Title: How Drug Market Actors Use Information and Communication Technology to Build Community, Overcome Crackdowns, and Broadcast Consumption
Abstract: The Internet is as a force of liberation that also extends existing power structures. In five parts, I examine what happens when these two forces clash.
Following a brief genealogy of the Internet as a space for radical cultures, corporate surveillance and profit-making, and state control, I examine how a “digital backspace” for anonymous actors was affected by a law enforcement crackdown. Durkheim claimed that punishment of crime generates social cohesion as “honorable” people are united in emotional, passionate condemnation of those who transgress society’s moral boundaries, but critics have argued that punishment might extend divisions rather than produce unity, because societies are not as homogeneous as the populace Durkheim depicted in his work. Today, a singular exception is the online community, which is often utterly homogenous, as it is typically centered around shared interests and concerns. A crackdown on a digital backspace is therefore a good case for empirically testing a novel take on Durkheim’s original theory: will punishment unite the punished group?
In the third part of the dissertation, I explain how major disruptions to an e-commerce market for banned goods created problematic situations that forced market actors to innovate. The Internet is in many ways reproducing the world we already know and one might therefore expect that the struggle between law enforcement and law-breakers in cyberspace will be much like it is in the offline world, where the two camps are engaged in a seemingly never-ending game of cat and mouse and things fundamentally stay the same. But I argue that because the Internet expands the opportunity structure for creative and collaborative action, legal pressure do not rein in group activities, but actually stimulates innovation and resistance. That is, a police crackdown might not cripple a market, but inadvertently improve it. Specifically, I explain that when police shut down a dominant e-commerce market they forced thousands of actors to reorganize, and unintentionally spurred resisting efforts that ultimately produced a decentralized, more sophisticated, and more resilient economic field.
In the fourth part of the dissertation, I explain that e-commerce for banned drugs has made it possible for pseudnonymous drug-takers to talk openly about the goods they buy and consume, and as such, actors can frame their behavior as they see it, or as they want it to be seen by other market actors. With this newfound capacity for broadcasting, how do drug-takers present their consumption? To answer this question, I a nalyze “consumer reports” of LSD, cocaine, and cannabis products that the authors have purchased in digital drug markets. Drawing on this analysis, I discuss if the digitalization of drug trade is more likely to promote alternative cultures, such as the anti-capitalist “cannabis culture,” and/or if orderly Ebay-like trade of drugs will support and accelerate the normalization of drug use, and thus reduce its counter-cultural potential.
In the fifth and final chapter of the dissertation, I argue that open trade of banned goods has profound implications for social control activities in cyberspace. This is primarily because newfound capacities for collective resistance render traditional crime control methods counter-productive. In the case of digital drug trade, police crackdowns have had some notable success, for example when police reduced the number of available markets in the short term. However, I argue that crackdowns on digital drug markets are on the whole counter-productive, for three concrete reasons that I examined in the dissertation. Firstly, social control efforts unite the targeted group, because actors now have means for mass communication and collective reorganization. Secondly, crises stimulate resistance and innovation, which motivated groups will thrive on. As such, a crackdown will strengthen and not weaken the group it targets, given it has the means and the will to resist. Lastly, law enforcement crackdowns bring media attention to banned websites and thus inadvertently disseminate alternative framing of crime. In light of these outcomes, I argue that the myth of the sovereign state’s ability to control human behavior is further eroded. Not only is the state unable to eradicate crime, it is also unable to foresee the outcomes of their efforts and will at times make matters worse, as when the markets it tries to stop are united and empowered, rather than divided and weakened.
Chair: Stephen Pfohl
Members: Juliet Schor, Sarah Babb, and Wen Fan