. and Costello, A. (2000) The Road to Nowhere: The Evidence for Travelling Criminals Home Office Research Study 207.London. Home