tisdag 4 juni 2019

Narrative science (workshop)


I was invited to give a talk at a two-day workshop that was organised by the European Research Council (ERC-funded) project “Narrative Science”. The principal workshop organisers were Mary S. Morgan (principal investigator) and Andrew Hopkins.

The topic of the workshop was "Does time always pass? Temporalities in scientific narratives" and the research project has apparently organised many such workshop; the previous workshop was "Narratives as navigational tools" (March 2019) and the next two workshops are "Scientific polyphony: How scientific narratives configure many 'voices'" (June 2019) and "Narrative science in techno-environments" (July 2019). From what I understand, Mary has hired a number of post-docs in the project and then help plan but mainly let them organise and run workshops that are in line with their and the project's research interests.

In Andrew's invitation (March), he wrote that "This will be an interdisciplinary event that will include an interesting mix of contributions from fields including philosophy, history of science, geology, biology, cosmology and others, to explore how narratives about and involving time occur in various disciplines." The reason I was invited to give a talk is of course because of our 2017 article "What if there had only been half the oil? Rewriting history to envision the consequences of peak oil".

While the workshop encompassed a broad mix of people and topics, it still felt that I was one of the more exotic additions to the workshop both due to my "odd" background (computer science, social science and sustainability) and the "odd" topic of my talk (allohistorical narratives/counterfactuals). Most people who attended the workshop were philosophers or historians and more specifically people with backgrounds in philosophy of science or history of science. Literature was also very much present in the form of a few participants with such backgrounds, through the theories that participants referred to and of course through the project itself ("narrative science"). A few of the titles of talks that were given at the workshop were "Faraday's Lines of Force and the Temporality of Serial Narration", Do we always need a timeline? The roles of temporal sequence in art narratives and science narratives", "Narratives in scientific argument and explanation" and "When you can't get there from here: The importance of temporal order in evolutionary biology and ecology" If you want to know/learn more, do have a look at the narrative science project website and at the 2017 special issue about "Narrative in Science" in the journal Studies in History and Philosophy of Science.

My workshop talk was entitled "Using allohistorical narratives to envision alternative energy futures” and here's my abstract:

Everything unsustainable is possible only until it isn’t any longer. Our use of non-renewable fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas) is unsustainable but has for centuries increased both in relative and absolute terms and currently constitutes 85% of the global energy supply. We intuitively sense that the consequences of phasing out fossil fuels will be momentous, but it is hard to envision what the transition to alternative energy sources could look like since "prediction is hard, especially about the future”. We suggest that allohistorical (counterfactual) narratives can be used for that purpose and we explore a specific scenario in our 2017 paper "What if there had only been half the oil? Rewriting history to envision the consequences of peak oil”, the first in a planned series of papers about ”Coalworld”. 

At the workshop I felt like I was the "practitioner" who used (counterfactual) narratives for a very specific purpose. Almost everyone else was a "theoretician" and their talks were sprinkled with terms such as "narrative processing", "reason-giving practices", "serial narration", "narrative closure", "discursive practices", "narrative explanation" and many more such terms. Interestingly enough, someone mentioned that my talk was the only talk that concerned (also) the future at this workshop on time and scientific narratives. Most other speakers talked about and analysed historical persons and historical events, including for example competing hypotheses/narratives about "the nature of contemporary theories in evolutionary biology employed to explain the origin of eukaryotic cells" (a very long theory ago). I instead discussed the story in the paper we have written as well as the story of the paper. The latter included both the history of the paper and even further back, the motivation behind the paper as well as the future of the paper - since our paper is the first "instalment" in a planned series of papers.

My talk got a very positive reception and there were many interesting questions from the audience. Some questions were relatively easy to answer and others will leave me pondering for quite some time. It was perhaps a pity that my talk was number 11 out of 14 talks, I think I would have gotten more feedback and more out of the workshop had I presented during the first day. 

An amusing and quite embarrassing event happened when I, during a coffee break the first day, was involved in a conversation with a professor and a post-doc and the post-doc asked me what I thought of "Lewis". It turned out that there's this philosopher, David K. Lewis, who wrote the book about counterfactuals back in 1973. The title of the book is "Counterfactuals". I helped organise a week-long international workshop on counterfactuals earlier this year but none of the 20+ participants mentioned this book at any time during that week... My explanation for how this could be is that it seems that people from many different academic disciplines seems to have thought and written about counterfactuals, but I've never really met or discussed the topic with philosophers before... Also, someone else said the book was actually "boring" and that I should instead settle for reading Lewis' much shorter 1979 text "Counterfactual dependence and time's arrow" (pdf file).

All in all it was a nice workshop and I made a few new contacts that I believe I will be in contact with later! The workshop was organised by The London School of Economics but it was hosted by the Royal Institution. Here's some more background info about the workshop:


The standard view of narrative is inextricably bound up with the passage of time. Narrative scholars are convinced that time is an essential element in any narrative, and it has been thought equally essential, though treated in different ways, by philosophers of history. But exactly how to think about time in the narratives of science is not self-evident. And if we look at the way scientists use time in narratives, we see a number of different ways in which time is taken into account and is deployed. Time may be an element in the way scientists write and tell about their handling of materials, processes, practices and discoveries. Alternatively, it may feature as an element in their accounts of causes, mechanisms, interactions, and developments in their scientific materials. And it may be an important component in their theoretical and conceptual terms and discussions. Thus, there are many different sites and guises in which scientists use time in their own subject-based narratives.

In this workshop, the focus will be on the different temporalities in narratives as they occur in scientific discourses. The obvious loci for such explorations are what are generally referred to as the historical sciences, that is, those that seek to reconstruct the past, which may be very deep, on the basis of what can be observed in the present. These include geology, evolutionary biology, archaeology, cosmology and forensic science. Beyond the obvious disciplines however, time and its narrative expression are to be found in a wide variety of places, from measuring the arrival of seismic waves travelling through the earth, to the account of the lab scientist patiently waiting for a key change to occur in an experiment. Other ways of tracing time in scientific narratives might look to the “what if” questions posed in counterfactual reasoning; the ways time is rethought over a life- time; allegiances and resistances to time-based identities; and the relations of narrative to memory and myth. Throughout the workshop, the question of how essential time is to narrative will remain open for argument.

We suggest three starting points in this wide agenda:

1. Perspectival matters - does a scientist’s narrative look forward to what will happen, or backward over what has happened, or for a dynamics involving time within those materials or do they rather try to get a bird’s eye synoptic view, or look sideways at points in a chain where time just pass by on the other side? And, are the phenomena scientists study reversible, or is time itself only ever uni-directional?

2. Routine matters - does a scientist regularly observe their materials at a specific point in time, observe at the beginning and end of some event, or try to capture the moving process of a phenomena? And equally, do narrative representations of their phenomena repeat certain intervals, or work to different rhythms and rulers.

3. Time matters - Does time really or always matter in a science narrative. Is it instead a place holder for something else that is substantive (such as development, a change process, or a regularity), or else not really very important in terms of the coherence and credibility of a narrative where other ‘rulers’, such as spatial or subject- relations, rule? Does time structure a scientist’s narrative or does the narrative provide the argument, structure or logic in which time appears?

fredag 1 mars 2019

The cloud devours electricity (radio interview)

I was on Swedish radio yesterday, in the weekly science/sustainability show "Klotet"(The Globe). The theme of this episode was The cloud devours electricity - can we store data sustainably? ("Molnet slukar el - går det att lagra data hållbart?"). The show was built up around two pre-recoded reportages and they also had two invited guests who commented and discussed the intersection of on the one hand computing and social media use and on the other hand sustainability. Besides me, the other guest was professor of Communication Systems Erik Agrell from Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg. I had to go to Uppsala to record the show so it took half a day (plus preparations!). The chat/interview with me and Erik took an hour but was later cut down to 20 minutes or so.

Sustainability in this context primarily means energy use and related carbon emissions, but it could also include material throughput (us buying and throwing away gadgets or data centers buying and throwing away servers). I took the partly unspecific and unstructured questions I got sent over by mail beforehand and structured them a bit so here's what they wanted us to comment/talk about:

- On the electricity consumption of data traffic in relation to sustainability:
   - Is this a big problem now and/or in the future? If so, how do we solve it?
   - Do people need to change their behaviour (just as we need to change how we transport ourselves etc.)?
   - How far can (future) technical developments take us?

It just so happens that I am giving a ph.d. course this term (together with my colleague Miriam Börjesson Rivera) and several of these questions relate to issues we discussed at the previous seminar or that we will discuss at the next seminar. So I prepared by leafing through paper I had just read and by reading papers we will discuss at our upcoming seminar so that was pretty convenient.

I knew that the focus of both the radio program and that of Erik Agrell would be on technical challenges in terms of how much the data traffic grows each year (≈ 25%), how much global electricity generation grows each year (≈ 3%), how much technical developments on energy efficiency might counteract such trends etc., so I decided to try to open up the discussion to take into account also other factors instead of focusing only on such technical factors (which are not my forte). This part of my argument primarily builds on the arguments made in this 2016 paper:

Preist, C., Schien, D., & Blevis, E. (2016). Understanding and mitigating the effects of device and cloud service design decisions on the environmental footprint of digital infrastructure. In Proceedings of the 2016 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 1324-1337). ACM.

Priest et al. talks about "the cornucopian paradigm" where:
1) "Effectively, the provision of digital services to high-end users stimulates latent demand in mainstream users for such services".
2) "The mainstream users then pick up devices and services which were formerly high-end, and they become embedded in everyday practice. Services that most users were happy without become essential to everyday life for the majority of the populace in developed countries."
3) "This results in a reinforcing feedback loop encouraging growth of the digital infrastructure."

A growing digital infrastructure then enables the design of new high-end services that later/again makes increased demands on infrastructure (and so on). This is succinctly summarised by an image in their paper:

The paper also has a long list of design principles that drives the increase in infrastructure demand that I found useful when I exemplified and pretended that I used a GoPro camera to record the daily commute to my job. Such a video stream could be automatically backed up to the cloud and I might also make "unreasonable" demands at a later point in time, for example assuming that I will have instant access to this video stream and can choose to share it a year later when I'm on vacation in Antarctica (filmed in high-definition video of course).

Basically I wanted to emphasise that the infrastructure does not grow autonomously but rather because new technical possibilities (increased storage, increased bandwidth, new capabilities and features in the electronic gadgets we buy and in the software that runs them) creates the possibilities for developing new high-end data-intensive services and because we as users are quick to pick up those services and incorporate them into our behaviours and into our lives. This line of reasoning problematises and opens up discussions about our behaviour. Are there limits to our needs (or our "needs", e.g. wants)? We only have 24 hours per day, but we can replace less data-intensive practices with more data-intensive practices, including but not limited to using more than one device/service simultaneously.

This line of reasoning analyses the problem, but a second article starts the discussion about what to do to "solve" this problem. That article is written by Kelly Widdicks and me and it's currently in review. It's a kind of continuation of an article we wrote together a bit more than a year ago, "Undesigning the Internet: An exploratory study of reducing everyday Internet connectivity". That paper was written together with yet three more persons and it was presented at the Fifth International Conference on ICT for Sustainability (ICT4S) in Toronto a bit less than a year ago. The new, just-submitted article that we are writing, "Breaking the Cornucopian Paradigm: Towards Moderate Internet Use in Everyday Life" has just been submitted to this year's (upcoming) workshop on Computing within Limits. Borrowing from another area, here then is the line of reasoning I made in the radio show:

We should all switch to buying ecological food, but it costs more so many people don't. It could however be the case that many buy ecological food not in order to "save the environment" but because they believe it is more healthy for themselves and because they care about their children's health. So these two motivations pull in the same direction and it might be that the latter (health) has more pull than the former (sustainability).

It might similarly be an uphill battle to try to convince people to use their phones less in order to "save the environment", but there might exist strong non-sustainbility reasons for why we should think about tempering our use of electronic gadgets and these drivers could also have beneficial effects in terms of sustainability - so we should explore which they are. We have four examples (reasons) in the paper but I'll just mention one here and that is "Relationships". It might be beneficial for our close relationships if we put our phones/gadgets away more often; We might ban them from the second floor in the house (where our bedrooms are) or from the dinner table (to encourage unmediated face to face conversations). Some schools have "smartphone hotels" where you park your phone, perhaps we should have smartphone hotels also in our homes? Perhaps "parental controls" should be extended to cover the whole family's use of electronic gadgets in the home?

I also cursorily raised the questions of etiquette in the radio show. There are etiquette rules in many different areas of life but few around our use of electronic gadgets. Perhaps we should speed up the invention of such rules? For a fascinating take on the evolution of etiquette, do see my blog post about Norbert Elias' (1939) book "The Civilizing Process",  a book that in detail analyses the evolution of etiquette rules over centuries (do also look the quotes further down in that blog post).

All in all it was fun to be on radio. I also thought a bit about what I could have done different so that my next appearance on radio will be better. Lastly I also suggested two other topics for radio shows so don't be surprised if I write a new blog post about my next appearance on radio a year or so from now.

måndag 21 januari 2019

Decreased CO2-emissions in flight-intensive organisations (application)

I just submitted a research grant application, "Decreased CO2-emissions in flight-intensive organisations: from data to practice", to the Swedish Energy Agency in response to their call "Contribute to the creation of a transport efficient society".

The application is written together with my colleagues Elina Eriksson, Björn Hedin and Jarmo Laaksolahti but it is also written with our new collaborator Markus Robért who works at the Department of Sustainable Development, Environmental Sciences and Engineering at the KTH School of Architecture and the Built Environment. We got a tip-off some time ago to get in touch with Markus through Göran Finnveden who is vice-president for sustainable development at KTH, and, our collaboration with Markus has great promise. This application builds on work Markus has pursued for more than a decade, but it takes his work in a direction that he himself might not have thought of. Also, Markus is just one person but now he gets help from four others to take "his" research to the next level. To us, it's instead a great opportunity to explore an area we are interested in by cooperating with and building on work that someone else has already done for more than a decade.

The application has an abstract and while the abstract is correct, it does not really succeed in capturing what we feel are the most exiting and interesting aspects of this project:

Decreased CO2-emissions in flight-intensive organisations: from data to practice

In flight-intensive organizations, many employees travel both frequently and far - resulting in large CO2 emissions. At management level, there is often an awareness and a willingness to change, as expressed for example through internal climate goals. But at those levels in the organization where concrete decisions are made about when, where and how to travel, there is a lack of awareness and tools to manage these challenges. In this project, we will create and test practical tools to reduce travel-related CO2 emissions, thereby moving from words to action. By using a structured method in combination with analog and digital tools, the project will take stock, visualize, design, plan and mediate negotiations about departmental and individual CO2 emissions and the results will be followed up regularly. The project aims to give flight-intensive organizations greater opportunities to reach or exceed climate targets, thereby contributing to an energy-efficient and sustainable future.

Markus has developed a process management tool called CERO that is used to track and help organisations reach their emission targets (typically to reduce their emissions by 10-20% in a few short years). CERO is being implemented in a large and growing number of companies as well as in Swedish municipalities, counties and regions. One organisation that Markus works with is in fact KTH and he therefor has massive amounts of data about our travel and carbon emissions (delivered directly from our travel agency). KTH the goal of reducing its CO2 emissions by 20% between 2016 and 2020 and has contracted Markus/CERO to help make that happen. KTH is a tough case though as almost all (90+%) of our CO2 emissions from travel comes from flying. While Markus currently works with a top-down process, it's very hard for KTH centrally to have a say in the travel habits of different departments and individual researchers - and that's where our application enters the picture:

We will in this project use a CO2 currency and a workshop methodology to reach departments and individual researchers and encourage them to reflect on how they should proceed in order to reduce their travel emissions - without compromising the quality of their research.
Our process will make it possible for individuals to place their own travel in a larger context and it also focuses on equality and justice by implicitly or explicitly asking questions of the type "Who flies?", "How much?", "Who will reduce his/her flying?" and "How can this happen?".

There are several things that are neat about this application. One of them is that Markus runs an annual symposium for the 80-ish organisations that currently uses CERO. It's a lot of work for him to organise the symposium alone, but we can help him out and this project would of course be part of the program during the three years that it would run. Another neat thing is that besides presenting the results of the project in (open access) journal articles, we have pledged to only present the results at conferences that we can attend without flying there. That's a first for me and it basically means that we will only present it in Europe (and preferably mid- to northern Europe at that).

If there ever was an application where it felt like we hit all the marks, well, then this is it. We were definitely on a high as we handed in the application. The Energy Agency will hand out funds for at least 10 projects and we have so much faith in our application that we were confident there just can't be 10 other applications that are better than our. We hope.