söndag 12 augusti 2012

Books I've read on my vacation

"Books I've read recently" is a recurring topic and here is the previous blog post (same topic, different books). I took a pause in my "regular" reading scheme over the summer and these books jumped the queue. All three books are relevant for my upcoming course on sustainability and ICT

After having gotten it recommended by a colleague, I thought Bill Tomlinson's "Greening through IT: Information technology for environmental sustainability" (2010) would be a lot better than it was. As potential  course literature, I on the whole found the whole book lacking. I got worked up and irritated by many things in the book, so I don't even know where to start. Let me instead show you one of the problems I had with a quote from the book:

"If we spend all of the available effort on research, without any attention to acting on the results, no actual change in environmental impact will occur. [...] On the other hand, action alone, based on the current imperfect information that we have about these issues, may result in misdirected effort, solving trivial problems, missing important and achievable goals, and potentially doing more harm than good. Engaging simultaneously in high-quality science and vigorous courses of action will have the greatest effect."

Did you get that? He says we should not spend all our time and effort on only research or on only action, but rather simultaneously on "high-quality research and vigorous action". Has anyone ever argued against doing both instead of doing just one or the other? Exactly which straw man is he attacking here? This sounds more like the non-committal feel-good mumble of an experienced politician rather than a person who actually has something to say on the matter. This also basically summarizes my critique of the whole book - it just doesn't add much and doesn't even says that much at all that is of substance. There are a lot of chapters and pages and words, but not a lot of content in the book. I even found the proposed basic framework of IT helping people to cope with larger scales of time, space and complexity pretty vacuous, or at least not having the necessary weight to anchor the rest of his reasoning in the book. His outlook on IT in relation to sustainability glosses over and diminishes the problems we face, and he habitually overestimates the effects of (for example) social media, online communities, education, learning software (etc.) for creating real change; "if we could only scale this experimental software service up by a factor of 10 000, we could actually decrease all US consumers' total waste by 1%!". Even the references are pretty crappy and every second one refers to a webpage or a newspaper article. On the whole the book was a huge disappointment. On the other hand, Tomlinson is the first author of one of my favorite articles that I read during the spring, "Collapse informatics" (pdf). That paper had far more substance, much better reasoning and a perspective that was so much more interesting  than his book. I wonder what has changed since he wrote the book and how come he has so much more to say now than when he wrote the book? 

Lorenz Hilty's "Information technology and sustainability: Essays on the relationship between information technology and sustainable development" (2008) on the whole covers the same area and is thus another attempt at a primer on IT + Sustainability. It is much more successful, more substantial and less "chatty" than Tomlinson's book despite is slim format (175 pages, large text). I love to hear someone say (backed by research) that "As a rule of thumb, the length of the useful life of most ICT devices is more important than their power consumption during use" and "Renewable power holds far greater potential for sustainability than, for example, fighting standby power consumption".

I liked the chapters on life-cycle assessment of IT, on rebound effects and especially the final chapter with practical advice for users, politicians and hardware + software designers. That doesn't mean there weren't any problems with the book though. It's no secret that the book is a mash-up of articles rather than a monograph, so there are some things missing and the book and chapters could have been more coherent and better integrated. As apart from Tomlinson's book, there really is no framework ("story", "narrative") that tries to integrate the different parts, so it's more like a jig-saw puzzle. The book as a whole won't work as course literature, but selected chapters are very good. The book is unfortunately expensive and it could have used a better designer - the very basic layout of the book easily fools you into thinking it was printed sometime in the 1980's or 1990's. 

The final book in this blog post (and on this vacation) is journalist David Owen's "The conundrum: How scientific innovation, increased efficiency, and good intentions can make our energy and climate problems worse" (2012). This is a popular science book about "rebound effects", i.e. unintuitive and unexpected side effect that backfires and defeats the purpose of the original intention (of saving energy, money, water etc.). It's a book about how things can go wrong even with the best of intentions. It's an easy read with its sub-pocketbook format, but I found it a little bit too chatty at times and it unfortunately lacks any references at all which is pretty rare (even for popular science book). Perhaps it's meant to be picked up at an airport and read on a flight?

Owen drives home the point over and over again that desirable change won't happen just because we (for example) increase the fuel economy of our cars. The only change that is certain to happen is that we will drive more, or buy larger and heavier cars, or fill it our cars with conveniences (air conditioning, music and other gadgetry) that draws electricity, decreases the fuel economy and eats up any potential savings. Worse still is that even in those cases where we do save gasoline and money, we just use the money saved on buying other stuff that consumes energy and resources. When some people start to carpool or take the bus, that leaves more and faster highway to those who keep on driving, increasing the utility of the highways and letting commuters reach their destinations faster and more conveniently. The end result is that people settle (even) further away from the cities - defeating the original purpose of the carpools and buses. Owen's advice is to instead move to New York (live really densely, without cars), or "build more New Yorks". Another tough way to "solve" the conundrum is to combine increased efficiencies with decreased consumption, i.e. when more people carpool or take the bus, the highway should also shrink by a lane. But Owen's conclusion is that since we won't like that, it's bound to not happen and we are in a hole:

"if we're serious about both climate change and global equity, the actual challenges we face are vastly greater - and will require far larger reductions in consumption by the word's more fortunate citizens - than the ones we currently treat as inconceivably huge."

4 kommentarer:

  1. Ìs the vacation-reading a plan on litterature for the course DM2573 sustainability and mediatechnology? And if so, wich book do you intend to use? :-)

  2. Ha, you got me there!

    The answer is none (which can sort of be read between the lines). But parts of Owens and especially Hilty will most probably make it. Together with other articles and book chapters etc. I have a another bunch of books in my room that I bought to review during the spring, but there is unfortunately no book (yet) that 1) covers enough of the area and 2) is good enough to meet the requirements to be the "main book" in that course.

  3. Haha, I almost guessed.

    Okay, but the one from Hilty is worth a read through and through?

  4. For me - yes. For you - not so sure (and it's expensive too). Since I assume you read fewer books than I do, you should be more selective in your choice of books.