Monday, 19 December 2011

'There's No Such Thing as (Offline) Society'

The standard line from the British media and our politicians is that the rioters attacked their own communities. "How could this happen?" - they ask without conviction while sweeping all manner of issues under a rug of shrill disgust. Rather than list them all, let us at least observe that the rioters' perception of community is radically different to the sort attributed to their nearest high street or physical environment. It is virtual and global, conditioned by shared platforms – often privileging commodity theft (filesharing) above legal and local geographical constraints. Indeed, of the suspected looters, 22% were under 18 years old, 51.1% between 18 to 24, and 11.35% between the ages of 25 to 29.1 A recent survey has shown that 43% of persons within the age range of the middle set are members of online communities or networks designed specifically for filesharing.2 It is also reported that almost half the music in the average MP3 player collection comprises tracks that have not been paid for. Within the same demographic, this adds up to around £750-worth of ‘stolen’ content per person.3
When one wonders at the lack of a manifesto or equivalent overt political/ideological statement by the rioters we forget that the manifesto form – once avant-garde – seems positively baroque in relation to the economy of internet search terms. The nearest equivalent to statements produced by the rioters were their text messages. These exhibited an instrumental economy of language and – in the manner of searches – were conceptually organized around two propositions: hating cops (law breaking) and commodity desire.

Everyone from all sides of London meet up at the heart of London (central) OXFORD CIRCUS!!, Bare SHOPS are gonna get smashed up so come get some (free stuff!!!) fuck the feds we will send them back with OUR riot! >:O Dead the ends and colour war for now so if you see a brother... SALUT! if you see a fed... SHOOT!

Consider the fact that the cited text subordinates gang rivalry based on the ends [neighbourhoods] and colours [ethnicities] to the overarching social network. The text message is a boot command activating a new supra-gang/community: As Galloway and Thacker correctly state, ‘if there is one truism to the study of networks, it is that networks are only networks when then are “live,” when they are enacted, embodied and rendered operational’.
Does this analysis paints a bleak picture? Alone, such virtual communities/networks for data theft might not be strong enough to make the jump into actions in the street. However, where the ‘real life’ conditions are amenable – through weakened social platforms in offline space – it is more likely. Consider the fact that the riots began in Tottenham, where eight out of twelve youth centres were closed in the couple of months immediately prior. The erosion of offline  societies strengthens online ones, or at least it does nothing to fetter their influence in real life.
Beyond the UK, the rise of the pirate party in Sweden – as a direct activist response to the issue of government crackdown on filesharing – and now in Germany shows that the supra-national, extra-territorial consumer-libertarian community forms born online have reached a key stage in their influence on the offline world. That which is becoming formalized in Sweden and in Germany is more chaotic on the UK streets but both are facets of the same trajectory. In the future there will be more surprises of this sort.5 If one should doubt this claim it is worth  considering a fact established by a 2006 survey conducted by the Center for the Digital Future, which found that forty-three percent of online networkers in the United States felt ‘“as strongly” about their Web community as they did about their real-world friends’.6

[2] Nearly twice as many as those between the ages of 25 to 44.
[5] One writer goes even further: ‘In the future, loose knit networks and open-source communities may sit side by side as equal powers with both governments and the free market.’ Matt Mason, The Pirate’s Dilemma, Allen Lane, London, 2008, p.207., p.240
[6] Matt Mason, The Pirate’s Dilemma, Allen Lane, London, 2008, p.207.