This week, a 14-year-old girl from Croydon briefly became the most famous person in Britain, and all she had to do was punch a pensioner in the face on the 166 bus.
You can watch it happening yourself if you like; CCTV footage released by the Metropolitan Police has been slapped over the website of just about every national newspaper. See another splinter fray from the rot of Broken Britain in real time. Watch our terrifying feral youth abscond from society at the touch of a button. The faces are pixelated, the motion is almost robotically jerky, the camerawork is terrible, but there it is—a flailing hand, a reeling pair of hunched shoulders, and underneath, a set of social media buttons so you can connect with your friends and family and loved ones by showing them footage of an 87-year-old woman being punched on a bus. This is normal. Sky News posted the video on Facebook, and received (at the time of writing) 3,947 likes for its troubles. Do nearly 4,000 people like the fact that even the elderly can get what's coming to them? Or do they just like the fact that they can watch it happening?
I've been punched in the face before. (As you can probably tell, I likely deserved it.) Punching each other in the face is a ritual observed in every human culture and one of the few things that has remained constant across history. It's happening right now, somewhere, as you read this. But sometimes, a punch in the face can echo around the world. Pointing out that most news (especially online news) has turned into entertainment is boring and clichéd; the question now is why some news stories are more entertaining than others. Mass deaths from cholera in Haiti—dull, preachy, unclickworthy. ISIS execution videos, or teenagers punching the elderly in the face—like, comment, subscribe. It's not that we haven't moved on from the era of gladiatorial combat as mass entertainment; since then the general attitude to violence has become infinitely more sophisticated in its neuroticism. Our culture has produced thousands of hours of computer-generated hordes being mown down with all kinds of weaponry, but what really gets the libidinal energies surging is the real footage. It's awful, the country's falling apart, kids have no morals, I wonder if there are any videos of pensioners punching each other, so I can disapprove of that too.
Of course, most of the people sending footage of a violent assault to all their friends believe that by doing this they're in some way setting things right, in the same way that sharing photos of dead and mutilated kids in Gaza or Syria or the Mediterranean is for some reason held to be a positive step towards ending all injustice. You're not just another worthless flesh-spindle tracking an endless loop from home to work and back again until your own body gets tired of you and turns itself off: you're a hero, self-disclosing the world to its own horrors, really making a difference. And isn't it convenient? You can perform this superhero gesture just by clicking the button with the number 3,947 next to it.
We've been here before. Five years ago, a woman in Coventry put a cat in a wheelie bin; it was caught on CCTV, and suddenly she stopped being Mary Bale and turned into a supervillainess of world-historical magnitude: Cat Bin Lady. Newspapers reported breathlessly on the search to uncover this vile creature's true identity. Ordinary people called for her execution, on live television if possible. In the end, a court fined her £250.
Something even uglier happened in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013. After images of the presumed attackers was released, the secret sleuths of Reddit, a popular website for imbeciles, decided to establish their identity. Within hours, they decided that the bombing had been carried out by Sunil Tripathi, a university student who had been missing for a month before the marathon. The Tripathi family, who had been trying to publicize their son's disappearance, were suddenly famous: they received hundreds of abusive messages as legions of angry (but entertained!) citizens decided that they were breeding a terrorist cell. Sunil Tripathi did not carry out the Boston Marathon bombing. In the end, his body was found floating in the Seekonk River. He'd killed himself weeks ago.
Michel Foucault argued that modern societies are organized on the principle of the panopticon—a design for a prison in which cells are arranged in a ring around a central tower, with the guard inside able to surveil all those trapped inside. CCTV cameras and GCHQ internet monitoring seem to bear him out. But most of the cameras are privately owned, and most of the people reading through your emails aren't spies but bosses and search-engine drones. A society under the stern eye of the all-powerful cops is terrifying, but what we actually have is even scarier—one in which anyone can suddenly start fulfilling the role of the watchful police, in which everyone is being constantly surveilled by everyone else.
With more and more cameras and more and more bored internet users, it's becoming increasingly dangerous to carry out any kind of indiscretion. First it's putting cats in the bin or looking vaguely similar to a grainy image of a terrorist; next it'll be littering or refusing to weep with patriotic pride whenever you see the Queen's face on a five-pound note.
The perpetrators of real evil never have to worry about this sort of thing; all their misdeeds are closed off in boardrooms. But for a few entrepreneurial spirits, this might actually be an incredible opportunity. Got a mixtape you want to promote? Is nobody reading your webcomic? Cafes refusing to put up your art? Get on the bus, find the sweetest old dear or the deck, and make sure you've got a good angle for the cameras in their omniscient black globes. You know what to do.
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