Ravna (2015). Electronic Fortune-Tellers: Predictive policing as a sociotechnical phenomenon (Master Thesis)

Ravna, Ailo Krogh (2015). Electronic Fortune-Tellers: Predictive policing as a sociotechnical phenomenon; Oslo. Master Thesis, Centre for Technology, innovation and culture (TIK), Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Oslo. 104 pages.


Big Data technologies are becoming increasingly prevalent across many aspects of society. By using advanced algorithmic models and vast databases, programmers have developed tools that can accurately calculate the probabilities of future events occurring. Predictive policing is one such tool, promising to forecast criminal activities down to a particular time of day and a 150x150 meter area. By analyzing criminological data and other contextual information, patrolling officers receive continually updated predictions through smart-pads outfitted in their cars. This signifies a change in policing, from taking a reactive approach to crime, towards being proactive and preventing the crime from happening in the first place. Although some law enforcement officials have been quick to embrace this new technology, proclaiming a new era of policing, others are less enthusiastic. Citing potential issues such as the erosion of civil rights and unconstitutional racial profiling, critics of predictive policing are actively emphasizing certain aspects of the technology as a means to highlight controversial issues. In this thesis, I explore how a technological artefact such as predictive policing is inseparably tied up in a number of socio-political issues. When analyzing technology, it is important to consider not only the hard technical factors, but also assess the social context. I draw upon theories from Science and Technology Studies (STS) as a basis for analyzing the debate surrounding predictive policing. This entails identifying the relevant actors of the debate, but also includes opening the black box of Big Data by examining its inner workings. Using concepts from the Social Construction of Technology (SCOT), as well as Actor-Network Theory (ANT), I outline how social groups are formed and maintained as they attempt to negotiate technological and social change. Thus, the social context of the technology is presented as part of a seamless web, where technical, social, and political matters are inseparably entwined. Finally, I use concepts from John Dewey s theory of the public to demonstrate how political issues are embedded in and around technologies. The aim of my thesis is to show how complex technological systems such as predictive policing are embedded in a sociotechnical world, and to demonstrate how concepts from STS can be used to better understand the social underpinnings of the technology. This implies that in order to properly evaluate such technologies, one must take care to consider the interests of actors who become implicated in the technology through being affected by its consequences.