9th August 2014: Tolstoy, Paine and debating the ecological impacts of social media » 2014 » Mobbsey's Musings » Paul Mobbs/MEI » FRAW

Laslo's NVDA
Victor Laslo's cinematic NVDA!

"And yet in our world everybody thinks of changing humanity, and nobody thinks of changing himself": Tolstoy, Paine and debating the ecological impacts of social media

Paul Mobbs, "Mobbsey's Musings", 9th August 2014 (transcribed/edited 14th August 2014)

If you've seen my recent "musings", you'll note that the picture icons are mostly taken from old black and white films. That's not so much deliberate as reflective of the time when I've been subconsciously writing these posts. I've been really busy over recent months, and unlike newer films, with their complex plots and special effects, I find older films far more relaxing. There's something engaging about stripping out the trappings of the latest cinematic technology; focussing instead, almost like workshop theatre, on the simplicity of direct communication.

Settling down to another favourite classic film, and pondering the value of its archaic simplicity, I find myself musing on my recent workshop at the Green Gathering[1] – on the role of digital technologies within activism (you can download a summary here[2]).

I've been catching up on some long overdue domestic maintenance while I have the house to myself for a few days. I'm doing a top to bottom clean and a little re-arranging of the kitchen. Today I've had 12 hours at it, albeit very relaxed (though perhaps not as relaxing for the neighbours as I sing along to one of my "music for work" compilations).

It's getting dark outside; I've done enough today. I decide that it's time to try and make some mess in the newly clean kitchen.

I put some water on to boil, scrape and peel some potatoes, slice thinly, and drop into the now boiling water. Then pod some tough old broad beans and throw them in too. While the pan simmers, I chop: an onion into chunks; half of a large courgette into slices and quarter them; two small peppers; the heart of a cabbage I've been peeling leaves off for the last couple of days; and three small flabby carrots. I drain the pan after ten minutes, add some olive oil, and slosh the contents to coat them – then return to the heat to sauté, and, to balance the protein of the beans, throw in a handful of sunflower seeds and cashew nuts.

After ten minutes, before the potato slices get too soft, I throw the rest of the ingredients in to the pan and stir fry the lot. I add: some salt; pestle and mortared black peppercorns and herbs; and for a little zing I pod a few cardamoms then pestle and mortar the seeds and add to the mix. Finally I get a mug and put in a spoon of mango chutney and a large spoon of barley miso, and blend with boiling water to make a sweet stock – then I add it to the pan and allow the contents to stew on a low heat. After ten more minutes I dish up (total preparation time, just less than 40 minutes) and serve with a mug of mint tea.

There is no recipe for this meal. There are only the limitations of the available produce in the cupboard, and the exponential permutations of possible preparation which propagate from the available ingredients. No special tools or methods – the value of the meal comes from the instantaneous act of creation, which comes from repeated practice (and yes, we don't have a microwave!).

This particular creation is to be consumed while watching Casablanca[3]. I watch Casablanca every now and then. It doesn't disappoint on a re-watching because it is so beautifully constructed; a piece of cinematic art.

Casablanca emerged from the Hollywood production line as a creation which exceeded the simplicity of its parts. A simple storyline, blending dramatic and comedic threads, that – in an age before complex cinematography – uses the sublime acting of strong characters to hold the viewers attention (e.g., in contrast to the more structurally complex Citizen Kane[4] which Welles produced the year before). As for special effects, nothing more technical than a model aeroplane on a string. What's more the sound-scape of the film, unlike modern highly-engineered film soundtracks, contains long sections of background silence which allow the viewer to concentrate on the action and dialogue without distraction.

I down my dinner and then sip my tea. After a while my favourite bit of the film appears. Victor Laslo strides across the bar full of loudly singing Germans and tells the band, "play La Marseillaise"[5].

It's not so much that rousing bit where the café guests all get up and sing. It's the response of his wife. Seeing him cross the room she gives a, "oh no, not again!", kind of look. I've been the cause of a few of those looks from my partner over the last 20-odd years; in fact our early relationship involved such a moment (and a lot of policemen). Perhaps it's that close association with the narrative that makes that moment so effective for me.

My mind wanders as my digesting meal, and the film, have a strongly soporific effect following the day's exertions; and I begin to ponder my more recent non-culinary stirrings with my 'congenital' wooden spoon…

I know that I've ruffled a few feathers with my recent commentary on social media and activism – directly questioning whether social media has helped or harmed social and ecological activism. I had a couple of emails on my return home to attest to that, questioning whether I really understood anything I was talking about. To balance that I also had a lot of one-to-one feedback from people who found the questions I raised in the workshop reflected their own concerns. Today, even Marcus Brigstocke was saying something similar about social media[6] on his radio programme – and to be the subject of topical satire, there must be already be a commonality of experience for the commentator to draw upon.

This new thread in my work began under both peculiar and serendipitous circumstances a little over a year ago.

In 2013 I attended Camp Frack 2[7] near Southport in Lancashire. Horizontal stair rods of rain swept in from the Irish Sea, destroying the PA. system on the stage in the first couple of hours. From then on the whole weekend was pure improvisation – which, for me, was what made it special. People gathered inside the few small tents and marquees on the site to have impromptu and unprogrammed meetings. Over the day I found that I'd be having a discussion with someone on some subject or another and, all of a sudden, people browsing from tent-to-tent would stop and join in – adding to the exploration of the issue.

Towards evening I started to talk with someone about the ecological footprint of the Internet, and by extension, of social media and digital communications generally. I'd finished a book[8] (for a free copy, containing a detailed outline of the issues, follow this link) on this only a few months before, and the research behind its writing raised some problematic issues related to our use of information systems. In particular, their ecological footprint and human rights implications.

The anti-fracking movement in Britain is incredibly dependent upon Facebook; and many other social movements in the developed world today rely on a whole plethora of free social media services to undertake their mission. What transpired over the next hour or so of the discussion in the damp windswept tent was probably the hottest event over that whole weekend – as I laid out the ecological issues behind the use of social media, while others responded as to how indispensable these systems were. Unfortunately people took what I said as a personal attack, rather than trying to work with the information and look for alternative options to achieve similar ends. Understandable; denial is often the first stage[9] in assimilating such a shock!

I've been musing on the conundrum of that session for a little over a year now. And, judging by the response I had then, and how this same issue touched raw nerves at last weekend's Green Gathering, I think know what comes next. Filling in the structure and detail of this critique is really going to annoy a lot of people!

However, this issue is a defining truth which people chose to ignore at their peril. From Machiavelli[10] to Alinsky[11], many have wrestled with the strategy of "means and ends" – nefariously justifying that which runs contrary to issue which sought expression through action. Quite apart from the ecological compromises for the "green" movement, there is something deeper here – something which I believe many "eco-geeks" miss in their use of these technologies. And that's before we even get into the potential issues related to surveillance and social engineering!

Back in the 1980s and 1990s, when I was one of the 'early adopters' of IT and the Internet for campaigning, I remembered how Thomas Paine was raised-up by the (then) recently created Wired magazine as, "the patron saint of the Internet"[12] (quite how they elevated an atheist to such an office I was never quite sure – personally I think Voltaire's a better candidate!). A little later, some documentary film-makers even characterised me as a quasi-religious "techno-evangelist"[13] …but for me, there is something deeper that this debate misses – particularly as it relates to Paine.

Thomas Paine's last great work, The Age of Reason[14], poses an approach which – in our seemingly more modern and informed age – seems somewhat nonsensical; perhaps even antithetical to the readers of Positive News![15] It's an idea outlined in Chapter 1 of Paine's book –

I do not mean by this declaration to condemn those who believe otherwise; they have the same right to their belief as I have to mine. But it is necessary to the happiness of man, that he be mentally faithful to himself. Infidelity does not consist in believing, or in disbelieving; it consists in professing to believe what he does not believe.

It is impossible to calculate the moral mischief, if I may so express it, that mental lying has produced in society. When a man has so far corrupted and prostituted the chastity of his mind, as to subscribe his professional belief to things he does not believe, he has prepared himself for the commission of every other crime… Can we conceive anything more destructive to morality than this?

Thus we delude ourselves about the impacts of digital technologies – arguing how their putative benefits outweigh their social and ecological costs – not just to the detriment of the world around us, but to the detriment of our own spiritual and moral well-being.

F. Scott Fitzgerald might have said that, "the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function"; but I think Orwell summed-up this conundrum more succinctly within the term "doublethink" –

To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them…

From Government reports on the impacts of smart meters to Apple's product environmental assessments – the difficulty is that in many ways people do not understand the substance of what they are told, and why it does not reflect the objective ecological reality of our technological age. Therefore the question arises as to whether, as in "doublethink", they are complicit in their own deception, or as a society we are negligent for failing to ask some simple questions about the nature of recent technological developments.

So much of today's politics and media discourse is based upon doublethink – a narrative which may be full of sound and fury but which signifies nothing. But when we get to the major ecological issues of our time, from ecological limits to climate change, arguably many parts of the environment movement are entrained in this same facile mode of debate. I think that's especially true of "green" environmentalism's relationship to consumption; and as part of that process, to the greater social and ecological role of technology.

How can you advocate ecological and social justice when the very system by which you organise your actions entails significant ecological damage and social injustice? – and even, in a number of instances, the practice of modern slavery. What's more, I would argue that the kinds of organising and action which the use of social media spawn do not match the scale of current ecological problems.

Therefore why do environmental and social campaigns use technology as they do? And why is there no open debate on the incompatibility of objectives within environmentalism's use of technology? As a specific example, why do many anti-corporate campaigners use Micro$oft's Windoze operating system when there are readily available and free alternatives[16] to it?

Tolstoy saw the cost of such compromise to progressive movements over 100 years ago[17] (at the beginning of what, contemporaneously, Veblen identified[18] as "conspicuous consumption") –

There can be only one permanent revolution – a moral one; the regeneration of the inner man.

How is this revolution to take place? Nobody knows how it will take place in humanity, but every man feels it clearly in himself. And yet in our world everybody thinks of changing humanity, and nobody thinks of changing himself.

People abolished slavery and the right of owning slaves, but they continued changing their linen unnecessarily, and living in ten rooms and having five courses at dinner, and carriages, etc. And yet all these things could not be if there were no slaves, it is is perfectly clear, and yet nobody can see it.

That, in the end, is what the mainstream environmental debate has lost. In becoming a debate over alternate options for consumption, rather than a need to change our innate need to consume, the true path towards meaningful ecological change is obstructed; not least, by our own confusion over the objective impacts of our actions. I too am trapped within that process – even though I try to escape it where possible by using old equipment, and consciously adapting my technological choices (or, more specifically, refusal to adopt mobile phones or social media) to reduce that impact.

In both recent factual reporting and satire – for example the Marcus Brigstocke sketch programme noted earlier – many people report feeling pressured into using the latest digital gadgets and on-line services whilst simultaneously feeling pressured to act against their own will while doing so. And that process will only get worse with forthcoming developments, from the private invasions of "big data"[19] and "the Internet of things"[20], to the perceptive barriers erected by the "filter bubble"[21], to the economic strife being wrought today by the next generation of automation technologies[22].

The film ends… "Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship"; then fade through black to the end credits and the stirring strains of La Marseillaise.

Do you think Rick and Louis could bring down the Vichy government simply by 'friending' each other on-line? Or does it take more direct, materially simple but socially complex modes of communication in order to render the types of inward and outward change which leads to real reform?

Or, as Thoreau says in Walden[23]

Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say let your affairs be as one, two, three and to a hundred or a thousand. We are happy in proportion to the things we can do without.

That idea, that perhaps social media is something we can do without, is something which will engender a vehemently negative response from those who are most reliant upon it. This has been my perception of trying to kick-start this debate. That also demonstrates the greatest folly inherent in many digital technologies – an all-encompassing 'doublethink' that we need these systems to function as valid living beings, while at the same time degrading many aspects of the relationships which make us 'human', not to mention the quality of the world around us. But as intimated by Tolstoy, and stated directly by Paine, "We have it in our power to begin the world over again" – not by material means, but because we are able to escape these ephemera to realise a true, inward revisioning of ourselves which portends a far greater outward change.


  1. The Green Gatheringhttp://www.greengathering.org.uk/
  2. On-line activism and digital technology – From surveillance to our ecological footprint, Paul Mobbs, July 2014 – http://www.fraw.org.uk/mei/musings/2014/green_gathering_handout_-tech_and_activism.pdf
  3. Wikipedia: 'Casablanca'http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Casablanca_%28film%29
  4. Wikipedia: 'Citizen Kane'http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Citizen_Kane
  5. Wikipedia: 'La Marseillese'http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/La_Marseillese
  6. 'Social media' (episode 2/series 2), The Brig Society, BBC Radio 4, 8th August 2014 – http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04cfzxk
  7. Camp Frack 2http://www.campfrack.org/
  8. A Practical Guide to Sustainable ICT, Paul Mobbs, published by APC/IDRC, 2012 – http://www.fraw.org.uk/mei/sustainable_ict_book.shtml
  9. Wikipedia: 'Kübler-Ross model'http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/K%C3%BCbler-Ross_model
  10. Wikipedia: 'The Prince'http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Prince
  11. Wikipedia: 'Rules for Radicals'http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rules_for_Radicals
  12. The Age of Paine, Jon Katz, Wired Magazine, Issue 3.05, May 1995 – http://archive.wired.com/wired/archive/3.05/paine.html
  13. Infowar: The Hacktivists, Patricia Kelly, Hilton Cordell Productions, 2000 – http://www.fraw.org.uk/files/hacktivism/kelly_2000.pdf
  14. Wikipedia: 'The Age of Reason'http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Age_of_Reason
  15. Positive Newshttp://positivenews.org.uk/
  16. Free Range Sheet J1. Thinking Outside the Cage: An introduction to Free/Open Source Philosophy, Free Range Network, March 2009 – http://www.fraw.org.uk/pubs/j01.html
  17. Extracted from 'Pamphlets, translated from the Russian', Leo Tolstoy, 1900; available on-line from Archive.org – https://openlibrary.org/books/OL23810136M/Pamphlets._Translated_from_the_Russian.
  18. Wikipedia: 'The Theory of the Leisure Class'http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Theory_of_the_Leisure_Class
  19. Wikipedia: 'Big data'http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Big_data
  20. Wikipedia: 'Internet of things'http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Internet_of_things
  21. Wikipedia: 'Filter bubble'http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Filter_bubble
  22. Pervasive Technology, Paul Mobbs/MEI – http://www.fraw.org.uk/mei/current/pervasive_tech.shtml
  23. Wikipedia: 'Walden'http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walden