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1/2 idea No. 32: Black Museum/Criminal shaping of technology

By Jon Agar, on 1 September 2021

(I am sharing my possible research ideas, see my tweet here. Most of them remain only 1/2 or 1/4 ideas, so if any of them seem particularly promising or interesting let me know @jon_agar or jonathan.agar@ucl.ac.uk!)

The sociological investigation of technology through the examination of how different social groups interpret, build, or challenge devices, machines and systems is very familiar now. Pinch and Bijker’s ‘Social construction of technology’ is over thirty years old. But there is still work to be done.

The idea here is very simple. Does it make any sense to consider criminals as a ‘relevant social group’ in SCOT terms? If so are there distinctive ways that can be discerned of the criminal shaping of technology?

‘Criminal’ is, of course, an almost ridiculously heterogeneous grouping. It is quite possible that the sheer diversity within criminality means this project is foolish. But there are shared features, and these features might point to shared interests and therefore shared characteristics of shaping technology.

What are these features? First, criminals must, at some level, be deceitful. What is done must be hidden to some degree from legal authority. Second. criminal processes must be both dependent – even parasitic – on legal bodies, systems, organisations, but also, at crucial points, disconnected. This pattern of connection/disconnection makes manufacturing, consumption and maintenance of technology possibly distinctive. Third, criminals have to work at speed – the longer a criminal act is ongoing the more likely the chances of detection. Working outside the system and at speed encourages bricolage – perhaps a distinctive, emergent feature of criminal technology. Fourth, some, but of course not all, criminals are willing to resort to violence, which the technologies of violence enable. You can, I am sure, extend this list.

As a sideshoot of my Government Machine project, I traced the history of ID card systems, a deeply fascinating combination of infrastructures of identity, bureaucratic information technologies, and interface between citizen and state.  What was clear, too, was that, in the UK when these systems were introduced in 1916 and 1939, they enabled new crimes, often but not exclusively of fraud. The criminal shaping of the technology, such as the forgery of a card, was deceitful, dependent on the official system (in order to work), but disconnected too (the fake ID didn’t appear on the central system), and were used speedily and briefly (or the fraudster was caught). No direct violence in these cases.

So one case suggests some of the features of the criminal shaping of technology. But what features would become prominent of more case studies accumulated?

It struck me some time ago that museum collections might help as sources of such case studies. In particular, the Metropolitan Police (ie “Scotland Yard”) has maintained a so-called “Black Museum” of the artefactual residues of crime since the 1870s. For most of its history it has been strictly off-limits to the public, although in the early 21st century it was renamed the Crime Museum and opened a fraction of its collection to visits. Currently it is closed for Covid reasons, I think. If it ever becomes open again, then one possible project might therefore be a sociological study of criminal-made artefacts as shaped technologies.


5 Responses to “1/2 idea No. 32: Black Museum/Criminal shaping of technology”

  • 1
    Anna wrote on 19 March 2022:

    So one case suggests some of the features of the criminal shaping of technology. But what features would become prominent of more case studies accumulated?


  • 2
    rob johnstone wrote on 31 March 2022:

    An interesting idea. At some time in my career, I was the engineering director of a burglar alarm company – I likened it to being involved in an arms race. New detection and prevention methods would be developed, only for ingenious law breakers to find “countermeasures”, which themselves would then have to be overcome. I left the industry in the early 1990’s when software controlled systems were just starting to be introduced – these stopped the “attacks” on security systems for a few years until the hackers became more proficient.

  • 3
    Jon Agar wrote on 1 April 2022:

    I did not know this about your past Rob! yes, tehre are cycles of criminal/anti-crime innovation that need to be considered. thanks. J.

  • 4
    Tarquin Holmes wrote on 4 April 2022:

    History of forgery, especially of the arms race between state producers of money and criminal counterfeiters, certainly might be an area of interest to explore.

  • 5
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