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Riots – blame digital isolation

August 10th, 2011

By Angela Long

Rapper Reveal, a dapper gent with a small geometric tuft of beard, has an interesting theory about the British riots. The kids, he says, are merely aping the behaviour they’ve seen in adults all their lives – naked pursuit of stuff, shiny fashion stuff, material goods.

It’s a sour twist on the triumph of capitalism.

Me, I blame the internet. Digital platforms, that’s what’s done it. And I do have a serious point here, not just referring to the well-publicised use of the closed Blackberry messaging system for the rioters to arrange their next ‘spectacular’.

As a cyberpsychologist, I’ve been interested for some years in how the internet is changing our lives at a deeper level than the obvious one of convenience. Some of it’s good, some is bad, but mostly the jury is still out on how a life revolving around digital platforms differs from previous modes of existence. And as all the emphasis has been on how to use the internet as a commercial tool – and for the media, how to make it pay – other bigger concerns have been ignored.

Look at the young people who’ve been out torching police cars, vandalising properties, stealing, casually and with impunity, from shops. A lot of them are 16 and under – perhaps not as many as the hysterical adult reaction suggests, but still a lot. These are the ‘digital natives’ – a term of disputed validity, but loosely referring to the generation which has grown up with the internet, and has no memory of life before the virtual world dominated. Laptops, screens, mobile phones, tablets – no novelty in any of it to these kids, nothing strange. And their world’s especially been formed on mobiles and smartphones.

The portable digital window to a world means you can take your society with you, but also that you can choose what form it takes. If all you want to know is about sports, or rappers, or fashion, then you can get that 24/7. Chris Anderson wrote in his book The Long Tail of how the internet opened up a market possibility for everything. No matter how niche the taste, it could be found via the global market provider of the net.  As for the world around you, it can be filtered out. Annoying exceptions are school and maybe work – but even if you aren’t on the dole, you have more options with your time when you’re at a screen and with internet access all day.

Outside these kids’ field of vision – and field of respect – are the monolithic entities of the state: government, police, big media. These used to have control because access to what they knew, and what they could do, was limited. In terms of the media, the term used in academic discussion was ‘the gatekeepers’ – journalists working for large media organizations, say The Herald & Weekly Times, the ABC, Times Newspapers in London, had privileged access to streams of information, and these journalists decided which information was passed on to the public.

Now, the internet, along with an atmosphere demanding greater openness and transparency, has blown that out of the water. Professional media is still trusted to be authoritative, as a US study of where people went for confirmation of the Japanese earthquakes in March show (after hearing about the disaster on Twitter or Facebook, people turned to the BBC or CNN to make sure the story was true). But the blogosphere, the Twittersphere, the countless message boards and community sites around the world provide news of a different level, but often more relevant to people’s everyday lives.

And what’s happened with the media’s gatekeeper status applies to government, too.

Barack Obama’s election as president rested partly on his team’s brilliance at utilising internet avenues. The flipside of this inclusiveness is how easy it can be to ignore government or ‘Big Society’ messages when means of communication or entertainment are not blasting out of the radio in the corner, or the communal family television.

The hooded kids running wildly around Ealing, Tottenham and Manchester have probably never heard of Keith Blakelock, the 40-year-old policeman who tripped and fell to an unspeakable death during riots at Tottenham’s Broadwater Estate in 1985. The riots are being linked to a fury with the state, a disaffectation from the Britain of David Cameron and Boris Johnson and their smooth Oxbridge chums. But it could be simpler than that.

They don’t care about the ‘Big Society’. Who’s going to make them care? All they want are their mates in the ‘ends’ (gangs) and their Blackberry. That, and some nice looted techie stuff, preferably digital, is all they need.

Most upsetting video, amid all the pyrotechnics and hysteria…

False Good Samaritan robs wounded boy

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