March 04, 2008

White Menace

I just read a paper put out by policy think tank The Urban Institute about why iPods want you beaten up. Or something.

Apparently, according to the authors, iPods are responsible for a "surge" in violent crime, particularly robberies, over the past few years — the robbery rate went from a barely noteworthy 137 per 100,000 people in 2004 to a scandalously high 149 per 100,000 in 2006.

The argument is essentially that, in those two years, iPods "went mainstream" and ballooned in numbers; and more people carrying iPods means more targets for robbery. Ipso facto, iPods cause robberies.

The authors do note that this is merely a correlation and they have no causal evidence — including, for example, any data on what was actually stolen from those twelve extra people per 100,000 — but they present a raft of anecdotal evidence and theoretical precedents that they say support their hypothesis. Some of their points are more convincing than others, but they're all sort of irrelevant considering the fundamental problems with the premise of the paper.

First of all, it's practically a truism to say that introducing iPods to the market will lead to an increase in robberies. I mean, if you introduce 90 million extra pieces of consumer electronics into an arena where consumer electronics are frequently stolen, of course the robbery rate is going to rise. But it's not like iPods are the only consumer electronics to have flooded the marketplace in the last two years — sixteen times as many cell phones as iPods were sold in 2005, and I don't see anyone going after Motorola. And what about digital cameras?

(The authors point out that cell phones have subscription services that can be cut off if the phone itself is stolen, but let's not pretend that they don't get ripped off all the time, anyway.)

Second of all, I question the reliability of the robbery figures. Let us not forget that these statistics are based on reported crimes, which means any increase could simply be down to more people actually going to the police. And, that being the case, I could actually be convinced that iPods have contributed to the "increase" in robberies, inasmuch as people are less likely to report stolen a $30 discman from Radio Shack than they are a $300 MP3 player that also holds photos, calendars and personal information (especially given all the alarmism surrounding identity theft these days). But that doesn't mean that, like for like, more people are actually being robbed.

Finally, is it really worth getting our knickers in a twist over a twelve-point increase in the robbery rate? Do you know how the FBI calculates that rate? It takes data from 17,000 different law enforcement agencies across the country, smushes them all together, divides these various localised crime rates according to the size of the populations they refer to, smushes them together some more, and then multiplies up to get a rate out of 100,000 for the entire country. When you're doing that many mathematical transformations to a set of numbers, it would be surprising if the robbery rates didn't differ by a couple of points in some direction every year.

In conclusion, stop being silly.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I think a more logical reasoning goes like this: iPods cause a chemical dependence in the listener, almost exactly like heroin or crystal meth. People are committing more robberies to feed their iPod habit. As additional evidence, you will notice that the number of iPods sold in Iraq has increased every year since 2002, which has been matched by a sharp increase in the rate of violent crime.


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