Whenever we get a chance to collectively rage the fuck out over an incident of ultra-violence, such as streetpunks ganging up on a random bystander, it is often uttered (or screamed in a stream-of-consciousness rant filled with racial slurs) that we need stronger! and tougher! punishments, corporal punishments if possible. Now, this is a perfectly rational solution to a problem: a person knowing and fearing a horrible consequence for delinquent behavior will be less likely to commit said behavior. The fatal flaw, of course, is that the solution perfectly rational, while people aren’t. I’m hardly being original here, but human behavior in general is not always governed by following established facts to their logical conclusion; that’s why both gambling and advertisement are a multi-billion dollar industry. The same goes for crime and punishment. After all, we only need to look at history: even though criminals were getting brutally tortured to death in the town square during the Middle Ages, crime did not cease to exist. And even today, there is still no decisive evidence whether or not capital punishment increases or decreases crime rates.
But we can all rest assure that having some form of government controlled form of retribution for criminal behavior is a good thing. No matter where you stand on the cuddle-them-in-institutions-or-rip-them-apart-with-horses spectrum, you’ll rarely find a person who thinks punishment should be abolished altogether. Can technology offer a way out?
Enter the Information Age. Brought to you by the suave and sexy brainiacs who used the power of number crunching to kick some Nazi ass during World War 2 (also known as the “Golden Age of Kicking Nazi Ass”).
Pouring all that money and effort into building better and better big-ass calculators ultimately resulted into modern man never being more than ten feet away from a PC. The exponential increase in the spread of information, both in terms of size and ease, has transformed society, no doubt. And as technology continues to eclipse biology, it has already been noted by absolutely fabulous philosophers that in post-modernity, our criminal justice system has become all about punishing the mind, and not the body.
To bring this all back to the uncalled for ass-kicking referred to in the first sentence of this article, the Internet has become the latest weapon in the fight against random acts of brutal violence. Aside from noting that the focus of punishment has shifted from punishing to disciplining, Michel Foucault (1926-1984) also pointed out that power relationships have become decentralized: no longer residing in only a few cores (such as a royal family or the army), but now dispersed along various layers of society. Power is also exercised by institutions such as schools, or (mental) hospitals, who all make sure that individuals find their place within the parameters that society sets out for them. Foucault further noted that you can exert power over someone just by making sure that this person knows that s/he is being observed and judged.
We can see both effects – the decentralization of power-relations and the affect of the gaze of the Other – at work in the recent vigilante actions of popular Dutch web-sites such as GeenStijl and Dumpert: youngsters who commit acts of senseless violence on the streets are exposed to the public. Several security camera recordings have already gone viral on the Internet, quickly leading to the arrest of many hoodlums. Such as in the case of eight scumbags who, without any seeming cause, viciously attacked a lone person during a night out in Eindhoven on January 4th this year, knocking him unconscious and continue to pummel him as he lay defenseless on the ground. Visitors of various web-sites were asked to view and share the video and immediately report back if they recognized anyone. Seeing how over 180% of all young people have a FaceBook account, it wasn’t all that hard to find and spread photos of the entire gang. The results can be observed here:
All eight assailants were quickly identified by the public and subsequently arrested by the authorities. Score one for the masses! Power to the people, and all that! But things got even more interesting when one of these walking shit-sacks was given a voice on the very media outlet that had helped to track him down. Ladies and gentlemen, meet Brett Smits.
If this video consisted of nothing but throat-clearing and guttural emissions, then that means you haven’t mastered the Dutch language yet (unlike some people). To sum it up further: Brett Smits (we really can’t mention this name enough, it’s our duty to humanity), seemed kind of down when giving the interview, which took place a few weeks after the incident. He vowed that the brutalization of a random bystander never should have happened in the first place, and also feared that he (that would be Brett Smits, in case you’ve forgotten) has no future. No shit. Brett Smits is suffering over all the public outcry over his misbehavior, and Brett Smits fears that people will continue to look down on Brett Smits until the Sun burns out. Then again, given how long Internet trends usually last, I have a feeling that BRETT SMITS will be out of the public picture before he has finished going through puberty (but not if we can help it).
Still, it’s fascinating to see how what was once a SWAG-tooting walking statue of self-confidence is now a blubbering mass in front of the camera. Remember, no one has returned the favor of punching or kicking this kid: all that people did was label him a piece of trash. Overnight, he became a pariah and everywhere he went, he felt the eyes of society looking down on him and judging him for what he did. This is what Foucault associated with the Panopticon: the all-seeing point-of-view of the guard which instills a constant sense of being observed in the captive. More than just helping the authorities in identifying the culprits, social media has continued its fight against street violence with a naming-and-shaming crusade, with the above mentioned results. Some people fear that these sort of vigilante actions turn social media into judge, jury and executioner, but you got to admit: it seems to work pretty damn well in curbing those who want to turn the streets into a free-for-all arena for ultra-violence.