While it is always easy for 'the media' to blame technology for whatever bad stuff is currently filling the front pages of the newspapers, could it actually have a point as rioting and looting rip apart the streets of London? The answer might appear to be a tentative yes as Blackberry manufacturers Research-in-Motion (RIM) take to Twitter to confirm it will help the police in any way it can. But appearances can be deceptive.
Why a smartphone maker should choose to post such a statement right in the middle of an ongoing riot (as I write, my old stomping grounds in South East London have been set ablaze including the likes of McDonalds, Debenhams and Argos stores) becomes a bit clearer when you understand that Blackberry users appear to have been behind much of the 'organisation' of these riots.
You might not immediately associate unemployed and disaffected inner city youth with Blackberries, but anecdotal evidence over the weekend has certainly suggested that much of the rioting and looting that has spread across London has largely been co-ordinated using BBM, the Blackberry Instant Message service. Not such a surprise when you note that recent statistics showed 37 percent of UK teenagers cite the Blackberry as being their smartphone of choice. Mainly thanks to the free and confidential BBM service which teens are leaning towards instead of SMS text messaging.
The official RIM Twitter account has today tweeted that "We feel for those impacted by the riots in London. We have engaged with the authorities to assist in any way we can". Now, you may read into that an early attempt by RIM to fend off any short term brand damage that being associated with the rioting may cause, or that it acknowledges the part that Blackberry users have played and is determined to see them brought to justice.
If the latter, then one has to assume RIM is prepared to decrypt BBM sessions and hand them over to law enforcement agencies in order for them to be able to identify and arrest those involved. Something I honestly cannot see happening, given that RIM has something of a history when it comes to defending the right to encrypt these messages and not to hand them over as a matter of course. Indeed, I would imagine the police would not only require a court order but also a suspect and some weight of evidence before that court order could be contemplated.
Meanwhile, the media continue to lay much of the blame, completely true to form, at the feet of Facebook and Twitter. The truth, of course, is that whenever something spontaneous like this happens, the perpetrators will use whatever means of communication is available to them. Which includes word of mouth, email, the telephone and, of course, social networks and IM as well.
Technology is used to help spread the word about rioting and looting, but it sure isn't to blame for it.