The Twitter Hordes: A Fictional Trip Inside David Cameron's Head

More

Social media is disaggregating the body politic into a million noisy voices

Cameron-Reuters-Post.jpg

You battled your way to the top of the an established political party with your charisma and cunning and connections. You figured out how to stare into the cameras, television and otherwise, and to "connect" with voters. The media loved you, and they hated you, but mostly they loved you because you made for good stories.

You hated the media, the way they took things out of context, caught you out saying stupid things, treated the whole of politics as some kind of a game instead of a very serious business. But then you made some friends among the ones who'd been around. You confided in a few and saw who burned you, confided again in those who didn't. They told stories that made you sound brave or smart or craven. But always you were a man of action with enemies who were other men of action and you went after each other like gladiators, with honor, for the good of the country. They were spectators who could only be ennobled by the grandness of your actions and so they saw in what you did the grandness of your actions. You were fundamentally on the same team, with everything that you'd worked for on the line. And you ate dinner in a lot of the same places, less since you'd taken over the country, but still, there was a landscape of power that you both had mapped and that knowledge made you bond as locals.

You were aware of social media. You laughed at the energy devoted to building networks. It all seemed frivolous in the developed world.

Somewhere, there were citizens of your country, who you liked very much in the aggregate. You loved them. The body politic was your raison d'etre, and you thought of it often, recalled it kindly, and had its best interests in mind. It had opinions that could be found out and needs to be satisfied. It wanted jobs and law and order and freedom. It wanted you to look after the country's interests and stay out its way when things were going well. Even when minds were divided, the body politic endured, and that helped you keep going, helped you remember that you were defending a civilized, good people who just wanted to be happy.

Occasionally, a face would be pasted onto the body in a television program or in a magazine. Someone would speak for the people, usually in the third or fourth graf (or TV equivalent), right when the scene had been set. What the body politic wanted was explicable and coherent and usually favored one or the other of the policies that you or one of the other great men were promoting. What they wanted was either what you wanted or what your opponents wanted. Your civilized battlefield with its 90-degree angles and aim-and-shoot conventions defined the boundaries of what people wanted. What the body politic wanted was the blue guys (or the red guys) and what everyone wanted was for the glorious nature of the country to be known by all. Even the 24-hour news cycles didn't disrupt all that. They just sped up the battles, as if we'd Tivo'd the Battle of ________ and played it back at triple speed.

There were other groups that told you about the people. Social workers, etc. They came back with horrible stories that were tallied into data tables that ended up in the appendices of the reports that you read the summary of the executive summary of. It's not that you didn't care, but there were a lot of reports and what could the leader of a country do for an individual?

The statistics and the body politic and the lead quote in the A1 newspaper story and the man-on-the-street TV interview were necessary fictions. They let one story speak for the masses, and the masses speak for the one.

And then, when necessary, you would take to the airwaves to speak one-on-one, leader to body politic, about what was happening. You could calm the people. You could move the people. The people watched you when the people watched the television. And you could be on the television whenever you wanted.

You were aware of social media. You laughed at the energy people devoted to building their networks. You knew that Facebook was sweeping the country. It all seemed frivolous in the developed nations, a time-waster. Like television without all the good pomp and circumstance. These people were spending all day *talking to each other* over the Internet. What a waste! There were great books written by great men to be read. There was serious business to attend to. Your media team could handle these things. You paid them to know how they worked. Who had the time for all this twatting or whatever you call it?

In late 2010, things started to go haywire across North Africa. Pockets of resistance to leaders very unlike yourself sprung up and you watched them with interest. You cheered them on as they organized outside the state-run media that merely regurgitated what the dictators told them. The loudspeakers metastasized into a thousand digital megaphones and people hit the streets in Tunis and Cairo. Not all the revolutions were as successful as those, but nonetheless, you had to give it to the Arab Street. They'd adopted the social media tools and used them to overthrow their oppressors by speaking as one. That was the lesson you took from it. Finally, the body politic in Egypt had been allowed to speak.

Then, one day, suddenly, without warning, there were riots in your own streets. Your police didn't know what to do. Your citizens were mad or scared or mad and scared. You hear reports that people were using their phones and these social networks to organize looting. You read some of the individual messages. You look at what the people are saying. And you are appalled. It's not just what the violent people in the streets are doing, it's what everyone is doing. There's no civility. Who are these people making all this noise while you alone know what the signal is? Why isn't the body politic listening when you go on television? Why do you feel so helpless? This thing is spreading in ways you don't understand.

You decide to threaten to shut down social media. You say to the people:

Everyone watching these horrific actions will be struck by how they were organised via social media. Free flow of information can be used for good. But it can also be used for ill. 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 websites and services when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality.

You have no idea how you might do this, but it seems like you should make a stand, say the words S_____ Y____. You also know that this will scare some people off of those places where people are talking to each other instead of looking at you. Because what the nation needs to do right now is look at you. You represent the nation, law and order. You protect the body politic, which is coherent and whole. It is not a million voices status updating and tweeting and Blackberry Messaging whatever the hell they want.

This is not just about how the riots were organized. It is about the need to battle chaos and anarchy, the need to perpetuate civilization. Society is in danger of being overwhelmed not just by violence but by the noise of innumerable neighbors all shouting at once. They are losing the story that held the nation together, the one that happens to have you in a leading role right at the moment.

As you drift off for a few hours of sleep, you let yourself wonder if the people have always been this writhing chaotic mass. Is there no such thing as a body politic? Is it all just noise? Have the places you've been and the people you've known been a simulacrum of reality? Then what of your actions and your speeches, your opponents and late charges to their flanks, your legacy?

You wake up. The city has mostly stopped burning.

Image: Reuters.

Jump to comments
Presented by

Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Social Security: The Greatest Government Policy of All Time?

It's the most effective anti-poverty program in U.S. history. So why do some people hate it?


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.

Video

What Makes a Story Great?

The storytellers behind House of CardsandThis American Life reflect on the creative process.

Video

Tracing Sriracha's Origin to Thailand

Ever wonder how the wildly popular hot sauce got its name? It all started in Si Racha.

Video

Where Confiscated Wildlife Ends Up

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.

Video

Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.

Video

The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air

Writers

Up
Down

More in Technology

Just In