Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Unrest 140

It would be an understatement to say that we had an interesting night in London: buildings burnt out, 600 arrests (and counting), probably to worst period of unrest in the UK since the 1980s. Without delving into the social context for this upheaval, what fascinated me last night was the way in which the power of the same social media that enabled the Arab Spring was demonstrated on the streets of a major European capital.

Simple tools like BlackBerry Messenger and Twitter allowed an unconnected mass of hooligans to achieve an unprecedented form of self-organised co-ordination and thereby elude the (valiant) efforts of one of the world's best trained police forces. Whenever the police arrived, the mob simply moved on to an undefended area - classic guerilla tactics, but without the classic guerilla command structure. It is not hard to see why Middle Eastern police forces and particularly armies were unable to prevent small civil disturbances spiraling out of control.

There were disturbing parallels between this situation and the scenario described in Adam Roberts' New Model Army - a rigid, command and control based force finds it very difficult to engage one that is entirely fluid. Now, in last night's case one side was totally untrained and therefore unable to resist effectively when cornered, but imagine the effect a small number of trained personnel could have had. There would have been carnage.

It's no wonder that the US Government and military have been pondering the question of how to weaponise social networks in order to achieve regime changes that historically would have required guns and armour. Let's just hope that such rabble rousing techniques do not become tools of terrorists, or last night's events could be a sign of things to come.

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