Inside the murder box – exploring some of the more extreme realities of our culture

Rowland Atkinson – University of Sheffield

Our culture is creating spaces of exception – places and experiences that allow us to dehumanise and exert our total will over others, or representations of others. This is the argument that Tom Rodgers and I made in this article which can be read fully and freely via the link.

This is a two-page summary of that article for the lay reader, an attempt to distill a fairly complex argument into a few paragraphs. Around us today we see the mainstreaming of more extreme forms of sexual and violent conduct. This is a fairly well-worn point to make. But the point today is that we do so through ever more easily accessed interfaces that include video game consoles, mobile phones, tablets, networked televisions and so on. Access to these points of access is also more or less unregulated, as any parent of a teenager will tell you. Alongside these means of accessing media the content of these spaces is not only more explicit, violent and largely unregulated, it is often interactive in environments that are photo-realistic (videogames) or involve interacting with other people (such as the use of webcams connected to remote places at which we can make requests for ‘whatever we want’). These spaces are relatively new, but more importantly they invoke a different kind of engagement with others that invokes a capacity to engage our desires, to rampage, to rape, to degrade, to observe. Whether we believe the impact of these engagements with real and virtual environments and actors is another question, but certainly the idea of spaces of cultural exception in which we can, and are encouraged to do whatever we want by providers of these services raises important questions about who ‘we’ are and where as a globally linked culture, we are going and the harms involved in these technologically mediated social changes.

Many accounts of crime and harm stress the decline in the volume of crime and in homicide globally. These trends are well evidenced but belie the fact that many forms of violence persist, have enormous variability between countries and key victim groups as well as being frequently under-reported. The idea that we are becoming more civilized can be undone fairly swiftly by some easy web searching. If we chose to do so we can experience any form of sexual conduct, real and staged forms of violent atrocity and the ‘fails’ and voyeurism of much online culture. These image- spaces in which violence and harm is experienced and indeed celebrated are important aspects of our culture today. In light of these changes it seems important to consider the kind of ‘state of suspension’ we find ourselves in as we unendingly flit between both the reality and infinite digital spectacle of crime, violence and social harm around us via online media.

In the article we tried to develop the concept of a ‘murder box’. The murder box is a way of thinking about how we privately engage in what are ultimately mass experiences of harm, extreme and sadistic pleasures that are increasingly shared aspects of our social condition. We can slip into violent sandbox games (the usual example to offer here is Grand Theft Auto precisely because it is a very good example of these possibilities) or choose from enormous menus of what sexually interests us. By association, hyperlinks and recommendations our initial tastes and ideas can be reformed and connected to more extreme practices. Crucially, our experiences are shaped in what feel like enclosed and private spaces of experience that allow us to do away with the idea that we are morally obliged to others or that we risk some kind of infraction. A quick read of the straplines for many pornographic websites reveals a world in which we are invited to do what we want, to experience anything with an unending supply of avatars, actors or passive (mostly female) participants who are there just for us. In the world of videogaming the trope of all-powerful, hyper-masculine destroyer is too frequent to be noticeable, as is the vague use of a background state of emergency that justifies extreme violence to ‘terrorists’. Whether we might be concerned about these experiences is another question. Who is being harmed? Who cares? Could such outlets for raw desire help to reduce ‘real’ violence? Kids get old pretty quick these days, they can handle this. Many such responses seem to suggest we are in denial about the relationship between our new-found freedoms to do what we want online and retaining a hold on notions of humanity, reciprocity, altruism or behaviour that is conducive to a sense of togetherness and positive identity. Such ideas may indeed feel like fuzzy nonsense to you, or perhaps they need to be rendered in such terms because the enormity of challenging or redirecting these cultural shifts (embedded in many ways in what some refer to as geek masculinity) either appears impossible or because we would not want to see these spaces closed down because of our own needs. These are uncomfortable possibilities but plausible nevertheless.

When I used to lecture my criminology students I would tell them that snuff movies were not real but that the possibility that one had been made was an open question. Today it is possible for a child with a wifi connection to watch a series of beheadings. The desensitising and traumatising possibilities of these available media do indeed seem worrying. Worse, the desire for profit underlies the ways in which uncomfortable or appalling forms of pornography are produced for sale via monthly subscriptions across globally networked internet systems. The idea that simply nothing is wrong here or that this is just ‘ok’ seems, to put it mildly, hard to sustain. The next question, what we might do about the hidden harms of our culture, is much harder.

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