Wk32: I predict a riot – technology in the age of protest.

I wanna riot...

I make lists of topics for this blog, and more for months I have been sitting on the idea of writing about technology’s use in events of social unrest. Well, looks like the events in London will bring this one forward.

Although this might get a tad polotical, it’s political about the technology and how people feel about it rather than the events of the actual riots.

It was only recently that technology played a part in social unrest and political protest. It happened mainly in the middle east. People in Egypt organised themselves using social media. They were so effective that the government actually shut the internet down.

That didn’t deter people. Through clever use of phone lines linked to twitter, people could say tweets and still spread the word. People could actually speak their tweets. (http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2011/feb/01/google-twitter-egypt) In the wider world, we applauded the people of the middle east for not letting a facist government shut them down. They were called innovators.

That was January. And the technology world moves fast.

The role of social media has gotten quite a lot of attention in the London Riots. I am going to be forgiving and suggest it’s because we all want answers, and in this 24 hour news cycle, everything is being picked apart. Some poor editor out there is going for new angles to try and save their business.

But it’s the uneasy vibe of these headlines. As if Social Media is helping these kids wreck this city. People are talking about Blackberry messenger as if it was some new system that thugs have made up to hide from the public.

It reveals, for me, the darker side of the public perception of social media. Or maybe it’s just the right wing, insecure part of the public. But let’s not forget that a lot of people are scared of new technology, and social media is one of the big ones.

Following people’s comments on twitter, there were plenty of people calling for the shutdown of the Blackberry messenger service, and lesser so, Twitter and Facebook. The fact they were saying this on Twitter seemed to be lost on them.

These people come from the same insanity that Murbarak did. Looking at the riots and thinking, isn’t there an off switch for this? Has Apple made an App for that? Murbarak actually managed to turn the internet off. People calling for Blackberry to step in were left having to scream at a wall.

So what actually happened?

So, to the surprise of no one, all these kids have phones. And they talk to eachother with them. Then, to the surprise of no one with half a brain, they use Blackberry messenger. Like a lot of people. I’ve used it a lot. Why? Because it’s free.

Blackberry started life as a business tool. Sending emails and a phone together. They added, in the background, a little chat service. But what it really turned out to be was more like Twitter – leaving short messages. But direct to one user – NOT public.

Lots of people in my world use Blackberry Messenger. And so do these kids, it seems. They also use Facebook and Twitter. And god knows what else. This is not a new thing. To imagine that these gangs learnt a whole new broadcast and chat program just so they can riot is insane. That they chose one that is pretty secure is only half luck. Blackberry’s technology is old, cumbersome and on the descent. No one has even tried to crack it. No one gave a shit.

Social Media is a broadcast network – and it’s filled by the words of people. We cannot and should not censor it.

It has made it easier for people from all walks of life to gather. Be it protesters or rioters, of even the nutjobs who attended that recent Christ rally in the US. Social media unites people with similar interests.

And lets not forget the good social media did at the same time. So much information and communication about trouble areas, what the avoid and even on the basic level, how dangerous it was. God knows how many more idiots would have hit the streets thinking that it was an over reaction if not for the sea of Facebook and Twitter updates.

Google Maps of fires popped up within minutes. People were checking of friends and family. And the clean up project has been powered by social media. Using the same technology, strangers of all walks of life and gathering to clean up this mess. Should we kick them off Twitter too?

In the coming days, the British Conservatives will ask Blackberry to hand over the data. It will be a sad day if they do. Especially as they took such a stand in Egypt and the Middle East. And it will set a precedent. Will goverments be able to get private data from undesirables.

There will be a price to pay for the riots. People will hate kids even more. The fires of racism will rise and the BNP will probably win a few extra seats. And in the tech world, we might see tighter controls, censorship, big brother-ism and more mistrust. It will take a pretty extraordinary people and government to not go down that scared route. And David Cameron is the last person in the world to be extraordinary.

And yes, there are lots of important issues surrounding these riots to consider. But this is a digital culture blog. So shut up.

Technology doesn’t choose politics. The rioters in London and the protesters in Egypt are different people. But they were both better served by our advances in technology. That’s the way the world is now.

Don’t let the irrationally scared set policy. Because this is going to happen again.

In our fractured world, people are going to want to stop people gathering in groups, and letting ideas take shape. And technology brings us together and helps us develop ideas. If anything, the clash is going to get bigger. And then we’ll have a real fight on our hands.

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