söndag 28 april 2013

CHI conference Post-Sustainability Workshop

I'm in Paris, attending the huge yearly conference on Human-Computer Interaction, CHI 2013 together with (I've been told) 3300 other persons. The conference starts tomorrow, Monday, but I attended a workshop on "Post-Sustainability" yesterday (and had the day off today).

My interest in CHI was rekindled when I understood that there had been a sustainability community around at CHI for no less than five years. I did read the 2007 paper by Eli Blevis that touch off these developments ("Sustainable Interaction design" - pdf file), but I did not at the time understand that it was the beginning of a "movement" within CHI (or, a CHI Special Interest Group). My interest turned a lot hotter last spring when I heard about (and read) Tomlinson and co-authors' paper on "Collapse informatics" (pdf). When I found out about this year's Post-Sustainability workshop coupled with the fact that the CHI conference was going to be held in Europe (Paris) this year I decided to attend the conference.

The workshop had accepted 13 paper and they are all online. There's even an online list of workshop participants (with a short blurb about each). My workshop contributions (an 8-page "position paper") was written together with my colleagues Åke Walldius and Elina Eriksson and it is called "HCI in a world of limitations: Addressing the social resilience of computing" (pdf file). As to presenting our papers, we were asked to submit 4 slides and talk no more than one minute about each slide before they were changed automatically. I guess this was a new format for many participants as there were a few instances of talking about the previous slide, or of falling silent while waiting for the next slide to show up. This fast-paced format allowed us to burn through all our presentations in just a little more than one hour.

Most of the remainder of the workshop was used for group talks using the "Open Space" format, i.e. one person taking on the responsibility of a theme, while all other participants are allowed to flutter between tables and themes (although it seemed most people for the most part chose one theme only and then stayed put). I didn't take any notes on the Open Space themes we worked with (five for the before-lunch session and another five for the after-lunch session), but I did myself suggest one of the themes and will primarily write about that particular theme and the results of our discussions. I will end the post with a few other notes and thoughts about the workshop.

-------------------------- Post-collapse computing --------------------------

Since no-one else suggested it, I proposed either a future-oriented "post-collapse computing theme" or a more present-oriented "design for disadvantaged communities" theme. We chose to do both, with a timeline tying together "now" (the present) and "then" (the future) to structure our poster. Except for "now" and "then", a third theme also crystallized on our poster which we can call "technology/computing/Internet in a post-collapse society.

First a note about the term "collapse". On the one had it is "burdened" with strongly negative connotations. It's basically a downer. So should we do away with it and replace it with something more up-beat? But it has it's uses on the other hand. No-one can imagine that we will avert collapse by turning down the thermostat in our homes. It shakes people up and implies that we have to radically rethink our situation. I personally think of the term collapse in terms of how Tainter describes it. It is a process that can go on for decades or even centuries and that implies a (slow) "decomplexification" of society. Here is what I wrote about Tainter's book, "The collapse of complex societies" in a previous blog post:

"Collapse is a political process that makes itself know as a "significant loss of an established level of sociopolitical complexity". [...] Sociopolitical complexity manifests itself through (for example) increased stratification and social differentiation, increased specialization of individuals, groups and territories, increased trading and redistribution of resources, increased regulation and centralized control, increased monumental architecture as well as through artistic and literary achievements, increased flow of information between individuals, groups and between a center and its periphery, increased coordination and organization of individuals and groups and larger territory integrated within a single political unit."

In preparation for a future of "decreased sociopolitical complexity" (i.e. "collapse"), we might do well to look at creative survival strategies of groups in our society that are marginalized or that eke out a living "at the edges" of our society, for example the poor, the homeless, street children, tight immigrant/language groups, small-time criminals or outlaws, people making a living in the black or the gray economy, people who radically downshift (i.e. work as little as possible), gypsies/roma and people in less affluent social strata or less affluent societies (say, people experiencing hard times in Greece or the poor (or the not-rich) in Bangalore, India. What can we learn from them? And how can we support them? If they want access to computing and the Internet, what kind of access do they want and for what purposes?

A personal worry of mine though is that some studies seems to indicate that these groups use the Internet for the same purposes as the majority of us does; for wasting time on "mindless chatter" on Twitter and Facebook and for entertainment purposes (movies, games, internet porn), i.e. perhaps not necessarily for learning things or improving their lot. So what should be studied and supported might indeed be creative survival strategies rather than their quest for diversions and entertainment? Or is that a patriarchal/colonial/imperialist/parochial perspective?

The expression "necessity is the mother of invention" is very much in line with "creative survival strategies", but some groups that have a tough time do invent creative survival strategies, while others don't (to the same extent), but rather just suffer. Which of those two groups is most interesting/pertinent to study/design for? Or is this a false dichotomy, i.e. everybody invents, it's just that [something].

In terms of practices well worth supporting (rather than groups/communities), we came up with a list that for sure could be further extended:

- Time banks
- Farmer's markets
- Alternatives currencies
- Shrinking cities (i.e. dealing with degrowth/declining cities)
- Transition tows (and ecovillages)
- Civic social media
- Collaborative consumption
- ...

A theme that came up and that is relevant both for "now" (the present) and "then" (a post-collapse future) is Putnam's concepts of "bonding" and "bridging" social capital. Bonding capital is turned "inwards" and unites a group. Bridging capital consists of groups being open to and creating ties to other groups in society. How do these types of social capital function in groups at "the edges" of modern society? And how will they (or would we want them to) work in the future? What kind(s) of social capital could or should be encouraged and supported by computer systems?

What does a post-collapse world look like? If collapse is, as was suggested above, "nothing more than" a (perhaps slow) process of societal decomplexification, it might very well be the case that people will not really experience the collapse as "a collapse". Things will for most people and for the most part look the same from one year to the next - only a little harder (for some), with opportunities (for some or perhaps many) turning up less often, with (some) more people becoming unemployed every year and (for the most part) suffering in silence and hoping for better times. Will society then perhaps diverge, like in for example some South American countries where the upper middle class enclose themselves behind walls and live "normal" (high-income, high-tech, highly civil and comparatively less stessful) lives, while the rest will have to make do as best as they can?

But this does not seem very desirable, so where will the good examples that we can aspire to come from - which are the lighthouses that we should aim for, support or try to replicate? Perhaps it would be possible to make a list with desirable and less-desirable examples. Greece and Spain with their 50% youth unemployment (a "lost generation") would be low on that list, but so-called "failed states" are of course at the very bottom of that list. Transitions towns will on the other hand be high on such a list - but could you please fill in the blanks in-between!?

A question that was raised was how to keep progressive social agendas going even when times are hard? This is a tough nut to crack, only something we would like to aspire to. It was observed that it's for example very easy for very traditional gender roles to be reproduced in Transition town and in the back-to-the-land movements (the men plow and the women bake and take care of the kids).

Two observations that I personally think are very interesting to ponder are that when things change;
- strengths can become weaknesses (having a high income and buying all the services you need from), and weaknesses can become strengths (knowing how to mend your clothes and how to survive on little).
- behaviors that are on the margins today can move to the center tomorrow (urban agriculture), and behaviors that are at the center today can move to the margins tomorrow (consumerism and throwaway society).

Some more specific ideas about (computing) technology and the Internet also came up. Can we envision what a low-energy, a low-bandwidth or a low-[something else]-Internet could look like? What   does low-tech (resilient, energy-stingy) computing, low-tech social media or a low-tech Internet look like? What if we have to cut back on moving images (video, online games), or if using the Internet (based on some metric we don't even care to think about today) would start to Cost For Real? Some creative suggestions for what would stay around were SMS-based apps, Twitter as a low-cost medium (have been used in crisis situations when nothing else works), DIY amateur radio or a favorite of ours, carrier pigeons with SD cards strapped onto their legs! We also discussed other animals that perhaps could do our bidding and convey our messages (ants? mycorrhiza? wolves?). Birds howeveer seemed best, perhaps complemented by dolphins or whales? :-)

One last thought was whether developing and relying in ICT solutions today could be something that actually creates a more brittle society? What if providing "marginalized groups" and groups "on the edges" of society with computing power is something that would make them more rather than less vulnerable in a post-collapse scenario?

Although I didn't mention it at the workshop, I've been thinking about the well-known William Gibson quote; "The future is already here, it's just not evenly distributed". He of course meant that not everybody has access to the latest high-tech stuff (especially if it's not on the market yet!). But what if the future is already here in the sense of Greece not being an outlier, but rather pointing at a future that will become more "evenly distributed" when phenomena that is currently to be found in the margins (debt crises and the terrible social effects of draconian austerity measures) moves into the center (are adopted in one country after another)?

----------------------- A few notes on the rest of the workshop -----------------------

When I didn't lead a theme, I walked between two different themes, "How do we change the dominant narrative?" and "Building communities". How do we change the narratives - my suggestion was to write a book, "Fairy tales for the 21st century". Building community turned out to be a very large and complex theme and resulted in a complex poster with many things connecting to may other things.

I read almost all the position papers before the workshop and I would very much like to get to know some people I didn't have time to talk to (enough) at the workshop!  

The workshop ended with a round where every participant had to answer two questions;
- What follow-up action(s) are you willing to commit to?
- What follow-up actions would you like others to take up on?

I promised to write this blog post and disseminate it to the workshop participants. As to what I would like other to take up on are:

- Formulate master's thesis proposals based on the workshop discussions and make them accessible on the Internet. It would be great to get inspiration from other people's proposals and it would be really cool to do "the same" study in different places around the world! I've already published a bunch of thesis proposals on the web, and of special interest (in light of what I have written about above) is "IT use in the post-modern city"

- Share
 post-collapse research proposals that have been submitted (even if they have been turned down). It would be great to see how others frame their proposals in this area.

- I also asked for the workshop participants to contribute with papers and workshop proposals to the upcoming ICT for Sustainability conference (ICT4S) that we will organize in Stockholm (Aug 2014). It would be great to see as many as possible of the workshop participants again next year!

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