Many modern criminals are not unusually intelligent or creative. They would not likely be able to figure out on their own just how to do many of the crimes that now occur. They learn from TV, movies, etc.

It used to be that first-time criminals were nearly always very inept, and would get caught. Once in some prison, they would learn from other inmates just what worked well and what didn't in their attempts at crime. In that sense, prisons have long represented the best possible "schools" for where criminals would learn to improve their techniques and skills. Where many prison officials seem amazed at the enormous rate of recidivism (being soon re-arrested for another crime) after their occupational training of inmates, they seem unaware that their prisons actually offer even better training in criminal methods! An inmate, once released, is very likely to feel that he now knows how to do crimes RIGHT, to be able to get away with them now! How much of a surprise should it be that the great majority of released prisoners try?

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But the problem has gotten far worse due to our modern massive media and informational explosion. Any young kid who doesn't have enough money to be fully happy (most of them!) intently watches some movies over and over, essentially studying them. As modern movies have gotten more and more focused on crimes, police, chases, excitement, and money, how could such a young kid NOT want to try something similar? It would be better than the lottery, from his point of view, because he would see it as an almost guarantee of immediately getting lots of money, along with great excitement, and even fun. It is almost amazing that there are any young kids who do NOT rob, steal, rape, and murder!

The amazing spread of information in modern society has had many wonderful effects. It has also been the cause of some of our worse social problems. Crime, violence, hatred, bigotry, and racial unrest have all gotten far worse as a result.

The modern world has benefited greatly from a communication and information system which has become amazingly efficient. Along with the many benefits gained is a substantial liability looming in the background.

Human activities have traditionally been limited by the creativity and the knowledge-base of each individual. At best, a small group of people exchanged thoughts and were therefore able to reach a new level of understanding. Socrates, Plato, et al. Luther, Calvin, et al. The medieval Italian painting community. Franklin, Washington, Jefferson, et al. Many of the advancements of civilization have come about in this manner.

With the incredible access today to vast information bases, we no longer have to deal with such limitations. An individual can keep current on research or opinion on any topic and can build on this without having to individually duplicate the efforts already accomplished by others. Even a person of limited creativity or intelligence could accumulate the fruits of a multitude of intelligent, creative people. Such a person could happen upon a new insight. Many examples of this exist. A notable one was during the hearings after the assassination of President Kennedy, where hundreds of evidence experts researched everything. A magazine made a mini-phonograph record of the sounds in Dealey Plaza. A man in Ohio played this crude disk and heard some sounds in the background that none of the experts had noticed. The sounds represented very important evidence.

The spectacular advancement of modern technology and science (in every field) has greatly benefited in this way. No end to the accomplishments is in sight. Actually, this increase in advancement keeps accelerating.

This is good.

And bad.

The downside areas include two areas which figure to haunt us in the future. One is often discussed by others and involves the social stresses of trying to live (and prosper??) in a world where the rules and parameters keep changing very rapidly. Long ago, there was value in learning the structure of family and society as a child since those lessons would be generally applicable throughout one's life. In the modern and future world, this is not the case. Advancements in technology have impacted every aspect of our lives, from employment to mobility to education to socialization. How can one plan ahead? Clearly, adaptability will be a valuable asset as we go on.

The second major area of the downside has seldom been mentioned. It is merely a variation of an example mentioned above. For someone who has little understanding or respect for the rules of society, and has limited creativity or intelligence, new opportunities have opened up. Crimes that never would have occurred to them now are thought about, particularly since media reports generally describe details that would be useful in assuring success. One doesn't have to watch many local newscasts to intuitively determine which types of crimes seem profitable and which don't; which tend to be successful and which don't; which tend to end in prison time and which don't. If I was inclined toward crime, I would stay away from bank robbery (where most seem to get caught) and lean toward selling drugs, stealing cars, robbing mini-marts, and car-jackings. If I selected one of these, watching some newscasts would quickly suggest a plan to try. Just watching to see how and why people are caught, and what was different in the crimes that remained unsolved, would be very useful information. And if I happened to see that most successful robberies in the news occurred when the criminal had an AK-47 automatic weapon, I would try to get one, to copy the successful methods and avoid the unsuccessful ones. If this was any other area, we would laud anyone for learning in this way. But crime should be different. Nightly newscasts should NOT be effectively lessons in how to commit crime.

The point is, that most individual criminals probably wouldn't come up with a comprehensive plan with high success probability without the driving force of all-pervasive information. They may not have even realized that a particular type of crime existed. Or that it was profitable. Or how to pull it off. Our modern media teach them all they need. Movies, news, talk shows are some of the culprits.

A (harmless?) example was on television some time back. There was a TV commercial running where a frazzled mother is having trouble keeping up with her kids. She off-handedly refers to a child finding a way to make peas stick to the ceiling. This concept had never occurred to me, but even as an adult, I am somewhat tempted to see if there is a way to make it work! If I was still a child, I am CERTAIN that I would try it!

There would not have been much lasting harm if I had followed through on testing that idea. However, I would never even have THOUGHT of trying that except for seeing that commercial.

A less harmless example occurred late in 1999. A seven year old boy in Chicago was displeased with some criticism from his teacher, and he made the statement that he would go home and get his father's gun and bring it to school to kill the teacher and his classmates and himself. This situation got some news exposure when the school administration had the child arrested. How would a seven year old child even ever THINK of such a scenario? There is exactly zero chance that he would. The ONLY reason he made such threats was as a result of massive publicity of a number of school shooting spree murders. That child COULD NOT have had the creativity or the organization of thought to have thought through such a plan on his own.

A large number of ADULTS also do not have sufficient creativity or organization of thought to even think up the idea of holding up a convenience store or to believe that they could do it successfully. Only as a result of watching the news and movies and other media, are they able to distill enough information to try such a maneuver.

What is the solution? That's a tough one. Censorship would violate many of the precepts of our Constitution. Responsible judgment by our movie makers and news journalists would certainly help, but their popularity and profitability would be adversely affected if they actually took the high road. Pursuit of the almighty dollar probably eliminates this avenue. Massive improvement in the lifestyle of poor people might reduce the number of criminals, but the cost of this would be phenomenal and the likeliness of success uncertain. Elimination or control of the tools used (guns, drugs, explosives, etc) would also help, but again Constitutional issues arise. The idea here would be to still allow them access to the KNOWLEDGE but to limit their access to the TOOLS necessary. A certain percentage of potential criminals would still be able to figure out a source for the tools they needed.

Awareness of a problem is a step toward solution. That's the primary reason for this treatise. Hopefully, someone will soon find other avenues to explore toward a solution. Once a good one is in place, our society will be a safer place to be. Otherwise, it will continue to get more and more dangerous at time goes on.

This presentation was first placed on the Internet in March 1999.

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C Johnson, Theoretical Physicist, Physics Degree from Univ of Chicago