The Revolution Will Not Be Telecommed

Andrew Sullivan featured this T-Mobile ad, which is basically the first commercial usage of a “spontaneous” flash mob (at least that I’ve seen). My first reaction to the ad’s conceit, “Life’s for Sharing,” was that what was being portrayed — and shared — wasn’t life, but a carefully contrived and planned commercial. Then it occurred to me that the flash mobs on which the ad is based are just as carefully contrived and planned as the ad itself.

Given my reading habits lately, and my natural apocalyptic streak, the train of thought then led to the ways in which the transformations of the past five-odd years — not just technological advances, but also the behaviors that have sprung up around the new technologies — make for a wicked “command and control” infrastructure to harness the kinds of truly spontaneous dissent likely to be triggered by the global financial crisis.

We already saw the role that cellphones and Twitter played in the Mumbai attacks. And before that, al-Qaida’s networked structure and use of the internet for communication and info ops was all the rage.

But those are two paramilitary outfits. I’m talking more about the ways in which non-combatants have been unwittingly “training” themselves for complex logistical operations through the use of communications technologies. “Flash mobs” struck me as a curious blend of exhibitionism and authoritarianism when I first heard about them. Oddly enough, those are the two central features of post-modern insurrection.

Then there’s the citizen reporting that springs up spontaneously in the immediate aftermath of — and sometimes during — a major news event (take Virginia Tech, for example, and more recently Mumbai). That illustrates how complex communications architectures — ones that compare favorably to military communications networks from the not-so-distant past — can now essentially be improvised from scratch.

Add all of that together, and toss in some mass unemployment, and the picture starts to look less benign. It’s understandable that flash mobs were so frivolous and non-utilitarian in an age of abundant, if fake, wealth. I’ve got a hunch they’ll become quite a bit more pointed as greater amounts of people have real grievances to complain about.