A week ago today a riot began in Tottenham that swept across London and other parts of the UK. That much isn’t in dispute. But as the dust settles and the clean up operation continues, the recriminations as to how and why this happened is causing controversy.
On yesterday’s Newsnight, the Historian David Starkey provoked a storm of protest when he laid the blame squarely at the door of black culture and its impact on white youths.
But as the blame game ensues, attention has also focused on the role that social networks played and what can be done to curtail their use if situations like this reoccur in the future.
For the first time, BlackBerry’s (BBM) Messenger network has been included in this discussion. Yesterday the BBC reported that an18-year-old woman from east London had been charged under the Serious Crime Act for using Blackberry messenger to encourage others to take part in the riots.
The use of BBM as the communication channel used by rioters seemed to take everyone by surprise. I spent much of the week being asked by journalists how I got the drop on the story before anyone else.
I’ve been thinking about that too, and I’ve come to the conclusion that the reason other people missed the BBM connection was because it was hidden in plain sight.
BlackBerry and Instant Messaging are nothing new. In fact, in today’s world of iPhone Apps, Google+ and Geo-Location services, they are practically old hat, but that’s the point. As Clay Shirky states: “Communications tools don’t get socially interesting until they get technologically boring.”
The birth of Hip-Hop illustrates this perfectly. According to last night’s Channel 4 programme, Hip-Hop Changed The World. But think back to how it all started, it was DJ Kool Herc who found a new way to use old technology – in this case, two turntables – to launch a new cultural movement. Every subsequent development from graffiti to rapping, scratching to sampling was more about innovation than invention. The kids on the street weren’t creating the technology and they weren’t even using the newest stuff, it was what they did with what they had that was revolutionary.
No simple solutions
A central part of early Hip-Hop mythology involves Afrika Bambaataa, the former gang leader who turned away from a life of crime and used Hip-Hop to turn violent gang rivalry into street dance battles between B-Boys and B-Girls. It was a classic tale of swords being beaten into turntables, which has now become a Hollywood cliché.
It’s tempting to think that if we could only just recreate that moment in time, we could all get along. But as the subsequent East Coast/West Coast rivalry between the rappers Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur proved, sometimes music can breed violence, not quell it.
On the other side of the argument, I’ve heard journalists referring to BlackBerry’s BBM as ‘the weapon of choice’ for the rioters. This seems to suggest that there was a coordinated master plan to use this ‘covert’ network to organize the attacks. I think this gives too much credit to the rioters. The truth is far more worrying.
BBM and other instant communication channels allow people to organise more like Bees. It doesn’t require a ‘command and control’ structure, or a criminal mastermind stroking his white cat to orchestrate attacks. Instead it relies on short bursts of information that can be read and passed on quickly.
This is what Benjamin Ellis refers to as ‘barely planned behaviour’. Simply put, modern technology makes it easier for people to do more and plan less. As we saw during the riots, this created real challenges for the police as they tried to keep up with the disturbances.
So with no single force for good or evil to turn to or blame for the week’s events, we are left searching for simple answers to tough questions. There is perhaps one undeniable conclusion that has been underlined through all the events of the week. Whether we like it or not, more than ever before, we are all connected.