Chris Baraniuk, who writes one of my favorite blogs, the Machine Starts, is experiencing the current riots in London first hand (they’ve spread to other cites). His account of both the rioting mobs of destruction as well as those mobs trying to clean up the aftermath imply the ever complex pathways in which what I have called “augmented reality” takes form. [I lay out the idea here, and expand on it here]
We are witnessing both the destructive and the constructive “mobs” taking form as “augmented” entities. The rioters emerged in physical space and likely used digital communications to better organize. The “riot cleanup” response came at augmentation from the reverse path, organizing digitally to come together and clean up physical space. Both “mobs” flow quite naturally back and forth across atoms and bits creating an overall situation where, as what so often occurs, the on and offline merge together into an augmented experience.
The rioting mob first realized itself in physical meat-space with relatively small and originally peaceful demonstrations in response to the shooting of Mark Duggan by the London police. Violence broke out and the crowd grew (many think that Mark Duggan’s death had little to do with this, but I will try to avoid the debate on what caused these riots for this post). What caught flame in physical space–bodies in motion, burning cars, shattering glass, human lives lost–was already augmented.
The mob of so many well-connected cyborgs did what mobs today do: they become augmented, blurring onto digital space mostly via the popular and mostly private Blackberry messaging service. The augmented mob can both destroy atoms and simultaneously melt into its digital form to avoid capture when needed. As Baraniuk writes,
If trouble had broken out, the police arrived on the scene 20 to 30 minutes later, and the mob at that point “melted away” only to reappear, it seemed, in a completely different district. The network, of course, operates without geographical restrictions and obstacles in its way. Digital communications travel as the crow flies, easily trumping ground-based reconnaissance.
The response to these riots as part of the “riot cleanup” is an effort to reclaim a ravaged city. The effort was formed largely online via the more public-facing networks of Twitter and Facebook. @riotcleanup has about 88,000 followerson Twitter as I type this and the #riotcleanup hashtag has been incredibly active through this ordeal. Baraniuk states that,
the #riotcleanup hashtag has to be one of the most inspiring Twitter topics of the year – hundreds of broom-wielding Londoners were mobilized into a kind of anti-mob
These citizens, so effectively organized online, became galvanized offline in the streets, brooms in hand. Like the rioters, augmentation is crucial for the effectiveness of this mob as well.
None of this is to say that social media is the cause (or solution) to the riots. These are no more “Blackberry Mobs” or “Twitter Mobs” than they are mobs defined by the streets that they burn or clean. Instead, these are augmented mobs where the pathways of materialization and digitization converge from all directions at once.