Newsletter - sign up here
Search Webster
Webster's pieces from The Oldie
Webster's Webwatch

The Internet riots?

October 2001

I have been considering the riots, and if the internet played a part. I have my doubts.

As usual, the media became over-excited, as they always do, by any internet connection; headlines like “Twitter Riots” and so forth.  One national columnist (he may have had his tongue in his cheek) wondered if it is time for Pope Benedict to declare the internet to be an invention of the devil.

This will strike a loud chord with technology historians; there is nothing new under the sun.

Douglas Adams, the literary scion of Lewis Carroll and PG Wodehouse, held that we are suspicious of any technology developed after we are 35.  If he is right, we Oldies should try hard to keep our minds open.  Most of the time, of course, it’s easier not to.

I have been reading some work on this subject by Vaughan Bell, a psychologist at King’s College.  For example, he points out that the regular complaint that children overuse technology is far from new; even Socrates warned that the invention of writing could rob the young of their ability to remember (

Malesherbes, an eighteenth Century French Statesman, argued that newspapers socially isolated readers (as many complain Facebook does today) and hence denied them the spiritual benefit of hearing their news from the pulpit.

When Ericsson introduced the telephone in Sweden it was denounced from similar pulpits as an instrument of the devil (

After radios became affordable, an article in the Gramophone in 1936 ( complained that children were submitting to “the compelling excitement of the loudspeaker" (good phrase!) in preference to schoolwork; we still hear much the same grumble about television.

Then the computer entered almost every home, and they are off again.  The Daily Mail, that bellwether of uninformed sensationalism, even ran a story claiming that using Facebook could “raise your risk of cancer” (

Back to the riots: if the internet had any influence on them at all, it was slight, in my view.  I don’t know why or how mobs form but they always have, and they always will.  I’ll give you an example.

There was a riot in London in February 1886 that was a carbon copy of the 2011 version.  A violent mob in Trafalgar Square hijacked a worthy protest by the unemployed, and rampaged through the West End, breaking windows, plundering shops and helping themselves to the symbols of the wealthy.

Doesn’t that sound familiar?  And not a Blackberry or a Tweet in sight, unless they came from the bushes in Hyde Park.

An editorial in The Times on 10th February 1886 could almost have been reprinted in 2011.  It held the unemployed protesters innocent and blamed the trouble on exactly the same people who were around in 2011; The Times called them “mere loafers” who were agitated by ring-leaders who “assembled to carry out a scheme of mischief”.  It also complained that the police and the Home Office had no right to be surprised by what happened as they had watched those inciting the riot at work (as could anyone with a Facebook account or a Blackberry in the recent unpleasantness).

The Times also thundered that that despite having “the telegraph and the other resources of civilisation at their command” the Police “did nothing”

Note the reference to the telegraph, which obviously held the same mystical power for the Press in 1886 as the internet does now.  The rioters in 1886 did not even have the telegraph; but they still managed to congregate and commit crimes exactly as they did in 2011. Something bigger was at work.

Now, how did I know about the editorial in the Times on that date?  Because I have free access to the digital archive of the Times from home, thanks to my county library and the internet.  Your library almost certainly provides the same service.  Look it up; that editorial is worth a read.

So I would remind those who fear the influence of the Internet that we’ve been here before; human nature doesn’t change and the internet is trivial by comparison.  The printing press probably did change society; penicillin prolongs our lives; but all the internet is likely to achieve is faster access to knowledge.

I can’t object to that.