The USA locks up more citizens proportionally than any other country in the world. For every 100,000 people, we have 716 in jail. We’re followed closely by countries like Rwanda (527), Georgia (514), Cuba (510), and Russia (502). Nice company. At the other end of the spectrum we see those pesky Nordic countries again: Denmark (74), Norway (73), Sweden (70), Finland (59), and Iceland (47). (For a list of incarceration rates in 220 countries, click here).
We might think of this as an economic and technical problem. Prisons aren’t very efficient at converting criminals into model citizens. It costs a lot to keep so many people in jail and the recidivism rate is high. This can’t be helping us to balance the budget. So, the question becomes: are there more efficient, less costly ways to keep so many people off the streets?
As Evgeny Morozov points out in a recent article, this is exactly the way the consulting firm, Deloitte, framed the question in its recent report on virtual incarceration. The idea is simple: use technology to increase efficiency. By combining mobile phones with GPS and video cameras, we can lock up low-risk perps in their own homes. It’s less costly and certainly more efficient than current jails. If it can break the role of jails as the higher education centers of crime, it may also be more effective.
But Morozov asks a different question: is that really the problem we want to solve? Wouldn’t it be better to find solutions that would lower the incarceration rate? I’ve written a lot about disruptive innovations (and been the victim of a few), but Morozov writes that, “Smart technologies are not just disruptive; they can also preserve the status quo. Revolutionary in theory, they are often reactionary in practice.” Efficient incarceration is a good example. We’re not changing the fundamentals — we’re just making it easier, cheaper, more efficient to do the same old stuff.
I’ve always been a technical enthusiast. I remember reading Malthus in college. He wrote (in 1798) that, sooner or later, we would run out of resources to support a growing population. Society is improvable only up to a point; it’s certainly not perfectible. I essentially rejected the idea, assuming that technology would always stay a step ahead. If Malthus’ prediction hadn’t come true in 200 years, I thought we could safely ignore it.
Morozov is making a subtler point, however. It’s not just about resources. It’s also about our attitude and our ability to frame questions effectively. As he writes, “That we now have the means to make the most miserable experiences more tolerable should not be an excuse not to reduce the misery of those experiences.”
I think an increasing number of Americans is growing increasingly concerned about the number of people we lock up. We may be building a consensus for change. If we make incarceration less costly and more efficient, we may just undercut that consensus. Is that really what we want?
If Morozov is right, we may have to re-phrase Karl Marx’s classic aphorism. Reigion isn’t the opium of the people. Technology is.
(By the way, Morozov has also written a terrific book, To Save Everything Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism, which I’ll write about soon).