I attended the Second Workshop on Computing within Limits (LIMITS 2016) last week and it was great. Not equally great was the fact that the first (90% finished) version of this blog post disappeared in cyberspace and I had to write it all over again (which is always supremely tiring). But there is an upside for you (dear reader) because the text is better structured this time around. Do also have a look at the previous blog post about the private work-oriented meeting (workshop?) I attended the day before Limits 2016 started.
The second Limits workshop was of course preceded by the first workshop (LIMITS 2015) and most of last year's papers were later published in a special issue of the open-access online journal First Monday (thank you Bonnie Nardi!).
I can't really go through each presentations and paper but have instead sorted various reflections into four different categories; 1) workshop format, 2) workshop content, 3) own "random" reflection and 4) possible improvements for next year's workshop. Due to the structure, I will at times come back and have a second go at the same topic.
FormatThe event was live streamed and all presentations are thus available on YouTube! Do check out the program and then pick the presentation(s) you'd like to see here: Limits Day 1 and Limits Day 2. The quality is questionable though, but if you crave to hear some specific presentation you might want to make the effort and have a go at it...
We did allow remote presentations and three out of fifteen presenters had pre-recorded 12-15 minutes long presentations (Mike Hazas in the UK, Junaid Qadir in Pakistan and Somya Joshi in Sweden). These presentations were followed by two online Q-and-A sessions with remote authors and one session where the fourth author of the paper (me) tried to answered the questions that were posed. The remote pre-recorded "one-way" presentations worked really well and they were definitely much better than last year's mediated/live presentations (difficulties with timing, problems with the sound quality etc.). My favourite remote presentation was my co-author Somya Joshi's almost hypnotic fairy-tale-for-adults narration of our paper. I haven't seen an audience listen to a prerecorded presentation with that level of concentration before - we were all under the spell! The narration (style, pronunciation, cadence etc.) had the hallmarks of a new genre even if it's hard for me to say (analyse) exactly what made that so. But it was a little like when an ordinary women inside an airplane picks up the microphone and suddenly sounds like an airline hostess, or when a seemingly ordinary person talks into the microphone and suddenly sounds like a sports commentator, but in this case for the genre "academic presentations".
While remote presentations worked fine from a technical point of view, it is of course considerably more attractive to gather people for the special magic that happens only at F2F meetings, but, it's very hard to "force" everyone to come when it is an environmental conference that preaches the message of limits to our resources including limits to all of us all flying back and fro... Also, if the alternative to being there in person is a choice between a remote presentation and no presentation at all, then the choice suddenly becomes much easier. This year three out of fifteen presentations were remote although I guess that I (as fourth author) could have presented our paper live instead of having Somya pre-record her presentation (but she did a much better job at it than I would have done). We do however very much want people to attend the event in person and it is important that there is just a sprinkling of remote/pre-recorded presentations rather than a sizeable fraction. It will be difficult to get people to become part of an emerging Limits community if they don't attend the workshop in person and meet/discuss/form relationships and bonds with other persons (versus just "delivering a presentation" and adding another publication to your portfolio). I don't have a final answer here but the question is on the table.
The choice of having a single track was good and I talked to others who also appreciated it. Since Computing within Limits is in its nascence, it's really good that everybody hears what everybody else says. The single track creates a shared emerging consensus about what Limits is all about (see also further below).
We had three "invited speakers" (keynotes) and one "invited discussant" this year and they were all great additions to Limits. This structure allowed us to invite people we wanted to hear without them having to write papers first and our invited speakers were:
- Lisa Nathan (UBC), "Humility, Discomfort & Awe: Developing our capacity for longer-term thinking".
- Tom Murphy (UCSD), "Quantifying the Energy Challenge: A physics perspective". Tom's blog "Do the Math" is the reason we invited him - read it (start here)!
- Sarah Lovell (UIUC), "Alternative Agricultural Systems for Sustainable Food Production". Sarah's blog "Multifunctional Landscape Analysis and Design"
- Tapan Parikh (UC Berkeley/Cornell Tech), Invited Discussant.
ContentI think the quality of the papers and the presentations were really very high! There were a few papers that I hadn't read before the workshop, but there are no papers that I will not read afterwards and that is very high praise indeed. I think that every paper contributed with unique insights and perspectives - and I'm not really known for distributing praise liberally because there is almost always something that could be improved. I encourage you to check out the program and look up any papers you find interesting.
We invite participants to submit two kinds of papers in the call, "discussion papers" and "systems papers". The former "explore the nature of limits and computing [and] detail the nature of the limits of interest, describe their impact on computing, and present directions for future research" while the latter "describe the design, implementation, and evaluation of computing systems that work within or help cope with limits". It is quite clear that after having organised two workshops, the vast majority of papers are discussion papers. Don Patterson (organiser) commented that this is a well-known story also in his area (ubiquitous computing) where there on the one hand are papers that describe concrete systems that have been built and on the other hand are papers that describe how such systems are used. I don't personally object to the emphasis on discussion papers but I do know that the initial intention (or at least the wish) of my co-chair Barath Raghanvan was for a more even distribution between the categories and to get more people involved who wrote papers that described Real Systems. He didn't seem to unhappy about these development though asked about it.
Jay Chen has written two excellent papers that were presented at Limits this year and last year (here and here). He has helped me/us map where Computing within Limits is situated in comparison to its nearest academic "neighbours", ICT for Sustainability (ICT4S) including Sustainable HCI (S-HCI), ICT for Development (ICT4D/ICTD) and Crisis Management/Crisis Informatics. While sustainability has been generously represented at Limits from day one, it was heartening to see a sizeable contingent of representatives from ICTD (who all knew each other) at this year's workshop. I feel that the perspectives that were represented by Jay Chen, Shaddi Hasan, Neha Kumar, Tapan Parikh and Junaid Qadir added a lot to Limits. There might be people in crisis informatics who would benefit from attending Limits, but we don't know who they are and we have a hard time reaching out to them since their interest in the intersection between Limits + Crisis Informatics might never have manifested itself in their writings (a Limits + Crisis Informatics perspective might not be acceptable at any of their current venues for publishing their results). We just don't know at this point in time.
Starting this year, all the Limits papers are available through the ACM Digital Library (Wikipedia) (thanks Barath Raghavan!) so go - no run there and read some of your favourite papers! The inclusion of the Limits 2016 papers in ACM Digital Library is not a symbolic gesture but rather has substantial ramifications for the workshop itself. Computing within Limits suddenly became a lot more respectable and interesting for people in the computer sciences because inclusion in the ACM DL makes all of this year's papers golden. Many computer science-y people (and departments) divide conferences into two categories; those that are included in the ACM DL and those that aren't. The next step is to deem only the latter to be of interest to them. This strategic move will help us get higher-caliber people and higher-quality papers at next year's Computing within Limits workshop.
ReflectionsI have already thrown myself at your mercy (in the previous blog post) for travelling all the way to California to attend a conference for just a few days. It does burdens my climate consciousness but it was "necessary" for me to go as I am a conference co-chair (together with Barath Raghavan, but, Bonnie Nardi ought to also be a co-chair based on work effort she has put into organising the workshop †). While the conference itself was just two days long, I did also organise a "private" pre-conference workshop (again see the previous blog post) and I also participated in the post-conference business meeting where we started to discuss and plan for next year's workshop. My wife Tessy is also an organiser and she has submitted papers to Limits both last year and this year but could not attend due to family reasons but we are now considering bringing the whole family over for next year's Limits and combine that trip with a longer vacation in the US. If you happen to work at a university in California, please do consider having us over to give a talk sometime next summer/after next year's workshop!
One theme that spanned several talks was the issue of time. It was of course a main component of Lisa Nathan's invited talk about "Multi-lifespan Information System Design" - about designing information systems that support the solution of critical problems that are unlikely or can't be solved within a singel human lifespan. This is a wonderful perspective to have in mind and/because it flies in the face of what HCI (usually) is about. Time was also very much present in the talks of the other two invited speakers. Tom Murphy discussed (our lack of realistic) responses to the end of the centuries-long fossil-fuel bubble and Sarah Lovell described her interesting research project that needs 20 years to culminate (which is the time needed for the trees she planted to grow up). Sarah is exploring multi-layered agricultural system that allows plants to simultaneously explore different niches (canopy trees, medium trees, shrubs, forage).
Continuing on the theme of time, Jay Chen also discussed different time frames by comparing Limits with neighbouring scientific communities (see above). Computing within Limits concerns itself with "slow collapse" - with a future of decaying infrastructure and of having to deal with expensive natural resources as well as the effects of climate change. Crisis informatics (crisis informatics) instead concerns itself with a sudden collapse of infrastructure in the face of (typically) natural disasters, but always assumes an "outside"from which resources can be shipped in. ICT for Development (ICTD) instead concerns itself with the ("collapsed") world as it is today in places that are characterised by conditions of poverty (emphasising low-cost, robust and resilient solutions). ICT for Sustainability (ICT4S) finally concerns itself with trying to prevent collapse and concomitant futures that are characterised by scarcity and hardships. Several other papers also touched upon "the time factor" and time was a central theme in my Limits 2015 paper "On the Limits of Limits". In that paper I discuss how different views of the problems we are facing will lead us to take various measures into account, ranging from stacking up on food in your pantry (urgent) and exploring collective (ecovillage, Transition Town) solutions (pressing) to becoming involved in politics or social movements (far away).
Joshua Tanenbaum et. al. presented a paper about "The Limits of Our Imagination: Design Fiction as a Strategy for Engaging with Dystopian Futures". It took Limits to a meta-level by among other things discussing strategies for having an impact on "ordinary people's" thinking about collapse. Do we (the Limits community) accomplish our goals through the research we do or by trying to influence the general public (for example through popular culture)? The paper became somehow controversial by building its argument around the latest movie in the Mad Max franchise. Is this (Mad Max) what we want to be associated with? Probably not. The presentation was followed by a lively and very interesting discussion. Why is "fast collapse" (society failing from one day to the next) such a popular theme in pop culture while slow collapse isn't (the one exception is the first half of the movie "Interstellar"). It is of course because the apocalypse (of various kinds and with various degrees of apocalypticness) is a much better (and more visually interesting) backdrop to a movie than "rust and rot"; unemployment, electricity blackouts and potholes in the streets. But certain media formats can work better at representing slow collapse than others (e.g. books vs computer games vs movies). Don Patterson mentioned that he had had discussions with students who had used depictions from movies (of, I presume, future technologies) as arguments or even facts. Students have told him to his face that "no, that's not how it works in [movie X]" and he had to spell out that "movies are not data", i.e. how future technologies are depicted in certain science fiction movies are not valid arguments in a university course. No participant could think of an instance when someone has used a book in quite the same way, i.e. "No, that's not going to happen because that's not how it plays out in Paolo Baciagalup's "Windup girl"". I can point out that I myself took an evening course that was offered by the Workers' Educational Association (ABF, part of the Swedish labour movement) a few years back on "How to survive the zombie apocalypse", but not because I expect that particular apocalypse to hit us anytime soon...
Limits 2016 offered Barath Raghavan and me the chance to, for the first time ever, go mano-a-mano with Joseph Tainter's theories about complexity and collapse in our paper "Refactoring Society: Systems Complexity in an Age of Limits". I have written about Tainter several times on the blog (for example here and here and here), but haven't really worked his theories into anything I have written before - despite the influence he has had on my academic as well as my everyday thinking. Douglas Schuler who attended Limits had read our paper thoroughly and had strong objections, but he also had a hard time pinning down and formulate his objections. I think both me and Barath had separate conversations with him (more than an hour each) and his critique will come in handy since we have some loose plans about eventually extending the paper into a journal article. I recommend this article for Tainter noobs who want to know more.
It was great to meet David Franquesa from Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya in Barcelona, Spain. His Limits is called "A Circular Commons for Digital Devices" and we apparently both attended the ICT4S conference in Copenhagen last year but without really meeting (we didn't recognise each other, but he had met my wife at that conference). He is involved in organising the upcoming OuiShare Fest in Barcelona later this year (October) and I might just travel there to meet up with him, give a talk and join the party!
One important reason for planning the first Limits workshop was that we felt that it was important to create a venue that would make it possible for graduate/ph.d.students to conduct Limits-related research and have somewhere to present it. Since ph.d. students need to rack up a certain number of publications (typically 4-6), Computing within Limits would thus make it possible to point at a respectable venue where a ph.d. student could publish, say, two of those necessary articles, thereby creating an opportunity to choose a limits-related topic for your ph.d. project. More established researchers are already established in some neighbouring/other discipline and don't really need a venue for presenting their research in the same way that younger researchers do. More established researchers also have better chances of getting their research published in the first place because they can write better, are more adept at "masquerading" their opinions to fit elsewhere, have better knowledge about alternative venues etc., so we hoped that Limits could become an important platform for graduate/ph.d. students. Looking at this year's program, it seems like only two out of the fifteen presenters were graduate students though. We really would like to increase that fraction, but it might be the case that these things just take time. I might in fact have recruited a ph.d. student for next year's Limits workshop (see my next blog post), but he was totally unaware of its existence despite a pretty good match between Limits and his research.
As to the discussion about discussion papers vs systems papers (above), I asked the other organisers what they felt the limits of Limits were. Is it ok to invite people to write discussion papers where the outcome is geared not primarily towards designers and systems builders but rather, say, planners, policy makers and politicians? If so, then know some people I could invite (convince) to write papers to next year's Limits. The consensus seemed to be that that would be ok as long as the conclusions and the discussion was relevant also for people who build systems.
1) Barath's paper from Limits 2015 started with quoting Sevareid's law: "The chief source of problems is solutions". I don't know how many times I have quoted that since last year.
2) This year Barath said that "If there is no solution, there is no problem". This got me thinking.
3) I am fond of John Michael Greer's toughts about problems and predicaments. Problems can be solved once-and-for-all (for example by engineers) while predicaments have no solutions. The fact that we are all mortal does not have a "solution" (a fix). You can develop strategies to handle that basic fact, but you can't "fix the problem". You can choose to live fast and die young or you can stop smoking and eat yoghurt every day, but, you are still mortal and will still die eventually.
4) I am also fascinated by Joseph Tainter's problem-solving (or is "predicament-handling) strategy of solving a problem by NOT solving the problem. Some problems are just too small, rare, complex or immoral (etc.) that we just shouldn't waste our (by necessity) limited resources on even attempting to solve them. Not solving a problem is however of course also a solution that can be the source of future problems.
5) Then there are also so-called "wicked problems" - "a problem that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize."
6) ...and then there are "super wicked problems". Global warming is a super-wicked problem and "while the items that define a wicked problem relate to the problem itself, the items that define a super wicked problem relate to the agent trying to solve it".
So, where does this leave us? How is it possible to keep all these complex and intersecting thoughts in mind and make something sensible out of it? Can an academic paper be teased out of all these stimulating perspectives? Do get back to me if you have an idea...
I summed up one of the conference session by referring to science fiction author William Gibson's statement that "The future is already here, it is just not evenly distributed". His thinking resonates with Alan Kay's statement that "the best way to predict the future is to invent it" (1971) as well as in the title of Stewart Brand's book "The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at M.I.T." (1987). The future that "the rest of us" will experience five or ten years down the road already exists in top labs at top academic institutions and in the research labs of high-tech companies. From a Limits (collapse) perspective it however makes sense to turn that phrase inside out and state that "The collapse is already here, it is just not evenly distributed". Such a future can be illustrated by using just a few keywords/places: unemployment, energy poverty, peak oil, climate change, Detroit, Greece, failed states, Syria etc.
We had problems discussing examples of "solutions" in our paper about a Limits-compliant sharing economy because we could not discern or agree on the future form or shape of the Internet in a Limits-restrained future - something we however will discuss at our upcoming ICT4S workshop, "Computing within Limits: Visions of computing beyond Moore’s law". We did not think about the many different suggestions for low-tech low-cost Internets that Raghavan and Hasan suggest in their Limits 2016 paper "Macroscopically Sustainable Networking: On Internet Quines"; a low-tech Internet, an Internet built from salvaged hardware or how about "Internet over Avian Carrier" ... "with trained birds with tiny storage devices strapped to their legs" (see further RFC 2594). Didn't think about that...
One final reflection is not about the presence but about absence. I will explain by briefly telling a story. As a student volunteer at CHI 1997 (Atlanta), me and fellow ph.d. student Christer Garbis (nowadays "Principal User Research Manager at Amazon Kindle") packed tote bags with a dozen different leaflets as well as various promotional "goodies". While 10 student volunteers walked around the table clock-wise, there was one guy who for some inexplicable reason walked around the table counter clock-wise, bumping into everyone all the time ("oh, sorry"). I remember wondering where that guy did his ph.d....? Last year we had two attendees who were a little like that guy. When talking with them about various Limits, they would chime in a "yes" but immediately follow up with a "but..." and a line of reasoning that flaunted the whole idea of (absolute) limits. Kind of like "yes, there are limits right now, but in the future...". Looking back, I believe this was exhausting for all of us (including for them). This year we didn't have anyone like that and we were all if not on the same page, then at least reading from the same book. Part of the reason for organising a workshop like this is to exchange ideas and hopefully to grow a community. We want to negotiate and form shared understandings of how to perceive certain problems (related to Limits) and possible solutions, and I believe in hindsight that those two participants unwittingly disturbed that process. I'm also quite sure they too felt that the match wasn't great and that we weren't a crowd that were very sympathetic to the ideas they presented.
Changes and improvements for next yearIt was really great to have invited speakers ("keynotes") this year. It allows us to invite people we want to listen to but who would never have attended Limits otherwise. I felt like a kid in a candy store when we, at the post-Limits business meeting, started to throw around ideas for who to invite to Limits next year!
It might very well be the case that Limits will not be held at UC Irvine next year but instead at another venue (in California). Perhaps it's time to organise Limits in Stockholm sometime after that? While Limits have had some institutional support this far (especially in terms of financing), we will have to think some more about a sustainable model for how to finance future Limits workshops.
We had planned for no less than four 30-minute "breakout sessions" (group discussions) at Limits, but they were often truncated or squeezed out of the program due to the fact that we allowed for longer Q-and-A sessions than planned after paper presentations. I have a hard time stating if this for the most part was good or bad, but it was a pity that the breakout sessions for the most part didn't happen. It might, as someone suggested, be the case that two days of Limits is not enough. The longer people have to travel to attend Limits, the more paltry a mere two days will seem. So perhaps Limits should be extended by another half or full day?
Another option would be to extend Limits by organising a voluntary pre-conference workshop (or perhaps a pre-worskhop workshop as Limits is advertised as a "workshop"?). Yet another option would be to follow up the Limits workshop with a, say, four-day summer school for graduate/ph.d. students. For someone who is unfamiliar with the basic premises of Computing with Limits, a summer school would provide the opportunity to read up and immerse oneself in Limits thinking, but, we would again need to think about how to finance it. Perhaps next year's Limits could be preceded by a workshop where we discuss how to organise a summer school the following year (financing, goals, contents, readings, format etc.)?
I felt that the organisation itself at times were a little bit to impromptu and lax. Only some dozens of people attended Limits so it's still a small informal event, but there could still have been a better division of labor between us organisers with clearer responsibilities for practical issues like introducing and wrapping up sessions, keeping the time and perhaps there should also be a designated historian/ blogger/ twitterer/ photographer? Bill Tomlinson spontaneously took on the role of making sure that people who presented kept the time, but this was not something we had decided upon in advance. While the workshop had two chairs, we had spent very little time preparing what to say when we opened the event and when we closed it. As part of opening and welcoming people to the workshop, I fortunately spent a few minutes describing where Computing within Limits came from (describing it as a rebranded version of "Collapse informatics" - c.f. the CHI 2012 paper on "Collapse Informatics" by Tomlinson et. al.). This short orientation seemed to be useful for several attendees as it gave them tools to orient with, but, the opening talk could obviously have been better planned and should so be for next year's workshop. I think that us organisers think that also people who attend (also for the first time) sort of knows everything we know about what Computing within Limits is and where it comes from. I can myself hear how impossibly stupid this sounds as I write it down but I still suspect it's true. This is of course that has to be better managed next time around!
My final thought goes to the Limits 2015 post-workshop Hoffice session we organised but that we totally forgot about it this year. The event was announced like this:
"Please consider joining an informal gathering on [the day after the workshop] if you plan to be around Irvine. We will use the "Hoffice"' methodology (which you can read about here) of having 45 minute work sessions followed by short breaks with social activities. During each work session you can choose to work by yourself (for example answering e-mail) or engage others in discussions of projects, proposals, or ideas that the workshop raised or that you develop during the day."
My recollection was that it was very successful in 2015 so we might want to consider doing it again next year. It prolongs the fun for those who think two days is not enough by providing a very flexible structure for work, collaboration and socialisation.
† Well, in the LIMITS 2016 proceedings (in the ACM Digital Library) it actually says that Bonnie Nardi is General Chair and that me and Barath Raghavan are Program Chairs.