Captive Audience 2: Facebook in prison

February 8, 2015

On my bookshelves is a a very old, very tatty paperback called “Modern American Humour”

My copy was published in 1956, but original publication date appears to be 1943.

it includes a short story called “Captive Audience” by Anna Warren Griffiths, To my surprise you can read it, here. (I can’t vouch for the site it’s been reprinted on)

The story is a satire, imagining a world where all products have built in jingles. So your cornflakes packet pumps adverts at you while you’re eating your breakfast. The whole house is a cacophony of ad messages controlled by a little black box full of discs. (internet of things?). It’s illegal to turn them off, and even illegal to wear ear plugs.

Grandma rebels and wears her earplugs, so is sent to prison for five years, where there are no adverts and it’s nice and quiet.

The twist is that Fred, her son, the advertising executive, suddenly realizes that prisoners are the perfect captive audience:

“Why couldn’t we, say have a little box in each cell where the cell could be kept.. it would sort of preserve their buying habits and when they got out they wouldn’t be floundering around”

I was reminded of this story, which I first read way back in my teens, when I read this piece in the Daily Dot last week:

“The case for Facebook in prison – why Internet access is a basic human right”

“For the hundreds of thousands of convicts released from prison every year, though, this is an ongoing struggle—as the astonishing pace of technology can make the adjustment back to civilian life all that more difficult.”

To call the internet access a “human right” in a world where too many people still don’t have clean drinking water still strikes me as a tadge presumptuous. Surely the “human right”, if there is one, is the right to high quality, accurate information, or perhaps the right to free speech. The internet is just a tool whereby you can exercise that right.

My view is that if you’ve committed a criminal offence and go to prison you forfeit some of your “human rights”. The Dot article states that “prisoners have freedom of speech”. This article states that these rights are “limited.” And both are talking about the United States. The situation in the UK seems different.

If I were a prison governor pondering whether to give my charges internet access I’d be asking:

“How do I stop them getting access to porn? I’ve heard there are parts of the internet where you can buy illegal drugs and weapons, and even put out a hit on someone. How do I stop them downloading TOR? Will they be able to search on how to join IS? Why do they need Facebook anyway if they can make phone calls to family and have prison visits?”

I’d be happy for prisoners to have access to an old fashioned prison library with real, physical books. But I’d ensure there were none on the shelves on how to make a bomb.

As for adverts, well they’ll be plenty of those clogging up their eyeballs when they get out…


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