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World-View Overview

(updated Autumn 2017)

'The Overview', Part 3 –
  1980s: Then came micro-computers and the Internet, and we looked upon the email and saw it was good...

By the mid-80s certain useful tools began to filter down to campaigners – such as electric typewriters, and if you had the budget, photocopiers.

A few people had computers, but they were comparatively expensive, and so their use tended to be restricted. Even the large, nationally organised campaign groups did not really engage with IT systems for campaining until the 1990s. Most local campaigns using computers were reliant on tacky, but functional consumer IT devices such as the Amstrad PCW.

Amstrad PCW

And of course, except for those who physically built the equipment and interfaced it to these early machines, Internet connections were rare.

The "early adopters" of computers and electronic networking in the environment movement were not the people working in the London offices of the major campaign groups – they were local people who shared resources and technical knowledge in order to develop their own capabilities.

For the most part they were locally-based peace, environmental, anti-nuclear and animal rights campaigners who were not primarily using this new media for publishing and presentations (that would come later), but instead as a cheap communications tool to assist organizing actions on a larger scale.

Though limited at first, they were re-appropriating the technology of the global corporate paradigm to serve a new master; the public. And the early networks which arose out of this on-line space towards the end of the 80s and the early 1990s – such as Reclaim the Streets Indymedia, Urban75, and McSpotlight, as well as the early media labs such as Artec and Backspace – would redefine how activism would develop in years to come.

For example, one of the first major protest movements initiated by information technology was the anti-roads/anti-car-culture movement – groups like Reclaim the Streets or Critical Mass.

For a while the new technology scared the mainstream campaign groups. The response of some of the large campaign groups to these events were, in one sense, hilarious; but in reality testified to the ineptitude of those who claimed to represent the public interest.

The head of one campaign group, challenged at its national conference to set up email lists for its local activists, said that this would not be possible because of the costs of a feasibility study into how it could be done. There and then a local activist in the audience held up his Libretto palm-top and told them about the email list he already ran from this little computer, and questioned their understanding of the value of electronic networking (or rather, their fears).

take it back Another major campaign group expressed its concern about going on-line and allowing free access to people to 'cut and paste' their material, and so only put on a small fraction of the information they produced to avoid people breaching their copyright.

The Internet scared the large campaign groups because it entailed a loss of control; but more than that, because people now had the ability to simply and cheaply find out what was going on in the world, it challenged the large campaign groups' role as gatekeeper's to the public's concerns.

Given the opportunity to simply and cheaply develop a mass campaign these groups held back because participating in a real movement for change entailed giving up their traditional control over the messages promoted.

The grassroots activists on the other hand had no such hang-ups about actively deploying this technology to improve their work and direct action…

Next page: Part 4, 1990s: 'Then the 'passive' became the 'active' – digital activism as 'Frankenstein's hacker'' »»

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