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A pile of waste at Aglogbloshie. Photo: via Flickr.

All too quickly, our shiny new technology is reduced to E-waste - like this electronic scrap at Aglogbloshie, Ghana. Photo: via Flickr.

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On-line activism - from surveillance to ecological footprint

Paul Mobbs

15th August 2014

Campaigning has never been so easy - sign an Avaaz petition here, send an email there ... and the world is soon put to rights, no? No, writes Paul Mobbs. We must examine the impacts and implications of our e-life, from climate change to corporate dominance, and take control of the technologies we increasingly depend on.

By some estimates the impact of information systems and telecoms has a greater effect on the climate than air transport.

Today we live in a wonderful world where anti-corporate activists can use their smart-phones and Twitter accounts to battle the corporate beast; where climate activists use global on-line information systems to help people chart their carbon footprint; and where social media allows people to click a button to ask their elected representatives to "save the planet" ...

Does no one else see the cruel irony here?

Increasingly environmentalism has become a consumption activity, not a means to address our personal effect on the planet. Increasingly mainstream environmentalism sells products or services, not the knowledge to fundamentally change the circumstances of our lives.

Central to this is the consumption and use of technology - and increasingly that technology works to make us passive and dependent upon those who have created it.

What really counts? Clicks, or people?

Back in 2012 I was commissioned to write a book exploring the deeper relationship between civil society and technology. That free on-line book, A Practical Guide to Sustainable IT, offers a detailed, "hands-on" introduction to thinking about sustainable computing.

And I attempted to do that holistically - starting with the choices you make when buying technology, through to the software and peripherals you use, how you store and work with information, manage your security, save power, and maintain and dispose of your old hardware.

We must begin to think about the footprint of technology! - not simply its use, but also the political and social context within which it works.

For example, ask yourself this question - which focusses the mind of a politician more: having 100 people send then a standard letter by email or Avaaz; or having 100 people massing outside their constituency surgery?

On-line activism has become part of the consuming beast which it seeks to battle!

The internet is not 'free'

In developed nations, information systems are now an indispensable part of most people's lives. But the development of the global communications networks, and the equipment attached to it, has come at a cost. The reality is that these services are not 'free'.

Quite apart from the financial cost, the production and use of these systems is affecting the global ecosystem which supports life on earth, as well as depleting the stock of mineral resources.

For example, by some estimates the impact of information systems and telecommunications has a greater effect on the climate than air transport. How great those impacts are, or how we can reduce or manage them, is defined by how we choose to use these machines.

If we're going to have access to these technologies in the future, without harming the planet or depleting the resources from which they are manufactured, we must learn to plan our use of information systems to maximise material efficiency while minimising their environmental impact.

We must make them more sustainable - that begins by being mindful of their impacts.

Under the technology hood, exactly what is going on?

Forty years ago pretty much all cars could be serviced by their owner; today you need a £50,000 computer just to change the oil. Now think about computers. No longer are computers big boxes - they're sleek gadgets with 'no user serviceable parts' which you have to replace when they break.

That's not just an issue about our relationship to the hardware. Increasingly these sealed gadgets - from smart-phones to Kindles - monitor our use of them and pass that information back to their corporate base. That information is then used to build profiles of you, and, collectively, for how society in general can be encouraged to 'consume' or, alternately, to 'conform'.

Where information gadgets are concerned, you are not the 'customer', you are the 'user' - the 'customer' are the corporations who buy the data which users generate.

For example, download an article from The Guardian or The Independent web site and perhaps three-quarters of the data downloaded has nothing to do with that story - it's advertising logs and Internet tracking services which are targeting you directly.

You can avoid this, you can bring your need for technology under control - but that requires that you become involved in its operation.

For sustainability, we need open standards and open source

The bottom line of technological sustainability is the ability of a system to keep functioning - and on that simple analysis information technology has a number of serious problems which need to be addressed. Some relate to the supply of minerals, while others, such as energy consumption, are implicit in the nature of the materials involved in the process.

To make the diminishing stock of raw materials last longer we need to extend the life of all electrical goods. At present digital electronics is only achieving a fraction of the lifetime that could achieve if they were designed for a longer life.

The difficulty for the electronics industry is that longer life will lead to lower turnover, and that in turn means that the nations who have specialised in the mass production of electrical goods will grow more slowly.

A sustainable life-cycle for IT requires open standards and open intellectual property. This enables the user to choose how they use the system, and is likely to extended product life as it removes the pressures to continually upgrade.

Most importantly, by opting for free and open source systems - such as Linux - you avoid all the spyware, malware and security service back-doors which are the standard with Windows and mobile devices.

In the end, this is a design issue; it is a matter of how we build human systems. If we respect the physical boundaries to the Earth and work within those limits, we can make a truly sustainable culture. To ensure that outcome, as individuals, we have to make a conscious choice about what technologies we choose to use. We have to become involved with our gadgets!



Paul Mobbs is an independent environmental consultant, investigator, author and lecturer. He runs the Free Range Activism website.

This article is based on a leaflet distributed at the 2014 Green Gathering, promoting a session built around his free on-line book A Practical Guide to Sustainable ICT, which examines the ecological basis of IT.

To host a workshop on sustainable ICT please contact Paul Mobbs via

Read other articles on The Ecologist by Paul Mobbs.


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