Thursday, 16 October 2014

Virtual homo sapiens

Professor Hargreaves CBE of Cardiff University has recently reviewed Jamie Bartlett's new book The Dark Net: Inside The Digital Underworld.

It's an engaging and critical review, though that's not the real reason for my post today. The following snippet from Hargreaves' review caught my eye:

"Bartlett is an amiable guide. He is not blind to the morally disturbing characteristics of virtual homo sapiens, but he sets out chiefly to report rather than to judge." [my emphasis]
If there are characteristics of 'virtual homo sapiens' that we find morally disturbing – there undoubtedly are, and nowhere more prevalent than beneath the cryptographic shroud of the 'Dark Net' – what does this say about human nature? Internet access is so pervasive that almost all of humanity is in some way connected with virtuality: does Hargreaves mean to indict all of humanity with the sins of the "cypherpunks"?

Even the imagery is emotive: 'the Dark Net' does not sound like a holiday resort. Is the reference to darkness a tribute to privacy by design, or a warning of unrestrained moral turpitude?

What of virtues amongst the virtual? It would be absurd to suggest that there is a child pornographer or drug dealer in each of us, restrained only by the risks of surveillance and detection that are association with today's watched Web.

Wikström's Situational Action Theory (SAT) tells us that actions are a function of 'people in places', and amongst the key factors influencing behaviour are the moral rules of a given setting. These interact with the moral emotions and criminal propensities of the people in that place, whose placement in or exposure to that particular setting is structured by wider social forces.

It appears that the Dark Net can be understood as a criminogenic setting. The heightened sense of privacy and invulnerability that is experienced by those who understand its cryptographic precepts is, in SAT parlance, an 'environmental inducement' that activates latent criminal propensities in those who use the Dark Net.

It seems likely that users of the Dark Net are typically technically able people. If we assume that technical ability can be learned by anyone, we are left with the proposition that everyone has a criminal propensity that is activated by interaction with the Dark Net. It is more likely that the secrecy of cryptography has a lure of its own for those with latent criminal propensities, which may explain a skew amongst users of the Dark Net echoing the old 'white hat, black hat' dichotomy.

There are legitimate uses of the Dark Net but perhaps these are less visible to those outside the cryptographic community because of the same obsession with criminality that drives moral panics in the offline world. However, we know that people will often do things behind a computer screen that they would never follow through in 'real life' or where their real identity is at stake: see the vicious pseudonymous threats in the recent #GamerGate scandal for an example of this. It is likely that those who offend on the Dark Net are likely to have fairly low self control, but not so low that they would necessarily offend in the online environment as well. It may be that we need to develop new measures of self control to capture this phenomenon.

If it true that there are people whose criminal propensities are activated only by the online environment, or by the Dark Net in particular, what are the consequences of this for punishment and rehabilitation? For such a person it may be that disconnecting them from the online world would completely remove their risk of re-offending. Is there scope to rehabilitate such people without sending them to prison?

I shall explore these ideas in a later post, after I have read Bartlett's book!