The "Is More Information Always Better?" File

Monica Davey’s article “Case Shows Limits of Sex Offender Alert Programs” in the NYT (2 Sept 2009)raises a number of interesting sociology of information issues.

The basic story is that sex offender registration policies did not seem to do much good in the case of a California man found out last week to have kidnapped a young girl and held her for 19 years in his back yard. The alleged perpetrator was a registered sex offender, reported regularly to a parole officer, and wore a GPS tracking device, and law enforcement officials had visited and looked around his home.

It is, I think, a bit of a red herring to argue that this case shows a weakness of the registry system as it exists. But the conversation does point to some important issues about the mechanisms by which we expect “public information” to produce “public goods.”

So what are the questions here? The most obvious one, expressed in general terms, is how much prevention does tracking actually provide? Another is whether or not the zealous inclusion of every minor sex-related offense (the article cites, as an example, a one-time flasher) over-taxes law enforcement and blinds society to “the real problems.” A proponent of registries who was quoted in the article said

“Look, nobody ever suggested that registering sex offenders is going to remove sex offenders from the planet, but let’s at least make sure they’re not working in your elementary school or coaching the soccer team.”

I don’t think the research is entirely clear as to whether the law accomplishes this or not, but it points to an interesting question. The registries are online and searchable, with the idea that this amounts to information empowerment that keeps state officials accountable — a kind of open-government move: if the official don’t do their job, the public will find out. But, of course, “the public” suffers from the same information overload that police departments do. Knowing that there are 1500 registered sex offenders in your county may not be all that helpful in terms of making decisions about where to live, send your kids to school or how high a fence to build around your pool. Some “experts” say we should make some distinctions and prioritize rather than lumping teenage sex in the same category as a violent rape and kidnapping. But that raises 5he challenging problem of where to draw the line. I’ll bet the equilibrium in that game is always over on the side of TMI — too much information to be really useful. In other words, most collectives would opt for more information than they can “make sense of” even if it means they will “see” less than if they had less information.

Author: Dan Ryan

I'm currently an Academic Program Director at I've been a professor at University of Toronto, University of Southern California, and Mills College teaching things like human centered design, computational thinking, modeling for policy sciences, and social theory. I'm driven by the desire to figure out how to teach twice as many twice as well twice as easily.

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