October 20, 2007
iPods Behind a Crime Wave? Someone Is Missing the Point

In the past, the C3 bloggers have bean quite outspoken about their opinions on media effects, as you can see here and here, but, as far as I can tell, this is a new one for us; for once, media effects are not about the content or in its usage, but about the device itself.

A recent study by the Urban Institute states that the reason behind the recent spike in violent crime is none other than the iPod. "The gadgets are not just entertaining and convenient; their high value, visibility, and versatility make them "criminogenic"--or "crime-creating," in the vocabulary of criminologists.

And their power to distract users can give thieves an advantage. Researchers John Roman and Aaron Chalfin suggest in the report "Is There an iCrime Wave?" that the iPod's popularity with consumers and appeal to criminals may have translated into rising violent crime rates, as the institute explains in their press release . You can read the full report here.

According to the report, if you take out the "criminogenic" devices, crime would've actually gone down 3%. Now, of course, there is no way for us to know this for sure, but my sense is that the reasons for a crime wave could be more related to poor living conditions, violent environments, lack of opportunities, or, as the U.S. Department of Justice points out, the rising crime rates might be due to "violence by local gangs or street crews, more guns in the hands of criminals and younger, more violent offenders as key reasons for the rising crime rates." I must say that these explanations don't satisfy me either, but at least they seem to respond in more reasonable ways to the facts.

I stumbled upon this study thanks to a piece posted at The Institute for the Future's blog , and then discovered that is has been reported on by several mainstream media sources, yet I couldn't find anybody that was truly questioning its conclusions.

This is a clear case of what Mizuko Ito describes as the tendencies "to fetishize technology as a force with its own internal logic standing outside of history, society and culture", an idea that C3s director Henry Jenkins has referred to extensively as well.

Although I consider the idea of these "criminogenic" devices almost laughable, the consequences of believing that iPods are the driving force behind crime could be disastrous, as it would impede (or excuse) policymakers from addressing real issues affecting society, or in a way, blocking the sun with an iPod.



Hey Ana, thought you might be interested in this video, considering the circumstances. Stephen Levy, iPod expert, has an interesting on-air altercation. Not to prove the "media effects" pundits right here, but it's a fascinating video, nonetheless.

On October 20, 2007 at 11:53 PM, Ana Domb said:

Great video Sam, thanks! but as you could see, having the chance to take the coveted iPhone, the thief actually chose the mic!


Ana, I think that the problem with the press release and the study is not so much a fetishizing of technology as subject to its own, insular logic, but a lack of more explicit detail about the ways in which ipods, while a possible impetus for muggings, is not actually the root cause.

It is certainly true that conspicuous signs of wealth make a person a target, but the problem with studies like this is that it implicitly suggests that hiding ipods better would lower crime rates and thus, mean there is less crime. It ultimately deflects attention from the real sources of the problem, namely long-standing economic and social structures of exclusion built into the very architecture and geography of urban areas. It's like trying to clear out a sinking boat with a bucket.


I don't doubt that sporting a nice iPod in certain locations may be a little unwise, but by the logic of this misguided study, we could clean up crime by getting rid of cars, cell phones, expensive televisions, and, oh yeah, cash, right?

I miss the good old days when it was just voices, or God, or the bad trip, that made someone do it. Now we've got the shiny light of iPods, what's someone to do but steal?

On October 21, 2007 at 11:40 PM, Ana Domb said:

Hi Xiaochang

I think I know what you're saying, actually, I think we agree in what we're saying. Still, I do feel that there is an intent of fetishizing technology in naming it the root cause of the problem and as I pointed out in the last paragraph, the consequences of believing this to be true could be quite serious. I actually made reference to a saying that, I later realized, only exists in Spanish: "covering the sun with a finger", which is just a way of avoiding reality. Your analogy "trying to clear out a sinking boat with a bucket" seems much clearer.


Ana, you're right in the fact that we essentially agree on how this report misses the big picture.

What I was trying to get at, and I don't think I was very clear about this, is that I'm not seeing a fetishization of technology per se. The ipod here is seen as a "source" of crime not because of its function as a technology, but because of its monetary worth (and, I would suggest, though I can't remember if this is mentioned in the report, the fact that it is a very effective distraction that lowers a person's awareness of their surroundings).