Robert Jensen : Machines Change, Our Work Remains the Same

Early computer. Image from Corbis-Bettmann.

The limits of internet activism:
Machines change, the work remains the same

By Robert Jensen / The Rag Blog / January 11, 2011

When I first got involved in left/radical political organizing in the 1990s, I don’t recall any of us referring to our efforts as “phone activism” or calling ourselves “fax activists.” A friend who started organizing in the early 1960s assured me that he never heard the term “mimeograph activism” in those days. We used telephones, fax machines, and mimeographs in our organizing work, but the machines didn’t define our work and we didn’t spend a lot of time arguing about the implications of using them.

Today the terms “online activism” and “internet activist” are common, as are discussions about the positive and negative effects of computer-mediated communication (CMC) on left/progressive political organizing. (See interview with Joss Hands on “Activism in a digital culture.”)

Is CMC so dramatically different, or is the left simply caught up in the larger culture’s obsession with life online? I will start with observations that likely are not controversial, and then step back to frame the question in ways that may not be widely accepted.

Two basic points:

First, CMC makes possible the distribution of information to a larger number of people at lower financial cost than previous technologies (though the ecological cost of a communication technology that creates highly toxic e-waste and consumes enormous amounts of energy may make this technology prohibitively expensive in the long run) and allows for easier and faster feedback from the recipients of that information.

Second, while the technology is too new for definitive assertions, there is a seductive quality to CMC that leads some groups and individuals to spend too much of their time and resources online, even when there’s ample reason to suspect that expense of energy isn’t productive.

Two corollary cautions:

First, political information is not political action. Being able to distribute more information more widely more quickly does not automatically lead to people acting on that information. The information must be presented in ways that lead people to believe they should act, and there must be vehicles for that action.

Second, what appears to be wasting time online is not always a waste of time. Just as we solidify bonds with people face-to-face by chatting about the mundane aspects of our lives, we sometimes do that online. Political organizing — like all of life — includes such interaction.

So, it’s true that the things we do with a computer online are often like the things we do, or did, with telephone calls, faxes, and mimeographs; the question is how to most effectively apportion our time, energy, and resources on these machines as part of a larger organizing strategy. In that sense, deciding whether to focus on an email or a door-knocking campaign is a straightforward calculation about resources and the likely outcomes of using those resources in different ways.

It’s also true that we should be more critically self-reflective about our use of computers for political organizing, lest we be seduced by how productive we imagine we are being online simply because of the speed and reach of CMC. Because an email campaign can reach more people quickly, we are tempted to believe it will lead to the more effective outcomes, though the patient work of door-knocking may yield better long-term results if it builds deeper support that endures.

As our organizing tools change rapidly, these calculations of the likely success of different tactics are not always easy to make, but they are relatively simple questions to formulate. Much more vexing are questions about the complex changes in the world in which we are organizing.

We like to say the internet has changed everything, perhaps in as dramatic a fashion as the printing press changed the act of reading. But the world of the 15th century was not changing at anything like the speed that the world is changing today. We need to think about the “everything” in which our email messages are bouncing around. We need to be clearer about the scale of the problems we face, the scope of the changes necessary to address the problems, and the time available to us for creating meaningful change. To illustrate these issues, I’ll talk about the state of the ecosphere.

Scale of the problems

For many years activists focused on “environmental problems,” offering ways that humans could adjust the way we live to cope with problems of dirty air, dirty water, and dirty land. The assumption behind those projects was that an environment consistent with long-term human flourishing was possible within existing economic, social, and political systems.

That assumption was wrong, and evidence continues to pile up that the ecosphere cannot sustain billions of people when even a fraction of them live at First-World levels. Look at any crucial measure of the health of our ecosphere — groundwater depletion, topsoil loss, chemical contamination, increased toxicity in our own bodies, the number and size of “dead zones” in the oceans, accelerating extinction of species and reduction of bio-diversity — and the news is bad and getting worse.

And we live in an oil-based world that is fast running out of oil with no viable replacement fuels. And we can’t forget global warming and climate instability. Add all that up and it’s not a pretty picture, especially when we abandon the technological fundamentalism of the culture and stop believing in fantasy quick fixes for deeply rooted problems.

Our troubles are not the result of the bad behavior within the systems in which we live but of the systems themselves. We have to go to the root and acknowledge that human attempts to control and dominate the non-human world have failed. We are destroying the planet and in the process destroying ourselves.

Scope of the changes

So, we either abandon the industrial model of development based on the concentrated energy in fossil fuels or we face a significant human die-off in a grim future that is within view. Abandoning that industrial model means a sudden shift in human living arrangements that would be unprecedented in history. We have to redefine what it means to live a good life, dramatically lowering our energy use and reducing our expectations about the material goods we consume.

That means that we not only won’t be getting a new flat-screen television, but that we won’t be amusing ourselves with new Hollywood movies and TV. It means not only that we won’t be able to buy an SUV, but that we won’t be using cars for routine personal transportation. It means a whole lot less of everything, and such changes in living arrangements are impossible within capitalism.

While capitalism is not the only unsustainable economic system in history, it is the system that structures the global economy today, and it has to be scrapped. If a transition to a sustainable economy is possible, it also means we will have to abandon the nation-state as the primary unit of political organization and find functional political systems at a much lower level.

These changes in economic, social, and political systems mean significant changes in how we understand the nature of the self, the relationship to other humans, and the human place in the larger living world. When we redefine what it means to live a good life, we will be defining what it means to be human.

Time available

No one can predict the trajectory of a full-scale ecological collapse, in part because it is complex beyond human understanding and in part because how we act in the present can affect that trajectory. But even without the capacity to predict with precision, we have to make our best guesses to guide our choices in organizing.

The best-case scenario is that we have a few decades to accomplish these changes. The worst-case scenario is that we are past the point of no return and that the systems in place will exhaust the ecosphere’s capacity to sustain human life as we know it before we can adjust.

If ecological collapse is either coming soon or already in motion, then traditional organizing strategies may be obsolete. The problem is not just that existing economic, social, and political systems are incapable of producing a more just and sustainable world, but that there isn’t time available for working out new ways of understanding our self, others, and the world. There is no reason to assume that the non-human world will wait while we slowly come to terms with all this; the ecosphere isn’t going to conform to our timetable.

Where this leaves us

Though I made no claims to special predictive powers, two things seem likely to me: (1) All human activity will become dramatically more local in the coming decades, and (2) Without coordinated global action to change course, there is little hope for the survival of human society as we know it.

When I offer such an assessment, I am routinely accused of being hysterical and apocalyptic. But I don’t feel caught up in an emotional frenzy, and I am not preaching a dramatic ending of the human presence on Earth. Instead, I’m taking seriously the available evidence and doing my best to make sense of that evidence to guide my political choices. I believe we all have a moral obligation to do that.

As a result, I have recommitted to local organizing that aims mainly to strengthen institutions and networks on the ground where I live, rooted in a belief that those local connections will be more important than ever in coming decades. At the same time, I try to maintain and extend connections to like-minded people around the world, hoping that those connections can contribute to the possibility of coordinated global action.

In short, I am trying to become more tribal and more universal at the same time, recognizing there is no guarantee that of a smooth transition or success in the long run.

In these efforts, I engage in a considerable amount of computer-mediated communication. Whenever it’s feasible, I favor direct human communication in face-to-face settings, on the assumption that local networks will be strengthened by such communication in ways that CMC cannot foster.

I also use CMC to reach out beyond the local, both to learn about global initiatives and to contribute to such initiatives. I try to take advantage of the opportunities offered by CMC without being seduced by illusions of easy organizing through the send button.

So, a summary that likely isn’t controversial: These days almost all left/radical organizers will communicate online, but the social justice and ecological sustainability at the heart of left/radical politics isn’t going to be achieved online.

It’s tempting to leave the discussion at that level, but the questions about scale/scope/time aren’t addressed by that easy summary. With a larger focus, the trouble with CMC — with all the time and effort it takes to learn new programs, keep up with the constant changes on the internet, think about the role of the virtual world in real-world politics — is that it keeps us stuck in the past.

That may seem paradoxical; we’re used to talking about the people who don’t embrace computers as being the ones stuck in the past. After all, isn’t the internet the key to the future? Not if the future is going to be defined by less energy and less advanced technology.

If the changes outlined above are an unavoidable part of our future, then we would be well advised to start weaning ourselves from the high-energy/high-technology world, not only in our personal lives but in our organizing as well. That doesn’t mean immediately abandoning all the gadgets we use, but rather always realizing that our efforts to make the most effective use of the gadgets in the short term shouldn’t crowd out the long-term planning for a dramatically different world.

That different world may well impose changes on us before we have been able to face them ourselves. Novelist/poet/critic Wendell Berry captures this when he writes, “We are going to have to learn to give up things that we have learned (in only a few years, after all) to ‘need.’ I am not an optimist; I am afraid that I won’t live long enough to escape my bondage to the machines.”

The task is daunting, but it is our task nonetheless. Berry is not optimistic about the future, but he concludes with our charge:

“Nevertheless, on every day left to me I will search my mind and circumstances for the means of escape. And I am not without hope. I knew a man who, in the age of chainsaws, went right on cutting his wood with a handsaw and an axe. He was a healthier and a saner man than I am. I shall let his memory trouble my thoughts.”[1]

When we lack answers to difficult questions — or even a way to imagine finding answers — it’s easy to put the questions aside. Better, I think, to let the questions continually disturb us.

Every time I touch the keyboard of my laptop to write an essay that will be posted on a web site, which I will send to editors via email, my thoughts are troubled.

[Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center in Austin, and one of the partners in the community center “5604 Manor.” He is the author of All My Bones Shake: Seeking a Progressive Path to the Prophetic Voice, (Soft Skull Press, 2009) and Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity (South End Press, 2007); Jensen is also co-producer of the documentary film Abe Osheroff: One Foot in the Grave, the Other Still Dancing, which chronicles the life and philosophy of the longtime radical activist. Robert Jensen can be reached at This article also appears at the New Left Project.]

[1] Wendell Berry, What Are People For? (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1990), p. 196.

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