What are the riots in London about? I’m sure they constitute evidence of many things. Londoner Mick Hartley observes that a lot of commentators are “using the occasion to strengthen their own particular prejudices.” He has no grand explanation but identifies old-fashioned “teenage bravado” as on one of the chief things underlying the activities. And of-course the plain old desire for “free goodies.” And as he points out: “What’s changed is that now, with their Blackberries, they can get a flash mob together pretty damn quick, and they can stay ahead of the police.” They are the Blackberry riots.
A good Pogues song.
Some of us Americans are quick to assert that if it happened here the rioters wouldn’t get very far, as we lovingly caress our 2nd Amendment hardware. And I’m all for that kind of self-sufficiency when it comes to security. Just displaying an armament would make the great majority of these types scatter. However, of-course, in the kinds of urban environments where these things would take place—and where riots in the U.S. have taken place in the past—gun regulations are much tighter and the lawbreakers are tragically more likely than the honest citizens to be armed. But there’s no question that law enforcement is carried out differently in the U.S. too, and it beggars belief to see rioters and crowds of robbers seemingly running rampant at will for such long periods. And there hasn’t even been a hurricane or an earthquake; they just feel like doing it.
But my morbid fascination is mainly focused on the way in which technology is outstripping our preparedness and our commonsense. We really have no idea how much communications technology has changed the world, until something dramatic like this happens to demonstrate it. It’s great that everyone can communicate instantly on their Blackberries and cell phones and Twitter and so on, isn’t it? Yeah. Yet now we’re discovering that it’s not only nice civilized ladies and gentlemen swapping bon mots and such, but mindless thugs and crazed teenagers using the same tools to assemble in spontaneously-appearing groups that overwhelm society’s ordinary defenses. To assemble a mob now there’s no need to go the town square with your pitchfork and yell, or to put up posters two weeks in advance. Just a Facebook scrawling, or a tweet that’s available to enough like-minded yobs, and you’ve got an instant riot. You can translate fantasy into desire into action in almost no time. And who really wants to wait around, after all? So little time, so much to be grabbed, so much fun to be had. And plenty of cracked skulls along the way.
Another headline, seemingly unrelated, about the rapidly falling value of AOL/HUFFPO stock, actually ties in to my morbid thesis that we’re all in way over our heads with this really very-recently-arrived high-tech world. No matter how many bubbles burst and internet-based wunderkind phenomena evaporate into thin air, investors still insist on thinking these things are worth billions. Yet they prove over and over again how they are worth billions today, and worthless tomorrow. Human eyes on the internet are the most fickle that have ever been known. A property like the Huffington Post merely found a lucrative niche for a while and a gimmicky way of attracting big traffic. Overnight, it can turn to nothing, and those eyes all go somewhere else. We have not adjusted to valuing such things the way they ought to be valued, instead of getting caught up in crazy and avaricious enthusiasms.
I guess in a way nothing’s changed at all. Human nature remains the same, whether it’s people getting tripped up in pursuing wealth through reckless investments, or other people joining greedy mobs to smash the windows and grab the flat-screen TVs before they’re all gone. This is not to equate the two behaviors (one of which is legal and one criminal), but just to point out that both emanate from elements of human nature that have always been with us. The difference is in how quickly we can act on our whims today. From a mere thought to a desire to that final irreversible action, in the time it takes to tweet or click or hit “ENTER.” By the same token, our privacy has disappeared. So much of all that we do in random and often foolish moments is out there in public on the internet, and preserved on Google forever. It all happens so fast. It’s all happened so fast. We haven’t caught up to where we are. But on we go!