Further Thoughts on Flash Mobs

The flash-mob rage continues to spread around the planet, with recent events reported from The concept has spread quickly across the United States and to Europe, Australia and Singapore.

The first European mob took place in Rome on July 24, when 300 people entered a music and bookshop asking for non-existent titles. The latest flash mob incident occurred at 6:01 p.m. on Friday in Berlin, where about 40 people in the middle of a busy street took out their mobile phones and shouted, “yes, yes!” and then applauded. Flash mobs are planned for London on August 7, Amsterdam on August 8, and in Dublin, Zurich and Vienna.

The point seems to be the pointlessness, but as pointed out in a previous posting, the potential for political application may hijack the movement at any moment. The current wave of mobbing is declaredly non-political, and seems to go out of its way to seem silly rather than profound. Multiple nonsensical references are made to the legendary “Bill”, supposedly the organizer of the famous Macy’s mob that started the run. If we are lucky this Bill will turn out to be benign, but the future of the phenomena is unclear.

More impressive than the “statements” made or left unmade by the Mobs to date are the implications and possibilities presented by the idea of informal wired communities which can almost instantly and covertly mobilize large groups of people who need not know each other or have the benefit of any previous organization or training, to a variety of ends only now being imagined and explored.

It is that transformative quality, to take a group of people united only by some incidental or even coincidental digital connection, and turn them into a directed “mob” which is impressive and a bit scary. If a mob made up of wired wannabees and yuppies with time on their hands can cause this much buzz and media attention, what could a mob made up of Militia members, rabid right-to-lifers or Monkeywrenchers do? And who will be doing the directing?

Despite the inherent dangers, the possibilities for extension and development of Flash Mobs are limitless. Currently, Mobs use the internet to get organized, to sign up members, and to communicate to them the initial meeting points to begin the action. From that point on, the communication is analog; a representative of the organizing committee shows up at each meeting place with written instructions on the where when and what of the action, which usually begins within minutes and which up until that moment has been a closely guarded secret.

The amateurish efforts to maintain secrecy have been easily penetrated by a jaded press in the slow summer news cycle, and perhaps that is part of the point as the phenomena feeds off the press coverage. But in the future using portable wired devices from PDAs to smart phones and wired laptops, Mobs could be directed by remote control in secure messages allowing them to really utilize the element of surprise and coordination.

The worldwide nature of the phenomena is another aspect which it seems to me has been inadequately exploited up to this point. One of the main paradigm-changing features of the Net is its transcendence of distance and borders. When will organizers start planning simultaneous Mobs on all seven continents (small mob in Antarctica), or geographically distant Mobs participating in interrelated actions. The disparate Mobs could be kept in real-time contact via the Net and portable electronics.

It is the ability to synchronize motions in separate individuals in separate places, coming together, which impresses me most about the Flash Mobs. After all, it was the terrible synchronicity of the 9/11 attacks that scared most Americans to their bones. The fact that they somehow got together 19 seemingly healthy and sane young men ready to commit group suicide and mass murder for the cause is incredible enough. To anyone at all familiar with the East Coast Air Traffic Corridor, the fact that they all managed to get into the air at the same time is nothing short of a diabolical miracle.

That same potentially terrorific timing and camouflage ability (Flash Mobs can seemingly appear from nowhere and disappear into their surroundings just as quickly) make them potentially dangerous tactical units in any hypothetical future civil or political unrest.