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Crime, technology and society by Angus Bancroft
Society gets the crime it designs

Society gets the crime it designs

Crime is designed in. Organised crime is intertwined in society and its institutions, its character reflects them, and it uses society’s technical affordances. Digital capitalism provides tools to increase the reach and impact of criminal activity Risks are distributed along with social vulnerabilities. Some crime is required and necessary because many people cannot turn to the state for help. If the only source of order is the local gangster, the only source of liquid capital the local loan shark/drug lord, the only way to secure status or survival is through gang membership, if social cohesion relies on gang influence, if social order relies on the underworld,  if an economy relies on a supply of illicit labour, if it depends on minerals produced in defiance of environmental regulations, if the most productive and highly capitalised sector of the economy ignores regulatory compliance; if survival depends on it, we can talk of crime as necessary. As an example, the Yakuza have at times been the most flexible and adaptable sector of the Japanese economy.

Technical and social networks are crucial to the development of criminal capacity to organise effectively. Mafia organisations benefit from ‘rents’ (ie charging to non interfere with everyday business) and ‘protection’ (obtaining control over resources, labour and skills, rather than producing those things). Most capitalist activity comes from that. Social media obtains extractive control over personal data. Amazon uses economic privileges awarded by the courts to charge a rent from sellers and book publishers. These aren’t even the nastiest examples.

The capacity to create hybrid systems in terms of state-crime relations, legal-illegal and organisational-platform/infrastructure is central. The infrastructure allows participants to manage and broker risk. On a national and global level state formation and deformation leads to the creation of conflict zones and black spots. At one time criminologists hypothesised that people became labelled as deviant and adopted a deviant identity. Crime existed in the left over grey spaces of the licit world, the abode of the righteous dopefiend. Now, we see crime designed into systems, and crime that creates its own context, its own technology and architecture. As an example, telemarketing fraud practitioners who have entirely no sympathy at all for their victims (Shover, Coffey and Hobbs, 2003). They view themselves as entrepreneurs taking money from the foolish who are complicit in their own victimisation.

There was a parallel between the tele-fraudsters’ own lifestyles and the way they characterise their victims. They saw their victims as reckless gamblers eager to give their own money away. The fraudsters’ own lifestyles often involved high stakes gambling and plenty of splashing the cash, so they seemed to think that their victims wanted to be like them but couldn’t. Those running the tele business engaged in the usual distancing involved in white-collar crime. Those who ran the business blamed their salesmen for going too far. Salesmen blamed their bosses for giving them incentives to illegal behaviour.  The fraudsters thought they merited a lavish lifestyle but were unable to obtain it by mainstream means. Telefraud offered them large amounts of ready cash for little expenditure of effort. There is nothing these convicted criminals say or do that wouldn’t fit very well with a company operating legally but at the margins of personal morality. They rely on the same systems, the same data, the same language.

Ruggiero V (2013) The Crimes of the Economy: A Criminological Analysis of Economic Thought. London: Routledge. DOI: 10.4324/9780203385500.
Shover N, Coffey GS and Hobbs D (2003) Crime on the Line. Telemarketing and the Changing Nature of Professional Crime. The British Journal of Criminology 43: 489.

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