I like to reread the science fiction I first read when I was a teenager. I find interesting the perspective a life lived in history gives to the artifacts of youth. Recently I reread Larry Niven’s collection of short stories The Flight of the Horse and was particularly struck by “Flash Crowd”, a description, originally published in 1973, of an imagined future world in which personal teleportation has recently become ubiquitous and inexpensive, much like public telephone booths became in the last century.
The story follows an investigative reporter (we might call him a videographer today), first as he scouts stories by flitting between displacement booths, and later, for most of the story, as he tries to find a way to convince the world that he is not to blame for an ongoing, teleportation driven riot that began as he recorded it. In the end he demonstrates that it is not he, as a representative of the free press, but rather the new technology of unregulated transfer booths that is responsible for what threatens to be a plague of floating flash riots around the world. As one part of his investigation, he takes a booth to Tahiti and discovers that already there are permanent lawless crowds plaguing parts of the world, that the riot back home in Los Angeles is what parts of the world have been dealing with since shortly after the first displacement booths were installed. In the end a plan is suggested which will see police having control of an emergency switch which will quickly bring any flash mobbed area back under the rule of law.
The details of the plan Niven comes up with are not of much interest to me at the moment. My interest, rather, is in what I find to be striking parallels between our world and Niven’s Flash Crowd world, in which everyone with an axe to grind, a protest to make, a chip on their shoulder, a product to hawk, a fraud or theft to commit, a conspiracy to postulate, or even a book to review, can simply dial a code in a displacement booth and find themselves before the eyes of the world in an instant piled-on flash mob. In Niven’s world, displacement booths allow individuals to actually go into the thick of the mob. In our world, like so much else, the mob has become virtual.
I’ve written a bit elsewhere about what I see to be one of the dangers of our modern ability to travel virtually to virtually any spot on earth: that there are virtues and benefits for an individual in taking time and effort to experience things. It is better to trek on foot to Everest than it is to simply helicopter into Base Camp before climbing. I think Niven’s story points out that there is also a danger to society in the instant gratification available to us in our digitally interwoven world. Especially when our baser urges — what are traditionally known in some cultures as the Seven Deadly Sins — are allowed to be indulged instantly, the danger of the virtual mob is every bit as real as the danger Niven imagined in his world of displacement booths and physical flash mobs.
There is no need, I think, to rehearse the list of people who have had lives ruined by social media mobbing. I’m sure there are few who are not aware, even if they’ve never visited them, that there are permanently dangerous and unpleasant places in the underbelly of the online world. But I do think there is a great need for thoughtful people to seriously consider the implications of this world we’ve created, to not simply live in a happy online bubble of cat gifs and instant links to family and friends. Behind the cartoons are countless virtual floating flash riots which are causing and will continue to cause very real pain and loss to very real people.
I don’t have any answers, but I can suggest that a reading of Larry Niven’s “Flash Crowd” can offer some perspective from an unexpected half-century old source.