I’ve linked to The Big Ideas podcast before (see this post on Marshall McLuhan and this post on Hannah Arendt) and this time the podcast is discussing the remarkable work of German media philosopher Friedrich Kittler.
This is a really awesome series that condenses complex ideas into digestible chunks. I’d recommend taking 13 minutes out of your day to listen to this discussion about the man sometimes called the ‘Derrida of the digital age’.
You lead, I’ll folow: mob mentality
It’s fascinating to hear about the links between Arendt’s and Stanley Milgram’s thinking, and about how different some of the conclusions drawn from their respective work were. Essentially, they are both asking the question:
What is it that motivates followers to identify with a particular leadership and then display forms of followership?
What becomes clear is that evil or deviant acts can have multiple motivations, and that while some may be banal or thoughtless, many are also highly engaged acts.
What motivated the London Rioters?
This podcast is especially interesting in light of the fact that The Guardian is currently running a number of stories built around interviews with participants in the London Riots (Rioters in their own words - interactive).
Post the riots I had countless conversations with people about their views on what motivated the rioters, and I heard lots of different accounts:
- the rioters were opportunistic thugs;
- the rioters were disenfranchised by a lack of social mobility;
- the rioters were conditioned to loot by a society that venerates consumerism but reinforces poverty;
- the rioters were driven by BlackBerry-fueled misinformation.
Depending on my level of knowledge and the argumentative vigour and skills of the person I was talking to, I found some of these arguments more or less compelling.
Ideology and the construction of intention
What’s clear is that when you listen to people’s explanations of the rioters’ motivation, they are elaborating their ideological view of the world as much as anything. This blog post by Bill Tupman on the University of Exeter blog makes this point really well.
Liberals see riots as an indicator of malfunctioning institutions, so the solution is always to be found in tinkering with the system. […] Conservatives are living in the best of all possible worlds, so rioting has to be explained in a different way: it’s a conspiracy! They’re doing it for gain. They’re irrational. They’re doing it for fun. Or they’re copycats.
The reason intention was so important for Arendt and for Milgram is that if we can uncover insights as to why people perform certain actions, we can develop effective tactics to influence behaviour.
So what can we conclude?
The riots emerge as a complex happening made up of multiple interwoven and changing discourses of intent, in turn supported by multiple different ideological viewpoints.
One conclusion I draw from this relates to my work in community management. It reinforces for me that we need to approach the nurturing of social interactions with appropriately refined tools and a nuanced appreciation for the complexity of community dynamics.
The Big Ideas Podcast: The Medium is the Message is the first in a podcast series by the Guardian.
Each installment looks at one “big idea” and ask what it originally meant, how it has been used, abused and misappropriated, and whether it can still help us to understand the world today.
I spent some time studying McLuhan and I still found this a helpful and short re-introduction to his most famous aphorism and what it meant.