Digital London Riots, 2011
Digital pathology & the London riots

What has been consistently overlooked in discussions about the riots is the connection between ostensibly ‘mindless’ displays of unlawful acquisition – the grabbing of flat-screen tvs – and the techonological conditions that allowed such events to happen. We all know that the rioters coordinated their gatherings and encouraged acts of looting through use of a specific make of mobile phone – Blackberry (via its BBM application which allows messaging between with other blackberry-owning contacts without recourse to the easily interceptable and more widespread technology of text messaging). We also know that the state lacked a mechanism to control this technology once it had become, for all intents and purposes, ‘weaponized’ by its users. However, the use of BBM necessitates more than a future agenda for the government’s security apparatus. It is a phenomenon that helps us to understand what the looting actually was (about).

One month prior to the riots I was in a takeaway food shop on Ridley Road market, Dalston, just metres from where a hastily convened mob would later storm the Kingsland shopping centre in an attempt to ransack its shops. For lack of something to read while waiting for my fast food I perused a large pile of glossy brochures for club nights stacked next to the till. I found myself strangely fascinated by one in particular: ‘Ping Me Baby’, it read, is the nightclub for blackberry owners:


The reason there is an independent club night dedicated to Blackberry owners (rather than convened as a marketing strategy by the company) is that there is a critical mass of users in central London and this group constitutes a particular economic body. BBM is a free – unlimited – messaging application and in this sense represents a ‘value’ option for mobile communication. It allows users to send one-to-many messages to their network of contacts. This is the equivalent of a fixed price buffet and, in a similar way, a cheap industrially produced meal – of the sort that I was buying at the chicken shop and which the attendees of Ping me Baby! eat too. It implies consumers of lesser means. We know that Blackberry handsets are the smartphone of choice for the majority of British teens – 37% according to an Ofcom study conducted in same month as the unrest?1 During the riots we were informed that the government was in frantic talks with the makers of Blackberry (RIM) about limiting its service in order to restore public order. One wonders if they are now taking the time to access their customer statistics in order to understand which ‘public’ was acting.

Blackberry/BBM is a consumer choice that, as the existence of a club night suggests, is a potential identity – one defined by the unlimited satisfaction of a desire (to communicate by text) available to those with limited financial means and the willingness to create a social network mediated by a branded consumer apparatus. The club night worked in this manner: free entry to a carnival space for Blackberry owners, pay to play for the rest. In fact, the riots operated in a similar fashion. In material terms the closed network of the BBM is what allowed mobs to come together almost instantaneously. Yet, underlying/ subtending the radical social intensity of this phenomenon was the functional logic of consumer-technological society – physically manifest in the kind of phones in people’s pockets and present in their desires. Note, for instance, the apparent Freudian-slip in the advertising text: the author probably means to say that blackberry owners ‘should be rewarded’. Instead, the grammatical structure indicates that blackberrys should be ‘awarded’ to people who already own them! We need not be surprised that the rioters chose to loot electronic goods instead of smashing banks.

After some research it became clear than the club night was named after a song by a contemporary urban/rnb singer. It’s not clear if he was employed by Blackberry to create the song, if he is courting them so they might licence his music, or if he is adopting a viral marketing strategy to piggyback off consumers' identification with their mobile phones. The lack of clarity on this issue is symptomatic of viral marketing – either its practice or its influence. This discovery seems to suggest that the advent of viral marketing has in some way brought about the birth of viral looting. The announcement that it would a ‘roadblock affair’ seems less hyperbolic than the marketers first intended.


Another way in which online space conditioned the riot is through its commonplace cultures of anonymity and pseudonymity. There are at least two modes of digital anonymity, and they accord to different visions of political liberty/agency. The same can be said of online pseudonymity. The uptake of both by millions of users may precede a general/state realization that these gambits amount to actual political tactics/postions. Yet, the spread of such phenomena in the digital sphere is nevertheless setting the stage for the offline acts. Or, put otherwise, perhaps the government and commentators have failed to discern the ideological dimension of the riots because their understanding of the relationship between ‘real life’ an online is impoverished. The ideology of the riots is playing out across the two fields and so far the state and corporate media have only been looking for reasons in the latter. We need a new understanding of political agency that takes into account the liberties enacted online, with a view to understanding how these are being enacted in and affecting real space. Until then, the riots will seem like a waking dream.

Whereas in the previous century anonymity was often seen as an alienating condition that threatened self-worth now the vast majority of us are subscribing to an equation of anonymity with political agency/liberty. Irrespective of ‘political’ realization on the part of individuals, most digitally connected people use and abuse online psuedonymns – ie. filter email accounts, pseudonymous social networks etc. This is a negative form of networked liberty/agency, an attempt at ‘freedom from’ interference which finds its offline parallel to this in masked demonstrators avoiding data capture by cctv cameras (and rioters looting fancy dress shops).

The positive sense of anonymous liberty, the ‘freedom to’ aspect, is now commonplace and spreading: It is illegal filesharing. As a critical mass of people do it the ideology of ‘freedom to’ is perpetuated. Despite its criminal/nonconformist cachet this phenomenon has consumerist undertones – as unfettered gratification of desire for commodities is pursued even above law of the land. The easy anonymity afforded by the internet is not just contributing towards the economic erosion of the entertainment industries, it is creating a much larger class of consuming agents willing to break the law for entertainment purposes.

As Jaron Lanier notes, design underlies ethics in the digital world and ‘People who can spontaneously invent a pseudonym in order to post a comment on a blog or on YouTube are often remarkably mean’. Crucially, according to him, this is not so much a function of human nature as it is the result of bad digital architecutre. For there is such as thing as ‘troll-evoking’ design that facilitates ‘effortless, consequence-free, transient anonymity in the service of a goal […] that stands entirely apart from one’s identity or personality. Call it drive-by-anonymity’. Going further, Lanier worries that such designs can ‘accentuate negative patterns of behavior or even bring about unforeseen social pathology’. In a speculative moment he displays great foresight vis a vis the London unrest.

‘It’s not crazy to worry that, with millions of people connected through a medium that sometimes brings out their worst tendencies, massive, fascist-style mobs could rise up suddenly. I worry about the next generation of young people around the world growing up with internet-based technology that emphasizes crowd aggregation, as is the current fad. Will they be more likely to succumb to pack dynamics when they come of age?1

Notwithstanding the hyperbole about ‘fascist’ mobs, anonymous pack dynamics were certainly visible.

1. Jaron Lanier, You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto, Penguin, London, 2011, p.63,64.


It would be interesting to compare the demographics of illegal filesharers with those of the rioters. Both are commonly thought to be young people. But how different are the two activities? Arguably, some young rioters effected a transposition of the widespread anonymous ‘freedom to’ - piracy - practiced online into offline space. It is provocative to consider how the underage status of some of the participants intersects with this reading. Aware of not being seen as adults they considered themselves invisible to law. At least, this is what the cops and press have already complained about. Thus, youth status was being deployed in a manner akin to an online pseudonym and an offline mask concealing the ‘real person’: a ‘freedom from’ enabling a piratical ‘freedom to’. The brazen lack of material masks worn by some of the underage actors registers this attitude and, paradoxically, represents a claim to 'adult' behaviour.

Although age ‘protects’ from some aspects of law (freedom from) by the same token it rules out full participation in all aspects of civil life, such as voting etc. In this sense, young people’s ‘freedom to’ is limited offline. The lore of teenage rebellion, invented in the mid twentieth century, was built around a manifest rejection/reaction to this fact, performed - in part - by expressions of ‘freedom to’ through sexuality – enacting or at least willing physical liberty in spite of hegemonic morality. Losing ones virginity in an overt way was the watershed mark of independence and a claim on adulthood even before 'legal age' was reached. Now, consider the kind of discussions taking place online at 4chan, where every user post is credited to Anonymous – a site which has also generated a notorious hacker network of the same non-referential name – where losing one’s virginity has been eclipsed by another ultimate marker of ‘freedom to’:

Anonymous 09/12/11(Mon)20:13:32 No.353125661 [Reply] At what ages did the following happen to you: 1) Learn to use torrents 2) Lose virginity

The majority of the respondents posted younger ages for torrent use than for sex. Using torrents – at least as implied by the question here, because every seeking is guided by what is sought – is not just any old thing. In quarters such as 4chan it represents the ultimate immaterial freedom – the non-physical expression of liberty. If the teenager was invented in the twentieth century - or made visible – then at least part of its structure was premised on overturning the trauma of social/legal/cultural invisibility. Now the key trauma is being too visible and rites of passage are invisible/anonymous and piratical.


Today, the law is considered more pure technicality than moral edifice - whether one is talking about lawyers, tax avoiders or looters. After the putative 'death of god' (ie. the birth of science - mechanical and informatic) its prohibitions look more like locks/phones that need 'cracking'. Young people's experience of consumer hardware and software teach the lesson: They are used to the passing parade of outmoded operating systems – Windows 97, Snow Leopard etc. This is just a basic fact of consumer technology. The perspective is only compounded by the massive culture of loopholes – the exploit – known not just to hackers but to sub-hackers and, effectively, most youth in the West. Justice has been collapsed into material, ultimately disposable if desire is strong enough.


Increasingly, when new forms of youth culture survive, its because they are things the media wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole […] its only in the outer limits of acceptability in society that grassroots movements can find meaning. And pushing people to the limits of acceptability isn’t always a great idea.1

This analysis by a digital generation marketeer almost reaches the provocative conclusion that the Happy Slapping scourge, circa 2004, was as much about producing social cohesion – among uploaders and downloaders – as it was paradigmatically ‘anti-social’ behaviour.2 The last sentence is ventured as a kind of fig leaf but the rest of the analysis is on point:

The reason happy slaps were a hit was because they were off limits […] Happy slap TV was one thing left that kids could own without fear of corporate takeover […] New youth cultures can’t be safe as those of days gone by, because if they stay within socially acceptable limits, marketers pounce, and before long they are just another spectacle.3

Organic youth cultures, he continues, are covered with ‘branded pesticide’ before they can develop and ‘only social weeds’ are left alone.4 Leaving aside the issue of youth, briefly, we observe that the same process conditioned the flash mob trend. In fact, we suspect that the apparent bad taste of the riots, like the horror of happy slaps, was as much a conscious attempt to avoid the recuperative poison of marketeers as it was ‘senseless’. In the case of the former, the politics of the grotesque seems to have emerged as an end game in what is now, quite openly, a war for public space and the practical definitions of community.5

Bauman observes that even fear is eminently commodifiable – brought to market in the form of CCTV cameras, security services, armored cars and a plethora of alternatives. Like liquid cash ready for any kind of investment, he states, ‘the capital of fear can be turned into any kind of profit’.6 By the same token, and contrary to some of the rioters’ intentions, even the political grotesque of looting and chaos finds use in the work of Recreational Data, a group that – depending on who is asking or what reward is at stake – is either a trend forecasting agency offering brand optimization for the digital era or an art project staging ironic criticism of such initiatives. The fact that the group’s identificatory position is unclear is perfectly suited to the moment, making them both good trend forecasters and good artists.7 Whichever way, they are exemplars of entrepreneurial capitalistic practice, asking all the right questions:

When currency collapses, what will take its place? How do you build brand equity when the markets are freewheeling? How do you turn the vague evidence of a meme into solid wealth creation? How can you make mass civil disobedience work for your brand? And how do you even begin to assess your cultural equity when fear and uncertainty are the order of the day?8

Addressing such urgent concerns in the promotional document Currency Zones of the Future – distributed via USB – the group proposes to recuperate the riots as consumer data-generation, replacing the pejorative designation ‘feral youth’ with the shoplifter as market indicator.9 Despite the proposed domestication of wild behavior the document’s rhetoric is unsurprisingly centred around the issue of power play:

Dominating the market means dominating the psychological landscape of the crisis. The State may be forced to interact with the looter and rioter as ‘criminal’, but we may see the looter in terms of potential: as market-modifier and as trend broadcaster.10

This advice can’t be reduced to the status of mere provocation, as comments by at least one corporate boss confirm. Rioters stole £700,000 worth of stock from JD Sports Fashion outlets during the unrest and yet this news was welcomed by the company’s director who stated that it indicated ‘a strong demand for our products on the high street’.11

Relational Data also discerns commodifiable authenticity in the political grotesque, outlining ever more radical marketing opportunities:

The looter holds a golden opportunity for any brand, an uncommodified, unsculpted form of ‘realness’ that fills the credibility deficit of the saturated market. The young looter offers a human form for pushing a brand on a level of reach and depth unseen since the birth of rock ‘n’ roll and blue jeans. It will take a daring marketeer to ride the wave, but taking advantage of this “rupture of the real” in the total social conscience will touch a nerve to a real-world social identity thatp.49 is both neglected and far more vital than constructed social identities favoured by marketeers.12

As suggested, the cooption of an ‘unsculpted’ form of real world identity in the guise of street disorder by the purveyors of yesterday’s youth culture – ‘rock ‘n’ roll and blue jeans’ – should amount to a daring future strategy. However, this apparently novel prescription it is not so far from being realized. Levi Strauss’s Legacy commercial, part of its Go Forth series, was being aired across the UK while parts of London, Manchester and Birmingham went up in flames. The clip features scenes of couples kissing and live rock bands, beach sunsets and city streets thick with tear gas and riot police facing down good looking youths clad in skinny jeans.13 The collision of marketing fiction and protest, in all of its grotesque permutations, is the new rule. Levi’s pulled the ad but if Relational Data is correct next time they won’t.

1. Matt Mason, The Pirate’s Dilemma, Allen Lane, London, 2008, p.223-224
2. “Happy slap TV” videos started to appear in numbers in 2004, filmed on camera phones and transmitted virally to other phones and over the Net […] The frightening fad became a national nightmare. Commuters worried for their safety as more and more people were slapped, punched, or kicked on the way home. In January 2005 more than ten people were charged with serious assault for happy slapping in London’. Ibid. p.224.
3. Ibid. pp.224-225.
4. Ibid. p.227.
5. Of course, any social structure – however fleeting – whose founding conditions are violent viral videos or flash mob civil disorder is a pretty poor form of community or ‘culture’. Nevertheless, such brutal reductions are symptomatic of the ongoing privatization of public space and the consequent fall of ‘public man’.Richard Sennett, The Fall of Public Man, Knopf, New York, 1977.
6. Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Times, Polity, London, 2007, p.12.
7. As Groys would have it, there is ‘a new ambiguity between critique and advertisement that is charicteristic of our time. In our media-driven culture, the fact that a certain political attitude or religious belief is publically mentioned is of greater relevance that the way in which it is mentioned – be it positive or negative, affirmative or critical’Boris Groys, History Becomes Form, MIT Press, London, p.70.
8. Recreational Data, Currency Zones of the Future, LuckyPDF, London, 2011. (USB stick/PDF).
9. Ibid. p.45.
10. Ibid. pp.47-48.
12. Recreational Data, Currency Zones of The Future, pp.49-51.


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!4

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.