These frustrated rebels without a cause

The flash mob craze is full of meaning, its very pointlessness a 'cri de coeur' about the way we live now
Click to follow

Poor, deluded flash mobbers. They are convinced they are part of a meaningless movement, but as any post-structuralist will tell you, there's no such thing. The flashing mobbing craze, which started in New York, caught on in Europe and made its debut in London last week, is stuffed with meaning, its very pointlessness a satirical cri de coeur about the way we live.

Poor, deluded flash mobbers. They are convinced they are part of a meaningless movement, but as any post-structuralist will tell you, there's no such thing. The flashing mobbing craze, which started in New York, caught on in Europe and made its debut in London last week, is stuffed with meaning, its very pointlessness a satirical cri de coeur about the way we live.

The high jinks started in June, at Macy's in New York, with about 100 people turning up at the department store, enquiring in unison about the possibility of purchasing a "love rug" for group sex in a "suburban commune", then dispersing again as suddenly as they'd arrived.

Other New York stunts have included a group of 300 converging on a 20ft animatronic Tyrannosaurus in Toys R Us in Times Square, falling in worship before the beast and then making a run for it.

The Germans have got in on the act, gathering outside the US embassy in Berlin, simultaneously making a champagne toast to "Natasha" before melting away. The Italians caused a minor fracas in a Rome bookshop by congregating to order the non-existent sequel, Pinnochio 2: The Vendetta.

Last week in London's Tottenham Court Road, a crowd mobbed a sofa shop, fondled the merchandise, then en masse received mobile phone calls that prompted them all to exclaim "Oh wow! What a sofa", before cutting a swift exit. Other flash mobbings round Britain are promised in the coming weeks.

Old counter-cultural hands will point out wearily that there's nothing new in such wheezes, nodding to Sixties happenings, surrealist gatherings and situationist protests in a been-there, done-that manner. But the uniquely charming thing about flash mobs is that, unlike those and other previous group stunts - most recently photographer Spencer Tunick's naked tableau in Selfridges in London - these little performances are staged in the name of neither ideology or art. Push a flash mobber on what it's all for, and the most profound answer you'll get is "fun".

Even Derrick Robinson, the hapless sofa shop manager who reopened his store last week as he thought the crowd outside heralded the arrival of a big-spending celebrity, recognises that the random silliness of flash mobbing has its appeal. "Life's too short to be annoyed about it," he declared. "In fact, I thought it was brilliant."

He's right. There is something rather brilliant about flash mobbing. But far from being meaningless, flash mobbing can instead be read as an attack on meaning, a gesture of defiance against genuine protest, which increasingly we view as violent and far too deadly serious.

The writer and commentator Howard Rheingold is being credited as the prescient chap who foresaw the flash mobbing movement in his book of last year, Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution. In it, he documented the protest movement's embrace of technology, the way in which groups co-ordinated demonstrations using the internet and the mobile phone.

This is exactly the way in which flash mobs organise, but even when Mr Rheingold was writing, the smart mobs he had in mind were those seeking political change, like the Mayday protesters who use the internet and their mobiles to attempt, with increasing frustration, to bring mayhem to the city of London. The twist that the flash mobbers bring is that they have subverted subversion. The random acts of senseless violence we are conditioned to fear from this kind of technologically organised event, instead result in random acts of senseless jokery.

On this level, flash mobbing can be looked at as a poke in the eye - with a tickling stick - against civil disobedience, organised protest and even, perhaps especially, terrorism. But on a deeper level it can be viewed as something sadder - an indication that many people want to sign up to something, as long as the cost to them is minimal, the commitment transitory, and the principle non-existent.

One Boston-based flash mobber described his activities as "French Revolution lite", and this seems to sum up a lot of the impetus that inspires people to join flash mobs. They enjoy the excitement of being involved in something clandestine, subversive, naughty and unpredictable (expect to those in on the secret), but appreciate the fact that there's no price to be paid for their harmless form of escapism.

One British man who works as a banker in New York and attended the first event in Macy's explains: "Most of the people who come tend to be white, in their late 20s and early 30s and work in IT. The main motivation is fun. People enjoy it. It's a bit different: many people have a very humdrum life and it's good to just get out and about..."

The internet call to register in a Birmingham flash mob is directed at just this sort of middle-class micro-rebel: "We work in grey office buildings. We have mortgages, bills, kids and we drive Fords. It doesn't matter who we are, there is no individual - only the mob."

For the governments of liberal democracy - where the craze has been taken up with the most enthusiasm - such mobs are a gift, a harmless simulacrum of real mob action, which allows the middle classes to let off a little steam without any danger of them picking up any funny ideas.

But in another way, that same lack of commitment seems restrained and laudable, an elaborate joke against those so unable to accept the treadmill of conformity and routine that they do something vile and destructive, like joining the IRA or al-Qa'ida. The flash mobbers are moving in the other direction, upping the ante on the idea of the rebel without a cause, and becoming rebels without a rebellion.

Nevertheless there is an undercurrent of dissatisfaction here that our political masters would be as well to take heed of. A new report out this week suggests, for example, that middle-class suburbanites, those totems of little-England complacency, are becoming increasingly unhappy with their lot. There is a rising sense that consumer capitalism and its goal of individual prosperity is not going to be quite the balm to the masses that it was cracked up to be.

Funnily enough, JG Ballard's new novel, Millennium People, has the same sort of message. Instead of merely flash-mobbing, though, his recalcitrant middle classes do form a terrorist cell, attacking the institutions - from the National Film Theatre and Tate Modern to travel agents and bookshops - that they see as providing the cultural ballast filling their lives with the activity that stops them from questioning the real meaning of their manipulated existence.

Our hero explains the motivations of our anti-hero, towards the end of the book: "He was trying to find new meaning in the most meaningless times, the first of a new kind of desperate man who refuses to bow before the arrogance of existence and the tyranny of space-time. He believed that the most pointless acts could challenge the universe at its own game."

There's a weird echo of such sentiments in the motivation of the flash mobbers, pale and bland by comparison with the interpretation of modern life that we have come to expect from Britain's most venerable literary dystopian, but there to be noted all the same. Flash mobbing may prove to be a flash-in-the-pan. But the restless longings behind the movement, and articulated by it in the most sweetly whimsical of ways, will prove less of a summer novelty.