This past weekend marked the passing of Rodney King, a cultural pillar of transformation in the late 20th century. Never noted as an intellectual, a community leader or even a model citizen Rodney King’s mark on civil society, in spite of his background, will forever live on beyond his death.
The L.A riots in 1992 signalled a shift in the way that the people of Los Angeles related to the L.A.P.D and re-ignited discussions around the world about race and equality. But many cultural critics cite the attack on Rodney King as an event that transcended race. In fact, in retrospect, a lot of the intellectual and artistic discourse centered around poverty and what would be tolerated to uphold civility in America, the then model nation state of freedom. The dialectical analysis took time and consideration, the ideological motives were examined by “experts” and political scientists examined ways to pivot society into a positive direction. The catharsis that was the riot and the subsequent cultural changes are undoubtedly etched into our history and the passing of Rodney King begs many questions of the effects of that event.
Of greater interest, at least to this author, is what the dynamic would be if the assault on Rodney King happened today. Would we see the same societal response? Would the story last more than a single news cycle? What would we know about the assailants? What would we know about the legal process? What would the media dynamic look like? How would the cable news shows respond? The questions are numerous but the effects in today’s information-laden society are quite interesting. To understand this change let’s look at the events of Rodney King through the effects that have come as a results of technological and media changes since then.
Too Much Information
The obvious first difference in the effects of the Rodney King assault would be the story’s ability to break through the volumes of information that are currently being sent our way. Proliferation of news sources and decentralized / atomized media would challenge the event’s ability to break through in the same manner when it captivated the world and turned Rodney King into a household name. One could draw the Trayvon Martin case in South Florida as a comparable example which may challenge the “Too Much Information” argument for different effects. Regardless, we are a culture that struggles to deal with the flood of news stories and when they do break through our attention to them tends to dwindle more quickly in time.
A secondary biproduct of the proliferation of media comes by way of our inability to understand the nature of truth and our dialectical path to “analysis paralysis.” As written about previously here there aren’t many events that have even a shred of ambiguity to it that do not go through the internet machine of editorial and opinion. While the irony is not lost on the nature of this post the very path our society goes through to resolve issues doesn’t bode well for ambiguous affairs. Surely one could also imagine the role of celebrity on Twitter playing a huge part in defining opinion and catalyzing reaction in a populist process at uncovering truth. Without a doubt the opinion-based analysis of the grainy Rodney King beating footage would be so exhaustively editorialized that no matter the result the effects of a judicial decision would dilute any catharsis that may ensue.
Personal media and information access are just the beginnings of a society transformed. Countless stories of people and their social media profiles influencing events range from people getting hired / fired to email / phone hacking to citizen investigations dictate a different way in which we make decisions about one another. While technology has forced transparency on many fronts it would be hard to not believe that this methodology wouldn’t have an effect on the way we analyzed the Rodney King events. The backgrounds of both Rodney King and the L.A.P.D officers would be endlessly critiqued, justified and vilified, all in order to justify or invalidate arguments around the appropriateness of the events. The “who” could conceivably quickly overwhelm the “what” in this case.
A critical component of the effects of the Rodney King beating was the rarity of such a graphic event being caught on camera. Violence like that was not common and video evidence of such acts were even rarer. Today we are awash with shock content and gotcha video footage. One need not to look past to the Occupy movement video guide or the propaganda methods of the middle east uprisings to understand the manipulative ways to propagate stories in an effort of gain the world’s attention. In an era with Live Leaks, beheadings, gore sites and the like we wonder if an event like Rodney King’s would even reach 100,000 views. The responses we see from police in response to protests around the world would provide a challenging stage for the Rodney King footage to succeed in capturing the world’s attention.
An interesting antagonist that would undoubtedly alter the nature of the events surrounding Rodney King, especially the ensuing riots, would the role of organizing through social media. One would quickly imagine uses of social media to incite protest against the L.A.P.D but what about the ensuing response? One could quickly see the ability for police to predict the riots with smarter, real-time social intelligence. While the London riots tend us to believe that the rioters are better equipped through social would the impending judicial verdict have authorities on high alert? Social media, and its ability to organize collective action is a recent phenomenon that would have undoubtedly influenced the events surrounding the reactions to the beating. Both for and against its role would have shaped events in a way that would have changed the cultural effects of Rodney King.
Regardless of your stance on the events that surrounded Rodney King it is an interesting exercise to understand what might of happen to us a society if it had happened today. Would there be riots? Maybe? Would we know more? Surely. But thinking of the world we live in today and the rate of outrageous stories we are exposed to daily from thousands of media sources I don’t know if we would see things as they were when it happened back then. One hopes that something would happen but I guess it is up to us to be ready for the next one to see.
Rest in Peace Rodney King … rest in peace.
Image from here: http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-201_162-57454782/rodney-king-found-dead/