söndag 29 maj 2016

Books I've read (July)

I am trying to catch up, but, the blog has been buzzing with more important things (academic papers!) than what books I have read "lately" - in this case between mid-June and mid-August last year (i.e. nine months ago). All four books below are about social media and here's the previous blog post about books I have read. The asterisks represent the number of quotes from the each book and you find the quotes further below.

**************** Evgeny Morozov (Wikipedia) is the eternal contrarian who finds objections where others put their faith in, and see hope or even salvation in the promises of new (digital) technologies. I think that there are way too many people who see hope and salvation wherever they look, and too few who question what others believe to be progress. I've read (and written about) Morozov's previous book, "The net delusion: How not to liberate the world" (2011), but had mixed feelings about it. While his message was important, a great writer he wasn't. Well, he's a better writer this time around and his message is equally or more important now. Morozov's "To save everything click here: Technology, solutionism and the urge to fix problems that don't exist" (2013) is a broadside against Silicon Valley optimism and "solutionism":

"Recasting all complex social situation either as neatly defined problems with definite, computable solutions or as transparent and self-evident processes that can be easily optimized - if only the right algorithms are in place! - this quest is likely to have unexpected consequences that could eventually cause more damage than the problems the seek to address. I call the ideology that legitimizes and sanctions such aspirations "solutionism"."

The back cover of the book asks "When we quantify our actions, do we change our motivations? Is a world without opacity where we can be free?". As per above, where others see solutions, Morozov sees (potential) problems with chapter names such as "How to break politics by fixing it", "The perils of algorithmic gatekeeping" and "Smart gadgets, dumb humans". This time around I can to a higher extent recommend his book but looking back at it, I still feel something is missing. While the book has many sharp, interesting and provocative formulations (see the quotes below), it is lacking in "storytelling". It does not so much have a beginning, a middle and an end as it has an endless number of examples and (entertaining) rants. It could have been better, but I like it though.

************** Just as Morozov has improved as a writer, so has Jaron Lanier (Wikipedia) since I read his previous book, ""You are not a gadget: A manifesto" (2010). It just so happens that I read and wrote about Lanier's previous book together with Morozov's previous book (four and a half years ago). Lanier's "Who owns the future?" (2013) is yet another broadside at technological utopianism, but where Morozov is an outsider looking in, Lanier is (or could be) a silicon valley insider as he was one of the pioneers of virtual reality technologies in the 1990's. Where Morozov can look at pretty much anything and find contrarian opinions and critical perspectives, I feel that Lanier instead has a limited number of complaints and "obsessions" of which the primary one is "the poisonous concentration of money and power in our digital networks". So where Morozov criticises "solutionism", Lanier's premier target is the centrally placed and immensely powerful "Siren servers" and those who control them. Lanier believes that a better future could be possible but that current techno-economic arrangements only serves to stack riches "at the top" and hollow out the American middle class. From the back cover of the book:

"Lanier has predicted how technology will transform our humanity for decades, and his insight has never been more urgently needed. He shows how Siren Servers, which exploit big data and the free sharing of information, led our economy into recession, imperilled personal privacy, and hollowed out the middle class. The networks that define our world - including social media, financial institutions, and intelligence agencies - now threaten to destroy it. But there is an alternative. In this provocative, poetic, and deeply humane book, Lanier charts a path toward a brighter future: an information economy that rewards ordinary people for what they do and share on the web."

************ Yet another book that critically analyses social media and the Internet is writer, filmmaker and activist Astra Taylor's (Wikipedia) "The people's platform: Taking back power and culture in the digital age" (2014). I greatly enjoyed reading this book. Instead of (only) theorising, the book is anchored in Taylor's own experiences of trying to eke out a living while doing something she loves and thinks is important (documentary filmmaking). The book is however not based only or primarily on her own personal experiences, but takes the perspective of those who create culture, be it documentary filmmakers or idealistic non-establishment journalists who want to report about things that (should) matter in depth. Taylor asks what the conditions are for creating culture today and in the future. The book very much treats the same topics as Morozov and Lanier's books, but out of the three books, I really do think that this was my favourite because of Taylor's writing. Morozov is best for the sheer number of ideas and Lanier is on the other good due to his deep understanding of the underlaying technologies. From the back cover of Taylor's book:

"The People's Platform argues that for all our 'sharing', 'up-voting', and 'liking', the Internet reflects real-world inequalities as much as it reduces them. Attention and influence accrue to those who already have plenty of both. Cultural products are primarily valued as opportunities for data collection, while creators receive little or no compensation for their efforts. And we pay for our 'free' access to content and services with our privacy, offering up our personal information to advertisers. We can do better. Employing a mixture of reportage, research and her own experiences working in a creative field, Astra Taylor not only offers an audacious rebuttal to the current Internet orthodoxy, she also presents viable solutions to our predicament. If we want the Internet to be a people's platform, we will have to make it so."

****** I haven't read any of Douglas Rushkoff's (Wikipedia) previous books but thought I had as I had mixed him up with John Markoff who writes about similar-ish topics. I bought this particular book because I have had Rushkoff on my radar for a long time and because the title was irresistable to me. "Present shock: When everything happens now" (2013) is a riff of the title of Alvin Toffler's "Future shock" (1970) that I read a long time ago. I unfortunately do believe that this was both the first and the last of Rushkoff's books that I will read, despite the fact that several of them look kind of interesting (including his most recent book, "Throwing rocks at the Google bus: How growth became the enemy of prosperity").

Rushkoff is probably a great guy to have a beer with and his writing is pretty slick, but his thinking is not as sharp as that of the other writers in this line-up. This is a book about "one big idea" that has been milked and bundled up into a 250 pages long pop science package e.g.: "To get a book contract, three things were needed; 1) A platform, 2) A big idea and 3) A catch phrase".

I get the feeling that Rushkoff had a book contract and had to get the book together to fullfil his contract - as apart from the other three authors (above) who seem to more be driven by their passion to express what to them is a really important message. I guess that Rushkoff, as a journalist, has to get a book out of the door every second year to rekindle his attractiveness. From the back cover:

"People spent the twentieth century obsessed with the future. We created technologies that would help connect us faster, gather news, map the planet, and compile knowledge. We strove for an instantaneous network where time and space could be compressed. Well, the future's arrived. We live in a continuous now enabled by Twitter, e-mail, and a so-called real-time technological shift. Yet this "now" is an elusive goal that we can never quite reach. And the dissonance between our digital selves and our analog bodies has thrown us into a new state of anxiety: present shock."


----- Predictions of a gamified near-future  -----
"If Silicon Valley had a designated futurist, her bright vision of the near future - say, around 2020 or so - would itself be easy to predict. It would go something like this: Humanity, equipped with powerful self-tracking devices, finally conquers obesity, insomnia, and global warming as everyone eats less, sleeps better, and emits more appropriately. The fallibility of human memory is conquered too, as the very same tracking devices record and store everything we do. Car keys, faces, factoids: we will never forget them again. No need to feel nostalgic, Proust-style, about the petite madeleines you devoured as a child; since that moment is surely stored somewhere in your smartphone - or, more likely, your smart, all-recording glasses - you can stop fantasizing and simply rewind to it directly. ... Even those who've never bothered to vote in the past are finally provided with the right incentives - naturally, as a part of an online game where they collect points for saving humanity - and so they rush to use their smartphones to "check in" at the voting booth."
Morozov, E. (2014). To save everything, click here, p.x.

----- On taking techno-utopian schemes at face value  -----
"All too often, digital heretics like me get bogged down in finding faults with the feasibility of the original utopian schemes. ... Can all environments be smart? Will people show up to vote just because they are playing a game? Such skeptical questions over the efficacy of said schemes are important ... But I also think that we, the heretics, also need to take Silicon Valley innovators at their word and have just a bit more faith in their ingenuity and inventiveness. These, after all, are the same people who are planning to scan all the world's books and mine asteroids. Ten year ago, both ideas would have seemed completely crazy; today, only one of them does."
Morozov, E. (2014). To save everything, click here, p.xiii.

----- On the difficulty of nudging people to change their behaviors  -----
"Should we introduce game incentives into a process that has previously worked through appeals to one's duties and obligations? ... It very well may be that, by optimizing our behavior *locally* (i.e., getting people to recycle with the help of games and increased peer surveillance), we'll end up with suboptimal behavior *globally*, that is, once the right incentives are missing in one simple environment, we might no longer want to perform our civic duties elsewhere. One local problem might be solved - but only by triggering several global problems that we can't recognise at the moment."
Morozov, E. (2014). To save everything, click here, p.2-3.

----- On solutionism  -----
"Alas, all to often, this never-ending quest to ameliorate ... is short-sighted and only perfunctorily interested in the activity for which improvement is sought. Recasting all complex social situation either as neatly defined problems with definite, computable solutions or as transparent and self-evident processes that can be easily optimized - if only the right algorithms are in place! - this quest is likely to have unexpected consequences that could eventually cause more damage than the problems the seek to address. I call the ideology that legitimizes and sanctions such aspirations "solutionism." I borrow this unabashedly pejorative term from the world of architecture and urban planning"
Morozov, E. (2014). To save everything, click here, p.5-6.

----- On information technologies before computers  -----
"As British historian of technology David Edgerton points out, "When we think of information technology we forget about postal systems, the telegraph, the telephone, radio and television. When we celebrate on-line shopping, the mail-order catalogue goes missing. Genetic engineering, and its positive and negative impacts, is discussed as if there had never been any other means of changing animals or plants, let alone other means of increasing food supply.""
Morozov, E. (2014). To save everything, click here, p.35.

----- On unintended consequences  -----
"[Michael] Power [in his classic study on the rise of "the audit society"] also points to a second unintended consequence of transparency, which he dubs "colonization." ... the will to improve pursued blindly, ends up corroding other important values. ... Anyone who has watched the popular crime series The Wire knows what colonization does to organizations: police forces start chasing the wrong criminals to improve their statistics and thus improve a mayor's electability while schools concentrate all their efforts on improving test scores, even if children lear much less as a result. ... the quest for transparency as a worthy end in itself, with little to no regard for what the practice being made transparent is all about, does create the right conditions for these problems to flourish."
Morozov, E. (2014). To save everything, click here, p.85.

----- On unintended effects of technology  -----
"Take maps that visualize crime statistics across different neighborhoods; "open-government" enthusiasts are very passionate about them. In theory, their logic is sound. The maps could help the police to be more effective and identify problematic areas; they could also help the public make more informed decisions about where to go and live. The reality, not surprisingly, is a bit more complicated. While better crime statistics might help some people avoid buying properties in dodgy neighborhoods, they would also make it harder for other people to sell those properties. As a result, those who already live in these dodgy neighborhoods might be less willing to report crimes in the first place. In fact, in a 2011 survey by an insurance company, 11 percent of respondents claimed to have seen an incident but chose not to report it, worried that higher crime statistics for their neighborhood would significantly reduce the value of their properties."
Morozov, E. (2014). To save everything, click here, p.98.

----- On unintended effects of technology, part II  -----
"When I type "Britney Spears is" into Google, Autocomplete gives me four suggestions for how most other users have completed that query, Thus, others have inquired if Britney is a "hot mess," whether she is "dead" or "ugly," and - my favorite - whether she is a "Three-headed alien". ... But suppose that an enemy of yours, in a deliberate effort to smear your reputation, starts paying users to search for your name followed by the world "pedophile." An army of eager contributors ... are now generating enough search volume to make this new query replace a few other, more positive terms associated with your name. Now, everyone who searches for your name is also informed that you might be a pedophile - and, remember, you have no way to appeal, for Google's algorithms are in charge, and they never get things wrong."
Morozov, E. (2014). To save everything, click here, p.142-143.

----- On the term "innovation" as a buzzword  -----
"innovations that fail or lead to disastrous results are naturally not considered part of the innovation vocabulary; technologies are innovative only if they are successful and risk-free. ... Not surprisingly, few scholars are working on the ethics of innovation; the fruits of innovation are somehow presumed to benefit everyone equally, so considerations of justice are rarely brought to bear on such discussions."
Morozov, E. (2014). To save everything, click here, p.168-169.

----- On indirect, unanticipated and undesirable effects of new technologies  -----
"Yes, Google's self-driving cars would make driving easier and perhaps even cut the number of deaths on the road, but a reasonable transportation system ought to pursue many other objectives. Would self-driving cars result in inferior public transportation as more people took up driving? Would it lead to even greater suburban sprawl as, now that they no longer had to drive, people could do e-mail during their commute and thus would tolerate spending more time in the car? ... Amazon's foray into publishing cannot just be a tale of individual empowerment through new, better tools for reading and publishing. To accept this tale would be to focus on the direct, anticipated, and desirable consequences of innovation at the expense of indirect, unanticipated, and undesirable ones and to fetishize the tool over the practice it enables."
Morozov, E. (2014). To save everything, click here, p.170-171.

----- Moore's law is no law  -----
"The idea that Moore's law is akin to a natural law is widespread in Silicon Valley ... and it has long spread beyond the technology industry, frequently invoked to justify some course of action. There are few empirically rigorous studies of Moore's law, but Finnish innovation scholar Ilkka Tuomi has done perhaps the most impressive work, digging up industry data, calculating actual growth rates, and tracking various expressions and references to Moore's law in the media. Tuomi's conclusion? "Strictly speaking there is no such Law. Most discussions that quote Moore's Law are historically inaccurate and extend its scope far beyond available empirical evidence," he writes. Furthermore, notes Tuomi, "sociologically Moore's Law is a fascinating case of how myths are manufactured in the modern society and how such myths rapidly propagate into scientific articles, speeches of leading industrialists, and government policy reports around the world."
Morozov, E. (2014). To save everything, click here, p.218.

----- On self-tracking and quantified self as "therapy"?  -----
"one hidden hope behind self-tracking is that numbers might eventually reveal some deeper inner truth about who we really are, what we really want, and where we really ought to be. The movement's fundamental assumption is that the numbers can reveal a core and stable self - if only we get the technology right. Thus, Wolf can write that "many of our problems come from simply lacking the instruments to understand who we are ... We lack both the physical and the mental apparatus to take stock of ourselves. We need help from machines." That the instruments and machines might also be pushing us in directions that we would normally avoid is conveniently omitted."
Morozov, E. (2014). To save everything, click here, p.232-233.

----- On causality and the Quantified Self  -----
"Peter Austin data-mined the health records of 10 million Ontario patients to draw some fascination conclusions about them. One ... finding was that "Virgos vomit more, Libras fracture pelvises." ... Austin notes that you only need to "replace astrological signs with another characteristic such as gender or age, and immediately your mind starts to form explanations for the observed associations. Then we leap to conclusions, constructing reasons for why we saw the results we did." However, he argues, "the more we look for patterns, the more likely we are to find them, particularly when we don't begin with a particular question." In other world, what Austin takes to be the mark of bad research has somehow become a defining, beloved feature of the Quantified Self movement."
Morozov, E. (2014). To save everything, click here, p.265.

----- On surveillance and free will  -----
"if we ... prohibit citizens from breaking the law everywhere, we'll end up with morally deficient citizens who won't do the right thing unless the technological infrastructure explicitly robs them of the opportunity to do the wrong thing."
Morozov, E. (2014). To save everything, click here, p.319.

----- Is your gamification persuasion or coercion?  -----
"games that seek to persuade without allowing players to deliberate are just another form of coercion - perhaps of the soft variety - not persuasion. ... The worst instances of gamificaiton ... leave no space for deliberation and put many social and political processes on a kind of autopilot, where citizens engage in them not because it is the right thing to do but because it gives them the best combination of badges."
Morozov, E. (2014). To save everything, click here, p.334.

----- On selling data about your online behaviour as an attack on your free will  -----
"Suppose you are contemplating becoming vegetarian and visit a few websites on the subject. The profiling software - which may belong to Facebook or Google or any other online intermediary - correctly infers your aspirations and estimates that there's an 83 percent chance that you will stop eating meat within the coming month.
Whoever operates the software then sells this information to the industry association of meat producers. All of a sudden, you start receiving free samples of excellent meat while ads about the benefits of eating beef follow you everywhere on "the Internet." This happens because the profiling software has calculated that sustained exposure to thoughts about meat will reduce the chance that you will stop eating meat by 23 percent, which - magic! - you decide not to do in the end.
You, of course, remain unaware of the connection between your vegetarian aspirations and the free meat samples in your fridge. You seem to be exercising autonomy while, in reality, you aren't: while you believe you are making conscious choices, parties you are not even aware of are actually influencing them invisibly."
Morozov, E. (2014). To save everything, click here, p.349.

----- On tablet and smartphone users being pwd  -----
"The tablet ... enforces a new power structure. A "tablet," unlike a "computer," only runs programs approved by a single, central, commercial authority. That it's lightweight and has a touchscreen is less important than the fact that the owner has less freedom than owners of previous generations of digital devices. A tablet doesn't really enable one to fully run one's own affairs on one's own terms. A personal computer is designed so that you own your own data. PCs enabled millions of people to run their own affairs ... Tablets are instead optimized for delivering entertainment, but the real problem is that you can't use them without ceding information superiority to someone else. In most cases, you cannot even turn them on without giving over personal information."
Lanier, J. (2014). Who owns the future?, p.xxvii.

----- On ICT companies as massive job destroyers  -----
"At the height of its power, the photography company Kodak employed more than 140,000 people and was worth $28 billion. They even invented the first digital camera. But today Kodak is bankrupt, and the new face of digital photography has become Instagram. When Instagram was sold to Facebook for a billion dollars in 2012, it employed only thirteen people. Where did all those jobs disappear to? And what happened to the wealth that those middle-class jobs created? ... Instagram isn't worth a billion dollars just because those thirteen employees are extraordinary. Instead, its value comes from the millions of users who contribute to the network without being paid for it. Networks need a great number of people to participate in them to generate significant value. But when they have them, only a small number of people get paid. That has the net effect of centralizing wealth and limiting overall economic growth. ... the rise of digital networking is enriching a relative few while moving the value created by the many off the books. ... we see the phenomenon of power and money becoming concentrated around the people who operate the most central computer in a network, undervaluing everyone else."
Lanier, J. (2014). Who owns the future?, p.2.

----- On why paywalls are good and free information is bad  -----
"The idea that mankind's information should be made free is idealistic, and understandably popular, but information wouldn't need to be free if no one were impoverished. As software and networks become more and more important, we can either be moving toward free information in the midst of insecurity for almost everyone, or toward paid information with a stronger middle class than ever before. The former might seem more ideal in the abstract, but the latter is the more realistic path to lasting democracy and dignity."
Lanier, J. (2014). Who owns the future?, p.9.

----- On the socialist endgames of digital utopias  -----
"In the telling of digital utopias, when computing gets ultragood and ultracheap we won't have to worry about the reach of elite network players descended from today's derivates funds, or Silicon Valley companies like Google or Facebook. In a future world of abundance, everyone will be motivated to be open and generous. Bizarrely, the endgame utopias of even the most ardent high-tech libertarians always seem to take socialist turns. The joys of life will be too cheap to meter, we imagine. So abundance will go ambient. This is what diverse cyber-enligtened business concern and political groups all share in common, from Facebook to WikiLeaks."
Lanier, J. (2014). Who owns the future?, p.14.

----- On inexpensive computing power helping financial shenanigans  -----
"Liars have to have the best memories. It's more work to keep two sets of books than one set of books. The plague of toxic assets and mega-pyramid schemes, and the pointless growth spurt of the financial services sector would all have been impossible without vast computational resources remembering and sorting all the details needed. ... It was only recently that computation became inexpensive enough to be used to hide bad assets. The toxic financial concoctions of the Great Recession grew so complex that unraveling them could become like breaking a deep cryptographic code."
Lanier, J. (2014). Who owns the future?, p.31.

----- On inexpensive computing power and moral hazard  -----
"Moral hazard has never met a more efficient amplifier than a digital network. The more influential digital networks become, the more potential moral hazard we'll see, unless we change the architecture.
A Siren Server might allow only those who would be cheap to insure through a doorway (to become insured) in order to make a supernaturally ideal, low-risk insurance company. Such a scheme would let high-risk people pass one way, and low-risk ones pass the other way, in order to implement a phoney perpetual motion machine out of a human society. However, the uninsured would not cease to exist; rather, they would instead add to the cost of the whole system, which includes the people who run the Siren Server. A short-term illusion of risk reduction would actually lead to increased risk in the longer term."
Lanier, J. (2014). Who owns the future?, p.54, 56.

----- On charging higher prices from affluent customers  -----
"Around the turn of the century Amazon was caught up in a controversy about "differential pricing." Essentially this means that an online site might charge you more for given items than it charges other people, like your neighbors. ... There is nothing special about Amazon in this regard. Another example is the travel site Orbitz, which was found to be directing users of more expensive computers to more expensive travel options. Who could be surprised? It is natural for a business to take advantage of a manifest benefit staring it right in the face. We probably don't know about the vast majority of examples. While customers might become uncomfortable when made aware of these practice, they are generally legal."
Lanier, J. (2014). Who owns the future?, p.63.

----- On sustainability and the material basis (goop, filament) for 3D printing  -----
"A current academic and hobbyist craze is know as "3D printing." ... Being able to make things on the spot could remove a huge part of humanity's carbon footprint: the transportation of goods. Instead of fleets of container ships bringing tchotchkes from China to our ports, we'll print them out at home, or maybe at the neighborhood print shop. What will be distributed instead will be the antecedent "goops." These are the substances squirted out by the printer's nozzles. ... Will there be goops delivered by pipes to the home? Goop trucks that will make rounds to refill printers once a week? Goop refill kits sold by Amazon and delivered by parcel? Little blimps that alight on your roof to refill your home printer? This we do not know. At any rate, a new infrastructure will be needed to get goops to printers. Expect goop to be as overpriced as ink for home photo printers is today."
Lanier, J. (2014). Who owns the future?, p.86-87.

----- Spying on you is the core business model of the information economy  -----
"Even an innocent visit to a legitimate major newspaper site like the New York Times invokes a competitive swarm of more than a dozen tracking services, each of which is attempting to become the dominant compiler of spy data about you. One plug-in that attempts to block spying schemes, called Ghostery, is currently blocking more than a *thousand* such schemes, though no one knows the true number. There is not definitive map of network spying services. The allegiances and roles are multifarious and complex. No one really knows the score, though a common opinion is that Google has historically been at the top of the heap for collecting spy data about you on the open Internet, while Facebook has mastered a way to corral people under an exclusive microscope. That said, other companies you've probably never heard of, like Acxiom and eBureau, are also deeply determined to create dossiers on you. Because spying on you is, for the moment, the official primary business of the information economy, any attempt to avoid being spied on, such as the use of Ghostery, can seem like an assault on the very idea of the Internet.
Lanier, J. (2014). Who owns the future?, p.109.

----- On the two versions of you that exist on Facebook  -----
"On a simplistic level, it is true that there are two version of you on Facebook: the one you obsessively tend, and the hidden, deepest secret in the world, which is the data about you that is used to sell access to you to third parties like advertisers. You will never see the second kind of data about you. But it isn't as if that secret version could be sent to you for review anyway. It wouldn't make sense by itself. It isn't separable from the rest of the global data that Facebook collects. The most precious and protected data ... are statistical correlations that are used by algorithms but are rarely seen or understood by people."
Lanier, J. (2014). Who owns the future?, p.114.

----- On offloading life-changing decisions to algorithms  -----
"People trust dating sites like eHarmony to algorithmically select prospects for marriage. But people also attempt to force universal laws on each other about what kinds of marriages can be legal. If this juxtaposition doesn't seem odd, think about this: What if the eHarmony algorithm analyzed a customer and calculated that she was gay even though she had never realized that before? That's a type of judgment that I suspect would not be tolerated by many of eHarmony's users, even though the judgments they do solicit are no less intimate or consequential."
Lanier, J. (2014). Who owns the future?, p.167-168.

----- On the purpose of (Google's, Apple's, Facebook's) click-through agreements  -----
"click-through agreements are the grandiosely verbose descendants of the Zen koan about a tree falling in a forest that no one hears. No one will read them, so they are very unlikely to be tested in legal proceeding. No one wants to read them, not even lawyers. Some lawyer at the Electronic Frontier Foundation or some such place might occasionally be able to make it through one of them, but that is rare. Since they are unread, they basically do not exist, except for setting the basic rule everyone understands, which is that the server takes no risk, only the users of the server. The ideal is for click-trhough agreements to remain unread"
Lanier, J. (2014). Who owns the future?, p.184.

----- Is openness overrated?  -----
"It's an article of faith in cyber-democracy circles that making information more "free," in the sense of making it copyable, will also lead to the most democratic, open world. I suspect this is not so. ... A world that is open on the surface becomes more closed on a deeper level. You don't get to know what correlations have been calculated about you by Google, Facebook, an insurance company, or a financial entity, and that's the kind of data that influences your life the most in a networked world."
Lanier, J. (2014). Who owns the future?, p.201.

----- On the network effect as discriminatory  -----
"Up until 2010, I enjoyed a certain kind of user-generated content very much. In my case it was forums in which musicians talked about musical instruments ... Along with all sorts of other contact between people, musical instrument conversations are moving more and more into Facebook. In order to continue to participate, I'd have to accept Facebook's philosophy, which includes the idea that third parties would pay to be able to spy on me and my family in order to find the best way to manipulate what shows up on the screen in front of us. ... You can replace musical instruments with political, medical, or legal discussions. They're all moving under the cloak of a spying service. You might ... object that it's all based on individual choice, and that if Facebook wants to offer us a preferable free service, and the offer is accepted, that's just the market making a decision. That argument ignores network effects. Once a critical mass of conversations is on Facebook, then it's hard to get conversation going elsewhere. What might have started out as a choice is no longer a choice after a network effect causes a phase change. After that point we effectively have less choice. It's no longer commerce, but soft blackmail."
Lanier, J. (2014). Who owns the future?, p.206-207.

----- On social networks as the commercialized conversations  -----
"Instead of the old start-up model, which tried to sell us things, the new one trades on our sociability - our likes and desires, our observations and curiosities, our relationships and networks - which is mined, analyzed, and monetized. To put it another way, Web 2.0 is not about users buying products; rather, users *are* the product. We are what companies like Google and Facebook sell to advertisers. ... What is social networking if not the commercialization of the once unprofitable art of conversation?"
Taylor, A. (2014). The people's platform, p.14.

----- On unequal division of our online ad dollars  -----
"More and more off the money circulating online is being soaked up by technology companies, with only a trickle making its way to creators or the institutions that directly support them. In 2010 publishers of articles and videos received around twenty cents of each dollar advertisers spent on their sites, down from almost a whole dollar in 2003. Cultural products are increasingly valuable only insofar as they serve as a kind of "signal generator" from which data can be mined. The real profits flow not to the people who fill the platforms where audiences congregate and communicate - the content creators - but to those who own [the platforms].
Taylor, A. (2014). The people's platform, p.15-16.

----- On digital sharecropping and the armies of digital peasants as the 99%  -----
We will "create" and "connect" and the entrepreneurs will keep the cash. This arrangement has been called "digital sharecropping." ... A small group, positioned to capture the value of the network, benefits disproportionately from a collective effort. ... Taking this argument one step further, a frustrated minority have complained that we are living in a world of "digital feudalism," where sites like Facebook and Tumblr offer up land for content providers to work while platform owners expropriate value with impunity and, if you read the fine print, stake unprecedented claim over users' creation. ... Marina Gorbis of the Institute for the Future has written ... "We, the armies of digital peasants, scramble for subsistence in digital manor economies, lucky to receive scraps of ad dollars here and there, but mostly getting by, sometimes happily, on social rewards - fun, social connections, online reputations. But when the commons are sold or traded on Wall Street, the vast disparities between us, the peasants, and them, the lords, become more obvious and more objectionable.""
Taylor, A. (2014). The people's platform, p.17-19.

----- On enthusiastic virtuosos (amateurs and interns) as the ideal digital workers  -----
"the psychology of creativity has become increasingly useful to the economy. The disposition of the artist is even more in demand. The ethos of the autonomous creator has been repurposed to serve as a deductive facade for a capricious system ... Thus the ideal worker matches the traditional profile of the enthusiastic virtuoso: an individual who is versatile and rootless, inventive and adaptable; who self-motivates and works long hours, tapping internal and external resources; who is open to reinvention, emphasizing potential and promise opposed to past achievements; one who loves the work so much, he or she would do it no matter what, and so expects little compensation or commitment in return - amateurs and interns, for example."
Taylor, A. (2014). The people's platform, p.58.

----- On the hollowing-out of job security and benefits in the (digital) economy  -----
"Creativity is invoked time and again to justify low wages and job insecurity. Across all sectors of the economy, responsibility for socially valuable work, from journalism to teaching and beyond, is being off-loaded onto individuals as institutions retreat from obligations to support efforts that aren't immediately or immensely profitable. The Chronicle of Higher Education urges graduate students to imagine themselves as artists, to better prepare for the possibility of impoverishment when tenure-track jobs fail to materialize: "*We must think of graduate school as more like choosing to go to New York to become a painter or deciding to travel to Hollywood to become an actor. Those arts-based careers have always married hope and desperation into a tense relationship." In a similar vein, NPR reports that the "temp-worker lifestyle" is a kind of "performance art," a statement that conjures a fearless entertainer mid-tightrope or an acrobat hurling toward the next trapeze without a safety net - a thrilling image, especially to employers who would prefer not to provide benefits."
Taylor, A. (2014). The people's platform, p.59-60.

----- On hyper-local and hyper-personal "news" replacing old-school News  -----
"Jeff Jarvis, a self-proclaimed Internet triumphalist ... goes even further: our very definition of news, he insists, is radically changing, becoming hyper-local and hyper-personal. "You're hungry and you want a burrito ... There's a really good burrito place here. That's news." No longer will editors and journalists deliver the "products" they think people should have (The Gutenberg era). Instead, news will be a "process" and the people will decide for themselves what classifies. Anyone who resists this redefinition, who dares to speak of quality or duty - who ... believe there are things people *ought* to see - are doomed elitists, arrogant know-it-alls who don't respect the wisdom of the crowd. ... The reduction of news to whatever we happen to want to know in the moment is terrifying. What about politics, poverty, foreign policy, and all of the other problems that plague us?"
Taylor, A. (2014). The people's platform, p.76-77

----- On "news deserts"  -----
"digital advertising brings in a fraction of its print counterpart, which means publications have to attract thirty online readers to replace one paid subscriber. ... Digital dimes ... have replaced analog dollars - and as more people start reading on mobile devices, where advertisements don't display well, instead of on their home computers, those dimes will turn into pennies. ... Cities that had multiple dailies now have one or, sometimes, none. More and more Americans now lie in ... "news deserts," places where original reporting, print or digital, has completely dried up - a problem particularly acute within minority and rural communities. ... Though we are drowning in data, we actually know less and less about what is happening in our own backyards and abroad."
Taylor, A. (2014). The people's platform, p.79-81.

----- On media shadows leading to reduced understanding of world events  -----
"According to research conducted by reporter Jill Carroll for Harvard University, the entire U.S. media, print and broadcast combined, supported a mere 141 foreign correspondents overseas in 2006, a shockingly meagre number for a global superpower. Instead of the age of openness and transparency that new-media thinkers anticipate, much will lie shrouded in darkness, out of sight and mind. ... Faced with this devastation, the cheerleaders of new media counter that a combination of volunteerism, technological savvy, and market economics will lead, as a matter of course, to the best possible outcome. Innovation will make up for any losses as if by magic"
Taylor, A. (2014). The people's platform, p.81.

----- On "churnalism"  -----
"When clear returns are demanded, risks cannot be taken. [News] Stories need to be "quick to cover" and "safe to publish," free of controversy and full of quotes from official sources. They must avoid problems that require deep background or ideas that require lengthy explanations. These low standards, coupled with the fact there are more people working in public relations than there are journalists in both the UK and the United States (where the ration is about four to one and climbing), leave the news media highly susceptible to manipulation. ... [prominent journalist Nick] Davies dubs the 88 percent of material cobbled from wire copy and press releases "churnalism," and ... "Taken together, these data portray a picture of journalism in which any meaningful independent journalistic activity by the press is the exception rather than the rule""
Taylor, A. (2014). The people's platform, p.88-89.

----- On investigative journalism vs breaking news  -----
What writers need, whatever format their work comes in, is a reprieve from churnalism's demand for more stories, more scoops, more stuff. They need the time and space to take the long view. Above all, they need the freedom to follow ideas that don't pan out. Investigative reporting is a leap of faith, one that often means coming back empty-handed. ... The uncomfortable truth is that the online world has only accelerated churnalism's already rapid pace. We have become accustomed to instant updates, video streams, and live blogging and tweeting. The pressure to react, to comment, and to attract clicks means journalists are working more quickly than ever before, counting seconds in their race against the clock."
Taylor, A. (2014). The people's platform, p.90, 92.

----- On changes in media consumption habits  -----
"Changes in our media consumption habits are often the consequence of changing circumstances and opportunities. Just as suburbanization helped kill afternoon newspapers, which had traditionally been purchased in city centres and read on bus ot train rides home, and boost radio, broadcast through car stereos during the daily commute, there has been a corresponding shift from watching news on television or reading the paper in the relative quite of home to the ability to consume news and entertainment on our devices wherever we happen to be, including the office."
Taylor, A. (2014). The people's platform, p.99.

----- On the hidden costs of free content on the Internet  -----
"It may seem counterintuitive at a time of information overload, viral media, aggregation, and instant commenting to worry about our cultural supply. But we are at risk of starving in the midst of plenty. ... Culture, even if it is immaterial, has material conditions, and free culture, like cheap food, incurs hidden costs."
Taylor, A. (2014). The people's platform, p.214.

----- On the sign of the times and changing sports preferences  -----
"Freestyle sports, like skateboarding, snowboarding, rock climbing, and mountain biking, are more compatible with a world in which team loyalty and military victory have given way to self-expression and the thrill of the moment. Team sports take hours to watch and require a very particular sort of commitment to play. A kid must sign up at school, submit to a coach, and stay for the season. By contrast, extreme sports are improvisational in nature, and more about texture, pleasure, and style than about victory over an adversary. They emphazise process, form, and personal achievement, and resist efforts to standardize play."
Rushkoff, D. (2013). Present shock, p.42.

----- On digital information and changing perceptions of time  -----
"Time in the digital era is no longer linear but disembodied and associative. The past is not something behind us on the timeline but dispersed through the sea of information. Like a digital unconscious the raw data sits forgotten unless accessed by a program in the future. Everything is recorded, yet almost none of it feels truly accessible. A change in file format renders decades of stored files unusable while a silly, forgotten Facebook comment we wrote when drunk can resurface at a job interview. ... Time itself becomes just another form of information - another commodity - to be processed."
Rushkoff, D. (2013). Present shock, p.85-86.

----- On the always-on Internet lifestyle  -----
"Google and Facebook welcome their engineers to work around the clock; the companies provide food, showers, and even laundry service for their programmers - who are assumed to have no life beyond the company. The bathroom stall doors at Google have daily programming tips for employees to read while sitting on the toilet. These campuses are lovely, to be sure, and the food and facilities are of a higher standard than most of us get at home. ... But these places may as well be space stations, meticulously stocked and arranged, and utterly cut off from the passage of time. The culture of the Internet is informed by this sensibility, which then trickles back into its content and programs. Programmers who are always-on naturally assume their users would want to live this way as well. Likewise, Internet writers whose lives must conform to the dictates of online publishing and economics end up espousing values consistent with the always-on hyperactivity of the Web."
Rushkoff, D. (2013). Present shock, p.96-97.

----- On multitasking vs doing one thing at a time  -----
"There have been more than enough studies done and books written about distraction and multitasking for us to accept - however begrudgingly - the basic fact that human beings cannot do more than one thing at a time. As Stanford cognitive scientist Clifford Nass has shown pretty conclusively, even the smartest university students who believe they are terrific at multitasking actually perform much worse than when they do one thing at a time. Their subjective experience is that they got more done even when they accomplished much less, and with much less accuracy. Other studies show that multitasking and interruptions hurt our ability to remember."
Rushkoff, D. (2013). Present shock, p.123.

----- On computerisation as off-loading costs to your customers  -----
"A robo-answering computer may save your company the cost of a human receptionist, while instead costing your customers and suppliers hundreds of man-hours in meny navigation. Except in cases where you are actually trying to avoid this communication ... it makes more sense for you to stop externalizing the cost to your clientele."
Rushkoff, D. (2013). Present shock, p.128.

----- On algorithmic arms races in the financial industries  -----
"When a bank wants to move a big quantity of shares, for example, it doesn't want everyone to know what it is doing. If news of a big buy leaked out before the big buy could be completed, the price may go up. To hide their motions, they employ the same technique as stealth planes: they use algorithms to break their giant trade into thousands of little ones, and do so in such a way that they look random. Their sizes and timing are scattered. In order to identify this stealthy algorithmic movement, competing banks hire other mathematicians to write other algorithms that monitor trading and look for clues of these bigger trades and trends. The algorithms actually shoot out little trades, much like radar, in order to measure the response of the market and then infer if there are any big movements going on. The original algorithms are, in turn, on the lookout for these little probes and attempt to run additional countermoves and fakes. This algorithmic dance - what is known as black box trading - accounts for over 70 percent of Wall Street trading activity today."
Rushkoff, D. (2013). Present shock, p.179.

torsdag 26 maj 2016

On the Design of Design Fiction


My previous blog post was about a paper we submitted to the Future Scenarios special track at the 9th Nordic Conference on Human-Computer Interaction (NordiCHI 2016). We actually submitted a second paper to the Future Scenarios track, "On the Design of Design Fiction: Exploring Sustainable Computing through Fictional Abstracts". This paper has no less than 15 authors and I think it's actually easier to think of the main authors (me and my colleagues Elina Eriksson, Vincent Lewandowski and Josefin Wangel) as "initiators" or "editors" of a paper that would have been considerably harder to write had it not been for today's flexible collaborative writing platforms (we use Google docs).

The paper is actually a revamped version of a paper we submitted to the 5th decennial Århus conference a year ago ("Critical Alternatives 2025: Exploring Sustainable Computing Through Design Fiction"), but that was rejected. The core of the paper is the same, but the focus has now shifted and we frame the purpose of the paper differently than last time around. I feel that it is a better paper this time around, and, a much better fit to the (Future Scenarios) call for papers. The simple fact that there is a Future Scenarios track ought to considerably increase the chances that the paper is accepted this time around.

Another huge difference is that the previous paper was 11 pages long while the maximum length for papers submitted to this conference was 10 pages and it turned out to be really difficult and painful to decrease the length of the paper by 10%. That problem was half fixed by decreasing the number of references from 52 to 35 and we also cut out a whole section (1/2 page), but parts of it entered the text later "thorough a back door". Anyway, it was really tough and that particular job had to be fixed only a couple of hours before the deadline.

Some of the 11 "non-editor" co-authors have contributed more then the others. While all co-authors have contributed by authoring a fictional abstract, some also involved themselves in the actual process of (re-)writing the paper. I would here like to especially extend my thanks to Eric Baumer who contributed with both insightful comments, but also with (many) concrete suggestions for rewriting parts of the paper. Here's what it looked like after he had had a bout with the guidelines that we end the paper with:

The guidelines were created (mostly by me) to give practical tips to co-authors about how to write successful fictional abstracts at the time when they were created. They were included in the previous paper if not as afterthought, then at least as an add-on. This time around, they moved much closer to the center stage and it therefore made sense to rewrite them from the ground up. Still, this is probably not something I would have thought of myself and as to this particular part of the paper, it was Eric Baumer who did the heaving lifting (as can be seen in the screenshot above). Other people who contributed significantly to the new paper was Samuel Mann, Ruzanna Chitchyan and Birgit Penzenstadler. Here's the abstract:

It is now clear that we have exceeded the core planetary boundaries that define a safe operating space for humanity. Sustainable HCI and sustainable computing have the potential to provide important contributions to decreasing the human impact on the planet, but serious challenges remain that will not be resolved at the current pace. We therefore need to appraise and reimagine the impact of research within the field. As prediction of and speculation about the future can help to explore critical alternatives, this paper discusses the practice and value of design fiction through the creation of high-quality fictional abstracts. Through creation and analysis of fictional abstracts, we offer ideas on how research could develop over the next ten years and explore potential roles for computing in relation to how sustainability can be achieved, or, in some cases, how computing might factor into living with the consequences of not achieving sustainability. Through this, we argue for an expanded and reinvigorated discourse on future research agendas. Furthermore, the main contribution of the paper is methodological as we present a set of guidelines for writing fictional abstracts.

tisdag 24 maj 2016

The (Un)sustainability of Imagined Future Information Societies


Last week we submitted a paper, "The (Un)sustainability of Imagined Future Information Societies" to the Future Scenarios special track at the 9th Nordic Conference on Human-Computer Interaction (NordiCHI 2016). Here's how the special track was presented:

Future Scenarios
There are countless examples on how science fiction has inspired researchers and scientists. Within interaction design, there is an increasing use of fictional narratives as inspiration for design; examples include design fictions, value fictions, and future workshops.

This track aims to explore the design of design fictions; how can they be crafted towards a particular design outcome, say sustainability, or sharing? What kinds of designs can come out of them? Which lessons have been learned by those of us who use scenarios as a design method? And, lastly, we wish to collect a set of scenarios aiming for specific outcomes, for those in need.


Papers will be evaluated on the following grounds:
– How well they serve the main aim of the track: to exemplify or explore how scenarios can be crafted towards a specific outcome.
– The quality of the scenario: Is it well-crafted in relation to its intentions, and is it well-written and inspiring enough to be reused by others?

Although different people had told me about the Future Scenarios track, it was only 14 days before the deadline that I realised that the fit between the track and the results of our research project "Scenarios and Impacts of the Information Society" was near-perfect. Here's a snippet from the e-mail to my co-authors Ulrika Gunnarsson Östling, Mattias Höjer and Luciane Aguiar Borges where I floated the idea of writing a paper:

"Should we choose one (or several) of our S&I scenarios and have a go at it? There’s not much time though, the deadline is May 5 but the heavy lifting (creating scenarios) has already been done…"

Beyond the "perfect fit" between the Future Scenarios track and our research project, two other fortunate events made the paper possible. The first was the decision to bring my colleague Elina Eriksson onboard and the second was the fact that the deadline was extended by two weeks. Elina has not been part of the research project, but she - as apart from the other three co-authors - knows the conference, the research area (HCI) and the audience, and her involvement was invaluable for getting the paper together (she's the second author).

The core of the paper are the five scenarios of future information societies that were developed in the research project, but there was only space for (partially) displaying three of these scenarios in the paper itself. The framing of the paper is primarily as follows:

  1. Futures studies concerns itself with the study of possible, probable and preferable futures.
  2. Human-Computer Interaction has relatively recently (compared to futures studies' multi-decades-long history) become interested in design fiction (and critical design and speculative design etc.). 
  3. We have conducted a Futures Studies research project and here are the resulting scenarios.
  4. Here are some differences between, and some things that Human-Computer Interaction/design fiction can learn from Futures Studies.

Another framing - also contained within the paper - is:
  1. Many have made predictions about, or studied the (future) information society.
  2. Some (others) have studied the sustainability of (imagined) future societies.
  3. Few have however studied if (the visions of) future information societies are sustainable.
  4. ...but, that's exactly what we have done in our research project, and, here are our results.
  5. [Results are presented.]
  6. Most visions of future information societies are problematic in terms of sustainability (i.e. they are unsustainable). The visions of future information societies that are not or that are less problematic in terms of sustainability would instead be regarded as undesirable by many (within HCI).

Here's the previous paper that came out of the research project ("Pluralizing the future information society"), here is my blog post about the previous NordiCHI conference (two years ago) and here's the paper abstract:

Contemporary societies are facing various predicaments that need to be addressed and one of them is the issue of sustainability. The pathway to a sustainable society is not clear, and we will need to consider different developmental possibilities. But how can we do that and how do we practically think about the future in order to weigh different options against each other and make an informed decision? This paper emanates from the academic field of futures studies and it describes the results of a research project in the intersection of “the future information society” and sustainability, answering questions such as: what could the future information society look like and what would be the impact of that society be in terms of sustainability? The main stakeholders in this research has not been system developers, but rather bureaucrats, planners and policymakers, and, the overarching goal was to influence planning processes primarily at the regional (Stockholm, Sweden) level. We here present parts of the rich body of scenario materials that were developed over a period of several years, with the aim of describing possible future information societies. We will also discuss some of lessons learned and what HCI and design fiction can learn from from Future Studies in general and from this project in particular.

söndag 22 maj 2016

Sustainable development for ICT engineering students


My previous blog post was about a paper we recently submitted to the 8th Conference on Engineering Education for Sustainable Development (EESD), a conference that sits at the intersection of 1) engineering educations, 2) sustainability and 3) pedagogics (teaching). Well, we actually submitted a second paper to that conference, "Sustainable development for ICT engineering students - “What’s in it for me?”".

I like the title and I especially like the fact that it sort of neatly builds upon and connects to a paper that me and Elina presented at the 6th EESD conference back in 2013, "It’s not fair!” - making students engage in sustainability"

Writing this paper can partly been seen as "the next step" after teaching our course on Sustainability and ICT, after doing course evaluations and after incrementally developing the course after each cycle that it has been given. The paper authors (Elina Eriksson, Daniel Pargman, Anna Björklund, Anna Kramers and Karin Edvardsson Björnberg) are all KTH teachers and we together teach three different courses about ICT and sustainability to students in three different KTH engineering programmes (Media Technology, Computer Science and Information and Communication Technology). Writing the paper gave us the chance and a reason to get together and compare our respective courses. Writing the paper did, in a sense, constitute course development.

Something really nice was that we, at the very last meeting we had (just a few days before the deadline) got an idea for the next paper we should write together (perhaps for the next EESD conference?). While the actual contents of that paper for the most are pretty hazy, we do already have a great title for it: "Educating the unreasonable engineer". The title is a play on a quote by George Bernard Shaw and I will keep you updated on the progress of that paper (perhaps sometime during the spring of 2018... - we have long lead times in the academy...).

Here's a quote from the introduction of our paper. It states the challenge we are all dealing with in our three courses:

"the three main reasons for students to apply to our three computer-related educational programmes were: 1) the reputation of the university, 2) career opportunities and 3) an interest in technology and the natural sciences. As to “contributing to a sustainable society”, this option was chosen by a meagre 8% of the new Information and Communication Technology students, 6% of the Media Technology students and a dismal 2% of the Computer Science students. Our students imagine their future selves as busy writing code, designing apps or developing media content in their future professions, but not as working with anything related to sustainability. So, how can we get this particular group of engineering students to care about topics such as climate change, ecological crises, overpopulation, overconsumption, resource depletion, energy scarcity, global poverty, inequality etc.? From the point of view of a typical student, we as teachers need to be able to answer the question “What’s in it for me?”, as well as “Why should I care?” and “What can I do?”."

And, here's the paper abstract:


The importance of sustainable development (SD) is hardly possible to refute; however, sustainable development has been a relatively peripheral subject in computer-related engineering educations. Sustainability, with its global and potentially all-encompassing connotations, is still seen by many Information and Communication Technology (ICT) students as a topic of little relevance to their future careers. So how can teachers convince these students that sustainability is a topic that can be both relevant and interesting for them? From the point of view of the student; “What’s in it for me?”.

In this paper we describe and compare our efforts to plan and teach three introductory courses on SD in three different ICT-related educational programmes at KTH Royal Institute of Technology. The courses were planned separately, but they will be analysed together. We discuss two dimensions that we have found to be imperative in our endeavour to engage our students. The first dimension is to handle the balance between sustainability on a general level versus sustainability as specifically related to ICT. The second dimension is to handle the tension between teaching facts versus an emphasis on students’ reflections and/or practicing skills. We argue that overcoming the challenge of making sustainability relevant to the students is central for successfully teaching these courses.

onsdag 18 maj 2016

Patterns of Engagement - Playing Gasuco in the classroom


We just submitted a paper to the 8th Conference on Engineering Education for Sustainable Development (EESD), a conference that sits at the intersection of 1) engineering educations, 2) sustainability and 3) pedagogics (teaching). Our paper treats our use of the game Gasuco in our course om Media Technology and Sustainbility. Our paper is called "Patterns of Engagement: Using a board game as a tool to address sustainability in engineering educations" and the paper is written together with my colleagues Björn Hedin and Elina Eriksson.

Me and Elina have given our course for four years and we have used Gasuco in the course during the last three years. I have written about Gasuco several times on the blog, but have up until now referred to it by it's former name, Carbonopoly.

We are really happy about the results of using Gasuco in our course and we are especially happy about the game's Discussion cards - which play a prominent role also in our paper. Here are four examples of discussion cards:

The Discussion cards are also the main stars in the paper's concluding discussion:

"While it is possible to play the game competitively (there is a scoring systems), it is much more common for students to use the game as a scaffold for discussions, often flaunting the guidelines for time use, for example discussing a topic that catches their interest for five minutes instead of the allotted one or three minutes for Opportunity cards and Discussion Cards respectively. In the spirit of not playing competitively, we have also noticed that it is unusual for students to flunk other students in their role as discussion leaders. It seems to be more common for students to admit that they didn’t know very much about a topic and that they themselves feel they are not “worth” winning the card in question. While students thus can blatantly disregard the formal rules of the game, no one is happier about it than us teachers."

I think the paper is quite good and I therefore assume it will be accepted to the conference. That would mean that would for sure attend the conference and present the paper in Bruges, Belgium in the beginning of September. I have attended two EESD conferences before; 2010 in Gothenburg and 2013 in Cambridge and they were both really nice. Below is the paper abstract:


The Global Dimension in Engineering Education (GDEE) refers to all non-technical topics that will impact the engineering profession at a global level over the next couple of decades. As teachers at a Media Technology engineering programme at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology, School of Computer Science and Communication, we have definitely felt that substantial amounts of ingenuity is required to make students interested in such topics, since many of the students regard them as non- central or of little interest when compared to their (non-GDEE) “core” interests, skills and aspirations.

We here describe how we have worked to overcome students’ (potential) aversion to one particular GDEE topic, sustainability, by incorporating a board game, Gasuco, into the introductory module of a course about “Media Technology and Sustainability”. We describe and analyse our use of the game in terms of “pedagogical patterns for learning” (Laudrillard, 2012).


söndag 15 maj 2016

Limits within Policy Modeling


I usually only write a maximum of two blog posts per week, but I had to extend that to a third blog post this week so as not to have a huge backlog of stuff to write about. This, the third blog post is, very appropriately about the third paper I co-authored for the second workshop on "Computing within Limits" (and that was submitted almost two weeks ago).

I was the fourth author of a paper titled "Whose future is it anyway?: Limits within Policy Modeling" and the other authors were Somya Joshi, Teresa Cerratto Pargman and Adreas Gazis.

The paper argues that politicians and policymakers have fallen in love with Big Data, or rather, with (the "extra everything" concept) Big Open Linked Data (BOLD). Visions of the future and planning for the future assume continued economic growth (etc.) and BOLD has for some become a crystal ball or a magic wand that will assure that these things will indeed happen. "In this paper we are particularly interested in the myth of increased quality, objectivity and truth that emerges from the introduction of BOLD within policy modeling." Alternative visions (for example of economic non-growth) are not contemplated or even imagined.


In the age of Big Open Linked Data (BOLD), we inhabit a landscape where future scenarios are imagined, modeled, planned for and embedded in policy. Between the euphoric techno-utopian rhetoric of the boundless potential of BOLD innovations and the dystopian view of the dangers of such innovations (e.g. ubiquitous surveillance etc.), this paper offers a critical understanding of the boundaries that are traversed by the implementation of BOLD within policy modeling. We examine BOLD as a tool for imagining futures, for reducing uncertainties, for providing legitimacy and for concentrating power. In doing so we further develop the LIMITs community’s conceptualization of the societal limitations on computing, with specific reference to the assumptions, interpretations and trust that we place in these models when making socio-environmental policy decisions. We use an illustrative case of policy modeling, which provides a much-needed critical discussion of the inherent limitations and risks as well as the promises that are offered by BOLD.

torsdag 12 maj 2016

Refactoring Society


My previous blog post was about a paper we recently submitted to the second workshop on "Computing within Limits". I actually submitted another paper, this one written together with Barath Raghavan (he's the first author) and the paper is called "Refactoring Society: Systems Complexity in an Age of Limits".

This is the second paper that I have write with Barath (the first, "Rethinking sustainability in computing: From buzzword to non-negotiable limitations" was presented at NordiCHI two years ago), and, I think our plan is to eventually extend this short paper into a journal paper.

The paper is basically an attempt to take the theories of Joseph Tainter into the world of ICT and computing. Tainter writes about the benefits, but especially about the costs of cultural/societal complexity. How complexity is the end result of solving problems and how complexity and costs - but not benefits - accrue over time since the ratio between benefits and costs suffer from a bad case of diminishing marginal utility.

As such, the topic of the paper heavily overlaps with a seminar I just held at the Center for Sustainable Communications (CESC) this week, "Cultural complexity and the impossibility of sustainability". A short paper of Tainter's was circulated before the seminar, "Resources and Cultural Complexity: Implications for Sustainability" (available online), and people who attended the seminar were supposed to have read it (about half had). Please see below first for the paper abstract and then for the invitation to the seminar.

If you are interested in Tainter and his theories, please see this blog post about his book "The collapse of complex civilizations" (1988), this blog post about his more recent book "Drilling down" (2012) and this blog post that I wrote after I heard him talk and was the beneficiary of a private conversation with him two years ago.

Refactoring Society Abstract

Research in sociology, anthropology, and organizational theory indicates that most societies readily create increasingly complex societal systems. Over long periods of time, accumulated societal complexity bears costs in excess of benefits, and leads to a societal decline. In this paper we attempt to answer a fundamental question: what is the appropriate response to excessive sociotechnical complexity? We argue that the process of refactoring, which is commonplace in computing, is ideally suited to our circumstances today in a global industrial society replete with complex sociotechnical systems. We further consider future directions for computing research and sustainability research with the aim to understand and help decrease sociotechnical complexity.


Cultural complexity and the impossibility of sustainability

Joseph Tainter’s book ”The Collapse of Complex Societies” (1988) puts forth a theory of the process and the dynamics behind the collapse of various ancient civilizations (The Roman Empire, Mesopotamia, Minoan civilisation etc.). It was almost irresistible for these to solve all societal problems in ways that increased cultural complexity, but, the process of increasing cultural complexity always goes hand in hand with increased costs for establishing and maintaining said complexity in terms of effort, resources, time, money etc.

The problem of retooling industrial societies into sustainable societies, is in this sense no different from any other problem faced by modern (or ancient) societies. Our proposed solutions tend to gravitate towards solving that problem by increasing our efforts (resources, time, money etc.) in ways that will further increase cultural and societal complexity as well as costs. Previous unsustainable infrastructures (for transportation, heating, producing food and stuff and for ”producing” energy) tend to be replaced by new, more complex structures, for example dumb electricity grids being replaced by more complex smart grids, slow trains being replaced by significantly more complex and expensive high-speed trains, adding carbon capture and storage (CCS) to existing coal power plants etc..

tisdag 10 maj 2016

Limits to the Sharing Economy


We recently submitted the camera-ready (i.e. final) version of our paper "Limits to the Sharing Economy" to the second "Computing within Limits" workshop. The paper is written by me, Elina Eriksson and Adrian Friday (Lancaster University) and it will be presented next month.

In the paper we basically point out that everything that glitters is not gold. The Sharing Economy (Collaborative Consumption etc.) glitters. We are especially interested in to what extent and how the sharing economy can be compatible with, and can lead to (environmental) sustainability - or not.

This is the second spin-off project from the (rejected) EU application* we handed in a year ago, the first being the paper that Karin Bradley and me wrote half a year ago, "The sharing economy as the commons of the 21st century". Do also have a look at the blog post I just wrote about two seminars I recently attended on Collaborative Consumption.

The process for writing the paper has really been very smooth. It is really easy to write papers with the combo Google docs + Skype. Below is the paper abstract:


There has been much interest in the Sharing Economy in recent years, accompanied with the hope that it will change and specifically make better use of existing resources. It intuitively makes sense, from a sustainability point of view, that the sharing of resources is good. It could even be said that the Sharing Economy ought to align well with Computing within Limits and its underlying premises. In this paper however, we take a critical stance and will elaborate on the intersection between the Sharing Economy and Limits (including pinpointing potential conflicts) so as to identify and discuss a ‘Limits-compliant Sharing Economy’. We argue that even though there are limits to the Sharing Economy today, it still has potential benefits for a future of scarcity - but only if the practice of sharing is approached with a dual focus on sharing and on limits at the same time. Finally we conclude that even though we have begun to explore the future of sharing, there is still a need to further develop ideas of how the underlying infrastructure for this movement will look.