It was the biggest technological story of the month and I missed it. Instead it was my much cooler friend, Jonathan Akwue, who first mentioned Blackberry Messenger and its possible connection with the riots (at urbanmashup.wordpress.com). He spent the next two weeks fielding inquiries from the media.
Blackberry Messenger (or BBM, as its users call it) is an application unique to Blackberry handsets, which allows users to message each other in a way similar to text messaging, yet to larger groups and at lower cost. On its own, it has earned the Blackberry, once exclusively a businessman’s handset, a huge following among the young. (Blackberry has in the process become one of those interesting brands with two entirely disparate groups of customers, like Burberry a few years ago.)
Did BBM cause the riots, as some suggested? No. All the same, it is one of many developments that should lead us to expect volatility in the years ahead — especially as other handset-makers are developing equivalents. Why? Because highly interconnected networks of people (or banks, for that matter) are inevitably unpredictable. Just as we should no longer be surprised when the confiscation of a set of fruit scales in Sidi Bouzid leads to the fall of the Tunisian government, we should be ready when attacks on the police in Tottenham mutate into looting in Croydon. (In this case, police tactics designed to defuse the original problem were wholly unsuited to tackling the mutation).
Many were irritated by Harriet Harman’s suggestion that education cuts were to blame — as though with a little more government support, the people torching Greggs would dash off home to read Beowulf. It is now a peculiarly annoying shibboleth of the middle-class lefty that under no circumstances must you criticise the actions of anyone poorer than you — as though free will is denied to anyone under £30,000 a year. (To Harriet, Fred West’s behaviour is probably the fault of Gloucester Council’s cutbacks to its building programme.) But, as all poor people know, just because you’re poor doesn’t mean you’re not a scumbag.
All the same, we should admit there are wider economic factors at work — and again technology is involved. Put bluntly, compared with past agrarian, military or industrial societies, ours is a time when testosterone has very little economic value. Being young, male and strong were the prime requirements for a plough, a steel-mill or a dugout. Youth once paid well — 18-year-old miners earned the same as their fathers. Now, in our coffee-shop age, the Dagmaras and the Martas are more employable than the Waynes and Dwaynes.
Martin Ford, in his strange book The Lights in the Tunnel makes an extraordinary point to this effect. If you want to know what an economy with a high degree of automation looks like, he suggests, look at one that existed 150 years ago: the slave-era American South. Slavery, in its effects on the non-enslaved, non-land-owning poor, has economic consequences very similar to those of mechanisation. When your competition works for free, there’s not much well-paid work left for you.