Crime and the Social Network

On my home page I ask the reader to

Imagine a future world in which it is easy to find a good job.

Imagine a future in which it is easy to find a truly compatible spouse or sexual partner. Imagine a world in which it is easy to find good long-term friends.

and then I suggest that when you are imagining that world you should also think about crime, poverty, and other social problems because these will be rare in that future world:

While you're at it, you might as well imagine a future world without crime , since people with good jobs, good friends, and a compatible spouse or partner rarely commit crimes.  And you should also imagine this world as affluent and prosperous, without poverty -- precisely what one would  expect of a world where everyone has been able to find very suitable work.

On this page I want to elaborate on crime and punishment in the future.   I am utterly convinced that if we can solve the problems of finding good jobs, finding compatible spouses or sexual partners, and finding good friends for each of us -- and I say we can --  then we can reduce crime to a very low level, because we have all sorts of statistical evidence about people who commit crimes and we know that

people with good jobs commit fewer crimes
-- good jobs keep people busy, provide some sense of meaning or purpose for their lives, and provide a satisfactory income
people with compatible spouses or sexual partners commit fewer crimes
-- unattached people commit more crimes than married people
people with good friends commit fewer crimes
-- on the other hand people with unsuitable friends -- "bad influences" -- can commit more crimes; part of what it means to be a good friend is to be a good influence
people who live in neighbourhoods where crime is rare commit fewer crimes
-- it is not just individual bad influences that lead to crime, neighbourhoods in which crime is common create an expectation of more crime and make people think of crime as a solution to their problems
people who live in neighbourhoods where poverty is rare commit fewer crimes
-- poverty induces desperate measures, as people struggle to survive without the means to do so honestly.

And so I say we can almost completely eliminate crime by solving the various matching problems: matching people with jobs, with a compatible spouse, and with friends.   But even in such a perfect world, there will probably be some small amount of crime, and even if there were not, there will probably be criminals "left over" or "held over" as prisoners from this present world which has so much crime.

I view society as a network, and am interested in the flow of information from person to person in the network.  In software engineering we also talk about the "flow of control" as if control or influence were something like information and could flow along channels in a system. The social network does not just provide channels for the flow of information, but for the flow of control -- one's friends do not only provide information they got from their friends, they apply peer pressure which reflects similar pressures applied to them.

My concern is this: regardless of what his or her network connections are prior to incarceration, a person who is put in jail will come out of it with strong connections to other people who've been in jail.

This has been talked about often enough in the past, but only as if "criminal tendancies" were a kind of virus or contagion which could be spread by close personal contact.

I think there is a fairly broad level of agreement that rather than serving as a kind of simple corrective which makes people less likely to commit crimes in the future, a period of time in jail seems to make it more likely that the person will commit crimes in the future and be in jail again.

What can be done about this?

First, let me disassociate myself from the whole question of justice. If a person commits a crime, is it right to punish him (or her)?  I don't know, and as far as this page goes, I don't care.  All I am concerned about is the general welfare of society as a whole, not about meeting any natural or god-given standard of justice that any person may think we should adhere to.

What I'd like to do is work on the problem of reducing crime and in particular reducing repeat offenses, without any particular concern at the moment for whether "justice is served" or not. That's too hard an issue for now.

Let me also point out that I'm trying to be pragmatic here, so when I discuss why people commit a crime, I am not trying to give excuses for them, just trying to find a way of stopping crime. To do this, I intentionally ignore the question of whether crime is "Wicked" and "Evil" or not, and try to treat crime as just an extreme form of human error. I do this on purpose, realizing full well it omits something that people have always considered important. That's the sort of think people do in systems engineering, where often a seemingly intractable problem can be solved in simplified form, then the solution extended back to more realistic problems.

If we treat crime as error, then it is not too hard to see where it comes from. The people who commit most crimes are not well educated, or informed, and they are usually surrounded by people who are similarly prone to many forms of error. The abuse of alcohol and drugs is just one example of this -- there are no real benefits from alcohol or drugs, but there may be short-term pleasure. Being seduced by this temporary pleasure is a mistake, an error, and people are more likely to make it if all their friends are doing it too.

Ultimately, people are affected by their friends. If your friends are criminals or associate with criminals, then you will be likely to make the same errors and fall into a life of crime. Viewed in this way, the idea of putting people in prisons with thousands of other people who have committed crimes and giving him or her an opportunity to meet all sorts of other criminals is ludicrous. I think it is almost the exact opposite of what we should be doing.

There have been a few attempts in the right direction, particularly with juvenile first-offenders, where some programs have aimed at taking them out of their social context and placing them in a stable family environment away from the attractions of the big cities. The problem is, there is just not enough people willing to expose themselves and their families to this kind of danger.

But there is another solution. All forms of error are not the same. Two people who both have severe tendancies to make mistakes can actually have a positive and corrective influence on one another if they tend to make the opposite kinds of error.

I have a long and rather technical analysis which explains all this in terms of personality theory and error-covariance analysis , but the important point is this: we can solve the problems of prisoners being a bad influence on one another by very carefully grouping them in small groups, so that the only people they meet are those who have very different tendancies towards error.

To do this, we need to use a lot of psychological testing, and then we need to divide the prison population into non-interacting groups, so as to minimize the amount of overall error-covariance in each group. Whether each group actually meets as a group in the standard pop-psych "group situation" is not important. But the other people that one prisoner eats with, works with, or does recreation with must not share his or her specific error-tendancies.

If two (or more) prisoners share a cell, the same thing applies but is even more important. Using careful testing to match prisoners, two people in a cell can in fact be good influences on one another, even if both are criminals.   As a result, their time together will result in each one teaching and improving the other, and if they see each other after being released, they can continue to be positive influences on one another.

Does this sound too optimistic?   Probably.   But, it is an idea, with a lot of thought behind it, and it should work.   I think it should be tried.  

If anyone out there knows of any similar ideas or anything like this that has already been tried, please let me know.

Copyright © 1998 Douglas P. Wilson  

Copyright © 2009   Douglas Pardoe Wilson

Other relevant content:

New: Social Technology through Diagrams

New: Social Techs novel online

New: Social Technology Blog

New: Social Technology Wiki

Please see these web pages:

The main Social Technology page.

Find Compatibles , the key page, with the real solution to all other problems explained

Technological Fantasies , a page about future technology

Social Tech a page about Social Technology, technology for social purposes.  I think I was the first person to use this phrase on the Internet, quite a long time ago.

Roughly corresponding to these web pages are the following blogs :

Social Technology the main blog, hosted on this site, with posts imported from the following blogs, which still exist and are useable.

Find Compatibles devoted to matching people with friends, lovers, jobs, places to live and so on, but doing so in ways that will actually work, using good math, good algorithms, good analysis.

Technological Fantasies devoted to future stuff, new ideas, things that might be invented or might happen, such as what is listed above and below.

Sex-Politics-Religion is a blog about these important topics, which I have been told should never be mentioned in polite conversation.  Alright that advice does seem a bit dated, but many people are still told not to bring up these subjects around the dinner table.

I believe I was the first person on the Internet to use the phrase Social Technology -- years before the Web existed.

Those were the good old days, when the number of people using the net exceeed the amount of content on it, so that it was easy to start a discussion about such an upopular topic.  Now things are different.  There are so many web pages that the chances of anyone finding this page are low, even with good search engines like Google.   Oh, well.

By Social Technology I mean the technology for organizing and maintaining human society.  The example I had most firmly in mind is the subject of  Find Compatibles , what I consider to be the key page, the one with the real solution to all other problems explained.

As I explained on my early mailing lists and later webpages, I find that social technology has hardly improved at all over the years.   We still use representative democracy, exactly the same as it was used in the 18th century.  By contrast, horse and buggy transporation has been replaced by automobiles and airplanes, enormous changes.

In the picture below you will see some 18th century technology, such as the ox-plow in the middle of the picture.  How things have changed since then in agricultural technology.  But we still use chance encounters, engagements and marriages to organize our home life and the raising of children.  

I claim that great advances in social technology are not only possible but inevitable.  I have written three novels about this, one preposterously long, 5000 pages, another merely very very long, 1500 pages.  The third is short enough at 340 pages to be published some day.  Maybe.  The topic is still not interesting to most people.   I will excerpt small parts of these novels on the web sometime, maybe even post the raw text for the larger two.

This site includes many pages dating from 1997 to 2008 which are quite out of date.  They are included here partly to show the development of these ideas and partly to cover things the newer pages do not.  There will be broken links where these pages referenced external sites.  I've tried to fix up or maiintain all internal links, but some will probably have been missed.   One may wish to look at an earlier version of this page , rather longer, and at an overview of most parts of what can be called a bigger project.

Type in this address to e-mail me.  The image is interesting.  See Status of Social Technology

Copyright © 2007, 2008, 2009, Douglas Pardoe Wilson

I have used a series of e-mail address over the years, each of which eventually became out of date because of a change of Internet services or became almost useless because of spam.  Eventually I stuck with a Yahoo address, but my inbox still fills up with spam and their spam filter still removes messages I wanted to see.  So I have switched to a new e-mail service.  Web spiders should not be able to find it, since it is hidden in a jpeg picture.   I have also made it difficult to reach me.  The picture is not a clickable link.  To send me e-mail you must want to do so badly enough to type this address in.  That is a nuisance, for which I do apologize, but I just don't want a lot of mail from people who do not care about what I have to say.


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Copyright © 2009   Douglas Pardoe Wilson