Clay Shirky, in his Web 2.0 conference talk on the Cognitive Surplus, used the example of a professor in Brazil who created a street-level crime mapping website. Shirky used it to illustrate the fact that it’s so much faster, cheaper and simpler to leverage the knowledge of a large group of regular people than it is to gain access to and work with the data that already exist in government databases.
But this example also fits with a line of reasoning about how connectivity affects safety, conflict and stability. Simply put, connected is safe. Put another way, crime and socio-political conflict thrive in isolation. Eliminate isolation and, by and large, you eliminate the problem.
At the macro level, Thomas Barnett’s book The Pentagon’s New Map is carrying forward the argument that global terrorism would not be possible if not for nations that, for any number of reasons, become disconnected from their neighbors and the broader international community. Al Queda flourished in Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen and the Sudan - all deeply isolated countries. North Korea, using the secrecy that isolation fosters, created a nuclear weapons program affects the entire region.
Conversely, European nations have overcome centuries-long animosities through greater and greater interdependence to the point that former enemies are now partners in a multi-national government.
At the micro level, this dynamic is playing out in the arena of crime prevention, and this is where Sharky’s example is so apt. Much has been made of the fact that social disorder (vandalism, abandoned property, graffiti) are the main indicator of a cluster of problems including crime, high infant mortality and low education attainment. The so-called “broken windows” approach to policing, instituted most notably by New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, vigorously enforced low-level “quality of life” crimes. Early predictions of success have not played out, and the approach is no longer as popular as it was in the 1990s.
Ongoing studies in Chicago indicate that specific kinds of connectivity are an indicator of counter-trend conditions. That is, properly connected neighborhoods can reverse anti-social trends despite other predictive conditions like high social disorder.
Dr. Robert Sampson at Harvard University, a leader in the Chicago studies, calls this capability Collective Efficacy. In his 2004 article in the journal New Economy (now called Public Policy Research), he predicted the Brazilian website and the use of technology to empower and connect citizens.
“If residents knew where incidents were occurring - in more-or-less real time - innovative and effective mobilization might occur in ways that go well beyond police power.”
He argues, though, that tightly networked neighborhoods can, in fact, enable crime. In urban neighborhoods, the criminal and non-criminal networks are deeply interwoven. This dynamic makes “broken window” policing counterproductive, increasingly isolating the police from the community they serve.
Or, consider the foul events that transpired on an isolated ranch in west Texas. The FLDS, a true cult, represents a rigidly controlled society that used both tight networks AND isolation to create a criminal community. Allegedly.
Adults in the community enjoyed an ultimately connected network to maintain complete control over all intellectual input the children received. Children were constantly watched, their actions explicitly scripted. Yet were this ranch not self-sufficient and highly isolated physically and in terms of communications technology, their crimes would have been exposed and stopped long ago.
So connectivity itself is no guarantee of security. Security requires the right mix of tight and loose networks as well as connectivity across levels - from citizen to city, from city to nation.
Sharky’s ultimate point - that American society is waking up from a collective cultural bender on the mind-numbing drug known as television and that this awakening will unleash a torrent of creativity and innovation - bodes well for society if it proves out. It would create the very conditions that Dr. Sampson believes will generate “innovative and effective mobilization” that will create the stable, prosperous urban environment necessary to support a knowledge-driven economy.
Thanks to Damiano Vukotic’s NitMesh for the video link.