Several years ago a writer sent me a pre-publication copy of a book on what was then a little known phenomenon: the flash mob. Many aspects of the events described in the manuscript struck me as fairly appealing -- spontaneous organization, communication with like-minded souls via the Net, possibilities for launching brief artistic and cultural happenings, instantaneous partying, and even prospects for political demonstrations. However, one aspect of this new form of social organization gave me pause -- the name "mob" itself. Having read Gustav LeBon's The Crowd, Georges Sorel's Reflections on Violence and writings on the "mass society" and totalitarian movements of the twentieth century, including the works of Hannah Arendt, I was struck by the political naivete that utopian imaginings about "flash mobs" seemed to encourage. What if the "mobs" turned out to be as angry, thoughtless and brutal as the name implied. Are we being asked to forget the hideous, decades long, politically pungent record of lynch mobs in America? I also remembered the "mobbing" against children problem -- we'd call it "bullying" in the US -- that was a major problem in schools during my my family's stay in Scandinavia twenty years ago.
With those lingering impression in mind I quietly decline to write a "blurb" for a book that contained some interesting, even admirable observations and arguments.
Now it appears that the days of the joyous song and dance flash mobs in Grand Central Station and of birthday and wedding celebrations in odd locations have to be weighed against the nasty flash mobs in the UK and U.S. spontaneously assembled for theft, looting and occasional violence. Those surprised by this turn of events have been suffering from a kind of forgetfulness about what can happen when you play with fire.