In Andrew Potter’s sober analysis of the Vancouver riot, he argues that riots happen after major sporting events because it’s a time when people think about riots. (Although in Europe, sports riots typically happen after losses while in the United States they typically happen after wins.)
In game theory, this is called a focal point in a coordination game. The problem is classically set up like this: you and a stranger have agreed to meet, but you don’t know where (and your cell phones are broken) – what time or location are the two of you most likely to choose?
The focal times are, probably in order:
- 4:20 PM
In the Age of Trains, the focal location for New York was Grand Central Station. Coincidentally, the City of Victoria just sent out a notice advising residents to prearrange a meeting spot with their family in the case of disaster. I can think of three potential focal points in Victoria:
- The fountain in Centennial Square: centre of civic gravity
- The entrance to the Bay Centre: centre of commerce and public transit
- The steps of the Parliament Building: the most salient building in town
I would argue that a lack of a focal point is a serious problem in a city’s urban plan. What do you think about Victoria and other cities’ focal points?
Christopher Parsons, a polisci grad student at UVic, has come up with better arguments to back up the unease that some of us are feeling about citizen surveillance in the Vancouver riot: besides the purely technical problem of it being sloppy police work, social media users are acting as a mob:
The social media users processing riot photos are acting as a lynch mob just as mindless and violent as the rioters themselves. In particular, like past cases of Internet vigilantism, they are circumventing the justice system to get accused rioters fired from their jobs and expelled from school. As Parsons points out, our justice system protects people from this kind of “justice” using libel suits, although they may be difficult to pursue online.
But the police probably don’t even need this wetware (human) facial recognition system, because the government has ordered ICBC to make their drivers license photo database and facial recognition system available. The drivers license database has always been a tool of law enforcement and we’ve always had to accept that the cost of driving is access to the police. But to date ICBC’s facial recognition system has only been used to prevent identity theft – I feel like this is a concerning expansion of police ability. The slippery slope is obviously hooking the facial recognition system up to closed-circuit cameras, as is gradually being done in Britain and the US.
Camera phones and social media have become powerful tools for holding police accountable. But after the Vancouver riot, Internet vigilantes and the police are collaborating to use these tools to gather evidence and make arrests.* A seemingly lone voice in opposition to this practice is this blog post that identifies it as citizen surveillance in opposition to citizen journalism, where you use mobile devices and social media simply to document.
She points out that, like other cases of Internet vigilantism, it takes on a mob mentality and isn’t necessarily being practiced only in a desire for justice. The personal decision to cooperate with law enforcement rather than critically monitor police could become a public embrace of security values. And there are the slippery slopes, particularly if the surveillance were available to private-sector employers:
- protesters of authoritarian regimes
- people who drive badly
- Pride Parade marchers
- 4/20 Day participants
As this is just a blog post, she doesn’t make the ethical argument explicitly, but I’d like to see a philosophy paper follow this up. Do we want to live in a society where people help the police like this regularly? Do we want this to be a social media norm? And what does it mean if this practice gets exported to countries where people have more to fear from the police.
In the comments, she lays the responsibility for the riots where it belongs:
I think our city needs to rethink the intensity of a sports culture that leads to this kind of extreme reaction.
* Being present in a riot violates the law against unlawful assembly, which means everyone who took a photo is guilty as well.
Yesterday was the 90th anniversary of the repeal of prohibition in BC (by referendum). Fans of alcohol in Vancouver celebrated by getting drunk and having a riot. And that, precisely, is why I think prohibition was good policy.
Alcohol is a hell of a drug with a significant cost to society. Heavy alcohol use has a higher direct health cost than most other drugs and alcohol is unique in its ability to cause injuries, particularly motor vehicle accidents. Because of its legal status, alcohol has free reign to cause domestic breakdown and poor job performance.
The problems with prohibition are that:
- it was not implemented consistently: many speakeasies continued to operate and the wealthy could easily access smuggled alcohol
- it was implemented only through regulation: the government did not make an effort to convince people to lower their demand for alcohol both before and after the ban
- no substitutes were available
The last two points get at the crux of the problem: alcohol is both traditional and vital to our culture. Successfully banning alcohol would require widescale cultural change, cultural engineering if you will. Given that many cultures throughout history have practiced intoxication, it seems that humans might have an inherent desire that would be easier to satisfy with a safer alternative drug than suppress completely. David Nutt, the ex British drug czar, is working on an alcohol substitute based on benzodiazepines (eg: Valium).
I believe that reducing alcohol abuse is an important public goal that the government should be willing to use radical means to achieve.