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Anorak | London Riots: Forget BBM, It’s the Back-Button That Has Created Generation Whatever

London Riots: Forget BBM, It’s the Back-Button That Has Created Generation Whatever

by | 9th, August 2011

london riots, burning busEvery week, the Daily Mail will blame the internet for something else. Pedophiles, exam results, cancer and yes, the random violence that has swept through London in the past three days. I love the internet, but I’m going to do the same. The  London Riots have been random, consumerist and nihilistic. I’m not going to blame Grand Theft Auto – the carjacking game, and certainly not Twitter and BBM – services that just enable this behaviour rather than causing it, but I am going to blame the Ctrl+Z key, or the back button. And the way it has changed how I think and how a generation brought up on the internet also thinks.

Recent book The Shallows: How the internet is changing the way we think, read and remember raises the argument that what we do affects the neuro-circuitry of our brain. When we do stuff a lot it starts to affect how we think because our brain rewires itself to adapt to new circumstances. And we all do the internet a lot. It has changed how we think.

Two features of the online world that affect the behaviour of this generation:

1) The undo button – and the “whatever” attitude.

Almost everything you can do online is undoable. Online, you can hit the back button, you can hit Ctrl+Z, you can delete the comment, take down the photo or update the page. Things can linger on if something gets copied elsewhere, but largely, they don’t. To me, that really teases apart the nature of cause and effect. If you break a window in the real world, the window is broken. If you post an aggressive message online, someone can take it down. Things happen and go away much more quickly. You don’t have to live with the consequences of your actions on there – because (unless you hack the CIA) actions online don’t have consequences. This means you are way more likely to risk stuff, try it out, take on a persona, do something random. That can be great and very liberating online, but if the same attitude is transferred to the real world it leads to both amusing flash-mobs and the kind of all-hell-to-the-future, I’m doing this now attitude that has fuelled the riots where kids risk prison and other people’s lives for a pair of shoes. There is no understanding or fear of consequences. I’d say that that the internet leads you connect things together differently, it’s not a linear process where an action has a consequence. It’s more random. To me, that’s been a feature of these riots.

2) Social networks and groups – death of the neighbourhood

An amazing thing about the internet is the ability to connect with people all over the world – whether you share an interest in fly-fishing with someone from Bolivia, you read a food blog from San Francisco or you listen to music and identify with a rapper in New York. But it does mean your allegiances and your identity are increasingly dislocated from the people around you. The friends you owe allegiance to are in your social networks, but they’re not necessarily the people who live next to you. You can become very insulated from other groups and other areas, they call it the “filter bubble” and it has been highlighted as one of the dangers of the net. Everyone in your social networks agrees with you. None of your acquaintances are 50 year-old shopkeepers so you never think about what or how they think. Equally, we, the baffled middle-classes are very isolated from this discontented youth and have no idea where the anger comes from. Whole slivers of society are very insulated from each other and social networking is currently only reinforcing this.

Would a boost in location-based social networking help? Maybe. Foursquare isn’t going to help us in the short-term, but in the long-term, it would be valuable to tie this sort of thing back into real places, something we’ve seen in the #riotcleanup hashtag where people use the internet to connect with like-minded people nearby to a positive end.

The issues still lie with youth unemployment, cuts to youth services and general lack of hope in those communities. They need to be sorted. The internet has brought a lot more good than harm. It’s a wonderful thing, but we should be aware of all of its consequences. Perhaps this goes some way to explaining the otherwise inexplicable mystery of how this suddenly errupted.



Posted: 9th, August 2011 | In: Key Posts, Technology Comment | Follow the Comments on our RSS feed: RSS 2.0 | TrackBack | Permalink