The Second Eclectic

Technology changes how we relate to God and each other

The Thief and the Locker

Flickr/Brett Levin
I was at the gym yesterday, in the locker room. A few others were in there. I’d chosen a locker that was right next to another guy—he was about 60. We were both done with our workouts, both had our lockers open. At one point, I stepped away from my locker, and when I turned around, Mr Sixty was holding up my button-down shirt, like he was trying to figure out which end was up. I could tell the gears were churning upstairs.

Above his head I noticed a sign, placed there by the management: “We are not responsible for lost or stolen items.” Typical boilerplate.

I looked back at the man. There was no un-awkward way to do this. “Uh, that’s my stuff.”

“Oh, I thought something looked wrong. I’m sorry.”

Still awkward. “That’s okay,” I offered. He'd made an honest mistake. He would have figured it out eventually. Note to self: Leave a locker’s buffer between you and 60-year-old men.

He apologized again.

The boilerplate sign got me to thinking about how the management could never have installed lockers without locks. Locks were simply a foregone conclusion. A necessary evil. In fact, hardly an “evil” anymore, and more simply necessary. We just don’t think about it hardly at all.

But what were lockers called before they had locks on them? “Cubby holes”? Was there ever such a thing? Even the name assume they have lock. In fact, they are defined by it. But did schools or gyms ever have “lockless lockers” where students or patrons could store their personal effects? Maybe country clubs back in the day? Or the local Elks Lodge maybe? Those old boys’ clubs—where Mr Sixty should be instead, where he could mix up clothes with other confused men his own age—those clubs are the only places I can imagine something like lockless lockers—and even then, only in the days when everyone still knew each other.

But I don’t think lockers came to be because of size or anonymity—at least, not initially.

It was the single thief.

Maybe this seems obvious. But my point is not to look at the thief. My point is to look at the lockers. Why? Because all those lockers are the response to that one thief. But it’s not merely the lockers. The lockers are part of a bigger system.

Take high school for example. I went to a high school with hundreds of other students—each had his or her own locker. A single thief required thousands of lockers, each having a unique lock and combination. So not only do you need lockers, but you need a way to keep track of all the combinations for all the lockers. That requires a whole system.

Now compare this complex system to that one thief. Maintaining the system involves more work than the lone thief expends. On balance, the reaction far outweighs the action. They are not equal—not by a long shot.

We overlook this imbalance simply because it has become normal. Like that boilerplate. But normal does not necessarily mean sensible. The system far surpasses the thief both in complexity, execution, and longevity.

So that imbalance is one element in this dynamic. The other, which I mentioned, is anonymity. Again this circumstance seems normal to us today. We regularly see people we don’t know. It happens daily. I stopped at the grocery today, saw at least a hundred people, and didn’t know a single face. Anonymity is a given. But the thief’s potential anonymity plays a big role.

But this kind of extenuated anonymity was not always normal. Today, strangers are the rule, but in the past, they were more often the exception. Think about the classic movie scene: A stranger walks into a small town. Everyone stares at him. Everyone is suspicious of him. “Stranger danger” was probably the more common experience for most people throughout history. They saw the same people most days. There were strangers sure, but social circles were pretty finite.

In this sort of defined community, flushing out a thief was much more realistic. An entire group could be rounded up. If a crime was committed, the culprit was likely among them. If he or she wasn’t, that recent stranger could be quickly identified.

But in a culture of anonymity, everyone is a stranger. The circle is much bigger and more diffused, so apprehending the culprit becomes much, much harder. A needle in a haystack. A case for Sherlock Holmes.

Hence a culture of anonymity breeds a culture of suspicion. It’s not necessarily overt. It may rumble at such a low decibel that it’s hardly detectable. Or perhaps we’ve grown accustomed to it—like locks on lockers. Lockers exist in a culture of anonymity. They symbolize our culture of suspicion.

This anonymous society—this “bowling alone” culture—is the context of the thief. It’s the community of isolated neighbors with signs posted for “community watch.” It’s the dead bolts and police patrols. It’s the well-lit corporate parks and cell phone safety blankets.

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I want to extend this thief-locker dynamic by analogy to some broader scenarios we face nationally. Specifically, two instances come to mind: the 3D-printed gun, and 9/11. I’m sure many others could be identified.

First, the gun. The 3D-printed gun made headlines last spring when a Texas law student used a 3D printer to manufacture and fire "The Liberator." It was a shot heard around the world, as it were. It was not long before concerned citizens were pressing the U.S. Congress to “do something.” We need to stop this. Citizens’ safety was at risk. Suddenly, anyone could print a handgun, without a permit. They could obtain a weapon by surfing the Internet. Made of plastic, the handgun could conceivably be smuggled aboard a plane, to disastrous ends. But for Congress, the measured response was not clear. What sort of system could they implement in the edgeless landscape of the world wide web? Until recently, the NSA seemed to be an answer; now new systems, or at least strategies, must be created.

The dynamics surrounding the 3D-printed gun seem to map well onto the dynamics of the locker thief. In both cases, you have a single individual wielding immense power in an anonymous society. And that individual “could be anyone.” In both cases, the response seemingly required is that of some kind of system. This system must expand far enough to encompass and account for all possible offenders. Everyone is a suspect. Except, of course, such a system is not possible. So instead of a comprehensive system, we must employ a statistically-supportable strategy. Instead of rounding up a whole community, we have to cast a net, inevitably letting some suspects through in order to catch the more likely offenders.

Second, 9/11. By now you can probably see the pattern. In this case, it’s not an individual but a group of like-minded people—a cell. They coordinated their efforts—a small, ever so small subset of U.S. inhabitants. Their goal was not to steal, but to kill and destroy. They used airplanes not for transportation but for weapons. They targeted symbols of American economic and military power. After 9/11, we waged war against “terrorism”—a concept. Because the war was no longer against a place, but against a mindset. Now we cast the net over the whole world, though we cannot fight the whole world. Still, we remain suspicious.

War is the first reaction. The second reaction is a system, a net, a web: the Department of Homeland Security. The system involves additional TSA employees and full-body scanners. It involves the NSA surveillance. All are strands in the web. All are combinations to the locks. Someday we won’t remember a time before lockers.

All these strategies and systems are in place to prevent another cell, another 9/11. But compare the efforts of 11 men, their years of planning and, finally, of their execution, with the Department of Homeland Security and the NSA's surveillance practices. Thousands of new enforcement officers. Hundreds of new policies and strategies. All these participate as part of the net. All of these together make up the U.S. reaction to the organized efforts of a few people. The reaction far outstrips the initial action.

Of course, it must. The work of prevention is far greater. Again, the imbalance is not sensible, only normal. We intuit that the response must be greater, but do we know why?

My main interest is to know what role technology plays in cultivating these dynamics—primarily the inequity between the thief and the system. Others factors besides technology certainly play a role, but my interest is in technology’s.

How does technology contribute to this imbalance, and how does it extend this imbalance to all levels to society—from lockers to homeland security?

Why is the action and reaction not equal and opposite? Or, if they can be shown to be equal, why does the individual wield so much power for destruction (and so little corresponding power for good)?

Another question I have is, Why, when responding to destruction and threats of destruction, do we default to a system or strategy as a means for preventing crimes and deterring criminals? Is this the best response? Are there other options? Other, non-technological options? Does implementing technical systems actually give the individual more power in the long run? Or does it, perhaps, make a police state more likely?

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One final note. Clearly my attention is drawn to the individual’s power for destruction. That said, there are some notable examples of the “anti-thief”: People who acted in ways that led to massive positive outcomes far outweighing the actions themselves. Examples that come to mind include Martin Luther King Jr., Ghandi, Jesus, Nelson Mandela, William Wilberforce, Mother Teresa. I’m sure there are others. Indeed, they are world-changing figures. As well, I’m sure there are many lesser known anti-thieves whose small acts brought benefits that outweighed their efforts. We can take hope in people like this. We can hope to be people like this. And perhaps, if we understand the thief/locker dynamics, we can learn what it takes to bring about this kind of massive good. For I’m confident that many of the dynamics used for evil can be turned around and used for good.