Australia’s prison population is exploding. Data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics indicates that there were 41,270 people in prisons in Australia at the end of 2017. This figure represents a significant upward trend: a decade ago, the figure was 26,442. Within these numbers, there are some observable trends, particularly around Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and female offenders. One of the most significant is that there also has been an enormous increase in prisoners held on remand: around a third of the prison population, or 13,113 people, on any single day are detained while awaiting trial. That is a rise of 87 per cent since 2012, when the proportion of prisoners on remand was less than a quarter. Given that violent and property crimes have remained reasonably steady or gone down over a similar period, this trend reflects changes in policy more than a change in social experience of crime. How can we address this crisis of policy in our prisons?
Silicon Valley has long portrayed itself as the face of upbeat, self-actualising capitalism, where competition is a benign force for social change (let’s save the species by setting up a colony on Mars!). Ironically, or perhaps predictably, this has become more acute in an age of pessimism, when political alternatives to human catastrophes seem less viable than ever. While it is undeniable that much of the sheen of the digital revolution has dulled over the last two years (see Facebook), there remains an abiding feeling that many of the problems we encounter, socially, politically and environmentally, will involve some kind of technological solution.
A recent post in Hacker News about a start-up that aims to provide a ‘cost-effective, human alternative to jail’ is a prime example. Promise is a company that aims to reduce the population of people detained while awaiting trial because they cannot post bail (what Australians call being on remand). There are currently 450,000 people in the US in this category. Through a variety of technical tools, from tracking devices to intelligent calendars, Promise would allow the state to keep tabs on these people, but without the need to keep them in jail. Participants could return to work and their families while they await trial.
In response to their introductory pitch on Hacker News, one commenter provided some telling feedback that is worth quoting at length:
Coming from a European perspective I find it utterly perplexing that a society would not only accept high rates of incarceration but also support venture capital to optimize that status quo. Because that’s what is being offered – making it affordable for poor people to go into custody, as opposed to lobbying against private prisons and extreme sentences for trivial crimes, and disentangling this horrific ‘tough on crime’ narrative that has taken hold over the past decades. How on earth is it positive to see an opportunity for profit in all the people being locked up before trial and to what end will that investment be pursued?
It’s fascinating that many viewpoints from the US are so exceptional in their notion that they completely ignore how systems in other countries tackle the problem without generating a criminal underclass.
Hacker News is a deeply influential platform among technologists. It is run by Y Combinator, a start-up incubator with a highly competitive selection process. Projects that get accepted to Y Combinator are given funding and resources to help transform their idea into a successful business. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Y Combinator is an investor in Promise.
Sam Altman, president of Y Combinator, is a successful and youthful venture capitalist. His credentials make him sounds like a classic member of the white guy tech elite: he has ambitions to transform politics, he is an advocate for a basic income, and he rejects political correctness in favour of brave contrarianism.
Promise is quintessentially a Silicon Valley venture in that it sounds simultaneously like a wonderful and terrible idea. A reduction in prison numbers is an important goal, but rather than achieving this through reform via democratic organs of power, the company aims to optimise the system of incarceration so that it achieves its outcome while causing minimal disruption to business as usual. It feels a little like the backstory to an episode of Black Mirror in which we all somehow find ourselves in a world where crime has disappeared, but we are fitted with tracking devices and intelligent calendars that monitor our every move in the name of public safety.
Promise demonstrates the fundamental ideological weakness of technological utopianism, which attempts to beguile the problem of politics with technology. By replacing human processes with technological ones, we are given the impression of progress while structural features that produce harm and inequality remain untouched. Human creativity is corralled into the service of patching up a dysfunctional social system, rather than imagining more radical futures.
It is not the only example. Cooperative Capital is a ‘cooperative private equity fund that empowers citizens to pool their money together to make promising investments within their community.’ So, in other words, a privatised version of a taxation and redistribution system. When all you have is faith in capitalism, everything starts to look like a problem of civil government inefficiency. This is Juicero for libertarians; it only seems innovative if you assume that people are fools.
There are ways in which technology can contribute to the welfare of prisoners and, by association, society. Education during incarceration has a well-established correlation with a reduction in recidivism in countries where it is permitted. The problem is that in Australia, prisoners are not permitted access to the internet and therefore struggle to benefit from these programs. The outcome is that we release prisoners at the end of their sentence ill-equipped to obtain employment and make social connections in an increasingly digital society.
The theorist Stafford Beer famously argued that ‘the purpose of a system is what it does.’ The failures that are represented by the bloated prison industrial complex are not symptomatic of a deficit in disruptive thinking that might be remedied by innovative start-ups, they are a function of politics. In her ground-breaking book, The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander argues that mass incarceration only seems like a failed policy if we assume it is designed to prevent crime. If we understand it as a system of social control it is a success story.
Until we confront these systemic failures, technological fixes for political problems will only serve to optimise oppression.