Mobile phones: London riots 02.04.12

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As the London riots showed, youth culture is permeated by mobile phones – and the Blackberry in particular. Kieran Yates reports

The images of the London riots will be forever implanted in my memory as grainy, jolting snapshots captured on mobile phones. These images will define the relationship of the phone and youth culture for years to come – coupled with one closer to home, of young people looking down instead of where they're going, phone in hand, mind in the technological ether, engaged in a world that has become both all encompassing and alienating.

Mobile phones are a staple of urban youth culture and their cultural significance is firmly documented, from fun, tongue in-cheek songs like "BB hype" a sort of ode to a Blackberry, the novel Manifesto written entirely on a phone by 19-year old Andre Anderson, or Grime artist JME creating his own mobile network, "Boy Better Know". This is a generation that uses the technology as a creative aid, realises its potential, and grew up knowing how to text. It's as used to hearing "What's your [BBM] pin?" when accosting a pretty girl as "What's your number?" (One of my favourite memories of seeing Jay-Z a few years ago was the shouts from the crowd of "What's your pin?")

The intention of BBM particularly, the Blackberry Messenger application of Blackberry phones, was tarnished in the media thanks to reports of its role in aiding organised groups of looters. In reality the app is far more frequently used to organise parties, market a mixtape, or even to warn against ticket inspectors at a train station. These message threads are key in creating a new world of telecommunication – one more secret than a phone call, thriftier than a text, more personal than a tweet.

The technology has certainly exceeded what its manufacturer initially intended – SMS was originally thought of as a back channel for engineers to use in very specialist circumstances – fast forward, and thanks to the medium, abbreviations like FML, KMT and WTF have become part of everyday vernacular.

Young people who try to merge technological and physical space will always be criticised. Take the advent of "sodcasting" (that is, music, on crowded public transport, coming from the speaker on a mobile phone) which is seen as one of the most antisocial uses of a phone, so much so that in 2008, a "Together for London" poster campaign on "tube etiquette" was issued by TFL which included a cartoon stating that "I will not play my music out loud." The miniature ghettoblaster-cum-telecommunications-devices are seemingly the height of deviance in some spaces, while in others, like grime raves and poetry slams, they are king. Young poets, artists and MCs rely on phones to read their lyrics from – a medium with more longevity than the crumpled pieces of papers that we used to see.

The mobile as a commodity has become ubiquitous with youth identity. From bling phones cases adorned with diamante, to nostalgia-inspired cases that replicate old-school Nokias, they have become an extension of ourselves, representing status, style and sentiment – and we must decorate them accordingly. The fetishisation of technology has existed since the Futurist Manifesto, but mobile phones have become bigger than mere objects of desire, they have become bigger than ourselves, bigger than our systems of control.

Kieran Yates is a writer on music and politics



Andy Gilmore



Kieran Yates

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The class divider is decorated with dotted chains that are supposed to represent a bead curtain

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