The Murder Box - a trope for inhumanity

Rowland Atkinson


To paraphrase Dickens, we live in a season of darkness as well as light. Yet the balance appears to be moving toward increasingly bleak prospects for our own humanity. We must remember that the idea of humanity is the idea of ‘us’ as a collectivity, but it is also a common sense of kind feelings. Kindness is not something the social sciences have tended to consider, with some notable exceptions (Phillips and Taylor, 2009). The work of critical social science has tended to be focused on locating social problems and ‘issues’ generated by conflict or unease, the sense that something is wrong or unjust. Despite this the concept of the pro-social and ideas about what would make a better society occupy a significant amount of thinking, political life and, increasingly, the attempt to locate more meaningfully human goals. A better world for human beings is often now understood as a complex set of social interdependencies and in relation to a wider environment that also includes non-human animals. The compulsion to know, include and assist this wider world is undergirded by the increasing awareness that to deny such inter-relatedness will accelerate the threat to humans, if not perhaps our humanity. Despite this, the view that we are ever more peaceable and enlightened seems naïve at best, there is cause for significant concern, as this sketch alludes.

The move into a new epoch defined by informational capitalism brought with it new gifts – trans-national networks, learning, economic expansion and a liberating erosion of solid forms of traditional identity. But these changes have also been accompanied by an increasingly libidinal and desirous mode of social and economic life. In this life the back-regions of psyches and social behaviours that were commonly denied or suppressed are increasingly foregrounded, celebrated, shared or normalised – particularly in relation forms of sexual and violent conduct. Similarly political life and adjunct social media spaces are characterised by intensifying emotion and anger that appears to decivilize even the core institutional functions of societies. Whether these changes are good or bad remains fraught moral philosophical territory. But we can nevertheless begin to index and chart important changes linked to new modes of harm and an erosion of something we might call our humanity. Whether we care about such changes is another question that I will not tackle in this short contribution.

In 1938 Robert K Merton echoed Freud’s contemporaneous work when he suggested that the social order could be understood as a kind of mechanism for impulse management. Freud at the end of his career and depressed by the multiplying inhumanity of the 1930s argued that civilisation was an important kind of trade-off – we must remain dissatisfied and restrained beings in order to accept the benefit of civility and respect for other humans. Today we see rapid changes that bring with them the potential for massive re-aggregations and the refashioning of social life in ways that the social sciences is barely keeping-up with. Networks and media technologies are generating new and amplified social harms. Consider the example of misogyny online. Masculinity takes on a tangible form in networked aggregations – attacks on women through degrading comments, video and tweet postings as well as revenge porn (conveniently indexed on image sharing websites). This is more or less a Wild West of public life, unchecked by corporate suppliers of the infrastructures upon which such views are expressed. Even attempts at moderating these forums appear doomed to become overwhelming forms of ‘shitwork’ for low-paid monitors or, where effective, simply lead to migrations to new forums and spaces in which regressive, inhumane and prejudicial content can be shared (4Chan, 8Chan, Gab, the dark web and so on). Spaces of shared community and values, for all their problems of appearing intrusive or stifling, are breaking down into micro-spaces that are bespoke to the impulses and desires of the individual, creating new communities in which forms of geographically dispersed perversity or violent intent can become unified in such forums.

What we know about hate crime’s ability to thrive where peer support, tacit or otherwise, exists comes back to haunt us a million-fold. Yet these are the same forces enabling victims and those with deviant and different identities to come together to find mutual support and toleration. We appear to inhabit an increasingly bifurcated world – of new-found tolerance, support and progress, on the one hand, and of misogyny, prejudice and hate, on the other. Worse still perhaps, there appears less and less of a middle-ground. Whether this gift of inforomation tech is enough to redress, combat or overcome its simultaneous production of harms seems questionable.

What we do know is that the age we live in is gifted its infrastructure of communication (Facebook, for example) by corporate actors and providers of information and networks but also of political and commodity advertising skewed by complex psychometric profiling and the buyers of the services of these platforms. These impacts mean not only the near impossibility of fair elections, to take one clear example, but also a lack of regulation as providers appear disinterested in questions of harm where these interfere with their profit lines. The economic model of a gift is undergirded by the almost total imbrication of the human subject in systems of monitoring, surveillance, data capture and ensnaring by messaging from firms and political organisations. We are liberated into a new mode of captivity whose limits and boundaries are elusive despite our awareness that we are ensnared in these systems. But this is only the beginning.


How can we begin to understand the nature of these technological, social and political systems and the entanglement of distracted, libidinal subjects within them? One of the things we are offered in some of these new forums is the mediated capacity to kill, abuse, degrade, maim and humiliate. We can see this in three key areas – videogaming, pornography and leisure. These are all now fundamental elements of contemporary corporate and social life today. My purpose in this contribution is to outline the mechanism that binds the inhumanising social motors in each of these domains. Superficially this could be understood in terms of rapid tweeting, online abuse without a sense of common humanity or identity, or it might come in the form of an emotionally accelerated politics. But this is only the top of a much larger iceberg.

One useful assessment of our emerging condition comes in Han’s Psychopolitics (2017). In such formations the possibilities of social progress become enrolled and emasculated by the power of information technology to give us what we want – protest and anger are undermined or redirected by forms of work and leisure that are sufficiently satisfying to delay or deter traditional resentments. In this sense many now find it hard to be against something that gives plenty of what we want. Soft drugs, ‘likes’, fails, hardcore pornography, sites of expressivity come to erode common bonds – a retreat into what Mark Fisher (2009) described as a kind of depressive hedonia – twitching bodies attached to screens that offer periodic delights while we nevertheless remain trapped in attachments and pursuits that are ultimately alienating and, in some cases, dehumanising.

The murder box of the title refers to the way that exceptional spaces can be located in which everyday forms of regulation and restraints on social conduct are stripped away (Atkinson and Rodgers, 2015). What format do such boxes take? Perhaps one of the clearest examples can be seen in many screen-human interfaces generate the possibility for interactions that denude the humanity of those we encounter, particularly in relation to pornography and gaming. Such murder boxes fit within psychopolitical themes – release, excitement and enjoyment. Thus these forms of space and engagement operate around a kind of schadenfreude, an apparently growing delight in the suffering of others operating at a global pan-(in)human scale.

The hook of the murder box is its capacity to enable us to do whatever we want to the others we meet – in many games and in much pornography. Outside their screen variants we can also locate these invited forms of degradation in the leisure zones supported by sex tourism. This is now a massive global market of largely male, free-roamers set free from local normative constraints. There is a general sense of the deep allure and possibility of engaging desire in these ‘boxes’, celebrating it even where it may be overtly damaging to others and thus requiring the designation of virtual and real bodies encountered as being somehow less than human. This release of an often toxic, geek and overtly misogynistic masculinity is increasingly in evidence.

A more enduring and visible culture has now emerged on the back of these often tech-mediated developments that revolves around forms of libidinal or carnival space in which all is permitted. This culture invokes, demands even, a reversal of the shame of sexual and masculine norms – it is indignant and visible in movements associated with the alt-right, ‘incel’ and anonymous forms of interaction facilitated by many web forums. The underlying rationale is a kind of self-righteous anger that builds to enable the outraged denial of harm and to ensure access to primordial, asocial rights that would be denied by efforts at regulating many masculine and sexual behaviours. The murder box is aligned with and helps to build this kind of culture, a nerd-alpha masculinity believing in omniscience, kills and trophy females, willing or otherwise.


These formations have been given new momentum by aggregations of media infrastructures and technologies, new understandings of the capacity of cameras, simulations and the desire to attain pleasure and satisfaction regardless of its consequences. The apparent excesses of games like Grand Theft Auto have become everyday social reference points, played by young children and adults and recognized as part of a multi-billion dollar global industry whose boundaries can not, or will not, be regulated – certainly not by parents who either appear to be complicit in the early availability of technology among children, or who see their own childhoods extended by new social norms of personal fulfilment. Pornography has become banal, sexual desire itself is provoked and sated by brief interactions with web media on mobile devices akin to the orgasmatrons of Woody Allen’s film Sleeper. No form of frustration can be entertained and the theme of constant climax is ever-present in a culture in which social actors easily scroll through music tracks to find the best bits, engage in unending orgiastic killing in videogames or witness pornographic phantasmagorias of unending release. Whatever you want, you can have it, whenever you want it.


Any sweeping assessment of the human condition risks the charge of simplification. Yet it seems a contestable hypothesis that the assessment of declining (lethal) violence is giving way to an increasing concern with impersonal, angry and aggressive conduct each of which has multiple forms, intensities and related forms of harm. These kinds of dehumanising modes of expression are exacerbated by what we might think of perhaps as our social ‘immaturity’ in relation to new technologies whose impacts and effects are not yet fully understood but whose harms are increasingly being registered. Gaming, pornography and leisure are key examples, mediated by information systems and corporate actors whose interests are in enhancing these desires as the means for their own economic expansion. One possible reading of where all of this goes is into a joy-filled world of peak experiences by dominant and dominating groups, whose gratification is predicated upon spaces of misery and inhumanity for many women, virtual renderings of victims, children and other vulnerable groups.

The capacity for networks to galvanise new identities based around what would have been rare localised forms of anti-social beliefs gives rise to new aggregations and the accretion of images and experiences of atrocity. Its effects are witnessed in online abuse, the archipelago of sex workers in video rooms, filmed rapes and fights as well as co-ordinated forms of loosely organised terror by unconnected social actors brought together by common interests and senses of grievance (such as attacks on minority groups by far-right activists). The emergence of new forums assisting in the circulation of for regressive value systems (such as Gab) supplement the existence of the dark web as spaces that may enhance dehumanising scripts and ways of being. The consequences of these competing commons outside the purview and potential regulation of the major information corporations appear bleak.


Atkinson, R. and Rodgers, T. (2015) Pleasure Zones and Murder Boxes: Online Pornography and Violent Video-Games as Cultural Zones of Exception, British Journal of Criminology, 56, pp. 1291-1307. Open access.

Han, B-C. (2017) Psychopolitics: Neoliberalism and new technologies of power, London: Verso.

 Phillips, A. and Taylor, B. (2009) On kindness, London: Macmillan.

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