File 20170905 13783 n9duew.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1

The interwar ‘motor-bandit’ – and what it tells us about the fear of new technology

The interwar ‘motor-bandit’ – and what it tells us about the fear of new technology

“Dangerous” new technologies have been threatening society for generations – or at least that’s what sections of the media would have us believe. Whether it’s “violent” video games making our children more aggressive, “evil” video nasties twisting young minds or Virtual Reality headgear posing a threat to users’ “physical and emotional wellbeing”, new technology has often been perceived as something to be feared. But fear and anxiety about new technology isn’t new. Even the now very familar and everyday motorcar was once seen as a menacing and threatening tool for criminals.

Stories about the way in which criminals have been quick to make use of opportunities offered by the internet and social media are rarely out of the news. Coverage about hacking and security issues, e-commerce or child grooming and the availability of indecent images of children online proliferate the news media.

Social awareness and anxieties about cybercrime has seen society become more accustomed to thinking about the internet as a technology to be feared as much as it is to be admired. But a brief historical view shows that other “new” technologies have also been the cause of political and public fears. During the interwar era in England, the now ubiquitous motorcar was having something of an image problem.

The Motor Bandit movie from 1912 tells the story of a bank robbery and the subsequent hunt for the robbers. Speer Films (Anthony Saffrey/Screen Archive South East), Author provided

The ‘motor bandit’

Back then, the greater criminal mobility offered by the motorcar was said to pose a threat. The use of the motorcar by criminals not only increased their mobility but also suggested greater planning, access to resources and co-ordination. Consequently, it presented a potentially greater and more violent danger, especially when the police seemed to be at a technological disadvantage. Historian Clive Emsley said that these “new” criminals were seen as skilfully using the expanding opportunities provided by new technology and more “professional” as a result.

Authorities and the media represented “motor banditry” as a practice much more defined than it actually was and suggested vaguely the existence of professional “motor bandits” who did not indulge in other forms of offending. Therefore, images of motor bandits paralleled representations of a narrower and numerically smaller class of more dangerous recidivists – career criminals who supposedly followed crime as a profession.

In many senses, the motor bandit and the smash-and-grab raider (the stereotypical criminal who made use of cars to smash shop windows and make off at speed with stolen goods) represented wider concerns about the “modern” age and the impact of expanding individual car ownership on society.

The motor bandit was usually depicted as a man. In his book The Car and British Society, Sean O'Connell says that driving had quickly become a highly “gendered” activity and the skill of driving was often perceived as “a natural masculine quality”. The phenomenon of the woman motor bandit challenged these assumptions. The “New Woman” in her criminal guise, the bobbed-haired bandit, was shocking on many levels and she was depicted as “fast” – not only in terms of speed but also of morality.

A masculine folk devil

The essentially masculine nature of driving was translated to car crime at a time when car-ownership, due to the expense of buying and running a car, showed social status. This made the image of the motor bandit not only threatening but also challenging and exciting. The press found this phenomenon to be good sensation fodder tinged with an element of glamour – a fact that was highlighted at the Central Conference of Chief Constables, where it was noted that the press sensationalised and even sometimes fabricated stories about motor bandits to describe modern “highway robbery”.

Motor bandits were a product of fears, not only about the way in which the car enabled criminals to be more mobile, but also about the car itself. Magnified by the lens of new technology, the motor bandit became a folk devil of the inter-war period. It was a representation of the threat of a technology driven future.

Our 21st-century concerns about the internet and a future in which internet capabilities are extended beyond everyday understanding parallel what now seem to be peculiar and outdated concerns about an everyday tool like the car.

Criminal use of motor vehicles has now been accepted for decades but, tragically, recent months have highlighted that the ubiquitous motor vehicle can be used not only to transport criminals but also as weapons in themselves, utilised by terrorists. Technology, and ways to use it, will continue to change and move forward, offering both potential and harm. We must make efforts to understand such capabilities in order to ensure, as far as possible, that it is used for the good of society.