“Flash Mobs” in Wired

“#Riot: Self-Organized, Hyper-Networked Revolts – Coming to a City Near You” in the January issue of Wired analyzes the role of communication technology in recent public violence. The author, Wired senior editor Bill Wasik, says when he held the first flash mob in 2003 he thought Niven’s phrase was a bad fit for his benign cultural happenings. Now, in 2011, he appreciates Niven’s foresight:

One reason the term “flash mob” stuck back in 2003 was its resonance…with a 1973 short story by Larry Niven called “Flash Crowd.” Niven’s tale revolved around the effects of cheap teleportation technology, depicting a future California where “displacement booths” line the street like telephone booths. The story is set in motion when its protagonist, a TV journalist, inadvertently touches off a riot with one of his news reports. Thanks to teleportation, the rioting burns out of control for days, as thrill-seekers use the booths to beam in from all around to watch and loot. Reading “Flash Crowd” back in 2003, I hadn’t seen much connection to my own mobs, which I intended as a joke about the slavishness of fads. I laughed off anyone who worried about these mobs getting violent. In 2011, though, it does feel like Niven got something chillingly correct. He seems especially prescient in the way he describes the interplay of curiosity, large numbers, and low-level criminality that causes his fictional riots to grow. “How many people would be dumb enough to come watch a riot?” the narrator asks. “But that little percentage, they all came at once, from all over the United States and some other places, too. And the more there were, the bigger the crowd got, the louder it got—the better it looked to the looters … And the looters came from everywhere, too.”

Wasik devotes most of the article to probing the psychology of the participants, and I feel one comment resonates with the early history of sf fandom:

One might call this the emergence of mega-undergrounds, groups of people for whom the rise of Facebook and Twitter has laid bare the disconnect between their real scale and the puny extent to which the dominant culture recognizes them.

Doesn’t this also apply to the 1930s, and that disrespected popular genre whose pulp magazines were nevertheless selling 200,000 copies a month? When the magazines started letter columns to help market themselves, they also created a channel of communication between the fans of this fiction that allowed them to realize they were far from alone. While hardly a flash mob, limited by the speed of second-class mail and Greyhound buses, the revelation of an sf mega-underground led to a fannish convergence at the first World Science Fiction Convention.

[Thanks to Martin Morse Wooster for the story.]

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