Emergence and media feeding frenzies

Anyone who studies systems (and I started life as a systems engineer) knows that emergence is the most potent and mysterious property they have. One sees it in behaviour or properties exhibited by the whole system that cannot be inferred from studying its components in isolation. (For a metaphor, think of the pungent smell of ammonia, an emergent property of a system comprised of two odourless gases — nitrogen and hydrogen.)

What brings this to mind is the media frenzy that has accompanied the brutal killing of an off-duty soldier in a part of London. As Simon Jenkins points out in a fine column, what the killers seek is worldwide publicity for their rationalisations for hacking a British soldier to death. And that is precisely what the media have given them.

The first question in any war – terrorism is allegedly a war – is to ask what the enemy most wants you to do. The Woolwich killers wanted publicity for their crime, available nowadays at the click of a mobile phone. They got it in buckets. Any incident is now transmitted instantly round the globe by the nearest “citizen journalist”. The deranged of all causes and continents can step on stage and enjoy the freedom of cyberspace. Kill someone in the street and an obliging passerby will transmit the “message” to millions. The police, who have all but deserted the rougher parts of London, will grant you a full quarter hour for your press conference.

There is little a modern government can do to stem the initial publicity that terrorism craves. But it has considerable control over the subsequent response. When the Metropolitan police commissioner, Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, pleaded for calm and for London to continue as normal, he was spitting into a hurricane. Terror could not have begged for more sensational attention than was granted it by Britain’s political community and media.

Where does the idea of emergence fit into this? Well, I’d bet that if one asked any individual journalist involved in covering this story — from the humblest reporter thanklessly knocking on doors in run-down council estates, to the editors of national newspapers and broadcast networks — they would agree that it’s crazy to acquiesce in the terrorists’ desire for publicity. But they’re all caught in a system that makes it impossible to do otherwise. So the crazed feeding frenzy is the emergent outcome.

The other interesting aspect of the story is the way in which right-wingers — e.g. former Home Secretary John ‘Lord’ Reid and the intelligence nerd Lord Carlile — immediately began talking up (on Newsnight on the evening of the murder) the need for a revival of the Communications Data Bill (aka Snoopers’ Charter). Gruesome news provides not only a way of burying bad news; it also enables politically-motivated folks to slip in repressive legislation under the radar.

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