It was disappointing and embarrassing when a cabbie let me know this morning that more chaos had transcended on London and beyond last night. I had just got in to London from New York and until I chatted to the cabbie as I watched the meter rise I had no sense of the troubles that had been caused across the capital and into other cities. I emailed my wife about how beautiful the city with its parks was in the summer sunshine but as this day has gone on I’ve noticed ugliness: a heavy police presence around stations and as I passed a line of police vans in Oxford Circus (where Nike’s flagship store is based) some of the coppers dressed in drab overalls looked like they were itching for a fight.
The police, you see, seem to have been caught with their proverbial ‘trousers down’. A second night of rioting and people watching their TVs see the police arriving in small numbers unable to control or even be involved in the scene. They were left to watch. In some places looting lasted for an hour and a half before the police turned up.
No doubt, tonight there will be more buildings burned, more goods stolen, more lives put at risk, more businesses destroyed across the UK but by the look of the organization of the grimacing police officers just now – many areas will be ready to respond (but maybe not fully contain)
What is fueling this chaos? On a practical level these young people are using social media and text messaging to organize, assemble as a group then disperse very quickly. The very same tools we’ve marveled at for their use to bring down Arab countries, cheating British soccer stars and revealing politicians is now being used to cause mayhem. It causes a conundrum – we don’t mind a free internet that causes disruption when it’s in a country we don’t live in and we’re told we don’t like, but when it comes ‘home’ people quickly react and ask for social networks like ‘Facebook’ to be taken down.
I’m upset and even concerned about my safety when I go out tonight to see friends. I’m disappointed because like many people here I don’t want to believe this is happening in England, in Britain. I don’t want to hear about disenfranchised youths and that ‘we should have seen this coming’ from the British press (who we should remind ourselves aren’t quite the knights in shining armor they’d like us to believe) – I want the culture here to know that this is wrong. But there is a culture for some people here that says that it’s ok to cause this disturbance. It’s embarrassing to think a country that prides itself on education, culture, science, business and ethics can act in this way. Sadly, it seems that many Britons seem to have have left it to the British press to make judgement and drive change. The people seem to want to be shocked but they don’t want to get together to act to resolve this. Compared to New York, London is far more a society of the individual. For many here, it’s simply someone else’s job to clear this up and that will impede progress here.
For the young people who took part in the destruction, their behavior is pointless. While they ‘partied’ in the burning streets, their phone use, their text messages, their mobile-camera shots, their status updates are all trackable and can be traced to the individual. The phones stolen from the stores all have unique IDs that can be tracked. Did they forget that there is no privacy today or did they choose to ignore it?
As a final point I want to say that I feel that while the unrest can’t be excused by changes the global economy, there must be a connection. Has the recession divided the economy into two – a fast track information rich technologically enabled one with low employment needs where people like myself do fine, and an slowing media saturated analog economy that can’t provide the jobs for the large numbers of people trained to work in it. On both sides of the Atlantic you have a growing number of unemployables. In the Economist Magazine I read on my flight from Newark, there was a lengthy article about whether Britain could create a Bill Gates type figure, whether the British government could create financial situations that fuel the tech power of Silicon Valley. Seeing the anarchy on the streets on TV it makes me wonder whether the discussion is on the wrong subject – instead of spending money finding and funding a British Zuckerberg, maybe it’s worth spending the time and effort reskilling a huge number of folks who don’t fit into the future.