Rule 34 of the internet is, “if it exists, there is porn of it. No exceptions.”
(Please do not attempt to test this rule using Google with safe search switched off. That which is seen cannot be un-seen . . .)
It’s hard for us to remember today that mass adoption of the internet is less than twenty years old. Although the first routers were switched on in 1969, the net remained a toy for academic and computer industry researchers for its first twenty years. I first met it in 1989, in the course of a computer science degree; even as late as 1993, the idea that one might get internet access in one’s home was kind of outlandish.
It took the invention of the world wide web – which many people today mistake for the internet – to make it visually accessible and appealing to the masses. But in the following 20 years, it became probably the most pervasive single communications medium in human history, extruding tentacles of connectivity into our pockets by way of smartphones, infiltrating our working lives and our dreams. Not to mention our nightmares.
Back in 2010, contemplating the idea of writing a police procedural novel set perhaps ten or twelve years in the future of the internet, I found myself trying to get a handle on police practice and computing. Policing in the 21st century UK has been changing bewilderingly fast; the Home Office has, over a decade and a half, been engaged in a project of systematically replacing the main body of our criminal law (which accreted over centuries) with a properly designed, fit-for-bureaucratic-purpose replacement body of legislation. Similarly, the practice of policing has undergone successive upheavals, both in response to scandals of injustice (corruption and the fitting-up of suspects for crimes they didn’t commit) and in an attempt to grapple with maintaining order in a rapidly changing society. But policing the UK is an enormous job. You can’t get a handle on it by talking to any one person; they can only give you a worm’s eye view of what they’re involved in. In actual fact, the various British police forces employ around as many officers as the armed forces have soldiers, sailors, and airmen: and the range of activities they’re involved in is extraordinary, from handling specialist poison-sniffing dogs (used in the Scottish borders for protecting endangered raptor species from farmers and gamekeepers) to guarding nuclear reactors – by way, of course, of the Saturday night public order circus at pub chucking-out time.
Kibitzing on the anonymous blogs of working cops, you run across all sorts of illuminating rants about the day to day irritations of the job: from the best type of boots to wear when pounding the beat all day (German or Dutch paratroop boots are the business), to the headaches of the modern desk sergeant’s end-of-shift hand-over (passing your colleague the personal mobile numbers of all your constables, making sure you’ve got the correct logins and passwords on the various databases you need to update with every incident), and gripes about IT services. IT services? Well yes: policing doesn’t revolve around scraps of paper any more, the back end is as heavily automated as any other large cumbersome enterprise – and this was in 2010, remember. It’s all a far cry from the police procedurals of yore . . . by which I mean 1990.
So where, I wondered, was policing going in 2022? And, more to the point, what is policing going to entail in the world of the Internet of Things – when 3D printers have become as pervasive as personal computers in the late 1980s, so that dreams and nightmares that currently only exist on the net can extrude themselves into the physical world? What’s it going to be like, when organized criminals (whose business acumen is usually so poor that they turn to crime because they can’t compete in legitimate markets) finally begin to catch up with modern business processes? And what sort of police are we going to need to maintain order in such a chaotic and rapidly changing world?
Welcome to RULE 34. That which is seen cannot be un-seen. No exceptions!