3 unexpected ways crime drives innovation

Innovation means doing things differently to do them better. That means breaking rules and conventions. And not all rules are of the ‘wear a tie to work’ variety.

When breaking rules, always be sure to make the typefaces off-horizontal

In order to make things work better, society as a whole needs people to test and break the ‘big’ rules too. These people are criminals.

99% of criminality is of course not socially productive. But, either by intent, or by the response it provokes, it does form an essential function in helping society to innovate and improve. Here are some unlikely examples:

1. Exposing flaws in outdated systems.

When you think of a criminal, one of the stereotpyes that first leaps to mind is one that was formed in the midwest of the US in the early 1930s. Dillinger, Bonnie & Clyde, Machine Gun Kelly, the Barker Gang – a flurry of iconic figures that all derived from a very specific time and place.

This spectacular outburst of criminality derived from two seminal technological innovations – the creation of cost-accessible machine guns and cars.

But what it exposed very rapidly was the Achilles heel of the American police system – the disunity between states. As huge as the United States is, the addition of the car enabled criminals to travel between 9 different Midwestern states, and thus 9 different legal systems, within a couple of hours. Once you got over the state line, you were fine.

Have car, will travel. 6 states in 2 years. 6 legal systems.

This had some negative consequences of course – primarily the militarisation of the FBI and subsequently the police. But the real innovation that they drove, and which J Edgar Hoover used their notoriety to champion, was a centralisation of shared criminal justice data. Which was the first great data project that began to make the United States a more unified society under law.

So think about criminals as like the ultimate QA testers of a civilised society.

2. Pioneering in the grey areas of the economy.

Sometimes, the rules simply aren’t very clear, because the dynamics of society, information and the economy are changing far quicker than the ability of legal processes to catch up. Particularly in areas relating to media and technology.

For example, from the moment of the invention of the internet, the entire principle of music ownership and copyright were effectively a Wild West…which the massed ranks of copyright lawyers, record labels and music publishers had little or no interest in exploring. Then came Napster (invented, of course by Justin Timberlake).

Whatever you think, or thought of Napster (and I am sure a few Metallica fans out there thought it was a bad thing) there is little doubt that they rapidly accelerated a wonderful burst of innovation in the music and content business. And without the Napsters, or Pirate Bays, or other people who by simply not caring about the law define themselves as criminals, it is difficult to make progress.

This need for legal flexibility in the area of content, media and technology continues to flummox us. They need to be answered at some point, but rigid initiatives like SOPA are not the answer. And to even see where the lines should be drawn, you have to allow pioneers to colour in the grey areas.

3. Destroying ‘holy cow’ legacies of the past.

Lest we forget, the legal standards of the present have not always been reflected throughout history – the law is evolutionary, not absolute. Nor is it always ‘progressive’ – it frequently oscillates between extremes and loops back on itself. This can lead to some surprising results, and even very trivial crimes can have significant effects.

For a spectacular example, we can look at one of the most frequently asked historian’s questions: why did the French Revolution occur. Everyone agrees that literature played an important role. Traditionally, people thought the seminal text was this:

It turns out that the flood of cheap political pornography in 1780s Paris, depicting Marie Antoinette, Fersen and Louis XIV in unflattering sexual poses, may have contributed somewhat more to encouraging people to overcome their religious scruples towards the position of the monarchy, and get behind regime change.

Absurdly, given the neo-censorship of the web, this is the closest I can get to finding a political cartoon that was considered only mildly risque at the turn of the 19th century

Fairly trivial crimes, driven by disrespect and entertainment, can have highly constructive outcomes – when they challenge unjustifiable authorities that are holding society back.

This seems like a fertile area. Any other thoughts on the relationship between crime and innovation?

POSTSCRIPT:

Elsewhere in the history of illicit entertainment, see the development of the internet and the explosion of personal photography/video equipment…and if you don’t believe me, check out how they sold the first Polaroids:

and digital cameras:

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