Technology as a tool in today's news

As I write this, I'm listening to discussions on the BBC World News on the possible causes of the London riots, where hordes of people, mostly young, are looting shops and homes, setting fires and creating an atmosphere of fear and chaos.

One of the debates surrounding these events is the role that technology is playing -- either to aid the rioters, to try to calm the situation or to encourage others to help in prevention and cleanup.

While there has been some of the usual "technology is to blame" cries in the British press from sources such as the tabloid Daily Mail, which was quick to point at Twitter and BlackBerry Messenger (the BlackBerry instant messaging app), both the BBC and the Guardian have run articles investigating some of the claims. They write that Twitter -- because it is a public medium -- seems to be acting more as a means to try to discourage rioters and pass around information on cleanups. However, because BlackBerry Messenger can send one-to-many messages, it may, according to the Guardian article, be more culpable. In fact, according to an article in the Guardian, Research in Motion has contacted authorities to help investigate whether and/or how its BlackBerry Messenger service has supported the riots.

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The authorities are using tech themselves in an effort to combat the chaos. London's Metropolitan Police has apparently set up a Flicker page with security camera photos of people looting (or about to loot) stores, asking for help in identifying them; and the Twitter hashtag #tweetalooter has been set up to encourage additional identification. (No word yet on how effective either of these are.)

And, of course, there are the videos and the photos, which are proliferating as those who are observing the riots -- and the aftermaths -- send reports and images onto the Web. Several images have, so far, seemed to predominate: a woman jumping from a burning building; a couple making tea for the police using a riot shield as a tray; a video of an injured young man whose backpack is rifled through by one of the rioters; and a parade of people headed out to help clean up.

It's obvious technology will continue to be a tool that will both report on and affect events around the world -- as has been the case ever since the invention of the printing press. The only question is: Who will use it most effectively?

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