London Riots: Don't blame tech but the people who use it

By Tristan Stewart-Robertson

As with almost any story, whether local or global, we all turn to Twitter for answers.

Individuals may not — they might still use faith and religion — but we in the media check Twitter for the easiest and fastest answers.

So when the London riots kicked off on Saturday, the media in the UK immediately asked if social media was to blame.

Very quickly, the BBC and the Guardian dismissed the claims, instead pointing to the encrypted BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) system, with just a hint of resentment that criminals might now have learned not to plan crimes on public social media spheres.

 London Riots: Dont blame tech but the people who use it

Volunteers get ready to clean up after last night's rioting in London. People condemning riots online do not become community until they turn up with brooms. Chris Jackson/Getty Images

The Daily Mail also blamed the video game Grand Theft Auto for teaching children how to loot, implying that of course young people lack any moral compass apart from what they are fed by the media.

There seems an incessant need by society and the media to firstly blame technology to feed some latent fear of being overthrown by electric toasters. Only secondly do we blame the people using technology — it's not the toaster attacking you that's the problem, it's the toaster's designer.

It might be impossible to give a complete blow-by-blow explanation for the riots and their spread in London and elsewhere. But there are important questions for technology.

On BBC's Newsnight programme on Monday night, former London Labour Party mayor Ken Livingstone said young people had no hope for the future and suggesting austerity cuts by the government were a cause.

But he later said of political leaders returning early off holidays: "You've got to be there leading, and articulating and re-assuring — you can't do that over the phone — you've got to be there on the street."

In contrast, fellow guest Shaun Bailey, a former Tory candidate, said so much had been done about youth rights, but not youth responsibilities, adding, "We need to go back to our family structures."

Obviously the riots very quickly had nothing to do with protesting cuts to services or deprivation — if you're using BBM and looting specific shops, you already have "stuff" and desire more: greed.

But part of the nature of social media, we're told, is new digital forms of community. Those have certainly been effective in the aftermath of the riots, with 50,000 followers added within hours to the @riotcleanup account on Twitter. Pictures of community efforts in various areas have also flooded the web as Britons show a collective spirit against destructive elements.

So the technology can be effective, but the sense of community did not prevent the criminal acts by a few hundred people.

And Mr Livingstone's call for politicians to be "on the street" shows the very limits of technology: real community is in the real world. Whatever flow of information or riot planning exists within social media, it is only when it gets to street level that it confronts the community. Similarly, people condemning riots online do not become community until they turn up with brooms. [Incidentally, this picture of smart phones and brooms shows nobody actually talking to each other, so you might question what level of community spirit is actually present.]

So what is the role of the smartphone in the destruction and clean up of a community?

It would be difficult to draw parallels between London and the protests of the Middle East, or even of continental Europe. In fact, the closest parallel would be the riots in Vancouver after the city's hockey team failed to win the Stanley Cup — a riot against nothing that turned into looting. And afterwards, social media helped organise the clean-up.

So did social media or smartphones create a mob? No. A mob is inherently something of the moment, with people present, acting collectively because they no longer distinguish individuality or consequences.

BBM is the opposite of that because it is person-to-person communication on the whole to known contacts, and implies coordination and forethought. And at the moment of writing, sending or repeating messages, the individual is responsible.

Compare it to the debate over how to manage excessive drinking in the UK. It is sometimes argued that alcohol should be considered a lethal weapon as it kills more people than motor vehicles. Both are extensions of the human form —whether by steering wheel or by the bottle in your hand. So too, the smartphone is an extension of your body, its information consumed and almost addictively craved.

People use their phone, like the drunk driver of a car, and they are held responsible. The drink is a factor, but not an excuse. Technology was a factor in London's riots, but not an excuse.

Updated Date: Aug 10, 2011 09:45:11 IST