Predicting a Riot: What Violence Means for "Society"
The area where I live in London was extremely close to some of the pillaging and rioting which took place two nights ago. Just 10 minutes' walk from my door, shop windows were smashed in, property was stolen and destroyed - there was even a fire a few blocks up from me on my own street. Though I could smell the smoke, I didn't see any acts of aggression first-hand. The haphazard locality of London's riots meant that most people escaped without any contact with mobs while at the same time being forever unsure if trouble would start just around the corner.
The defining characteristic of the London Riots has been their spontaneous and unpredictable nature. There has consequently been a scramble to understand how the skirmishes have been organised and what their socio-economic stimuli might be. In this essay I want to explore the various problems which beset a culture attempting to come to terms with lawlessness.
I had the BBC's 24-hour news channel on constantly on Monday night, and as the evening wore on, with fires spreading in South and - for the first time - West London as well as in the North and the East, new footage from BBC camera crews began to become less frequently updated. Eventually we were just watching repeats of scenes filmed hours ago - as much as eight hours previously. The news anchor at that point said, "We're going to go to telephone interviews to get a better picture of what's happening, instead of trying to get satellite vans to the right places on the ground." This was one of the clearest indications yet that the scale and topography of the both pre-planned and extemporaneous riots was difficult to map over the landscape of Britain's largest and most densely populated city. The spatiality of the fragmented network of rioters, connected via digital communications, was the essential, abstracted arena within which organisation of the riots - as well as coverage of them - took place. Rioters communicating online, via BlackBerry BBM, or using text messaging and telephone calls were seemingly able to disperse and re-group at will, multiplying unexpectedly in some areas while the police and intrepid reporters struggled to respond in time. Journalists could "downsize" to telecommunications, the police had no such option - they had to be there in person. Even then they were ineffectual.
"Digital communications travel as the crow flies, trumping ground-based reconnaissance"
If trouble had broken out, the police arrived on the scene 20 to 30 minutes later, and the mob at that point "melted away" only to reappear, it seemed, in a completely different district. The network, of course, operates without geographical restrictions and obstacles in its way. Digital communications travel as the crow flies, easily trumping ground-based reconnaissance.
This equation of the mob's movements with the speed of their instant messages is a seemingly helpful (though naturally distorting) anthropomorphic exercise - not just for the commentators, but for the mobsters too. There is anthropomorphism in the collective identity of the mob's moving mass itself, as well as its digital entity. This is the imagined vehicle for action, it is perfectly malleable and aggressive. Its energy is infinite, its potential size massive. This a mass in society. A minority, yes, but repeatedly labelling the rioters as a minority is a very ineffective tactic. It always seems to be a minority of some kind which has caused trouble, so naming them as such is merely dominant society's method of vocalising its dominance, of reaffirming status quo; it has no impact whatsoever on the threat or presence of that minority.
And of course, it is a complete fallacy for commentators and politicians to perpetually position the perpetrators of violence outside society. Society exists as a system with extremism within its borders - not circled somehow by outlying islands of dissent. Construction of the looters as a violent, regressive other is essential for nominal elements within society to retain their sense of superiority. We label the gangs as "mad", "lawless", "senseless", "despicable" and so on. But there is of course an inevitable and difficult irony in the fact that order and disorder are coextensive, mutually reinforcing entities.
Social networking and web technology has been used to vocalise disgusted responses to the riots. People have shared overwhelmingly reassuring messages of mutual support. The #riotcleanup hashtag has to be one of the most inspiring Twitter topics of the year - hundreds of broom-wielding Londoners were mobilised into a kind of anti-mob, a collective force for good against the destruction of the crowds which swept through their home districts the night before. Facebook pages and devoted websites (e.g. http://www.riotcleanup.co.uk/) were set up also. But you can easily see the juxtaposition at play - while a network has been actively appropriated by perpetrators of destruction, it may also become a crucial platform for those who oppose such destruction. For a collective sense of identity to be explicitly present on both sides suggests, profoundly, grouped individuals' acceptance of the power of these networks and their willingness to mirror them in physical reality. The visibility, the presence of a real life network of people existing in cyberspace and in urban neighbourhoods has rarely seemed so urgent and so galvanising.
The public responded to rioting by organising themselves into a cooperative force for communal self-defence and reconstruction. In doing so, however, they found themselves at odds with a government which seems incapable of recognising the social impact of its spending policies - whether or not those policies actually provide any direct stimulus for unrest (I do not believe they do). But nevertheless, both rioters and anti-rioters could be said to be reacting (in diametrical opposition to one another) against the government's social strategy. Also, in the weird triangle of rioters, out-witted police officers and self-protecting members of the public, those who want to prevent rioting from damaging their community are forced to take the law into their own hands. Violence is thus not simply being done to passive streets and neighbourhoods, but to the natural roles people play in society.
"the rioters are not the only individuals who are deviating from some sort of established form"
Since everyone is dragged into this reassessment of social responsibility, it is impossible to suggest that the rioters are not the only individuals who are deviating from some sort of established form. The very constitution of that established form has been remixed entirely. I would go further still and reject the notion that the rioters have swarmed in from some imagined "edge" of society. That spatial metaphor for the value systems belonging to those people living within a state - imagined as an orb with a centre and periphery - is a disappointingly useless image. The rioters may be at the "edge" in one sense, but they are contained quite securely within the idea of our society, and as a reaction to it forms, their existence is curiously all the more crucial. They must, indeed, become even more clearly defined and then caricatured before eventually being disposed of.
The rioters, free of the banner of protest, form a raw and immediate expression of social disparity. They represent a unanimously vocalised demonstration of disaffection - but unencumbered by cause or politics. There is no protest or political vocalisation at play here. They seem rather to be the living essence of a 'non-motive'; a fundamental anarchy, a retaliation against the 'violence' they see in the state, a rejection of rules and values. To say that there is no justification whatsoever for their actions is true but misleading. There are socio-psychological patterns which explain their actions - so describing the riots as "inexplicable" and chaotic is a double-edged sword. Those who wish to protect themselves from rioting by dehumanising and anthropomorphising the rioters as a violent, indiscriminately aggressive force do not defuse or neutralise the mob, rather they describe the mob's knowing construction of itself. The mob is naturally eager to engage in lawless activity, attacking businesses, journalists, police and ambulance vehicles and other signifiers of nominal society. Rioters have laughed at terrified members of the public whose lives have been threatened, ripping apart their homes with broad audacity and plenty of malicious glee. It is the emotional disparity between attacker and victim which has so upsettingly fuelled the cruelty of such scenes. This may be a largely psychological phenomenon, a moment in which, as criminologist Prof John Pitts commented to the BBC, "powerless people suddenly feel powerful" and that is "very intoxicating".
Jean Baudrillard would no doubt have argued that this is a perfect expression of the necessary fragility within a self-consciously hypercommercial society; a society yearning for homogeneity but of course never satisfied that such has been achieved. Baudrillard would have pointed out that perceiving violence as an antithesis to society is but a ruse - violence is packaged and distributed in society via media such as newspapers and TV journalism as well as, today, Twitter. The violence in a "senseless" riot seems to project a hideously distorted mirror image of the dominant social mode - but it is a reflection which that mode mistakenly craves, refusing to see it as reflection and rather as an antithetical image describing the imagined Other, the opposite, the completely separate self.
"[If violence is] wild, objectless, formless, this is because the constraints it is contesting are themselves also unformulated, unconscious, illegible: they are the very constraints of "freedom", of controlled accession to happiness, of the totalitarian ethic of affluence" (Baudrillard, The Consumer Society - Myths and Structures: 176)."
The inherent violence within society's hierarchies and institutions is crucial to recognise. Society, for Baudrillard, begets violence; is constructed from pieces of it. That this is key to understanding the riots was proved to me not only by the fact that they have been so widespread (emphatically proving the endemic existence of a small so-called "sub-culture" ready to engage in such activity at a moment's notice), but also that people commenting on rioting were extremely quick (irresponsibly quick, indeed) to point out what aspects of the government's spending policies could have sparked disorder. Far from only trying to describe the rioters as an external attack upon otherwise secure society, lots of commentary has ricocheted in the other direction, battling to try and draw the riots back into an assessment of society which they understand as maltreated and dispossessed. Although this is merely a shallow harnessing of the riots by those who harbour political bias, the fact is that understanding the rioters' presence within a no longer idealised social realm is essential.
To me the visibility of disorder, and particularly the reaction towards it, has been most fascinatingly displayed on Twitter. Every corner of London has been tweeting feverishly, rumours have spread like wild-fire and the repetitive, echo-chamber quality of Twitter discourse has, as usual, been difficult to comprehend. The rumours themselves were particularly interesting. While they can be easily ignored in the absence of picture evidence or accompanying confirmation from official sources, because Twitter has a special reputation for getting the truth out before official sources, the inclination among users is to potentially trust in everything they hear, but take it with a sizeable pinch of salt. Importantly, rumours cause an instant distortion (never mind the inevitable hindrance to accurate representation in 140 character text messages) and have to be repeatedly denied by authorities before they gradually die out. They are, consequently, much easier to start than to stop and therefore talk of violence seems to enjoy a destructive life of its own, polluting the airwaves and absorbing new areas of the country into the list of apparently riot-affected towns and cities. On Monday night there was much tweeting about an attack by the English Defence League on the East London Mosque at one stage, for example. This turned out to be a passing incident where a few hooligans threw some missiles but were chased away by local Muslims (who proceeded to protect local businesses, including an Islamic bank, from looters).
This is the fever of the riot realised by those close to it, those who observe it. There is a natural inclination to draw parallels, to pre-empt (and therefore create) anxiety, to fend off attackers with force. The network thrives on such energy alone, and the discourse of the riots turns to mud - all the same, all-encompassing, saying little that is new because there has been an inexorable rush to say everything in advance.
Violence, thus, is not something particular to the rioters. Violence is an essential component in observation, response and retaliation. Curiously, it is activated readily by the facility of communications networks which supersede natural face-to-face neighbourliness as a means of galvanising communities in opposition to the destructors. At the same time, the pitch of discourse characterised by an irrational response to violence has spread quickly in cyberspace. The fear of catastrophe, of unstoppable escalation, is rife. But anticipating apocalypse is a self-consuming act which exposes the fragility of a threatened group; refracting and augmenting the damage done. So we are trapped in a bind. We cannot extract the culture of the rioters from "our" culture - I have already described the minority as endemic. But equally, in dealing with the rioters we are forced to reassess and do violence to our own roles as peaceful citizens, imagining with morbid curiosity the complete and irrevocable destruction of society at large. While this fear underpins society, is essential to it, activating laws and institutions; that fear itself is the one thing that could, finally, rip all of society to shreds.
"A rumour had now got into circulation, too, which diffused a greater dread all through London, even than these publicly announced intentions of the rioters, though all men knew that if they were successfully effected, there must ensue a national bankruptcy and general ruin. It was said that they meant to throw the gates of Bedlam open, and let all the madmen loose. This suggested such dreadful images to the people's minds, and was indeed an act so fraught with new and unimaginable horrors in the contemplation, that it beset them more than any loss or cruelty of which they could foresee the worst, and drove many sane men nearly mad themselves." (Dickens, Barnabay Rudge: 601-602)
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