‘Mission control’ – my office, circa. 2000/1.
Note I'm already using Linux at this time.
About Paul Mobbs & MEIR:
Phase II, 1999-2006, ‘community-Linux-hacker’
If I appear to do more than most then it is for one basic reason; technology. Organising information, and from the very beginning using computers for analysis and networking, has allowed me to extend my capabilities at very low cost.
Using an old Sinclair Spectrum computer and recycled electrical waste as a public information kiosk,
Banbury Museum, April 1991
I built my first computer in 1981 from a kit; it had half a kilobyte of memory, was programmed using switches, and for output it drove six 7-segment displays. How the world has changed!
I first connected a computer (an Amstrad PCW) to a modem in 1986 to use dial-up bulletin boards. I first went on the Internet in 1988, I've had the same email address since 1992, and I've had a web site since 1995.
Even before I got my first IBM-compatible PC I was using computers for the statistical analysis of data. I had learned to program in my early teens (Apple-IIe/6502 machine code, and Z80 machine code for my Sinclair machines). I went on to study computer science at college, and I've been developing my own programs – for everything from modelling pollution plumes to conducting elaborate searches of on-line systems – ever since.
Over this period there were two major threads to my work:
I’d been running computer workshops for activists since the mid-1990s. In terms of computers and the Internet, it was a small activist community at that time. People would introduce you to people, and before long you're communicating with people around the world. That lead, in 1998, to discussion on the possibilities for ‘real’ on-line activism – things that would have an effect in the real world, not just on-line.
In 1999 I began seriously working with interested people around the world on this problem. The first time we actually produced a global on-line campaign was in support of the Seattle WTO Protests in November/December 1999. That idea worked-out pretty well!
The logo of the European Internet Rights Project, 2000 (my sketch)
So well in fact, the World Trade Organisation got in touch with my Internet Service Provider and told them to take me off the Internet. As a result of this exercise of global corporate force my ISP didn’t take me off the Internet…
They gave me a job!
I spent the next three years supporting journalists and human rights workers in former Soviet states. Doing research, producing distance learning and workshop materials, and occasionally having to travel to give workshops and training sessions across Europe. It was a momentous time to be doing this work, and such a privilege to be involved with the democracy movements in the Balkans, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan. That would then lead into similar work with groups in Africa and Asia.
Still from the Australian documentary,
Infowars: The Hacktivists (2001).
Click the image to view the
video on YouTube
Of course, this was all before September 2001.
By September 2001, in the former Soviet states to the north of Afghanistan, there were sheets in Russian with my name on, distributed by pro-democracy activists, telling people: how to get on-line; how to use encryption; how to use (what were at that point) rudimentary encrypted messaging networks; and, how to set-up your computer to keep your data secure.
After September 2001, let's just say that life became more, ‘interesting’; especially as I had run training for activists, to help them to use computers and communicate on-line, in advance of them attending international protests in: Seattle (WTO, 1999); Prague (IMF/World Bank, 2000); Quebec (FTAA, 2001); and Genoa (G8, 2001). I also helped set-up a national on-line script that took down Tony Blair's website as a protest against the Iraq war.
What the Seattle events did lead me towards was lecturing at universities: I gave talks on digital culture at the ICA in London; and ultimately my Eastern European experience would land me a short stint at British Council Russia talking on energy and climate change.
The other thread in my work at this time was far more geeky – and far more rewarding than all the ‘hacktivism’ work:
Back when I’d been working with community education in Oxfordshire, from around 1995-1997, I did a little job for a while teaching the over-50s and ethnic minorities how to use computers. I wanted to get people on-line, but the costs of phone calls, and the slow dial-up connection that perhaps ten or fifteen people would have to share, made this impossible.
I thought up a plan to build a portable server and a set of laptops running on a private network. Initially I tried to do that with conventional Micro$oft systems – which would have cost almost £12,000. As it was novel and untried, no one would fund it.
I had discovered Linux in 1999. In 2002 I redesigned the whole thing to use recycled computers and Linux software, and suddenly the cost was now just £2,500.
The problem now was that funding agencies wouldn’t look at it because it was not only novel, they also didn’t believe such a thing could be built for so little money – and in any case, funders hate giving small grants because they cost proportionately more to administrate.
However, being so relatively cheap, I was able to crowd-fund from supporters of the idea and in June 2002 the Community-Linux Training Centre (CLTC) spluttered into life.
Running the final workshops on using
the server system, Jamaica, 2003
CLTC in use at Grizedale Centre, Lake District, 2002
The CLTC was five laptops in a box – one server and four clients – and all the cables, equipment and a printer to make it function. The server simulated all the services common on-line – email, web, FTP, network file systems, IRC chat and remote logins – which enabled me to train people to do literally anything on-line in the most remotest of places. Everything fitted into a tool chest which I took on trains and buses across Britain to run training sessions.
Wiring up the network for the
The Container Project, Jamaica, 2003
The idea spread. I had contact from people all over the world who had tried the idea.
Then in early 2003 I had a job offer I couldn’t refuse. To go to Jamaica for a month and teach people how to recycle computer scrap (imported/gifted from the USA) into cheap functioning machines; and then teach them how to configure a network like the CLTC so they could train people locally – without having to rely on the (awful) telecommunications infrastructure of the small rural Jamaican community where I was to work.
It was a lovely month; and on my return I edited the footage I’d collected to make a short music video, from the launch party of ‘The Container Project’ – to show the world what they had all been able to achieve.
A couple of months after my return, when I showed the video at an event in London, it resulted in getting occasional work from the charity Computeraid International – to help them learn how to do something similar around the world. It also helped to inspire other computer recycling and training projects in Britain.
Working for Computeraid also spawned some handouts on electrical engineering, so that people could build power supplies to run their equipment on renewable electricity from wind or PV systems (something else I'd done for a number of years).
Over the years since I’ve continued to do odd bits of work with the ‘community-Linux’ idea, as well as around the issue of the ecological footprint of computing and ICT.
The most significant work there was a handbook I wrote in 2012 for APC and IDRC, entitled, ‘A Practical Guide to Sustainable ICT’.
By 2004 I had begun to miss the environmental work, or rather the community aspects of that work, which had always been my first passion. The problem of working in the on-line world is that you don't actually get to tour the real-world, and interact with real people!
More importantly my growing role as an ‘activist hacker’ was attracting unwanted, time-consuming attention.
Some of the more ‘ecological’ geek work I had been doing, such as designing small-scale renewable energy systems, and the tools to help people make them, was also becoming more difficult at this time. As new products came on the market people found it easier to buy a manufactured (hence largely unrepairable/unserviceable) consumer unit rather than build their own. As a result, I needed to change my approach to what I was doing.
If international travel had taught me one thing, it was that Britain, for all its affluence and materialism, was in an awful mess – precisely because of its affluence and materialism. In contrast to the ‘development’ work I had been doing abroad, it became clear that people at home needed help to ‘undevelop’.
It was time to change course again…