"Free flow of information can be used for good. But it can also be used for ill," said British Prime Minister David Cameron. "And when people are using social media for violence we need to stop them. So we are working with the police, the intelligence services and industry to look at whether it would be right to stop people communicating via these Web sites and services when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality."
It's an age-old military strategy summed up nicely by Patriots Defensive End, Gerard Warren, "Kill the head and the body's dead."
So, if the enemy's "command and control" is housed in a bunch of social media cloud applications, you must ask the question, "Are social networking tools valid military targets?"
There's only one problem: social networking mobs don't have heads – they are amorphous, self-selecting groups that exist around an idea, then disassemble or reshape into something else.
The kids (and they are mostly kids) that are rioting in the U.K. are common criminals. They are testing the authorities with some cool new, relatively public, self-organizational tools – in short order, they will be stopped by the police. The idea that this social networking mob is assembled around is "I don't care what ends you're from, we're personally inviting you to come and get it in." (A direct quote from a rioter).
That said, there's a huge lesson here. "Kill the head and the body's dead" does not apply to this type of self-organized mob. Trying to kill the head is quixotic and futile … there is no head. We cannot solve this particular 21st century problem with a 20th century solution.
The danger is clear. Throughout history, governments have governed from a central point. In almost every case, governments have maintained control of the proletariat by having almost complete control of three currencies: the military, cash and information.
In the Information Age, cash and information are represented by 1's and 0's. To a computer, cash and information look the same. And, for human beings, they are almost fully interchangeable. In fact, our entire economy is based upon the asymmetry of information. If I know something that my competitor, customer, adversary does not know, I will almost always profit from the exchange.
Which sets the stage for a dystopian future – raising the unsettling question, if there are now only two currencies of government: the military and information -- and one of them (information) is now controlled by the proletariat – how can government continue to govern from a central point?
The Arab Spring may offer some insights into the future. The riots in the U.K. are similar, but lack a political idea to help sustain the mob.
Could it happen here? It did once. The idea that America needed to be independent from Great Britain was so powerful that it persuaded people, who would self-describe as British citizens, to pick up weapons and commit treason.
America was a powerful idea, but treason was a serious crime. Under the nom de plume "Written by an Englishman," Thomas Paine anonymously published Common Sense in January 1776. It was an instant best seller. When adjusted for population, it may be the best-selling document in American History. Historian Gordon S. Wood described Common Sense as, "the most incendiary and popular pamphlet of the entire revolutionary era." Common Sense was just a pamphlet, written in the style of a sermon. Would social networking tools have done a better job changing the minds of British Loyalists? Would the revolution have happened sooner, later or not at all? Would King George have summoned Facebook, Google, Twitter and RIM to his court or just ordered them all to shut down and imprisoned the businessmen involved?
That was then, when the most powerful empire on Earth could not stand up to the power of an idea whose time had come. I think it's easy to predict what's next. And the timing will be much, much sooner than you think.
Shelly Palmer is the host of NBC Universal‘s Live Digital with Shelly Palmer, a weekly half-hour television show about living and working in a digital world. He is Fox 5 New York‘s On-air Tech Expert (WNYW-TV) and the host of Fox Television’s monthly show Shelly Palmer Digital Living. He also hosts United Stations Radio Network‘s, MediaBytes, a daily syndicated radio report that features insightful commentary and a unique insiders take on the biggest stories in technology, media, and entertainment. He is Managing Director of Advanced Media Ventures Group, LLC an industry-leading advisory and business development firm and the President of the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, NY (the organization that bestows the coveted Emmy® Awards). Palmer is the author of Television Disrupted: The Transition from Network to Networked TV 2nd Edition (York House Press, 2008) the seminal book about the technological, economic, and sociological forces that are changing everything and the upcoming, Overcoming The Digital Divide: How to use Social Media and Digital Tools to Reinvent Yourself and Your Career (York House Press, 2011) For more information, visitshellypalmer.com
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