The impossible hamster & RSAnimate: thoughts on “nubs”


Yesterday, the New Economics Foundation released this video to support their report about the irreconcilability of the idea of sustained economic growth with the idea of sustainability itself,  Growth Isn’t Possible. It’s made by Leo Murray, one of the makers of The Age of Stupid and the short film  Wake Up Freak Out.

The Impossible Hamster is a clever way of drawing attention to an idea, using a short viral video. In some circles this would be called an agit-nub, nubs being “short videos that explain or bring an idea to life“.

In the last couple of years, nubs have increasingly become the means by which new ideas are spread around the web. They encapsulate how the web works; by making them embeddable, they become a freebie for other content producers. Spreading ideas and messages on the web is about reciprocity; you have to give in order to receive attention.

Nubs raise a few questions. Firstly, at the moment wit is still prized as much as quality, but will the increasing standards of advertising viral videos begin to crowd out the more low-fi productions like Leo Murray’s? Take a look at this ad about the persuasive technology of a musical staircase which turns out to be an advertisement by Volksvagen. Made to look low-fi by the adevertising agency DDB Stockholm, it became one of the most successful virals of last year. Advertisers are spending increasingly large sums producing these virals.

Secondly, if nubs are the repository for political messages, will we soon have “nub wars”? As somebody in the office pointed out the moment they saw The Impossible Hamster, a climate sceptic might have made a video of a hamster growing not only fat but clever enough to start building new worlds.

Thirdly, do they respresent a kind of Darwinism of ideas; if an idea is not reducible to a three minute nub will it become worthles?

Myself, I don’t think so. I think their mix of expression and intellect makes them an incredibly powerful new genre.

On the last point, the RSA’s own RSAnimate series shows that nubs don’t need to be reductionist. Take a look at Matthew Taylor’s Left Brain Right Brain which is just out this week:

Look out for new videos coming up on the new RSA Comment pages:

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Environmentalism: towards civilisation, or “uncivilisation”?

The environment movement is failing because it has only a negative vision of the future. Discuss.

That’s the nub of the argument suggested by Josie Appleton of the Manifesto Club in her essaythat we published last week, and one echoed by Emma Ridgway’s recent article for theRETHINK exhibition catalogue. Environmentalism, the argument goes, is about limiting possibilities. It’s about what we shouldn’t do. Appleton believes that art has a visionary role in thinking beyond this drought of possiblity; humanity must instead accept its place as the species that transformed the earth – we must take on that leap of consciousness when we start to think of solutions and not start from the romantic baseline of earth as a wilderness, despoiled by man. We must move forwards, not back.

A radical idea. And the polar opposite to another radical idea proposed recently by poet/writer/activist Paul Kingsnorth and Dougald Hine. For them and their Dark Mountain Project, human civilisation itself is the toxic factor that has plunged the earth into crisis. In the blink of an eye – the five thousand years or so  in which  humanity has accelerated towards modern civilisation – we have so stamped over the intricacies of nature that the wheel is now flying off the machine. We must prepare our exit from civilisation, for “uncivilisation”. In the visual arts, this has echoes in the recent work of Heather and Ivan Morison, whose How to prosper in the coming bad years discussion takes place in The Black Cloud (see above) next weekend in Bristol.

Art, a place where the imagination can roam to extremes, is an excellent laboratory for ideas.  The Dark Mountain Project finds its inspiration in literature, particularly in the poetry of Robinson Jeffers – the Californian who shared a romantic vision of wilderness with environmentalist Edward Abbey, referred to below. It was Jeffers who had first suggested the idea of  “inhumanism” that  inspired the Dark Mountain Project. Human civilisation was, Jeffers suggested, always too self-centred to understand the complexity and beauty of the world around it. The Dark Mountain Project also plant their flag in the literature of Joseph Conrad and his “heart of darkness”.

There have been some interesting responses to the Dark Mountain provocation. In the New StatesmanJohn Gray responded to the Dark Mountain provocation by demonstrating that literature has in fact been much more successful at showing the catastrophic results of “uncivilisation” than eulolgising it. There is nothing romantic about the crumbling of civil society. Gray too cites Joseph Conrad, to make the point that Conrad, like J G Ballard – shows the genuine  horror of what a society in disintegration actually looks like. Both Conrad and Ballard were witness to the atrocities that happen when the crust of civilization is removed.

(On a sidenote, Paul Kingsnorth and I have disagreed elsewhere about whether Cormac MacCarthy’s The Road is a novel primarily about climate change. Gray’s line of argument  reminds you that MacCarthy’s book, in which baby-eating survivors scavage the land,  displays the awful consequence of uncivilisation.)

But as both suggest, it’s time to rexamine the givens. Environmentalism hasn’t produced the major shift in culture that the global warming era requires. Something radical has to shift.  Appleton’s idea is that to save civilisation we need more civilisation, not less:

The anthropocene is here, and there is no way back. To wish that we could retreat is the mythical fantasy of wishing that we never ate the apple or stole the fire. It is a wish that we were children again, back in a former stage of history. We cannot reverse out of the anthropocene but only go forward.

I doubt John Gray would quite see eye to eye with Appleton’s thesis either. Gray’s book Straw Dogs was a vigorous assault on the idea of that idea of human centrality in nature. Appleton’s argument is unashamedly anthropocentric; in fact the very notion of the anthropocene, by definition, is a human-centred concept. Gray follows James Lovelock: such assumptions of human supremacy over nature are fundamentally arrogant and hubristic.  Myself, I find the technological postivism of Appleton’s approach hard to embrace. Above all, I don’t believe, as she does, that, ” The climate moves slowly; we have time.”

The Black Cloud by Heather and Ivan Morison (Bristol, 2009)photographed by ac (y su camarófono)

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