Via National Postal Museum

Most Wanted posters, having lost their long standing place at the Post Office, have found a new home on Pinterest. Following the Philadelphia Police Department, police in Pottstown PA, are now electronically pinning  images of those with outstanding arrest warrants. Yes, the same place people exchange recipes and DIY home tips is increasingly also place in which police officers disseminate photographs of felons on the lam (time out: I just got to use the phrase “on the lam” in an academic-ish piece of writing.  *self high-five*).

This use of Pinterest for mugshot dissemination is theoretically interesting in a number of ways. Here, I denote three key interrelated insights:

First, this demonstrates the unpredictability of technology—in use and consequence. I’ve written previously about Ernst Schraube’s notion of technology as materialized action, an understanding that technology is both a product of human creators and users, and shapes human practices, structures, and cultures in unknowable ways. In other words, technology is imbued with vast and complex potentialities.  The purpose of Pinterest is the recreational sharing of interests, consumables, crafts, and objects of beauty, comedy, wit, and wisdom. The intended user base is unaffiliated persons, engaging these things on their own time and in their own space. In contrast, the police utilize Pinterest to share institutional information,working towards highly instrumental ends. They act as professional representatives of a government institution, and ask fellow Pinterest users to not only accept, but participate in this institutional, labor-based activity. Not only then do the police use Pinterest in an unexpected way, but also alter the space in so doing. They hybridize recreation with labor, citizens with institutions, and people with things[i] within the Pinterest platform.

Police use of Pinterest also highlights the expanding role of crowdsourcing, and the ways in which digitization can have very real
implications. Finding wanted criminals has always been crowdsourced, from milk carton photos to the in-your-face-conservative America’s Most Wanted television show. In these ways, police officers have always delegated a portion of their work to an unpaid public (in fact, they delegate their work to the very public who pays their salaries through taxes). Here, we see a digitization of this crowdsourcing. This process of digitization both expands and narrows the laboring crowd. An electronic pin can certainly reach more eyes than one stuck in a crowded public cork-board. However, whereas everyone sends mail, it is predominately (though certainly not ubiquitously) upper-middle class women who participate on Pinterest. Perhaps police use of Pinterest will engage these women with law enforcement in ways that were previously uncommon. Perhaps police use of Pinterest will redefine the space as one that is more masculine, inviting men to participate with their manliness unthreatened. Linking back to my point above, the consequences of this digitized crowdsourcing for law enforcement, Pinterest, and gender relations more largely, are yet unknowable.

Finally, this institutional use of Pinterest indicates an interesting return to the industrial complex. Haraway tells the story of contemporary technology and its original home in, and growth out of, the military industrial complex. Indeed the internet was developed as a military communications tool, and has since been co-opted to such a degree that this combative beginning is largely absent from public consciousness. Here, we see a reverse co-optation, as this technology of entertainment, leisure, and creativity is co-opted back towards institutional use—namely, by the prison industrial complex. It becomes, explicitly, a technology of control, one in which users are asked to actively participate. This circular infiltration of prisons into a free space of creativity and leisure speaks again to the unknowable nature of technology and its consequences. Just as military engineers likely never envisioned their work evolving into Google hangouts and Words With Friends, Pinterest founders (and users) likely never expected to become tools of The Law. Further still, the consequences of these historical, material, and cultural forces combined remain on an unchartable trajectory.

[i] I would like to thank the always brilliant fellow Cyborgologist Whitney Erin Boesel (@phenatypical) for pointing out the person-thing shift through informal conversation.

Jenny Davis is a weekly contributor on Cyborgology and a postdoctoral researcher in the Social Psychology Laboratory at Texas A&M. Follow Jenny on Twitter @Jup83