England's youths are angry and rioting. And, because it's 2011, they're using technology to organize. Well, as much as a violent mob can be organized. But British Prime Minister David Cameron wants to cut them off. He's very, very wrong.
And he's wrong for the exact same reason that the governments of Saudi Arabia and UAE were wrong a year ago. Cutting off the use of Twitter, Facebook, BBM, or any other digital means of discussion, is an infringement upon an entire society—not just the destructive malcontents. Cameron's plan—if you can even call it that—would target individuals suspected of riot plotting, and then block their access to BBM and social networks. Somehow. How do you discern who's organizing riots, and who's just retweeting? Do you kick them off of the entire internet? Are they allowed back on? The extent to which this makes little sense and is technologically dubious is representative of Cameron's reasoning here. We balk when a Middle Eastern autocrat threatens to shutter BBM, but when the Prime Minister of a sophisticated, liberal society proposes the same thing, the western world gives him a chance to explain himself. Surely, there must be some rationale! We oughtn't be so fair.
Cameron's motive is no less ignorant and diffident than any Saudi king—he's afraid. Afraid of what the kids in the street are talking about on Twitter. And he's ignorant; ignorant because Twitter and BBM and all the rest aren't the cause of the unrest—they're just a means. They're, like every other piece of technology, merely a tool. Parliamentary member Tom Watson called Cameron a "Luddite," the FT notes, adding that "technology is neutral."
And he's mostly right. As the Financial Times points out, Twitter's been "effective in organizing clean-up efforts and ad-hoc support for those affected by the rioting than it had been in bringing looters out onto the streets." A vague crackdown could inadvertently target people who are trying to mitigate, not advance, the rioting. Tech can be used for starting riots, or it can be used for fixing them. The window-smashing pedestrians didn't stumble upon Twitter and think, My God, we could use this to organize a bloody great riot! Their impetus to violence formed long before they tweeted.
So if Cameron blocks BBM et al., affected rioters will just switch platforms. Lest he down all of Britain's access to the internet and jam its radio waves, the cause of all the youthful vitriol will bubble out of one digital teapot or another. Until the mob mentality can be dissolved, whether by reason, force, or both, no held-down off switch will end the burning. [via FT]
Photo: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty