A little over a week after riots began throughout England’s major cities and it seems that David Cameron’s ‘great solution’ has been to make an awkward volte-face on the UK government’s policy toward the internet.
Having already seen fit to lay the blame for the latest social unrest squarely upon the actions and response (or lack of it) of the Metropolitan police, David Cameron’s other ‘post-riots’ pronouncements have been thin on the ground, with the exception of a mooted clampdown on the ease with which individuals can utilise ‘social media’ to spread potentially inflammatory information at times of civil unrest. As reported in this week’s Sunday Telegraph, Cameron condemned the ‘slow moral collapse’ that has been allowed to occur in Britain, over the past few decades claiming his government can fix a ‘broken’ British society’s myriad flaws, by using nothing more than the diagnostic of empty rhetoric, thus:
“children without fathers; schools without discipline; reward without effort; crime without punishment; rights without responsibilities; communities without control… Some of the worst aspects of human nature have been tolerated, indulged – sometimes even incentivised – by a state and its agencies that in parts have become literally demoralised.”
In amongst the awkward alliteration (yup), Cameron appears to be accepting that government has played a significant role in ensuring the collapse of ‘morality’, however it seems that his own government cannot possibly take any of the blame for such a generational decay. Despite the seeming willingness to engage with the complex social issues that might have created the conditions for the riots, thus far Cameron’s government appear content to publicly admonish and chastise police forces (nothing like a little demoralisation), whilst emphasising the need to address the manipulation of human rights and health & safety legislation, that he claims has “undermined personal responsibility” and “eroded people’s willingness to act according to common sense”.
Most significantly Cameron has followed a line that was so effectively trailered in the BBC’s rolling news coverage of the riots themselves. During the first major nights of violence (Sunday 7th and Monday 8th of August) the news media, like the emergency services, appeared to be a disbelieving rabbit observing the headlights of an articulated lorry roaring headlong toward them. Unable to do anything other than watch and comment, it took the news media at least a day to piece together some kind of narrative for the chaotic events unfolding. Amongst the most effective and noticeable of these early narrative rough drafts, was the sudden interest in Blackberry Messenger devices (or BBM’s as they ‘knowingly’ became referred to) and the involvement of social media platforms (such as Twitter and Facebook, as if any self-respecting rioter would use Bebo or MySpace for their provocations) in co-ordinating the spread of civil unrest and violence. The BBC turned to their consumer affairs expert to fetishise what is in effect a glorified pager, spending five minute segments informing us how the BBM had become the communication mode of choice for the clandestine (yes they did indeed use this word, frequently) activities of a highly tech savvy modern hoodlum, or gangster. Newscaster’s then began to discuss Twitter and Facebook, as if: a) they’d never used either in their lives (you work in the media so I’m guessing you’ve had some experience of at least one of them), and b) as if these social networks were the modern day equivalent of Verloc’s pornographic bookshop.
By the middle of last week, as much of the violence was waning and the police were beginning to regain control of city centres, the news media had begun to polish their original narrative line. Although the violence was unlikely to have been co-ordinated en masse, there was a sense that ‘new communications technology’ had played a significant role in enabling rioters and looters to spread violence beyond their immediate communities and in a far more organised manner than police and government had been used to dealing with. Emergency legislation had allowed police and law courts to prosecute individuals who had been using social media as a means of inciting violence. The public status of networks such as Facebook and Twitter appeared not to be taken into consideration when the first rumblings of discontent started coming from Downing Street.
Nobody in government has appeared to acknowledge that the fact that ‘privacy’ is not the priority of social media platforms, like Facebook and Twitter, makes them unlikely sources of truly ‘clandestine’ activity (unless you’re a publicity hungry, xenophobic mass murderer). In fact their emphasis on very public ‘social interaction’ would seem to position them as a potential tool for criminal detection (pretty much how they were being utilised anyway during the riots). The demonic potential of that blackest of sorceries, so dangerous it needs its own inexplicable acronym, the BBM, certainly would appear to be a more obviously private form of communication, with RIM, the company behind the BlackBerry Messenger, guarding their customers right to anonymity. However, does the government honestly believe that a ‘criminal’ mind will not unearth some other ‘clandestine’ mode of communication if the state is seen to clampdown on the communication freedoms presented by this particular technology?
What has become evermore fascinating, over the last week, is the emphasis that the Cameron government, in its few carefully tended public pronouncements, has placed on ‘social interaction’ and ‘communication’ as the dangerously anarchic element in otherwise ‘mindless’ violence. Back in June of this year the Financial Times reported how Cameron had, in effect, publicly ridiculed French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s “attempts to “civilise” the web”. For Cameron the web was a technology to be embraced for its potential to innovate and create new enterprises, something that its unique ‘freedoms’ made possible. Cameron had felt that Sarkozy’s desire to control what could be consumed on the web was “totally wrong” and suggested that perhaps the French Premier should focus on encouraging start-ups and content providers.
On the surface this seems to be a very modern defence of the ‘freedoms’ of the internet, which makes the post-riot policy focus seem all the more reactionary and knee-jerk. However is Cameron really standing up for the ‘freedoms’ offered by the internet in his casual criticisms of Sarkozy’s civilising/censorship plans? A focus on the latter part of Cameron’s address to the Founders Forum innovation and e-entrepreneurship group, suggests that rather than denouncing Sarkozy’s idea for censorship of the internet, he is instead advancing the notion that government should be focused less on restricting the flow of information at its reception point, but rather concentrating on controlling the inception point. Censoring information that has already been produced only serves the purpose of illustrating to the user the limits of their freedom, whereas if you can ensure the ‘qualities’ of those producing content and services, then your need for censorship is nullified.
When considering the way in which Cameron’s government has focused on the role played by information technology, and in particular social media platforms and devices, in the violence of the last week, one should maybe be wary of the idea that this is a sudden reversal of Cameron’s policy. By demonising the ‘technology’ Cameron is side-stepping the thorny issue of further denigrating the ‘youthful’ masses that have mobbed up against authority figures over the past week. His government is floating the idea that there needs to be limits to the liberties of the internet. Furthermore they are going out of their way to definitively establish a relationship between these ‘virtual liberties’ and the ‘moral collapse’ that has been so rapidly diagnosed within British society, after decades of apparent neglect.
Yes, there needs to be some caution taken with regards to the notion that Cameron is looking to switch off the internet at times of crisis, akin to both Iranian and Chinese social control tactics. However the policy currently being suggested by government seems almost entirely unworkable. How does a police force and a legal system define what is and what isn’t acceptable content on the web? By implementing such measures, with their infinite possibility for manipulation, are they not merely creating an unbendable rod for their own backs. After all what were the origins of Cockney Rhyming Slang, if not a covert means of communication between those who didn’t want their conversation monitored. Will this not merely be the solution for any future illicit organisation on the web? So will this proposed legislation merely create a future circumstance where these measures will be perceived as inadequate and tougher controls will come to be viewed as necessity? As the recent BBC drama The Hour, by the writer Abi Morgan, has been at pains to point out, Britain is a country with the facade of freedom of speech, but with the deeper reality of actively mistrusting such freedoms. Unlike the United States, Britain’s constitutional laws framing freedom of speech extend only as far as parliament (how very convenient).
In light of the incoherent and inarticulate rage of last week’s violence is it wise for a government to pull the invisible gag around individuals’ mouths ever tighter? Much has been made by both media, government and police, of the ‘mindlessness’ of this violence upon the very communities that are struggling to make ends meet in modern Britain. On the one hand a ‘political’ agenda was being sought, so as to show how a certain politics leads inexorably to chaos and anarchy (the classic British defence), whilst on the other the perpetrators of the violence were being infantilised and, possibly rightly, condemned for the callous and brazen avarice of their looting and pillaging. Too many commentators seemed desperate to find the easy answer for the ‘anarchy’, yet a few, such as Peter Wilby in The New Statesman, or Mary Riddell in the Daily Telegraph, more cogently argued that the sheer ‘inexplicableness’ of the events surely indicated a convoluted and complex nexus of causes.
To finish I’d like to draw your attention to the 2008 documentary series, The Ascent of Money, in which Prof. Niall Ferguson examines the Anglo-Saxon obsession with property as a form of investment. Looking at Detroit and Roosevelt’s advocacy of property ownership through Savings and Loans schemes, Ferguson hit on a simple ‘truth’ that could so easily run alongside the current situation in Britain. Ferguson suggested that when a government promotes a certain idea of a society, that places property ownership at the heart of participating as a valued member of that society, then, unless it also creates the conditions in which all of society, if they choose to, can attain to this idea, it can only create an evermore damaging sense of alienation in the ‘have nots’.
For Ferguson that ‘alienation’ from the possibility of property-ownership was precisely what the economic situation in America during the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s created, particularly amongst the urban black populations of American cities, who were effectively priced out of mortgage opportunities and insurance coverage. When societal ‘alienation’ is widespread and all-pervasive within certain communities then eventually violence is going to become a compelling and attractive possibility. Ferguson’s assessment of the Detroit riots is that not only were they about race, but they were about the denial of the societal ideal to large sections of the city.
His test for this hypothesis was to see against what, or whom, was the violence directed. Was the violence directed against the police? Well it was in those areas where the police were involved in trying to control the riots, but on the whole violence directed at the police was surprisingly low. Was the violence directed against institutions of governance? Again most of the violence was restricted to community areas, or adjoining areas of affluence and commerce, without necessarily being directed at municipal buildings and offices (all the more surprising considering the ‘radicalised’ tenor of the times). Was the violence directed against fellow citizens, or specific individuals? In the 5 days of rioting, when large parts of the city were effectively razed to the ground, only 43 people lost their lives (granted this is still an obscene number, but it doesn’t indicate a co-ordinated programme of assault against other human beings). In Ferguson’s assessment the violence of the Detroit riots was most obviously and overwhelmingly directed against property, be it private residences, or shops and businesses. Thus, he suggests, that the target of the violence reflects that which the rioters feel most strongly alienated from within the society. In our own complacently consumerist society, perhaps being a ‘have not’ is reflected in the gap between ‘consumerist’ aspirations and the economic reality. In which case the potential for alienation is directly linked to your capacity to fund the ‘idealised’ consumer lifestyle. Is it any wonder then that our high streets and private homes, just like in Detroit, bore the brunt of the recent violence? After all these are those things our politicians have promised us can be attained, with ever increasing ease, but which now seem further away than ever before.