söndag 19 april 2015

Books I've read (February)

This blog post concerns the books I read in February. The theme that unites these books is that they are all part of the Worldwatch Institute's series of "State of the World" books. I regularly write about books that I have read on the blog and here is the previous blog post. The asterisks below represent the number of quotes from the book that can be found further below.

The Worldwatch institute was formed in 1974 by Lester Brown and they have published State of the World reports since 1984. "The series attempts to identify the planet's most significant environmental challenges". Each of the reports (books) has a theme and since I bought the three books below, three new books have been published in this series: the 2013 report "Is Sustainability Still Possible?", the 2014 report "Governing for Sustainability" and the 2015 report "Confronting Hidden Threats to Sustainability". I didn't fully realise that each book would have a specific distinct theme when I bought State of the World 2010, 2011 and 2012 at the same time. If I buy more of these, I will probably be more discerning and choose books based on their themes. I'd have to say I found the 2011 report less interesting than the other two and that my favourite was the 2010 report. All in all, the books are excellently sourced, backing up their claims by referring to published research literature in the area. I find it curious that almost all of the numerous authors in these books are unknown to me. I guess many of them are activists or working for NGOs rather than academics and researchers at universities. Each books consists of around 15-20 chapters and despite being less than 200 pages each, they are also very compact and fact-filled so it's an effort to read 25 pages per day (which is my regular book-reading pace). 

**************** Beside the two editors, "State of the World 2010: Transforming cultures from Consumerism to Sustainability" also has a project director, Erik Assadourian. It is hard to understand the role of the project director in relation to the editors. I actually met Erik - the project director - at the "3rd International Conference on Degrowth, Ecological Sustainability and Social Equity" that I attended 2.5 years ago. He gave a keynote that was good and we also ended up in the same group of people having dinner together. In his keynote, he showcased the "Catan: oil springs" expansion for the game Settlers of Catan that Erik had co-designed. The expansion "was developed by the Transforming Cultures Project of the Worldwatch Institute for the purpose of creating awareness about the effects that the usage of oil has on the environment". Erik also wrote the very hard-hitting introduction to the book, "The rise and fall of consumer cultures".

The scope of the book is very comprehensive and as it is a book about "cultures" and cultural transformations - which are large topics. The book is divided into six parts and the first part, "Traditions old and new" consists of five chapters treating religions, rituals and taboos, childbearing, elders and agriculture. The other five parts of the book treats education, business, government, media and social movements. From the back cover of the book:

"Many of the environmental and social problems we face today are symptoms of a deeper systemic failing: a dominant cultural paradigm that encourages living in ways that are often directly counter to the realities of a finit planet. This paradigm, typically referred to as 'consumerism,' has already spread to cultures around the world and has let to consumption levels that are vastly unsustainable. If this pattern spreads further there will be little possibility of solving climate change or other environmental problems that are poised to dramatically disrupt human civilization. It will take a sustained, long-term effort to redirect the traditions, social movements and institutions that shape consumer cultures towards becoming cultures of sustainability. ... Bringing about a cultural shift that makes living sustainably as 'natural' as a consumer lifestyle is today will not only address urgent crises like climate change, it could also tackle other symptoms like extreme income inequality, obesity and social isolation that are not typically seen as environmental problems."

************ "State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet" looks at food production with an emphasis on the rural population in poor, typically African countries. It is very impressive to realise that many of the authors either live or have travelled extensively in these countries. Many have also worked with a number of different practical projects. The authors are thus people who are in the known compared to us armchair scientists sitting in our comfortable armchairs and having an absolute belief in our "solutions" to what ails the world (e.g. a black-and-white picture of ecological vs industrial agriculture). The issue of food turns out to be very complicated the more you know about it. We usually only think of food in terms of quantity (sufficiency) and its opposite - famine. After having read this book I however understand that there are many more factors that are important, including land ownership, power, corruption, the status of women, education, the quality of storage facilities and access to markets (including basic transportation infrastructures), cultural preference and habits, nutritional value of different sees, hunger, farmers' views of risks vs rewards (you are very conservative and risk-aversive is you are responsible for feeding your family and there is little surplus), the individual vs the collective, urban farming and so on. Despite my new understanding of the complexity of the issues, this is not a topic I know a lot about and not something I plan to become an expert in so while useful as a primer, the book was not of a particular interest to me. From the back cover:

"The world's food system has come to a crossroads. Nearly half a century after the Green Revolution, people are still chronically hungry. At the same time, investments in agricultural developments by governments, international lenders, and foundations are at historical lows. Over the last two years, the Worldwatch Institute's Nourishing the Planet team has traveled to 25 sub-Saharan African nations - the places where the hunger is greatest and rural communities have struggled the most - and uncovered a rich and diverse treasure trove of innovations from farmers' groups, private voluntary organizations, universities, and even agribusiness companies. What's more, there are global lessons and benefits to be gleaned from Africa - from the continent's role in preventing disastrous climate change to the way urban farmers are feeding people in cities"

*************** "State of the World 2012: Moving towards sustainable prosperity" is a little all over the place, treating topics such as increasing inequality, governance, the greening of the economy, how businesses operate, on the balance between shareholder vs societal interests etc. Erik Assadourian was again one of the two project directors and he wrote a great chapter in the book, "The path to degrowth in overdeveloped countries". The book was however very focused on the then-upcoming Rio+20 meeting so despite being only a few years old, the book unfortunately already felt partly dated. From the back cover:

"In 1992, governments at the Rio Earth Summit made a historic commitment met sustainable development - an economic system that promotes the health of both people and ecosystems. Twenty years and several summits later, human civilization has never been closer to ecological collapse, one third of humanity lives in poverty, and another 2 billion people are projected to join the human race over the next 40 years. How will we move toward sustainable prosperity equitably shared among all even as our population grows, our cities strain to accommodate more and more people, and our ecological systems decline? To promote discussion around this vital topic at the Rio+20 U.N. Conference and beyond, State of the World 2012 ... showcases innovative projects, creative policies, and fresh approaches that are advancing sustainable development in the twenty-first century."

----- On consumer culture as "natural" but unsustainable  -----

"Human beings are embedded in cultural systems, are shaped and constrained by their cultures, and for the most part act only within the cultural realities of their lives. The cultural norms, symbols, values, and traditions a person grows up with become "natural." Thus, asking people who live in consumer cultures to curb consumption is akin to asking them to stop breathing - they can do it for a moment, but then, gasping, they will inhale again. Driving cars, flying in planes, having large homes, using air conditioning ... these are not decadent choices but simply natural parts of life - at least according to the cultural norms present in a growing number of consumer cultures in the world. Yet ... these patterns are neither sustainable nor innate manifestations of human nature. ... Preventing the collapse of human civilization requires nothing less than a wholesale transformation of dominant cultural patterns. This transformation would reject consumerism - the cultural orientation that leads people to find meaning, contentment, and acceptance through what they consume"
L. Starke, & L. Mastny (Eds.) (2010). "State of the World 2010", p.3

----- On the human footprint vs sustainable levels of resource consumption  -----

"it is the rich who have the largest homes, drive cars, jet around the world, use large amounts of electricity, eat more meat and processed foods, and buy more stuff - all of which has significant ecological impact. Granted, higher incomes do not always equate with increase consumption, but where consumerism is the cultural norm, the odds of consuming more go up when people have more money, even for ecologically conscious consumers. ... Indeed, if everyone lived like Americans, Earth could sustain only 1.4 billion people. ... But even at middle-income levels - the equivalent of what people in Jordan and Thailand earn on average today - Earth can sustain fewer people than are alive today. These numbers convey a reality that few want to confront: in today's world of 6.8 billion, modern consumption patterns - even at relatively basic levels - are not sustainable."
L. Starke, & L. Mastny (Eds.) (2010). "State of the World 2010", p.6

----- On leverage points for changing a (cultural) system  -----

"In an analysis on places to intervene in a system, Donella Meadows explained that the most effective leverage point for changing a system is to change the paradigm of the system - that is to say, the shared ideas or basic assumptions around which the system functions. In the case of the consumerism paradigm, the assumptions that need to change include that more stuff makes people happier, that perpetual growth is good, that humans are separate from nature, and that nature is a stock of resources to be exploited for human purpose. ... Yes, altering a system's rules (with legislation, for instance) or its flow rates (with taxes or subsidies) can change a system too, but not as fundamentally. These will typically produce only incremental changes. Today more systemic change is needed.
Just as a consumerism paradigm encourages people to define their well-being through their consumption patterns, a sustainability paradigm would work to find an alternative set of aspirations and reinforce this through cultural institutions and drivers. ... It should become "natural" to find value and meaning in life through how much a person helps restore the planet rather than how much that individual earns, how large a home is, or how many gadgets someone has."
L. Starke, & L. Mastny (Eds.) (2010). "State of the World 2010", p.16

----- On creating modern rituals to decrease flying  -----

"Peter Sawtell, a minister in Colorado ... explores the link between spirituality and environmentalism. He has proposed that long-distance travel, especially flying, become a ritualized experience, with the Muslim ritual of the Hajj - the once-in-a-lifeime pilgrimage to Mecca - being the gold-standard model. ... while a once-in-a-lifetime trip may be too strict a standard for most people, Sawtell suggests that once a decade or "once a life-stage" (adolescence, adulthood, retirement) might be helpful in thinking about long-distance travel. In the process, he suggests, people may find that less is more: they might appreciate travel and use it more meaningfully than when it was cheap and the environmental impact was ignored."
L. Starke, & L. Mastny (Eds.) (2010). "State of the World 2010", p.35

----- On globalization being a one-way street, shifting values from us to them but never the other way  -----

"One negative consequence of globalization is that western individualistic, consumer-oriented, youth-focused values - communicated through multiple international and national media and institutional channels - are undermining positive traditions and values of more collectivist sociocultural systems. In many cases, these traditions and values provide the basis for the society's sustainable use and development of both natural and human resources. ... In western individualist societies ... attitudes toward elders are generally tainted by negative images of ageing. Within the globalization of culture, increasingly ageist attitudes are being disseminated and slowly permeating non-western cultures as well. ... Globalizaiton involves a virtually one-way dissemination of western cultural images and values toward non-western societies."
L. Starke, & L. Mastny (Eds.) (2010). "State of the World 2010", p.41-43

----- On improving the capacity of the land to produce as a worthy goal  -----

"Twentieth-century agriculture has badly degraded nearly every ecosystem it has encountered while consuming roughly 20 percent of world energy production. The style called "conventional" depends for nearly all of its workings on a dwindling and increasingly expensive supply of fossil fuels. Sustainable agriculture, in contrast, can be pursued indefinitely because it does not degrade or deplete the resources that it needs to continue. Since most of Earth's arable land is already under cultivation and human populations are continuing to expand, an even better goal would be to actually improve the capacity of the land to produce."
L. Starke, & L. Mastny (Eds.) (2010). "State of the World 2010", p.50

----- On creative play as an anti-capitalist/countercultural activity?  -----

"Among the most troubling ramifications of allowing marketers unfettered access to children is the erosion of creative play, which is central to healthy development. ... Babies are born with an innate capacity to play. When commercial interests dominate a culture, however, nurturing creative play can become countercultural: it is a threat to corporate profits. Children who play creatively are not as dependent on consumer goods for having fun. Their playfulness, as well as their capacity for joy and engagement, rests mainly within themselves and what they bring to the world rather than what the world brings to them."
L. Starke, & L. Mastny (Eds.) (2010). "State of the World 2010", p.62-63

----- A worthy goal for us educators  -----

"The scientific evidence suggests that the years ahead will test coming generations in extraordinary ways. Educators are obliged to tell the truth about such things but then to convert the anxiety that often accompanies increased awareness of danger to positive energy that can generate constructive changes. Environmental education must be an exercise in applied hope that equips young people with the skills, aptitudes, analytic wherewithal, creativity, and stamina to dream, act, and lead heroically. To be effective on a significant scale, however, the creative energies of the rising generation must be joined with strong and bold institutional leadership to catalyse a future better than the one in prospect."
L. Starke, & L. Mastny (Eds.) (2010). "State of the World 2010", p.82

----- Our institutions and laws are still adapted to a 19th century "empty" world  -----

"Today's dominant worldviews and institutions emerged during the early Industrial Revolution, when the world was still relatively empty of humans and their built infrastructure. Natural resources were abundant, social settlements were more sparse, and the main limit on improving human well-being was inadequate access to infrastructure and consumer goods. Current ideas about what is desirable and what is possible were forged in this empty-world context [but] the world has changed dramatically over the past two centuries. It is now a "full" world, where increasingly complex technologies and institutions, mounting resource constraints, and a decreasing energy return on investment have made human society more brittle - and hence more susceptible to collapse. Laws and policies that incorporate the empty-world vision are legion. The 1872 Mining Act in the United States, for example, was designed to promote minerals mining and economic growth. It did this by essentially giving away the right to mine on public lands while collecting no royalties and requiring no environmental protection. The act is still in force, even though conditions have changed dramatically. The consequence has been massive environmental destruction and a giveaway of public wealth to private interests.
L. Starke, & L. Mastny (Eds.) (2010). "State of the World 2010", p.85

----- On Scandinavia leading the way towards a more sustainable world  -----

"The ecological capacity of Earth is not expanding, while humanity's footprint is. ... The challenge in terms of our fixation on growth is how to get started on a new course. Obviously nobody can expect the Chinese or the Indians to take the initiative on non-growth thinking. At the moment, it looks rather unlikely that any major industrial country will lead the way. But maybe a rich, well-educated country could - a country like Norway or Sweden. With a small population and ample resources, perhaps Scandinavia could lead the way and demonstrate the feasibility of a vision of what the good life in a steady state economy would look like: less hours worked, less stuff, less stress, more time with family and friends, more time for civic engagement, more leisure. It will not be easy, but it is necessary."
L. Starke, & L. Mastny (Eds.) (2010). "State of the World 2010", p.87

Comment: The text above is written by Øystein Dahle, ex-vice president of Esso Norway from 1985 to 1995.

----- On time as a substitute for natural resources and vice versa  -----

"to a great extent, time and natural resources are substitutes for each other: doing things faster usually takes a greater toll on Earth. So time-stressed households and societies tend to have heavier ecological footprints and greater per capita energy use. In the transition to sustainable cultures and economies, people are going to have to adapt to new schedules and temporal rhythms. The culture of long working hours and excessive busy-ness that characterizes a number of wealthy countries will need to be replaced by more sustainable patterns of time use."
L. Starke, & L. Mastny (Eds.) (2010). "State of the World 2010", p.91

----- On "choice editing" (ex. nudging) vs product labels  -----

"he asks "why should the consumer be the one left in the supermarket aisle to agonize over complex issues such as animal welfare, carbon footprints, workers' rights and excessive packaging, often without any meaningful data on the label to inform their decision-making?' Why, in other words, don't producers and governments shift their current choice-editing practices so that consumers choose only among a range of environmentally "good" products? ... Product labelling is an important component in the transformation of consumer societies into sustainable ones. Yet experience suggests that when product information is made available ... it influences no more than a minority of shoppers - and not nearly enough, not fast enough, and consistently enough to drive the transformation of consumer life required by a planet under stress."
L. Starke, & L. Mastny (Eds.) (2010). "State of the World 2010", p.123

----- On reasons for dying  -----

"The major contributors to global mortality today are for the most part preventable. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), childhood and maternal malnutrition cause an estimated 200 million "years of life lost" annually, followed by physical inactivity and obesity (150 million years), unsafe sex (80 million years), and tobacco (50 million years). A study of the "actually causes of death" in the United states in 2000 lists tobacco as the number one killer, with poor diet and physical inactivity coming in a close second. ... The two principal therapies in medicine's black bag - surgery and pharmacy - are largely irrelevant to the new disorders of ageing and poor lifestyle choices. ... From a financial perspective, prevention pays poorly, while sickness pays."
L. Starke, & L. Mastny (Eds.) (2010). "State of the World 2010", p. 138-139

----- On nature (not) having any rights  -----

"most contemporary legal systems do not recognize that any indigenous inhabitants other than humans are capable of having rights. The law defines land, water, other species, and even genetic material and information as "property," which entrenches an exploitative relationship between the owner (a legal subject with rights) and the property (legally speaking a "thing" incapable of holding rights). ... current legal systems are designed to perpetuate human domination of nature instead of fostering mutually beneficial relationships between humans and other members of the Earth community. ... In fact, environmental laws mainly regulate how quickly natural communities are destroyed rather then preventing the destruction."
L. Starke, & L. Mastny (Eds.) (2010). "State of the World 2010", p. 144-146

----- On the gap between knowing and doing  -----

"Moving beyond facts and information alone is critical because when it comes to taking action, humans tend not to be rational actors. In the wake of the 1970s energy crisis, researcher Scott Geller demonstrated this when he exposed research participants to three hours of slide shows, lectures, and other educational materials about residential energy consumption. The result? Participants were more aware of energy issues, understood more about how they could save energy in their homes, but failed to change their behavior."
L. Starke, & L. Mastny (Eds.) (2010). "State of the World 2010", p. 154-155

----- A definition of ecovillages  -----

"The commonly accepted definition of ecovillages, provided in 1991 by [...] Robert Gilman, is "human-scale, full-featured settlements in which human activities are harmlessly integrated into the natural world in a way that is supportive of healthy human development and can be successfully continued into the indefinite future.""

L. Starke, & L. Mastny (Eds.) (2010). "State of the World 2010", p.185

----- On producing more food but having more hunger at the same time  -----

"We live in a world in which we produce more food than ever before and in which the hungry have never been as many. There is a reason for this: for too many years we have focused on increasing food availability while neglecting both the distributional impacts of food production and their long-term environmental impacts. We have succeeded, remarkably, in increasing yields. But we must now realize that we can produce more and yet fail to tackle hunger at the same time ... In agricultural and food policies ... we realize how fragile our current food systems are. As a result of both demographic growth and a lack of investment in agriculture in a number of developing countries, particularly i sub-Saharan Africa, many countries' dependence on international markets has increased significantly. That represent a heavy burden, particularly when prices spike as a result of speculative bubbles forming on the markets for agricultural commodities - and especially since higher food bills are typically combined with higher prices for oil."
L. Starke (Ed.) (2011). "State of the World 2011", p.xvii-xviii

----- On the effects of the Green Revolution  -----

"we now understand that increasing the production of food and eradicating hunger and malnutrition are two very different objectives - complementary perhaps, but not necessarily linked. It took a generation to understand that the "Green Revolution" package of irrigation, mechanization, high-yielding seed varieties, and chemical fertilizers may have to be fundamentally revised in order to be more sustainable, both socially and environmentally. ... The Green Revolution did not reach the poorest farmers working on the most marginal soils. It largely bypassed women, because women had less access to credit than men, received less support from extension services, and could not afford the inputs on which the technological revolution was based. It sometimes locked cash-strapped farmers into a dependence on high-value external inputs. It switched from labor-intensive forms of production to a capital-intensive agricultural model, accelerating rural flight in the absence of alternative jobs."
L. Starke (Ed.) (2011). "State of the World 2011", p.xviii

----- On ecological vs industrial farming in the rest of the world  -----

"The debate on whether agroecological production practice in ecoagriculture landscapes will be able to meet the entire global food demand is misplaces. ... Globally, only a minority of agricultural lands are in large contiguous areas of intensive, high-yield monocultures on the industrial model, though these account for a large share of total production and international trade. A majority of farms are in mosaic landscapes with considerable opportunity to use uncultivated areas for conservation purposes and to help farming communities sustain or restore ecosystem values while increasing agricultural yields and achieving broader rural development goals. Moreover, only 10 percent of the world's food production enters international trade. ... domestic production for domestic consumption will still ... remain dominant in terms of land area and total output, especially in low-income countries with large rural populations. Thus most countries will need to learn how to grow more food while doing better at protecting ecosystem services and sustaining rural communities.
L. Starke (Ed.) (2011). "State of the World 2011", p.23

----- On staple crops vs vegetables  -----

"the sad fact is that while Africa may be adequately fed by staple crops, it will not be nourished until diets improve. Otherwise, millions of people, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, will remain vulnerable to ailments that compromise their mental and physical fitness. Worldwide, diseases related to imbalanced diets, especially insufficient vegetable and fruit consumption, cause 2.7 million deaths annually and are among the top mortality risk factors ... Staple crops, with their long cropping cycles, tend to be more vulnerable to environmental threats and the risk of crop failure. In contrast, vegetable crop species have shorter cycles, are faster growing, require little space, and thus are very dependable. ... Vegetables are the sustainable solution for a diversified and balanced diet."
L. Starke (Ed.) (2011). "State of the World 2011", p.28

----- On food self-sufficiently and food security  -----

"One strategy put forth for water-stressed countries is that they should import water indirectly through grain to help balance their water budgets and meet their food needs. On average it takes about 1,500 tons of water to produce one ton of grain, so it can make sense for water-scarce countries to import more of their staple foods and save their water for manufacturing and other higher-valued enterprises. But for poor, food-importing countries, this is a risky proposition. Most cannot afford the imports, and even if they can, the imported grains rarely make their way to the table of the hungry. One of the most important lessons of the last half-century of global agriculture is that food security rarely trickles down to the very poor. Moreover, the food riots that erupted in Senegal, Mauritania, Haiti, and some half-dozen other countries as grain prices soared in 2007 and 2008 are likely a harbinger of what is to come. With global grain and oil markets increasingly uncertain, a degree of food self-sufficiency may be crucial for food security."
L. Starke (Ed.) (2011). "State of the World 2011", p.47

----- On the connection between fuel, food and fertilizer  -----

"The world has now used up all its cheap energy ... The problem here is that most of the price of the nitrogen in a bag of fertilizer - and nitrogen is the element that African farmers most need - pays for the energy required to turn that nitrogen into fertilizer. Thus when energy prices rise, the price of the chemical fertilizer most needed in Africa also rises. And at today's prices, nitrogen-based fertilizer is no longer feasible for Africa's small-scale producers of basic grains. Farmers who spend $40 on chemical fertilizer will probably not increase their harvest of basic grains by even $35. As an investment, fertilizer no longer pays. So within the next year or two, the vast majority of Africa's subsistence farmers who use chemical fertilizer will have to give it up, which will cause a one-time drop in productivity of anywhere from 30 to 50 percent.
L. Starke (Ed.) (2011). "State of the World 2011", p.61

----- On the failure of traditional agricultural methods to cope with impoverished fields  -----

"Throughout Mali, farmers 20 years ago routinely fallowed their land for 10-15 years. Now ... they cannot fallow it more than 2 years. If they do, farmers without any productive land will ask for permission to farm the fallowed fields, claiming that the owners must no longer need them. In some countries, fights over land have erupted, sometimes resulting in deaths.
The villagers of Africa, as always, have a series of traditional coping mechanisms. One respons to soil infertility has always been to move somewhere else. Whole villages would pick up and move to a new site where the soils were more fertile. But the population explosion has pushed people onto most previously unpopulated lands. Except for small bits of forest, very little land is left in the subhumid and semiarid areas that is not in use. Even the forests are rapidly being converted to farmland."
L. Starke (Ed.) (2011). "State of the World 2011", p.63

----- On the "unnatural" supply chains of the modern world  -----

"Both consumers and producers in Africa would be less vulnerable if they depended on the local market ... rather than the international market, conditioned by speculation and external interests. ... African supermarkets typically contain very few products that have been domestically produced. Instead, they sell products imported from Europe, the United States, Asia, and even South America: fresh and powdered milk, baguettes and mayonnaise, lettuce that has been flown thousands of kilometres. Even staples like rice or corn are sometimes imported and, incredibly, they usually cost less than the locally grown products. Yet the traditional products are almost always better from a nutritional perspective, as in the case with local grains like fonio in Senegal compared with white rice from Thailand. Meanwhile, poor-quality imported processed foods, heavy in salt, fat, and sugar, are unbalancing diets, particularly in the cities, and leading to health problems."
L. Starke (Ed.) (2011). "State of the World 2011", p.79

----- On institutionalised food waste  -----

"cornucopian abundance ... has fostered a culture in which staggering levels of "deliberate" food waste are now accepted or even institutionalized. Waste is now an unfortunate - and unnecessary - corollary to wealthy nations' burgeoning food supplies. Throwing away cosmetically "imperfect" produce on farms, discarding edible fish at sea, disposing of breadcrusts in sandwich factories, overordering stock for supermarkets, and purchasing or cooking too much in the home are all examples of a profligate negligence toward food."
L. Starke (Ed.) (2011). "State of the World 2011", p.99-100

----- On why poverty and hunger can not be reduced to agricultural yields  -----

"Too often, the issue of food security gets reduced to a sound bite to "feed 9 billion by 2050" that in turn is wrapped around a new and possibly genetically modified seed. But while magic bullets are enticing, they are far from a comprehensive solution. Indeed they amount to a simplistic, even misguided, approach if divorced from the larger context of agriculture: where and how the farmer gets seed and inputs and how much he or she pays for them; whether there is ample labor and equipment; whether timely extension advice is available; whether there are viable markets to sell the crop; whether prices are transparent; and whether, at the end the day, the farmers have made enough money to buy food and send their kids to school, and perhaps even to lift themselves out of poverty. A seed and a sound bite do not address these problems, nor will the single-minded aim of more production without attention to these details"
L. Starke (Ed.) (2011). "State of the World 2011", p.144

----- On low-tech vs high-tech solutions in African agriculture  -----

"It is striking how few of the development success stories described in this book depends to any significant degree on cutting-edge scientific and technological breakthroughs. Indeed, access to simple, low-cost, durable, easy-to-maintain tools and techniques to accomplish everyday tasks is a far more common ingredient in successful projects than cutting-edge technologies or system changes made possible by science breakthroughs.
GE [genetic engineering] technology and input-intensive systems generally focus one intervention on one problem, with the goal of keeping in check the damage caused by pests or problems arising from imbalances in a farming system. ... Western societies have been able and willing to contain and deal with such collateral damage through complex and costly regulatory programs and ongoing research and surveillance. Is it realistic to expect African and Asian countries to do the same?"
L. Starke (Ed.) (2011). "State of the World 2011", p.169-171

----- On why large companies have little incentive in solving the problems of poor small-scale farmers  -----

"Until recently, governments, universities, multilateral organizations, and other public institutions have set priorities and paid for most science and technology development in the area of agriculture and food systems. The private sector accepted a significant degree of dependence on and guidance from public institutions in pursuing food system R&D. The transition to private-sector dominance of agricultural R&D began in the 1970s, accelerated in the 1980s as the profit potential of genetic engineering came into focus, and was essentially compete by the turn of the century. ... Private companies are bound by law in most countries to maximize economic returns to their investors. It is a stretch for a major corporation to deliver the customary profit margin ... when the company is a partner in a development project serving the needs of small-scale farmers in poor regions of the world."
L. Starke (Ed.) (2011). "State of the World 2011", p.170

----- Money wasn't made for the poor  -----

"The global consumer class, about a billion people or so, mostly lives in western industrial countries, but the last two decades have witnessed the emergence of growing numbers of high consumer in countries like China, India, Brazil, South Africa, and Indonesia. Another 1-2 billion people globally aspire to the consumer life and may be able to acquire some of its trappings. But the remainder of humanity - including the "bottom of the pyramid," the most destitute - have little hope of ever achieving such a life. The global economy is not designed for their benefit. .. it would be a mistake to regard the steady expansion of the global consuption-intensive industrial economy as a surefire path toward overcoming poverty and social marginalization. ... In many cases, growth has been accompanied by increased inequality.
L. Starke (Ed.) (2012). "State of the World 2012", p.5

----- On "the green economy"  -----

"While the term "green economy" has gained currency, its meaning is still up for interpretation among governments, corporations, and civil society groups. UNEP defines a green economy quite broadly as one that results in "improved human well-being and social equity, while significantly reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities. In its simplest expression, a green economy is low carbon, resource efficient, and socially inclusive." UNEP argues that "the greening of economies need not be a drag on growth. On the contrary, the greening of economies has the potential to be a new engine of growth, a net generator of decent jobs, and a vital strategy to eliminate persistent poverty." The extent to which a green economy and economic growth are compatible is open to question, however. ... Making a difference in the quest for sustainability will require an absolute decoupling of economic performance and materials use.
L. Starke (Ed.) (2012). "State of the World 2012", p.7-8

----- On productivity and (green) jobs  -----

"One problem with the current economy is that it relies too much on limited and polluting resources such as fossil fuels and too little on an abundant resource - people. While greater labor productivity has undoubtedly been an engine of progress over time, its single-minded pursuit is turning into a curse. From here on, progress requires a greater focus on energy, materials, and water productivity instead. Employment at adequate incomes is key to making an economy work for people, and therefore the transition to a green economy requires particular attention to good-quality jobs that contribute to preserving or restoring environmental quality."
L. Starke (Ed.) (2012). "State of the World 2012", p.10-11

----- On the materials flow of the linear throwaway economy  -----

"At the base of the brown economy is the large-scale extraction of natural resources. Mining of ores and minerals grew a staggering 27-fold during the twentieth century, outstripping the rate of economic growth. Now that easily exploited deposits have largely been exhausted, environmental impacts of mining are bound to worsen. Already, about three times more rock and other material needs to be removed now than a century ago in order to extract the same quantity of ore. A throwaway economy means that waste streams keep expanding along with mining. ... More than 1 billion tons of metals, paper, rubber, plastics, glass, and other material are recycled each year. But that is only one tenth the amount of waste collected."
L. Starke (Ed.) (2012). "State of the World 2012", p.16-17

----- On green growth vs more radical transformations of the global economy  -----

"society is so committed to growth that even many environmentalist and sustainable development experts still advocate for "green growth," or just the decoupling of growth from material consumption. As Harald Welzer, author of Mental infrastructures: How growth entered the world and our souls, notes, "The current debated on decoupling ... serves above all to maintain the illusion that we can make a sufficient number of minor adjustments in order to reduce the negative environmental consequences of economic growth while leaving our present system intact."
Indeed, when adding up all indirect and direct forms of consumption, in 2000 the average American used 88 kilograms of resources a day and the average European 43 kilograms a day - numbers that need to contract tremendously to be sustainable, especially in the context of growing consumption demands by developing countries."
L. Starke (Ed.) (2012). "State of the World 2012", p.24-15

----- On the global transport sector energy use  -----

"Global transport sector energy use has been growing steadily by about 2-2.5 percent a year since 1970 and is forecast to grow even more quickly in the future. Although the average fuel economy of vehicle engines has improved over time, increases in average vehicle weight, vehicle kilometers traveled, and vehicle fleet size have all led to continued growth in the transport energy consumed and related social costs. In 1990 there were 500 million cars in the world; today there are nearly 800 million, and the IEA forecasts that by 2050 there will be between 2 billion and 3 billion. That means that for every car struck in traffic today there will be three or four in 2050. The additional energy use by the transport sector from such rapid growth in vehicles and vehicle activity would far outstrip any reductions from vehicle fuel efficiency improvements"
L. Starke (Ed.) (2012). "State of the World 2012", p.56-57

----- On the costs and the benefits of motorization  -----

"Without a good public transportation system, the urban poor are further marginalized by their location. This social exclusion affects many aspects of a city-dweller's life, including access to employment, health care, education, markets, and social and cultural events. ... Investments that increase car dependence tend to also increase average trip lengths and to put more jobs and opportunities out of reach of the poor. ... Today road accidents are the ninth leading cause of death worldwide, but by 2030 they are expected to be the fifth leading cause. ... Nearly half of these deaths will be of pedestrians and cyclists killed by drivers. ... the costs of motorization are disproportionately borne by the poorest segments of society, even though these groups often have little or no access to the mobility benefits from motorization."
L. Starke (Ed.) (2012). "State of the World 2012", p.58-59

----- On the primacy of shareholder values  -----

"By the early nineteenth century, two major innovations in corporate form emerged as the dominant architecture ... The dual forces of the joint stock and limited liability became the pillars of unprecedented growth in the size, complexity, and profitability of large corporations. The corporation as a remote, tradable asset held by anonymous investors decoupled from management, operations, and community took root. At the same time, labor as a factor of production akin to raw material whose cost should be minimized became deeply embedded in the world's surging industrial economies. These attributes put in place the defining characteristic of the modern corporation, namely the primacy of capital (that is, shareholder) interests. ... shareholder primacy created conditions that would spur many of the social movements that pitted the rights of capital against the rights of labor ... a central feature of advanced economies to this day."
L. Starke (Ed.) (2012). "State of the World 2012", p.89

----- Due for later this year but don't hold your breath just yet  -----

"Imagine the following scenario: In 2015 ... an alliance of global business leaders forges an improbable coalition with civil society and labor organizations. ... the alliance steps forward to say: We are here to declare that business-as-usual is not an adequate response to the expectations, risks, and opportunities for corporations in the twenty-first century. We therefore are advocating a change in the rules governing corporations, a new social contract that recognizes that companies exist at the pleasure of citizens expressed through democratic government processes that provide the rule of law, the stability, and the physical and technological infrastructure upon which all companies depend. The mantra of shareholder value is antithetical to the core values of sustainable development, which is the only long-term pathway to build the prosperous companies and prosperous societies upon which our collective well-being depends. We commit to creating new global, national, and local governance mechanisms with the authority and resources to encourage and enforce a new generation of corporate accountability and adherence to a new set of principles for corporate design. These principles will provide the beacon for an emergent view of the corporation built on a partnership between people and the biosphere."
L. Starke (Ed.) (2012). "State of the World 2012", p.93-94

----- On the ideal relationship between corporations and society  -----

"Corporation 20/20 ... has explored the challenges of repurposing and redesigning corporations. ... the network developed six Principles of Corporate Redesign as the pillars of its research, advocacy, and public communications. ...
Principle 1. The purpose of the corporation is to harness private interests to serve the public interest. Why does society create laws that allow corporations to exist? To serve the public interest, the paramount purpose of all democratic systems. The license to operate is not an entitlement; it is a privilege. It should be granted with terms and conditions aligned with the vision of a just and sustainable society and be subject to periodic review and renewal based on adherence to such vision. ... Where private and public interest conflict, the public interest must prevail. Principle 1 rejects the characterization of the corporation as an insular entity freely marketable without constraints and detached from the broader society in which it operates. Instead, it positions the corporation as inseparable from, and ultimately accountable to broader society interests."
L. Starke (Ed.) (2012). "State of the World 2012", p.96

----- The case against pets  -----

"Today, the large population of dogs, cats, and other companion animals is having a serious impact on the world's environment. ... Just in terms of food, a large dog uses 0.36 global hectares of resources per year, a small dog 0.18, and a cat 0.13 hectares. For comparison, a person in Bangladesh uses on average 0.6 hectares of resources a year in total. ... an American dog owner typically spends anywhere from $4,000 to $100,000 on a dog over its lifetime. ... policymakers should recognize that pet ownership is a luxury and should make it costlier to own pets, perhaps through a steeper pet license fee or a tax on dog and cat food. ... there should be better oversight of the pet industry, which has an industry strategy of "humanizing" pet populations so that people will seek out pets to fill companion gaps and spend more on them. ... This may curb some pet purchases and may also reduce excessive purchases for current pets - whether that is extra food (many pets are overweight due to overfeeding), clothing, fancy toys, pet spa treatments, and end-of-life medical care that is more sophisticated than many people in developing countries have access to."
L. Starke (Ed.) (2012). "State of the World 2012", p.124

----- On women's and men's varying preferences for how many children they want  -----

"men, free of the physical hazards and discomforts of child-bearing and usually investing much less time than women do in childrearing, tend in ost countries to want more children than their partners do. ... women in almost all developing countries express a desire for fewer children than they end up having, as well as fewer children than men want. The more children a woman has, the more likely she is to want fewer additional ones than her partner."
L. Starke (Ed.) (2012). "State of the World 2012", p.125

----- On the proportion of retired vs working-age people in society  -----

"Higher proportions of older people in any population are a natural consequence of longer life spans and women's intentions to have fewer children, neither of which societies should want to reverse. The appropriate way to deal with population aging is to make necessary social adjustments, increasing labor participation and mobilizing older people themselves to contribute to such adjustments, for instance, rather than urging or offering incentives to women to have more children than they think best. Population aging is a short-term phenomenon that will pass before the end of this century, with impacts far less significant and long-lasting than ongoing population growth, a point policymakers need to understand better."
L. Starke (Ed.) (2012). "State of the World 2012", p.127

----- On the need for going from empty-world to full-world economics  -----

"In pursuit of unending material growth, western society has increasingly favored institutions that promote the private sector over the public and commons sectors, capital accumulation by the few over asset building by the many, and finance over the production of real goods and services. ... This view of what "prosperity" means emerged when the world was still relatively empty of humans and their built infrastructure  Natural resources were abundant, social settlements were sparser, and inadequate access to infrastructure represented the main limit on improvements to human well-being. Much has changed in the last century, however. The human footprint has grown so large that in many cases real progress is constrained more by limits on the availability of natural resources and ecosystem services than by limits on build capital infrastructure."
L. Starke (Ed.) (2012). "State of the World 2012", p.177

----- On what should be part of the commons  -----

"We need institutions that use an appropriate combination of private, state, and common property rights systems to establish clear property rights over ecosystems without privatizing them. One such category of institutions is the commons sector, which would be responsible for managing existing common assets and for creating new ones. Some assets should be held in common because it is more just; these include resources created by nature or by society as a whole - for example, a freshwater environment created by nature or common knowledge created by society. Others should be held in common because it is more efficient; these include nonrival resources for which price rationing creates artificial shortages (information) or rival resources (goods that are used up through consumption) that generate nonrival benefits, such as trees filtering water to make it drinkable. Others should be held in common because it is more sustainable; these include essential common pool resources and public goods such as clean air.
L. Starke (Ed.) (2012). "State of the World 2012", p.180-181

torsdag 16 april 2015

Tools for sustaining not-for-profit grassroots sharing initiatives

After almost two months of work, we finally handed in an EU application earlier this week, "SHARE IT: Tools for sustaining not-for-profit grassroots sharing initiatives".

Our application is a response to the call "Collective Awareness for Sustainability and Social Innovations" (CAPS) and it is part of the much larger 2014-2020 EU Horizon 2020 research program. This call was particularly interesting for us, sprouting references to "collaborative consumption", "new collective models for value creation beyond monetisation", "sustainable behaviours and lifestyles", "bottom-up solutions grounded on real communities", "grassroots actors", "participatory innovation paradigms" as well as harnessing "open data, open source and open hardware" as well as "ICT networks, network effects and collective intelligence for cooperation, supporting new economic models beyond GDP". There really was no end to the long list of attractive terms and concepts in the invitation to write research grant applications. Beyond the stuff they wanted, there was also an interesting list about applications they did NOT want (capitals in original - see this downloadable powerpoint presentation):
   - Proposals without a clear existing (and physical) community of motivated users
   - Proposals that were technology-driven, or aiming at purely commercial solutions
   - Consortia without at least two partners which are focused on non-ICT disciplines

There are three research partners in our proposed project; Lancaster University (UK), KTH Royal Institute of Technology (Sweden) and the think tank Demos Helsinki (Finland). The people who have been most involved with the application are Adrian Friday (Lancaster), Daniel Pargman, Elina Eriksson and Karin Bradley (KTH) and Airi Lampinen (Demos). KTH is one institution but two different schools (and departments) are involved in the application, my own School of Computer Science and Communication (CSC) as well as the School for the Architecture and the Built Environment (ABE). If the application is successful, we plan to hire a post-doc at KTH to work 100% in the project for either two years or for three years (which is the full duration of the project).

The project is divided into four different parts, called Work Packages (plus a fifth for management). They are all interconnected but still roughly correspond to empirical fieldwork (WP1), theoretical analysis (WP2), design and construction of a software platform (WP3) and requirements elicitation and evaluation of the platform (WP4). While any researcher might work in several of the work packages, Demos will be responsible for WP1, KTH ABE for WP2, Lancaster for WP3 and KTH CSC for WP4.

Except for the academic partners, we also have three project partners, i.e. grassroots initiatives that practice the sharing economy. These are Skjutsgruppen (ride sharing), Restaurant Day (pop-up temporary restaurants) and Hoffice (pop-up temporary workspaces) as well as an "impact partner", the OuiShare network. OuiShare do several things but the two things they do that is of most relevance to this project is that 1) they organise the OuiShare Fest, an an annual festival and conference that brings together people to celebrate and share knowledge of best practice and 2) the activities of the OuiShare Labs​, working with open source tools for sharing initiatives and sharing-related projects.

I think many parts of this project are exciting. We are very fortunate in that two of the applicants (Airi and Karin) already work in and have published scientific results about collaborative consumption and the sharing economy. That fact and their knowledge strengthens our application tremendously! The other three main applicants (me, Adrian, Elina) on the other hand bring knowledge of computing and sustainability to the project, so it definitely feels like this constellation of people would be able to accomplish things together that any actor could not do alone. I have myself worked some with the sharing economy, not the least since that was the topic that I explored together with 65 master's level students in the project course "Future of Media" during the whole 2014 autumn term. Me and Elina are also developing an international master’s level specialisation at KTH Royal Institute of Technology, “Sustainable Information Society” that will start 18 months from now. There are major synergy effects between this proposed research project and that specialisation; we could for sure use results from the project in the courses in question (including in the planned project course) and we could also recruit students to conduct research and write their master's theses within the larger research project.

While Karin Bradley at the KTH ABE School will be responsible for the theoretical (2nd) work package, I personally expect to spend some time working within that package too. That would give me and Karin the opportunity to develop some ideas we discussed already three years ago in a previous application of ours (that we did not get funding for). The 2009 Economics Nobel Prize winner Elinor Ostrom spent the major part of her life studying how real communities succeed or fail at managing "common pool resources" such as land for grazing, fishing waters, forests etc. While she only studied finite (so-called "rival") resources - each fish can only be caught by one fisherman - we are on the other hand interested in how her findings can be applied to collaborative consumption and the sharing economy. We will use her principles for successful communal governance of such resources but also expect that they might have to be modified or developed in the context of the sharing economy where resources to some extent can be created out of this air (e.g. there is extra space in my car that I can offer to others at almost no extra cost to me).

The process of writing the application itself has for the most part been very fruitful, despite the fact that many parts of an EU application can be onerous to write. Still, after a concentrated effort that went into frenzy mode the last week, it is really nice to have handed in the application. We now lean back, cross our fingers and hope for the best. As a parting gift, here is part of the opening salvo of the application:

"The growth of the sharing economy and developments of state of the art online platforms are perfectly timed to help societies find new ways of working, of building community, and of promoting different and more sustainable ways of living.

The sharing economy encompasses commercial, for­profit, sharing platforms as Airbnb and Uber, but also a myriad of citizen­managed not­for­profit sharing schemes, such as a movement of turning homes to temporary “pop­up” collaborative office spaces (Hoffice), as well as platforms for sharing stuff, dinners or rides. These grassroots sharing initiatives are social innovations and have grown in a context of large youth unemployment and a labor market harboring increasing numbers of freelancers and different forms of temporary employment. The appeal of these sharing practices and the rationale for engaging in them may be economic, social and/or environmental; part of their power and their potential impact lies in leveraging several or all of these factors.

Sharing economy initiative or ‘startups’ ­ both commercial and non­commercial ­ can however face challenges that drastically affect their viability and long term success. Encouraging growth and replication of grassroots sharing initiatives implies a need for the maturing and scaling up of software tools (platforms) so that they can help handle more instances of an initiative, often meaning both more participants and a greater number of locations.

The scaling­up of an initiative does not only challenge the technical infrastructure (i.e. the set of software tools that are used to run the initiative in question), but also puts the spotlight on social issues such as access, trust, reputation, conflict­resolution mechanisms and regulation. It consequently becomes very important to think about the intersection of social and technical systems, e.g. of the so­called “socio­technical design cycle”.
The best way to explore socio­technical systems is thus iteratively, refining the software and carefully studying the consequences, as well as by thoroughly mapping the needs of the community and converting these into requirements for the (next version of the) software platform." 

torsdag 26 mars 2015

Why Apple Watch is a terrible idea

I sometimes watch Apple keynotes to keep up with the world of Apple. Owning a stationary iMac, a MacBook laptop, an iPad and an iPhone 5, I have both a curiosity and a vested interest in keeping an eye on what Apple does. I therefore recently watched the two hours long video from the September 2014 Apple Event where Apple CEO Tim Cook unveiled the upcoming Apple Watch. Cook spent no less than 45 minutes talking about the watch. Apple Watch will be released at the end of April and prices will range from $349 to $17.000 USD (depending on materials). As this is a new product category, sales for 2015 are estimated to land anywhere between 8 and 60 million, which is still is a huge leap compared to the less than 3.5 million (non-Apple) smartwatches that were sold during 2014. As a comparison, Apple sold almost 15 million iPads in the first nine months after it was released in April 2010. It is of course impossible to yet know if Apple Watch will become a success or if smartwatches will continue to struggle in the marketplace. While Apple Watch most certainly represents a new technological feat from Apple, I still think Apple Watch is a terrible idea and I will tell you why.

Early in Cook's presentation, I became hesitant when I understood that the watch requires the owner to have an iPhone from the latest or the second-to-latest generation (iPhone 5 or 6). The iPhone 5 was released two and a half years ago, in September 2012, but you might need to upgrade the operating system of your iPhone for it to work together with the Apple Watch. While a lot of Apple Watch-compatible iPhones have been sold (200 million back in September according to Cook but estimated to be closer to 300 million by the end of 2015), only a limited portion of humanity - iPhone owners - will fulfil the prerequisites of buying the Apple Watch. That might not be a problem for Apple since iPhone users of course are part of an affluent global elite with money to burn. Already in 2010, with a market share of barely 4% of all cellphones sold, Apple "pulled in more than 50% of the total profits that global cellphone sales [generated]". I do however find it slightly disturbing to design a new product (a watch) that can be used only by a small subsection of all the people who can own an ordinary watch. It's as if you design a TV that can only be used with loudspeakers from a specific company or iPod loudspeakers that work fine, but becomes obsolete when the physical interface of future iPods changes (which happened to me). I find it slightly offensive when dependencies and limitations are erected between consumer products that previously did not have any.

This led me to have a second look at a really interesting article I read a few years ago in (of all places) the Australian Defence Force Journal. Major Cameron Leckie wrote an article called "Lasers or Longbows? A Paradox of Military Technology" where he compares high-tech but fragile military technologies (lasers, jet fighters) with low-tech but robust military technologies (longbows, spears). His basic argument is that while a jet fighter in the air is immensely more powerful than spear-wielding aborigines, the jet fighter is also a more vulnerable and less robust technology. A functioning jet fighter is dependent on modern fuels (and the long infrastructural chain behind the production and transportation of jet fuel), on complex financial arrangements and government debts, and, on modern communications and oodles of data, together resulting in "a highly-complex, globally interconnected and interdependent supply chain". Increased military capability thus correlates with increased complexity, but, erecting and maintaining complexity always comes at a significant cost. That cost is spelled increased vulnerability since every part has to work exactly as planned while there at the same time are a near-infinite number of possible points where the system can fail. This is the paradox of military technology; with increased capabilities comes increased complexity, increased costs and increased vulnerabilities.

While spears are pitiful weapons next to a modern tank, a spear could be produced "in situ" with very limited resources (some timber, stone and resin) and the appropriate know-how (no industrial base required!). By comparison, "the best tank in the world is useless without trained crews, sufficient fuel and ammunition, and areas in which to train, supported by a sound maintenance system, all of which are dependent on the allocation of appropriate financial resources".

Leckie's point is that sometimes the appropriate response can be to decrease complexity rather than to increase it (military precedents are mentioned in the article). Leckie argues that for a country like Australia that imports 80 per cent of its transport fuels, it is important to find a balance between capabilities and costs. It is more important for the Australian military to think about cost-effective (e.g. simple) ways to maintain relative levels of capability (in relation to neighbouring countries and possible future threats), rather than aiming for the highest absolute levels of military capability (having the best jet fighters in the world).

My problem with the Apple Watch then is that it increases the complexity and the vulnerability of an emerging ecosystem of personal intimate (wearable) technologies that you are supposed to carry with you all day. With increased complexity comes increasing costs of maintaining such an ecosystem and an increasing number of points where things can go wrong. Increasingly complex systems also lead to the possibility of cascading failures taking down the whole tightly coupled system - something that can't happen in systems with more robust, independent components. Thomas Homer-Dixon, in "The upside of down" discusses characteristics of complex systems:

"machines like windup clocks or car engines aren't complex. They may be extremely complicated - they may have thousands of parts - but all their parts work together to produce a system with a relatively narrow and predictable range of behaviors. ... Complex systems, on the other hand, have properties and behaviors that can't be attributed to any particular part but only to the system as a whole. ... Sometimes, for instance, small changes in a complex system produce huge effects, while large changes make little difference at all. In other words, cause and effect aren't proportional to each other. ... The behavior of a complex system with these features is highly contingent - how it behaves at any given time, and how it evolves over time, depends on a host of factors, large and small, knowable and unknowable."

While the Apple Watch surely is a feat in terms of precision, engineering, materials, style, capabilities, breakthroughs in ways of interacting with a very small display etc., I feel that the watch is problematic from a sustainability point of view. In terms of ecological sustainability, I assume Apple will use the highest standards in terms of materials and manufacturing processes (e.g. what Apple refers to as "environmental responsibility"). That should not detract from the fact that the paring of the Apple Watch to Apple's iPhones means that at some point in the future, your watch's software requirements (etc.) may force you to buy a new iPhone or vice versa. The hardware-software obsolescence cycle, where new software requires new-ish hardware and vice versa - just sped up. Instead of designing technologies that can be used for a long time, Apple has designed a technology that will speed up the obsolescence of co-dependent gadgets and increase your "need" to constantly buy new high-tech gadgets. Do note that the top-of the line $17.000 Apple Watches are made of hardened 18-karat gold. It would be a shame to have to retire such a watch just because the iPhone 8 requires the watch to have Watch OS 2.0 which only works on the second generation of Apple Watches...

A discussion about the costs of complexity could also be regarded as part of a discussion about social sustainability. Apple Watch is an example of how simple and robust technologies (mechanical watches) are replaced by capable but also more complex and frail systems (smartwatches) that surely will work most of the time but that will fail synchronously and catastrophically at times - and perhaps at the worst possible moment.

Self-winding mechanical watches were invented in the 1920's. The first electronic watches came in the 1970's and required you to replace their batteries at times. While smartwatches with enhanced functionality (beyond timekeeping) have existed for decades, current smartwatches are in fact computers with complex operating systems and where the battery life has typically been reduced to 3 or 4 days before the watch needs to be charged. The Apple Watch will work for 18 hours and thus needs to be charged every day. You need to dedicate a socket in home to your Apple Watch charger, you need to remember to charge your Apple Watch every night and perhaps also to buy a second charger that you carry with you at all times (including on trips) or that you have in your workplace. Perhaps you need a charger in your car too. A natural question is if these developments represent a step forward or a step backward? It's not always that easy to tell.

The Apple Watch is of course much more than just a watch - a device that tells you the time. It is also a "remote control" to many of the functions and services your smartphone provides and it also offers new functionality that your smartphone can't provide. It is probably a great product, but, it is for good and for bad also the equivalent of a jet fighter operating at the apex of a large and complex infrastructure with many interdependent parts - an infrastructure that is costly and vulnerable in comparison to non-digital stand-alone components. That infrastructure is also a superstructure, a new layer of complexity on top of an already complex system and I for one worry about what Apple Watch represents for issues such as vulnerability, sustainability, resource use and for further stoking the already revved-up engines of consumerism.

söndag 22 mars 2015

Books I've read (January)

This blog post treat books I read in January. The theme that unites these books is (media) technological inventions/developments. I regularly write about books that I have read on the blog and here is the previous blog post. The asterisks below represent the number of quotes from the book that can be found further below.

********* I have owned Tom Standage's "The Victorian Internet: The remarkable story of the telegraph and the nineteenth century's online pioneers" (1998) for a long time. I must have bought it more than 10 years ago and finally came around to reading it. The book is an easy and pleasant read. This is not the heaviest of books - Standage is a journalist - but it does provide a concise history of the rise, the rule and the decline of the telegraph over a period of not much more than 50 years (succumbing primarily to the telephone). The book has its fair share of anecdotes and reflections about how the telegraph shrunk the world, revolutionised communication and commerce and how it changed the world views of contemporary politicians, military men, captains of industry, swindlers and ordinary men and women. The book makes a point of latching on to "the Internet phenomenon" both in the title and on the back cover:

"Before the Internet, before the television, radio and telephone there was the telegraph... In the middle of Queen Victoria's reign this new communications technology annihilated distance and shrank the world faster than ever before. The international telegraph network revolutionised business practice and gave rise to new forms of crime. Romances blossomed over its cables. Governments tried and failed to regulate it. Meanwhile, out on the wires, a technological subculture with its own customs and vocabulary was establishing itself. Does all this sound familiar...? This is the story of the men and women who were the earliest pioneers of the on-line frontier, and the global network they created - a network that was in effect the Victorian Internet."

I am personally fascinated by the meeting of new (media) technologies and human behaviour. On the one hand new technologies that harbor the potential to revolutionise the world, and on the other hand strong or frail human beings who are driven by the same basic human motivations as ever. The end result are humans that try to accomplish much of the same as before, but now with a new tool in their toolbox. That also means they will explore and bend the new technologies to serve their purposes and in ways not imagined by the innovators and inventors of the technologies in question. It is interesting to not the least read about scammers, grifters and spies trying to use a (probably short-lived) informational advantage to their own purposes, as well as the police using innovative (then-)high-tech methods to wait for the arrival of a criminal who avoided the police elsewhere by jumping upon a departing train. With the telegraph, it was - for the first time ever - possible to send information faster than a horseman (e.g. the pony express) or a ship could convey a slip of paper. The concept of separating information from a physical medium and send it electronically, through cables, took some work getting used to for the people of that day and age. It's pretty fascinating when you think about it - it ought to have been a much bigger deal at the time than the arrival of the Internet has been. 

******** If Standage's book was an easy read, Carolyn Marvin's "When old technologies were new: Thinking about electric communication in the late nineteenth century" (1988) was the exact opposite. Learned, well referenced but pretty strenuous and cumbersome to get through. There is an overlap between Marvin's and Standage's books, but unless you have a special interest in the topics in question, I would recommend Standage's book over Marvin's. I understand that Marvin has a deep knowledge of the subjects she writes about - she has read up on the original material (journals) from the latter part of the 19th century. I unfortunately don't feel that she has the same talent for structuring her material and explaining it in ways that makes her deep knowledge available for those of us who do not know as much about the particular area she has researched. I might be wrong, but it does feel like the book might be an edited version of her ph.d. thesis. In the end there are too many details and not enough synthesis and interpretation to guide the reader. When I read the book, it felt like there were many findings and implications that were buried right under the surface of the text but that I "walked past" and didn't notice them when I read the book. From the back cover:

"In When old technologies were new Carolyn Marvin explores how two inventions - the telephone and the electric light - were publicly envisioned at the end of the nineteenth century, as seen in specialized engineering journals and popular media. From imaginative experimentation to widespread anxiety over the transformation of traditional class, family, and gender relations, Marvin examines the public reaction to electrical invention, how professional electric engineers tried to control new media, and how the "new technologies" affected a vast network of social habits and customs"

*********** I read Nicholas Carr's "The shallows" four years ago and appreciated it enough to later buy "The big switch: Rewiring the world, from Edison to Google" which was written in 2008 and thus predates "The shallows". "The big switch" is a book about "big ideas". It's more specifically a book about one particular big idea: the idea that computing is turning into a utility. Carr describes how technology and business had to come together on a big scale one hundred years ago for electricity to become a utility, and, he fruitfully compares that process to soon-to-happen switch in the world of computing. There are a couple of problems already at this point. The book was written seven years ago and it hasn't aged particularly gracefully. The phenomenon Carr writes about is nowadays called cloud computing but he doesn't use that term in the book (we does however refer to others who talk about "the computer in the cloud" twice). The practical effects of cloud computing are that we nowadays for the most part don't really care exactly where the computing power we use is situated. It's enough to know that it's out there (somewhere, in a data center) and that stuff just works when we want to use it (Blogger, Google docs, Spotify, Netflix, Facebook etc.).

While Carr does provide added value and a deeper understanding, it's hard to get appropriately excited about the basic concept the way I probably would have been had I read the books seven years ago when it was published. Nothing marks that a book as aged as much as references to obsolete technologies and platforms that are referred to in terms of "the latest technologies", e.g. MySpace and Blackberries. MySpace was overtake by Facebook in 2008-2009 and Blackberry have never been very popular in Europe in the first place and are now struggling (and for the most part failing) to compete with Android and iPhone smartphones in the marketplace. The big switch is despite this an easy read, written as it is by a journalist, but it's hard to recommend a book that is all about the previous "latest trend" despite its insights in regards to technological change. It's a little hard for me to understand why a new edition of the book was printed in 2013. Instead of reading the book itself, I would recommend the 11 quotes from the book (below) as a shortcut to reading the book.

**** Håkan Selg's ph.d. thesis "Researching the use of the Internet: A beginner's guide" was defended recently, in November 2014. Having already studied the (use of the) Internet as a consultant and an investigator, Selg's thesis is an in-depth inquiry into the area of "Internet Studies". I found the thesis - or rather the underlying research it rests on - strange. Håkan has not collected any primary material during the course of his ph.d. studies, but has instead carefully read every chapter of five different edited handbooks about Internet Studies and then spent an inordinate amount of time trying to figure out definitions, limits, labels and demarcations of what could possibly, in the widest possible sense, constitute Internet Studies (drawing on Human-Computer Interaction, mass communication studies, Internet in everyday life and Computer-mediated communication). Selg then goes on to use the resulting, relatively complicated scheme, to classify and analyse different approaches to studying the Internet - and uses his own, previously written semi-scholarly reports about various aspects about how Swedes use the Internet (written during the course of a decade, 2002-2011) as his "empirical material". I have never encountered anything similar before.

"Unknowingly I had been a temporary visitor in a number of fields and subfields on ICT use research and didn't belong anywhere. In an attempt to find a solution to this lack of home ground it will be necessary to first investigate the various methodologies employed as well as their philosophical origins [of various strands of Internet Studies], in the hope of identifying links to my own findings. Against this theoretical background I will then discuss how my own research efforts could be positioned."

The thesis consists of a large number of classification schemes and tables and it took me a long time to understand what Selg's "material" consisted of (e.g. his own previously-written reports). I can understand Selg's fascination with going back and thinking about what he really did during the years when he wrote all those reports. While he might reach some kind of closure at the personal level, I unfortunately don't think that is a particularly successful topic or method for writing a ph.d. thesis. It instead feels a lot like "armchair research". The Wikipedia page about "armchair theorizing" defines it as "an approach to providing new developments in a field that does not involve the collection of new information but, rather, a careful analysis or synthesis of existent scholarship". This is a fair description of Selg's research. While synthesis of existing scholarship can have its merits (economics as an academic discipline is used as an example), it is at the same time an anathema in other academic disciplines (e.g. in anthropology) and the term "armchair research" itself is most often used disparagingly.

The greatest problem I have with Selg's thesis is in the end not the theorising per se, but rather the fact that there is so much of it. It is abundantly clear that Selg has read widely in many different fields (including history of science), but it's harder to understand who Selg writes for. There are in the end just too many "excursions" in too many different directions and I as a reader became overwhelmed by the seemingly never-ending volume of sheer theorising. The specific topic of the thesis becomes fuzzy when the general impression is that it treats a great number of topics on a relatively general level. I had read almost 100 pages when I wrote a note in the margin: "is all this theorising actually your thesis, or does the theorising just lead up to your research?". It's not that good that I did not know the answer to that questions after having read close to half of the thesis. Leafing back to the beginning of the thesis, I can find Selg's motivation for the approach he has chosen, but I fail to find the actual, succinctly formulated research question that is supposed to drive the whole endeavour besides the general question "what is Internet Studies?".

The critique I levelled against Marvin (above) can also be levelled agains Selg. This is not a thesis that is particularly reader-oriented and the guiding light instead seems to have been for Selg to work through some "personal issues" and to then "write down everything he knows" about the results of this quest of his. Selg has read widely and obviously knows a lot, but it's harder to understand the relevance of the thesis, e.g. why would it be of particular interest to other persons - unless those persons also happen to have an intense interest in finding out the answer to the question "what constitutes Internet Studies?".


----- On the first electronic network spanning the globe  -----

"Expansion [of telegraph wires] was fastest in the United States, where the only working line at the beginning of 1846 was Morse's experimental line, which ran 40 miles from Washington and Baltimore. Two years later there were approximately 2,000 miles of wire, and by 1850 there were over 12,000 miles operated by 20 different companies." (p.58)
"Sending and receiving messages - which by the early 1850s had been dubbed 'telegrams' - was soon part of everyday life for many people around the world, though the expense involved meant that only the rich could afford to use the network to send trivial messages; most people only used the telegraph to convey really urgent news." (p.61)
Standage, T. (1998). "The Victorian Internet"

----- On failing to understand the workings of early electronic technologies  -----

"although the telegraph ... required neither the sender nor the receiver to own any special equipment - or understand how to use it - it was still a source of confusion to those unfamiliar with it.
[One] story concerned a woman in Karlsruhe who went to a telegraph office in 1870 with a dish full of sauerkraut, which she asked to have telegraphed to her son, who was a soldier fighting in the war between Prussia and France. The operator had great difficulty convincing her that the telegraph was not capable of transmitting objects. But the woman insisted that she had heard of soldiers being ordered to the front by telegraph: 'How could so many soldiers have been sent to France by telegraph?' she asked.
Another woman, on receiving a telegram from her son asking for money, said she was not so easily taken in: she said she knew her son's handwriting very well, and the message, transcribed at the receiving office, obviously hadn't come from him."
Standage, T. (1998). "The Victorian Internet", p.64-66

----- On dreams of the telegraph finally leading to world peace  -----

"The construction of a global telegraph network was widely expected ... to result in world peace. (p.81)
a toast proposed by Edward Thornton, the British Ambassador, emphasised the peacemaking potential of the telegraph. 'What can be more likely to effect [peace] than a constant and complete intercourse between all nations and individuals in the world?' he asked. 'Steam [power] was the first olive branch offered to us by science. Then came a still more effective olive branch - this wonderful electric telegraph'
another toast was to 'The telegraph wire, the nerve of international life, transmitting knowledge of events, removing causes of misunderstanding, and promoting peace and harmony throughout the world.' (p.87)
Unfortunately ... Better communication does not necessarily lead to a wider understanding of other points of view; and the potential of new technologies to change things for the better is invariably overstated, while the ways in which they will make things worse are usually unforeseen. (p.99)
Standage, T. (1998). "The Victorian Internet"

----- On 19th century telegraph offices as early information-processing centres in a global electronic network  -----

"pneumatic tube systems were soon being used to move messages around within major telegraph offices. Each of these offices was a vast information-processing centre - a hive of activity surrounded by a cat's cradle of telegraph wires, filled with pneumatic tubes, and staffed by hundreds of people whose sole purpose was to receive messages, figure out where to send them, and dispatch them accordingly. (p.93)
By the early 1870's the Victorian Internet had taken shape: a patchwork of telegraphy networks, submarine cables, pneumatic tube systems and messengers combined to deliver messages within hours over a vast area of the globe. (p.96)
In 1844, when Morse had started building the network ... sending a message from, say, London to Bombay and back took ten weeks. But within 30 years ... messages could be telegraphed from London to Bombay and back in as little as four minutes." (p.97)
Standage, T. (1998). "The Victorian Internet"

----- What was true for horse races yesterday is true for high-frequency/algorithmic trading today  -----

"With the telegraph's ability to destroy distance, it provided plenty of scope for exploiting information imbalances: situation where financial advantage can be gained in one place from exclusive ownership of privileged information that is widely known in another place. A classic example is horse racing"
Standage, T. (1998). "The Victorian Internet", p.101

----- On the implications of information travelling faster than ships  -----

"For years it had been customary in Britain for news of departing ships to be reported as they headed off to foreign conflicts; after all, the news could travel no faster than the ships themselves. But the telegraph meant that whatever information was made available in one country was soon know overseas. This took a lot of getting used to, both by governments and news organisations. As troops departed for the Crimean peninsula following the declaration of war on Russia by France and Britain in March 1854, the War Ministry in London issued precise detail of the numer and nature of the forces being deployed [and] daily reports of the British plans, lifted from that day's copy of The Times, could be telegraphed to Russia."
Standage, T. (1998). "The Victorian Internet", p.145

----- On the origins of information overload  -----

"In order to understand your fellow men, you really couldn't have too much news. Or could you? Not everyone wanted to know what was going on in far-flung countries. The precedence given to what it saw as irrelevant foreign news over importan local stories even led the Alpena Echo, a small newspaper in Michigan, to cut off its daily telegraph service in protest. According to a contemporary account, this was because  'it could not tell why the telegraph company caused it to be sent a full account of a flood in Shanghai, a massacre in Calcutta, a sailor fight in Bombay, hard frosts in Siberia, a missionary banquet in Madagascar, the price of kangaroo leather from Borneo' ... The seeds had been sown for a new problem: information overload.
Standage, T. (1998). "The Victorian Internet", p.152-153

----- On the telephone as a killer of "the telegraphic community"  -----

"Thanks to the relentless pace of technological change, telegraphy was changing from a high-skill to a low-skill occupation; from a carefully learned craft to something anyone could pick up. As the emphasis switched from skilled operators to the latest high-tech equipment, the tone of the telegraphic journals changed; the humorous stories and telegraph poetry were replaced by circuit diagrams and lengthy explanations aimed at technical and managerial readers, rather than the lowly minions who merely operated the machines. The growing use of automatic machinery was undermining the telegraphic community"
Standage, T. (1998). "The Victorian Internet", p.183

----- On technological utopianism from the telegraph to the Internet  -----

"The similarities between the telegraph and the Internet ... are striking. But the story of the telegraph contains a deeper lesson. ... the telegraph was the first technology to be seized upon as a panacea. Given its potential to change the world, the telegraph was soon being hailed as a means of solving the world's problems. It failed to do so, of course - but we have been pinning the same hope on other new technologies ever since. In the 1890s advocates of electricity claimed it would eliminate the drudgery of manual work and create a world of abundance and peace. In the first decade of the twentieth century, aircraft inspired similar flights of fancy: rapid intercontinental travel would, it was claimed, eliminate international differences and misunderstandings. ... Similarly, television was expected to improve education, reduce social isolation, and enhance democracy. Nuclear power was supposed to usher in an age of plenty where electricity would be 'too cheap to meter'. The optimistic claims now being made about the Internet are merely the most recent examples in a tradition of technological utopianism that goes back to the first transatlantic telegraph cables, 150 years ago."
Standage, T. (1998). "The Victorian Internet", p.197-198

----- On early electric technologies spanning time and space  -----

"Electric and other media precipitated new kinds of social encounters ... Classes, families, and professional communities struggled to come to terms with novel acoustic and visual devices that made possible communication in real time without real presence, so that some people were suddenly too close and others much too far away. New kinds of encounters collided with old ways of determining trust and reliability, and with old notions about the world and one's place in it: about the relation of men and women, rich and poor, black and white, European and non-European, experts and publics.
This study focuses especially on two inventions ... the electric light [and] the telephone"
Marvin, C. (1988). "When old technologies were new", p.5-6

----- New technologies have winners and losers  -----

"Featured in many stories [in "electricians' magazines"] was the frustration of the technologically unempowered, expressed as anger, fright, or other loss of personal control. These displays contrasted with the cool bearing of the professional, whose perfect awareness was accompanied by an equally flawless emotional control that suggested social and moral superiority. Uncontrolled emotion was displayed by men who were victims of their own technological ignorance, who had somehow shirked their responsibility to be technologically informed."
Marvin, C. (1988). "When old technologies were new", p.22

----- On the barbarity of the civilised  -----

"in 1897 the American Electrician published a series of stories about electrically improvised pranks. "It requires practical experience in such matters ... to appreciate them fully," one of the authors wrote, transforming the hostility these pranks expressed toward their irritating but powerless victims into a sophisticated mark of membership in the electrical fraternity. A stray dog was cured of his habit of stealing lunches by a charged wire baited with a juicy piece of meat. At an electric plant, engineers wired knobs on doors and cupboards so that a full turn would give a shock to street urchins prowling "where they had no business whatever." Another station was troubled by youngsters ... who stood with their fingers hooked to the netting that prevented their entry, but not their persistent observation. Annoyed station operators electrified the netting with a charge strong enough to keep the youngsters from yanking their hands loose until the current was turned off. A portion of this story was devoted to a detached discussion of the risk of electrocution from this trick improperly done."
Marvin, C. (1988). "When old technologies were new", p.33-34

----- On guarding an emerging profession's public appearance  -----

"audiences got the metaphorical point that ... science was a magical enterprise superior to lesser forms of magic ... Comparing Tesla's theatrical appearance at the Royal Institution in London in 1894 with a more straightforward, less enthusiastically received demonstration of Hertzian waves by Oliver Lodge, [the magazine] the Electrician weighed the need to present scientific information dramatically enough to capture public interest against the competing desire to convey a dignified appearance that would guarantee the respect of the scientific community. The difficulty in this tug of war was keeping the credibility of the priesthood intact. ... Good, or white, magic was science struggling against the twin enemies of the unknown and pseudoscience, or black magic."
Marvin, C. (1988). "When old technologies were new", p.58-59

----- On new media technology inventions changing the social mores  -----

""The invention of new machinery, devices, and process," reflected Telephony in 1905, "is continually brining up new questions of law, puzzling judges, lawyers, and laymen ... The doors may be barred and rejected suitor kept out, but how is the telephone to be guarded?" How indeed? New forms of communication created unprecedented opportunities not only for courting and infidelity but for romancing unacceptable persons outside one's own class, and even one's own race, in circumstances that went unobserved by the regular community. The potential for illicit sexual behavior had obvious and disquieting power to undermine accustomed centers of moral authority and social order."
Marvin, C. (1988). "When old technologies were new", p.70

----- On new media technology upsetting the social order  -----

"Asymmetries of dress, manner, and class that identified outsiders and were immediately obvious in face-to-face exchange were disturbingly invisible by telephone and telegraph, and therefore problematic and dangerous. Reliable cues for anchoring others to a social framework where familiar rules of transaction were organized around the relative status of the participants were subject to the tricks of concealment that new media made possible. Lower classes could crash barriers otherwise closed to them, and privileged classes could go slumming unobserved." (p.86)
"Women were considered especially susceptible to male manipulators of electrical technology because of their less-wordly experience in gauging trustworthiness. ... Widows and lone women were particularly helpless." (p.93)
Marvin, C. (1988). "When old technologies were new"

----- Elitism or early insights into the dangers of spam telephone calls?  -----

"In 1884 a subscriber in Edinburgh was outraged to learn that his local phone company planned to put a number of telephone "where any person off the street may for a trifling payment ... ring up any subscriber, and insist on holding a conversation with him." Against the plan, he argued that

"subscribers have the security at present that none but subscribers can address them in this way, and that these are equally interested in the telephone not becoming a nuisance. But if everybody who has a penny or threepence to spare can insist on being listened to by any of the leading business establishments of the city, we shall only be able to protect ourselves against triflers and intruders by paying less regard to all telephone communications.""
Marvin, C. (1988). "When old technologies were new", p.103

----- On the limits of technological imagination  -----

"What late-nineteenth-century writers in expert technical and popular scientific journals practice was a species of cognitive imperialism. Theis were vision of a globe efficiently administered by Anglo-Saxon technology, perhaps with exotic holidays, occasions, and decorations in dress and architecture, perhaps filled with more items and devices than any single person could imagine, but certainly not a world to disturb the fundamental idea of a single best cultural order. What these writers hoped to extend without challenge were self-conceptions that confirmed their dreams ... Even when, in the utopian manner, their declared goal was to turn the status quo upside down in pursuit of a better world, few of their schemes failed to reconstitute familiar social orders and frameworks of interpretation.
Marvin, C. (1988). "When old technologies were new", p.192

----- On (cloud) computing as a utility  -----

"General purpose technologies ... are best though of not as discrete tools but as platforms on which many different tools, or applications, can be constructed. ... Steam engines and waterwheels were general purpose technologies that didn't lend themselves to centralization. They had to be located close to the point where their power was used ... But electricity and computing ... can both be delivered efficiently from a great distance over a network. Because they don't have to be produced locally, they can achieve the scale economies of central supply."
Carr, N. G. (2008). "The big switch", p.15

----- On the implications of second-order effects of electrification to computing  -----

"As information utilities grow in size and sophistication, the changes to business and society - and to ourselves - will only broaden. And their pace will only accelerate. Many of the characteristics that define American society came into being only in the aftermath of electrification. The rise of the middle class, the expansion of public education, the flowering of mass culture, the movement of the population to the suburbs, the shift from an industrial to a service economy - none of these would have happened without the cheap current generated by utilities."
Carr, N. G. (2008). "The big switch", p.24

----- On ballooning corporate IT costs  -----

"At the close of the 1960s, the average American company devoted less than 10 percent of its capital equipment budget to information technology. Thirty years later, that percentage had increased more than fourfold, to 45 percent ... By 2000, in other words, the average US company was investing almost as much cash into computer systems as into all other types of equipment combined. Spending on software alone increased more than a hundred-fold during this period, from $1 billion in 1970 to $138 billion in 2000."
Carr, N. G. (2008). "The big switch", p.51

----- On fiber-optic broadband as the key enabler of cloud computing  -----

"throughout the history of computing, processing power has expanded far more rapidly than the capacity of communication networks. ... the scarcity of communications bandwidth has long been recognized as a barrier to effective and efficient computing. It has always been understood that, in theory, computing power, like electric power, could be provided over a grid from large-scale utilities ... But all these attempts at utility computing were either doomed or hamstrung by the lack of sufficient bandwidth. ...But now, at last, that's changing. The network barrier has, in just the last few years, begun to collapse. Thanks to all the fiber-optic cable laid by communications companies during the dotcom boom ... Internet bandwidth has become abundant and abundantly cheap. ... Now that data can stream through the Internet at the speed of light, the full pwoer of computers can finally be delivered to users from afar."
Carr, N. G. (2008). "The big switch", p.58-60

----- On the advantages of outsourcing computing and treating it as a utility  -----

"using [Amazon's cloud] services, a company can run a Web site or a corporate software application, or even operate an entire Internet business, without having to invest in any server computers, storage systems, or associated software. in fact, there are no upfront costs whatsoever - a company only pays for the capacity it uses when it uses it. And what it's renting isn't any ordinary computing system. It's a state-of-the-art system designed for modern Internet computing, offering high reliability, quick response times, and the flexibility to handle big fluctuations in traffic. Any company, even a on-peronson home business, can piggyback on a computing operation that Amazon took years to assemble and fine-tune."
Carr, N. G. (2008). "The big switch", p.73

----- On the death of "the frozen water" business at the hands of inexpensive electricity  -----

"During the 1800s, American companies had turned the distribution of ice into a thriving word-wide business. Huge sheets were sawn from lakes and rivers in northern states during the winter and stored in insulated icehouses. Packed in hay and tree bark, the ice was shipped in railcars or the holds of schooners to customers as far away as India and Singapore, who used it to chill drinks, preserve food, and make ice cream. At the trade's peak, around 1880, America's many "frozen water companies" were harvesting some 10 million tons of ice a year and earning millions in profit. ... But over the next few decades, cheap electricity devastated the business, first by making the artificial production of ice more economical and then by spurring homeowners to replace their iceboxes with electric refrigerators."
Carr, N. G. (2008). "The big switch", p.90

----- On affluence, deskilling and the electrification of the factory  -----

"Because electric current could be regulated far more precisely than power supplied though shafts and gears, it became possible to introduce a much wider range of industrial machines, leading to further "deskilling" of the workplace. Factory output skyrocketed, but jobs became mindless, repetitious, and dull. ... the modern assembly line ... would have been unthinkable before electrification. ... Just as he had pioneered the assembly line, [Henry] Ford also led the way in boosting blue-collar wages. ... Ford saw that higher wages were necessary to convince large numbers of men to take factory jobs that had become numbingly tedious ... Here is the first, but by no means the last, irony of electrification: even as factory jobs came to require less skill, they began to pay higher wages. And that helped set in motion one of the most important social developments of the century: the creation of a vast, prosperous American middle class."
Carr, N. G. (2008). "The big switch", p.91-93

----- On creating ourselves and our culture through our clicks  -----

"The Internet turns everything, from news-gathering to community-building into a series of tiny transactions - expressed mainly through clicks on links - that are simple in isolation yet extraordinarily complicated in the aggregate. Each of us may make hundreds or even thousands of clicks a day, some deliberately, some impulsively, and with each one we are constructing our identity, shaping our influences, and creating our communities. As we spend more time and do more things online, our combined clicks will shape our economy, our culture, and our society. We're still a long way from knowing where our clicks will lead us. But it's clear that two of the hopes most dear to the Internet optimists - that the Web will create a more bountiful culture and that it will promote greater harmony and understanding - should be treated with skepticism. Cultural impoverishment and social fragmentation seem equally likely outcomes.
Carr, N. G. (2008). "The big switch", p.167-168

----- On the gap between our perceived and our real (non-)anonymity online  -----

"most of us assume that we're anonymous when we go about our business online. We treat the Internet not just as a shopping mall and a library but as a personal diary and even a confessional. Through the sites we visit and the searches we make, we disclose details not only about our jobs, hobbies, families, politics, and health but also about our secrets, fantasies, obsession, peccadilloes, and even, in the most extreme cases, our crimes. But our sense of anonymity is largely an illusion. Detailed information about everything we do online is routinely gathered, stored in corporate or governmental databases, and connected to our real identities, either explicitly through our user names, our credit card numbers, and the IP addresses automatically assigned to our computers or implicitly through our searching and surfing histories."
Carr, N. G. (2008). "The big switch", p.186-187

----- On the liberating *and* controlling nature of computers and the Internet  -----

"Computer systems in general and the Internet in particular put enormous power into the hands of individuals, but they put even greater power into the hands of companies, governments, and other institutions whose business it is to control individuals. Computer systems are not at their core technologies of emancipation. They are technologies of control. They were designed as tools for monitoring and influencing human behavior, for controlling what people do and how they do it. ... Even as the World Wide Computer grants us new opportunities and tools for self-expression and self-fulfillment, it is also giving others and unprecedented ability to influence how we think and what we do, to funnel our attention and actions toward their own ends. The technology's ultimate social and personal consequences will be determined in large measure by how the tension between the two sides of its nature - liberating and controlling - comes to be resolved."
Carr, N. G. (2008). "The big switch", p.191-192

----- On dependency on the Machine as a blessing and a nightmare  -----

"Kevin Kelly writes [in Wired Magazine in 2005] "What will most surprise us is how dependent we will be on what the Machine knows - about us and about what we want to know. We already find it easier to Google something a second or third time rather than remember it ourselves. The more we teach this meagcomputer, the more it will assume responsibility for our knowing. It will become our memory. Then it will become our identity. In 2015 many people, when divorced from the Machine, won't feel like themselves - as if they'd had a lobotomy." Kelly welcomes the prospect.
Kelly's description of man's growing dependency on computers carries a disquieting, in inadvertent, echo of a passage in the notorious manifest written by Theodore Kaczynski, the Unabomber. ... "Eventually a stage may be reached at which the decisions necessary to keep the system running will be so complex that human beings will be incapable of making them intelligently. At that stage the machines will be in effective control. People won't be able to just turn the machines off, because they will be so dependent on them that turning them off would amount to suicide." What was for Kaczynski a paranoia-making nightmare is for Kelly a vision of utopia."
Carr, N. G. (2008). "The big switch", p.226

----- On the positive bias at play when new technologies are evaluated  -----

"In the early stages of [technological] diffusion processes, the techncal experts assume a key role in this knowledge creation. From their position as professionals with strong involvement in the related technical developments, they are usually enthusiastic about the emerging technologies, focusing more on the perceived advantages of the innovations, while forgetting about their obvious shortcomings. These experts become the ambassadors of the new technology. ... ambassadors generally exaggerate the characteristics of their innovations compared to alternative solutions. Secondly, they tend to be technlogy-centered rather then user-centered; the user they have in mind is an idealised being that fits the technology at hand exactly. And as a by-product there is a tacit perception of the non-users as individuals suffering from some kind of defect, or in a slightly more positive interpretation, as merely being laggards. These two circumstance taken together contribute to an image presented to the public of unstoppable success for the technology in question and a rapid path of diffusion as an evident result."
Selg, H. (2014). "Researching the use of the internet", p.23

----- On science vs religion vs technology  -----

"Who is a scientist, and how do we distinguish her or him from other knowledgeable people? John Tydall (1820-1893) ... attempted to answer the question by drawing up the boundaries between science and religion on the one hand, and between science and technology on the other ... With respect to religion, Tydall argued that a diverging feature is the general attitude: the scientist is supposed to be sceptical whereas the common denominator among religious practitioners is faith. Compared to technology, science is theoretical with a clear aim to understand causal principles while the mechaniscian does not go beyond observed facts. ... By emphasising different characteristics of science, Tydall managed to draw borderlines on two sides: scientific knowledge is empirical when contrasted with the metaphysics of religion, but it is theoretically abstract when compared to the common-sense, hands-on observations of engineers.
Selg, H. (2014). "Researching the use of the internet", p.61

----- On big (natural) science vs small (social) science  -----

"the emergence of laboratory-based natural sciences as the dominant - and often very expensive - form of knowledge production during the twentieth century ... required external funding on considerably higher levels than traditional university toil, which in turn put pressur on the scientists to coordinate goals and strategies; not every university could afford its own particle accelerator. This in turn led to a reduction in theoretical pluralism.
the humanities and social sciences represent a fairly inexpensive form of academic life, which as a side effect puts less demand on the co-ordination of goals. Thus ... theoretical and methodological diversity may flourish.
Selg, H. (2014). "Researching the use of the internet", p.68

----- On why people don't use new technologies  -----

"Asking non-users about the motives for abstaining from ICT use is dubious from [a] methodological point of view. People without personal experience cannot be expected to provide knowledge about new technologies and their characteristics in the context of the respondent's life. What the person may present is his or her general attitude ... According to my own experience from such conversations, the motives expressed typically are 1) perceived lack of need for the new technology, alternatively that (2) a need i acknowledged, but that the person interviewed say they lack the time and/or skills and/or money required to explore the new technology."
Selg, H. (2014). "Researching the use of the internet", p.126