THERE may have never been one list. We don’t have to enter that debate. We can start by acknowledging that we live in an age of list of junkies. We are all guilty; we are all addicted. Top ten lists are catchy, fun and most of all require a short attention span. They are like intellectual popcorn. David Letterman made his reputation by reading clever Top Ten Lists written by his staff writers. And I also love reading and writing a good mystery. What better mystery than tracking the whereabouts of fugitives on the run from the law? In reality most of those on the most wanted list are more elusive than the Higgs Boson.
Think of the Modern Top Ten Criminal lists as the way law enforcement officials try to build the equivalent of the particle collider. Most of the data is inclusive. The main difference is the criminals exist in reality and are simply very hard to find, and the jury is out whether Higgs Boson is non-existent or just hard to find.
The idea of Top Ten Criminals has been around longer than crime fiction. In the case of criminal justice systems, the entertainment value of announcing Top Ten Most Wanted Lists has caught the attention of law enforcement agencies in most countries. The media love lists. Newspapers, blogs, TV news all love list with pictures. These list which used to be taped to post office walls has gone digital. We now spend most of our lives in front of one sort of screen or another looking at photographs. The digital world is tailor-made from the list of bad guys. We can visualize the criminal but nothing satisfied as much as seeing an actual picture. Law enforcement officials no longer need to describe what the criminal fugitives on the run look like. Show their pictures on the Internet. Let the public study their features and image the evil lurking inside that caused them to turn to a life of crime. Let the public become the private eye who can nail a bad guy and collect a million dollar bounty.
But there is a slight problem with digital volunteer bounty hunters. Our resources as individuals are completely overwhelmed by the sheer volume of top ten criminal lists. Every city, county, province, and country has a top ten list of most wanted criminals. If that isn’t enough, within each of these political divisions are cops who are further divided into a multitude of separate but overlapping turfs. There is a 10 Most Wanted in the World List.
If you are a crime writer wondering who would make a good villain for your next novel, you might want to scroll through the latest list of international gangsters, gunrunners, revolutionaries and cartel kingpins of the lam from justice; go straight to the Top Ten Criminals on the Planet List.
How about the Top Ten Most Wanted Fugitives List? City of Vancouver has a list. The FBI has perhaps the most famous of Top Ten lists going back to 1950. The FBI has refined its lists by categories. So if you want to know the Top Ten Most Wanted White Collar Criminals, they have a list. Interpol has a list. Is there any political subdivision on the planet without a list? If you could speed read 24 hours a day it would take 572 years to go through the images returned by Google for each of these lists.
Here’s a little game to play on Christmas Day after eating all of that turkey. Gather the family around with their electronic devices. Ask them to Google “Thailand’s ten most wanted criminals.” Then ask them to click on ‘images’ and the number that comes up is 53,900,000. Given them ten minutes to assemble their top ten images. Compare selections. An extra helping of pumpkin pie to the winner.
The Thai population is 65 million puts in perspective the 53 million faces that the Thai Top Ten criminal list returns in Google images. Such a high return of famous criminals to ratio of population might qualify as the most egalitarian feature of Thai society. Of course, the Google image search return has thoughtfully included: a human-like gnarl in a tree, Hitler, Osama Bin Laden, Dick Cheney, Sandra Bullock and Steve Jobs—a fairly wide number of individuals, some of whom are dead, have been selected as candidates for the top ten of criminals on the run in the Land of Smiles. There are several problems. First, there are too many foreigners. Second, the law enforcement agencies will use this issue to vastly increase their budget request for 2012/2013. Third, co-operation between international law enforcement agencies will likely collapse as too many influential politicians are on the Thai image list. And there are doubts whether those names—such as mentioned above—are all criminals.
Perhaps this explains the difficulty of making a Top Ten List of Criminals in the digital age. AI development being in the relative infancy means that algorithms pick up a huge number of false positives when assembling images. We can have more sympathy for law enforcement officials on the ground. Finding a needle in a haystack is easier than shifting through millions of these images. Institutional caution and careerism means that no one whose image comes up from such a search can be excluded as a possibility. There must be someone who will take responsibility for deleting one of the images. And if he or she is wrong—say, indeed Dick Cheney proved to be on the Top Ten List of Criminals in Thailand, they could be shuttled off to a desk in North Dakota to catch rabbit poachers.
As you contemplate 2012, remember the Maya Legend about how the earth would end in 2012 might actually have been a warning that by 2012 our ability to discern reality from fiction may have collapsed under the weight of just far too many distractions, images, and associations. The evidence of brain shutdown explains a lot of what we are reading in news reports. Soon everyone’s picture will appear on a top-ten wanted list somewhere. I expect that in the far future, there will be final news report will profile this vast gulag, and featuring the last free person on the planet. Heads will roll as someone, somewhere will have to take responsibility for this oversight, to explain how this person fell between the cracks, was excluded and left out of some list. There will be hell to pay.