fredag 31 december 2010

Media Technology and Sustainability


A big event at my department, Media Technology and Graphic Arts, is that Nils Enlund, the professor and founder will retire this spring after 25 years or so at KTH. That is a great loss, but also an occasion for some soul-searching and introspection, and the basic question is: ”what will we do from now on?”. The background of our group lies in media production (especielly printed media), but I myself and several others have no background whatsoever in that area.

So, what areas should our group cover, what do we want to excel in, how can we formulate areas that can engage us and others (and in which we can find critical mass among ourselves)? Oh, and by the way, how will we divide all the administrative tasks that Nils has shouldered (including the responsibility for the budget)? These and other questions were the topic of a kick-off earlier this autumn. The group that I belonged to came up with a suggestion for five different topics/groups/”theme areas” that our department could muster around (other groups came up with similar suggestions). This is a big change compared to now when it’s more of ”every man for himself” and the interests of our relatively small group point in a thousand different directions.

Since these five theme areas were sketched out, they have been semi-officially approved. Even though nothing has been decided upon officially, it is still difficult to see what could hinder such a development at my department. At our monthly department meeting in November I therefore suggested we should move forward and ask people at the department what theme areas they would like to belong to. The suggestion was that each person should preferably belong to at least two, and a maximum of three areas. Another suggestion is that each person will ”belong” to one theme area and ”follow” one or two other theme areas.

The big news is that one of the theme areas will be called ”Media Technology and Sustainability” and it will be led (or at least started up) by none other than yours truly. My group managed to have a start-up meeting before the winter leave and so have started to discuss issues that are relevant to this (budding) group/theme area; the need for a common foundation for stating our interests (i.e. comparable to a corporate ”vision” and a ”mission” statement), short- and medium-term goals, short- and medium-term activities, people and other resarch groups we would like to cooperate with and so on.

What’s in a name? ”Media Technology and Sustainability” includes, but is wider than just environmental sustainability and encompasses also issues of social and economic sustainability. An example of a social sustainability (research) issues could for example be the use of social media in a crisis situation (like the ash cloud covering most of Europe earlier this year). An example of an economic sustainability (research) issue could be how society through smart IT use could cope with an extended lack of economic growth (for example by localizing economies and by using alternative but complementary currencies).

The lack of earlier, solid work in an area that combines Internet/media and sustainability is of course a problem, but can just as easily be reframed as being a possibility for our group - a wide open area that we can "colonize" and establish ourselves in. Some work has been done in the area by a few precursors and part of our group’s work during the spring will be to read up on efforts and results of these early pioneers and to formulate a position and an ambition that allows us to stake out some territory of our own.

Our early work will eventually lead to research grant applications and scientific studies and so on. An easy way to explore an unknown area and to do studies ”on the cheap” in the meanwhile is to have master’s students do some of the initial exploration. So one of the tasks of our group during the spring will be to formulate interesting research questions in the form of master’s thesis proposals. A lot of interesting ideas were suggested already at the initial brainstorming meeting and ”in the corridors” before and after that meeting, but much is currently up in the air and has not ”landed” yet.

I end this relatively timid (and secretive) announcement of (hopefully) great things to come with a wish for a great 2011!


tisdag 21 december 2010

Books I've read lately


I try to earmark the time I commute to and from my job to reading academic/non-fiction books and nothing but. My goal is to read 25 pages every weekday (125 pages per week) and I switch between work-related topics (primarily about computer culture, Internet, social media, online games etc.) and hobby/leisure topics (peak oil, sustainability, energy etc.). That means (almost) reading one book on each topic each month, and I usually manage to read around 20 out of the 25 daily pages just on the subway ride back and forth to my job (yet another reason for not driving a car!).

During the second half of the autumn, I have taught a course about social media and have during that period (October - December) given priority to work- and course-related books by reading four such books in a row. This blog post is about these four books. The focus on work-related literature means that books in the other category have been neglected and I thus have four "leisure" books lined up for the Christmas + Jan/Feb book slots (these four books are Yergin's, "The prize: The epic quest for oil, money & power", Malm's, "Det är vår bestämda uppfattning att om ingenting görs kommer det att vara för sent" ["It is our definite opinion that if nothing is being done it will be too late"], Catton's, "Overshoot: The ecological basis of revolutionary change" and Greer's, "The long descent: A user's guide to the end of the industrial age"). Right at the beginning of next term I also have to squeeze in a work-related book about writing academic essay that is compulsory literature for our students who are writing their bachelor's theses during the spring (I have read the previous, but not the new edition). But let's go back to the subject of this post which is the four work-related books I have read during the latter part of the autumn.

Duncan Watts book "Six degrees: The science of the connected age" is exactly what it sounds like. A primer on network theory and the emerging "science of networks". Books that explain and popularize scientific areas are either written by journalists or by scientists, and both categories bring their own pros and cons. Watts is not just a scientist but one of the pioneers of the area. He might be an excellent researcher, but I unfortunately don't think he has what it takes to popularize "the science of the connected age". His book contains too much of "then I did this, and then my old collaborator did that (oh, how I wish I would have thought about that), which in its turn led to me thinking about [something] in a new way". Great if you've ever worked with Watts, or at least worked in the area, but not so interesting otherwise. I just don't think Watts' talent is in explaining and making difficult things easy to understand and thus much prefer and recommend Barabasi's book "Linked: How everything is connected to everything else and what it means" which I read a year ago. Next year I might read Strogatz' "Sync: How order emerges from chaos in the universe, nature and daily life". Strogatz was Duncan Watts' advisor and the book has another thing going for it and that is that it already is in my bookshelf!

Jonathan Zittrain's "The future of the Internet: And how to stop it" is a passionate plea for an open, generative architecture for, and on Internet - instead of safe-but-closed information appliances and "walled gardens" (think of safe and sanitary Ipods and Xboxes). Zittrain does not shy away from the problems that an open Internet creates (spam, malware, crime, terrorism, child pornography etc.), but wants us to unleash the power of distributed solutions and the generative Internet to solve these problems, rather than by (centrally) closing off and taking control over the Internet. Zittrain argues that much of what is great about the Internet came exactly from its long-term but nowadays shrinking policy and adherence to openness, and that it would be a tragedy if Internet is closed down and lobotimized just to save us from ourselves.

Nicholas Carr's book "The shallows: What the Internet is doing to our brains" is a stark warning about how our brains and how our ways of thinking is changed, and in many ways deteriorates, when we use Internet for hours upon hours every day. When deep reading gives way to shallow reading - involving skimming texts, following links and skitting from text to text and channel to channel - Carr also worries about deep thinking giving way to shallow thinking. We might read more text than ever (dozens of text messages on our smartphones and constant Facebook and Twitter updates for starters), but less stick. In Carr's words we become "pancake people" who know little about much. It is a McLuhanesque argument combined with new neuroresearch on the plasticity of (also) the adult brain. It's a dog-eat-dog, use-it-or-loose-it world on the level of connections between clusters of neurons and basic reading and analytical skills. We automatically, on a neural level, hone the abilities we use, and while we as frequent Internet-surfers might become great at synthesizing information, we might also become less adept at concentrating deeply and analyzing (all) different aspects of an issue. These are the problem Carr worries about, and he basically saw these changes in his own thinking and thus isolated himself in a cabin so as to write the book. His description of going cold turkey on the Internet to some extent mimics symptoms of abstinence when withdrawing from a chemical substance addiction. The book was preceeded by an much-referenced article in The Atlantic Monthly in 2008, "Is Google making us stupid?".

The last book is Peter Ludlow and Mark Wallace's book "The Second Life Herald: The virtual tabloid that witnessed the dawn of the Metaverse". Ludlow is a philosphy professor who has explored and been on the Internet for the longest of times (he has edited two books on early (1990's) Internet culture). Wallace is the establishment journalist who joined arms with Ludlow to write for, and run the Second Life Herald. Starting out inside the online world/game The Sims Online, Ludlow's online tabloid described also, or rather primarly, the seamy, gritty underbelly of that world. Sims Online autocratic ruler Electronic Arts preferred people not to know about these issues - rather than tackling the issues themselves (like virtual child prostitution - underage users selling online sex services). So they kicked Ludlow out of their world on (described in the book) trumped-up chages and Ludlow later settled in the competing virtual world Second Life - and brought his virtual tabloid with him there. The book is filled with delightfully strange tales of online culture as seen from - and reported in- the inside of these worlds (for insiders and by insiders). These socio-technical phenomena often prove difficult to confine to the online worlds and so "spill over" and crosses the permeable boudary between the online and the offline world. The Second Life Herald is a fascinating book filled with travellers tales from a weird and strange far-away country. I already knew quite some about some of the phenomena described, for example real-money trade of virtual objects and the people working and supporting themselves (offline) based on business opportunities within these online worlds, but the book adds intricate details and depth through the telling of specific stories and portraits of colorful people/avatars/subcultures. There is a virtual barrage of events cronicled in this book and I also got several ideas for masters theses topics that I will formulate and publish on the blog I run exclusively for that purpose.

Have you read any of these books (or would you like to)? What is your opinion about them?

PS (Oct 2011). In relation to Carr's book, I just read a short text "What happened to downtime? The extinction of deep thinking and sacred space". Quite interesting, but ironically published in the journal "Fast company".

fredag 17 december 2010

Social Media Technology 2010 line-up

This is a list of the 2010 line-up of our 5 guest lectures in the course DM2578 Social Media Technologies:

Therese Reuterswärd, Former KTH Media Technology student and Digital Communications Manager at Electrolux, "From visitors to business: Using Social Media in the enterprise"

- Håkan Selg, Senior Research Scientist at the Swedish IT-users Center, Uppsala University, "Social Software: Actors, motives and effects"

- Axel Andén, Editor in chief at Medievärlden, "Media recovering from the realtime shock"

- Ted Valentin, Internet entrepreneur, "Building a (social) website in 24 hours"

We also had a another guest lecturer planned for the course but we unfortunately had to cancel due to illness:

lördag 11 december 2010

Rich pictures and social media

At the Engineering Education in Sustainable Development (EESD) conference earlier this autumn (also the topic of my second blog post here), I was very much inspired by Paul Chan from Manchester University and his paper presentation "Imagining a sustainable future: The role of aesthetic knowledge in shaping emergent thinking of sustainable development". He had developed an exercise together with Christine Räisänen at Chalmers in Gothenburg that forced students to engage with and discuss the topic of sustainability in an innovative hands-on manner.

In their exercise (which they had done three or four times before they wrote the paper), they printed a limited set of pictures (around 75) several times over and placed several hundreds of pictures on the floor in a large lecture hall. The students' initial insecurity and skepticism gave way to enthusiasm and engagement when they walked around and picked among interesting, thought-provoking pictures. Their task after having selected an picture of their own, was to match their picture (and their conception of what that picture was about) with others' pictures and at the same time negotiate the (shared) meaning of their picture. Forming small groups and discussing themes and topics, they then went on to create posters which they later presented to each other.

I read Paul and Christine's paper after the conference, but even better was a lunch conversation-turned-consultation with both of them about how to adapt the exercise to my personal purposes - using it in my course on social media that I have held during the second half of the autumn.

I have thus used their "Rich pictures" exercise for the first time, but as apart from Paul, my students didn't have a few hours to prepare their posters but rather a month or so. We had a group formation exercise in the beginning of the course and the students eventually presented their results during the last week of the course - i.e. this past week. The exercise was a mixed success but I learned enough myself so as to be able to develop and pursue this exercise further and better next time around.

I early on formulated three different reasons/goals for using the exercise in my course:
  1. The course is taken by a very diverse group of students; Swedish students (1/3), students studying an international masters in media management (1/3) and "loose agents" - exchange students floating around in the European university system and perhaps studying for one or two semesters at KTH as exchange students. Some students know quite a few other students when they start the course but other students know no-one. The exercise is a group assignment and was thus a chance for (especially) "single" students to get to know new people and broaden their social networks. This is especially important for exchange students who might now know a huge number of Swedish students or even students from other countries than their own. The instructions for the group formation exercise were formulated in such a way that students could not form unilingual groups or groups with (only) friends of theirs. They could form groups with a friend, but not groups with only friends - so I effectively forced them to mix and get to know new persons. This was the social function of the exercise.
  2. The students who took the course last year had to work in groups and formulate social media-related "innovative business ideas" - but in the end I think many ideas were not especially innovative and neither was the format for presenting these business ideas in the classroom. I therefore wanted to shake things up a little and have students be more creative and innovative this year. Instead of just writing and presenting tired documents, this year's students presented their results in the form of posters. And instead of formulating business ideas, students now had hundreds of pictures that were goofy and strange to choose from and then had to make something out of them (see the three sample pictures below!). The common denominator was that all pictures depicted people (as apart from Paul's original set of pictures). In fact, I got hold of my pictures by searching on Google image search for different combinations of "strange", "people" and a third term that I varied. My hope was that by providing them with relatively "strange" pictures, and by being forced to find patterns between these pictures, the students would be able/forced to think more freely, to be more creative and to come up with more interesting ideas for social media services or tools. This concerned the creative function of the exercise.
  3. I hoped that by choosing a topic and by having students regularly meet with his/her group throughout the course (my suggestion was once per week), students might in fact (together) work through parts of the course contents. By having a focus (a target group and a need of theirs), my hope was that students might in fact connect and use the course contents (literature etc.) rather than just listen to lectures and read about social media. By having a task with a topic and a focus, perhaps part of the course contents would "stick" better? Since "Rich pictures" is a group exercise and the groups were supposed to meet regularly, it would in fact be enough if a single person in a group made a connection between course contents and the group project and then told other group members about it. This is the pedagogical function of the exercise.
So how did the exercise fare? It is difficult for me to know the social "impact" of the exercise (bullet 1 above). Did Swedish and foreign students (or foreign students from different countries) in fact mix? Were someone invited to someone else's party, met their friends, or, become a couple through the course? I don't know - but it might be enough to know that the exercise created the possibility for all of this (and more) to happen.

Were the results creative (bullet 2 above)? To some extent they really couldn't fail to be more creative than last year's (to a large extent) "vanilla" business ideas. I asked each group to provide me with a label directly after the group formation exercise a month ago and the 14 resulting groups were formulated around the following ideas/labels; creative people, identity play, be yourself, authenticity and anonymity, costume party, monsters, lone wolf, experiences, proud outsiders, Lady Gaga, fantasy, fashion, seniors and food. Most groups changed the name of their project and some great developments in terms of group names were "Partycipate" (ex-costume party), "Geniq" (ex-authenticity and anonymity), "Unic" (ex-be yourself) and "Nutriplanet" (ex-food).

I of course realize that the groups were limited, directed and supported by the kinds of pictures I provided them with, and this is something that I might think some more about in next year's exercises. Did the resulting posters turn out to be creative? Sure they were, but I still think a number of groups presented ideas for services that were not very goofy or whimsical, but rather quite predictable and mainstream. As I haven't read the accompanying documents yet (~5 pages/group), I haven't done a thorough evaluation of the project ideas yet - but I think many could have done far better. I have a distinct feeling some groups did not put much time into the exercise (it was not graded, it was just a matter of pass or fail). I for sure think that there were large differences in how much time different groups had spent on the exercise - but this is not something I expect ever to know very much about. I will however definitely look the instructions over and think some more about how to apply carrots and whips in order to force (encourage) the students to think outside of the box and perhaps also to raise the bar and the minimum amount of time you have to put into the exercise in order to pass. The sky really should be the limit in an exercise like this! Perhaps the results should be graded and have (some) impact on the grade from the course in order to encourage more work and better results?

Did course contents "stick" to students (bullet 3 above)? It is really difficult to say anything at all about this. I might form a more informed opinion after I have read the accompanying documents, or after the students have answered the course evaluation and written the home exam...?

So, what is your spontaneous reaction to the exercise? You are more than welcome to comment on this blog post!

All in all it was good fun! I took down notes and have a pretty good notion of a number of things I will improve in the exercise for next year's course. During the work of putting together the instructions for the exercise, I "consulted" some with Paul and at some point he casually suggested we should write a paper together for the next EESD conference (in Ukraine in 2012). I initially balked at the idea as EESD is a conference about bringing ideas of sustainability into the engineering education and my own version of the exercise had little to do with that. But not long afterwards I realized that I was indeed interested and that all I needed to do was to collect material that better mirrored the topic of the EESD conferences (e.g. sustainability).

Having come to that conclusion, I then quickly proceeded to offer my services to three other course (at KTH and Stockholm University) with a focus on sustainability. I have since been turned down (or put on hold) by one course and another course (to be given in the autumn 2011) has expressed interest but is not committed yet. In the third course though (with the slightly cumbersome name MJ1505, "Climate threats and climate strategies in today's and tomorrow's world") we have already decided to go ahead and use the exercise just two months from now when the course starts (in the end of January) and I already have a slot in the schedule for the course.

I will have to make a number of adaptions to the exercise, not the least in terms of what pictures to provide the students with, but I think it will be really fun to do the exercise again but this time with a focus on sustainability! Quite some work remains - not the least to consult some more with Paul and also to brainstorm what angle we are going for in our future EESD'12 paper. The answer to that question will also determine what material I (as a researcher) will collect when I lead the "rich pictures + sustainability" exercise in the end of January. I will most probably get back two months from now with a new post on rich pictures.

The next exercise will be "one-shot" - not a task the students will work with in parallel to the course and during a longer period of time, but rather just a self-contained three hour long exercise that will be finished when the evening is over.

Here is a sample of three out of the three hundred (!) pictures "my" social media students could choose from:


söndag 5 december 2010

CESC workshop

I have just come through some very busy weeks where I have attended a variety of events that I have not written about here (yet). Instead of writing about something that happened this past week (Nov 29-Dec 3), I instead choose to write about an event I attended the previous week (Nov 22-23) - the annual Centre for Sustainable Communications (CESC) workshop.

I could unfortunately not attend the workshop last year and I have had a heavy teaching load this year, but I still managed to shoe-horn this event into a busy schedule. With the workshop running from lunch to lunch, I had to hurry there after teaching and I had to hurry back to KTH for more teaching directly afterward and so I missed most of the lunch on day one and all of it on day two :-( Still, I was very happy that I managed to attend anything at all...

The workshop consisted of three sessions interspersed with coffee breaks, dinner and breakfast. The first - early afternoon - session was a brainstorming session, the second - late afternoon - session was a more social/trivia event and the third - morning session - was a working session. My goal here is not to document the event in itself exhaustively and I will just mention a few for me memorable parts of the workshop.

At the brainstorming session, I lead a group that discussed how to handle "inconvenient truths" that are interesting from a perspective of research, but perhaps less interesting for CESC partners (companies) because they point at futures that are very not very "appealing" for most individuals as well as for most companies. All companies want "win-win" situations that are good both for the environment and for the company bottom line, but what if there are futures out there where what is necessary from an environmental perspective spells B-a-d N-e-w-s for most companies (such as lasting stagnant or negative economic growth)? What if the activities of CESC partner companies on the whole do more harm for the environment that they do good for people? How do you get those very same companies to "sign up" for projects that navigate that problematic space? With one single exception, everyone who wanted to discuss this issue was a (perhaps not surprisingly) researcher rather than a representative from a CESC partner company... One of several interesting suggestions proposed during the discussion was that the center perhaps needs some new partners with an emphasis on social entrepreneurship and social responsibility, NGOs and philanthropists.

At the social/trivia session, one of our tasks was to invent titles of future reports that we wanted CESC to publish. My group came up with four suggestions (the last one is my very own contribution):
  1. "The telecom revolution: Major forces and obstacles in the replacement of travel by telecom"
  2. "Learning from Africa: The transplantation of lean habits and values from millennium villages to Stockholm Royal Seaport"
  3. "Success factors for the acceptance of societal sustainability decisions"
  4. "Computing in a low-energy society: Problems, challenges and opportunities"
The third, morning session was a little misplaced in my opinion. There were half a dozen groups of so that convened, but some of them constituted ordinary-but-closed meetings in some of CESC's running research projects. I'm sure it is challenging to gather all the partners for project meetings at the best of times, but is it really the best use of the limited time at an annual workshop and where people from all over have gathered? I don't think so. Project meetings to me seem to be a poor use of breadth and mix of the gathered workshop participants. Having said this, people from my department formed a non-scheduled group where we first discussed a specific project and then more generally brainstormed about our CESC-related research interests. In the end, this session for me became the best part of the whole workshop.

The specific research project we discussed is called "Data driven sustainability". The person who will work the most in this project is Jorge Zapico, a Ph.D. student of ours (Media Technology). I was asked if I wanted to be a "scientific advisor" (or some such) to the project and I accepted this offer without (at the time) even having read the project plan. I have done so now and the project will run from the beginning of next year (2011) and for 2.5 years. I will most probably write more about this project at some later point in time.

söndag 28 november 2010

Online networks vs online communities

I have previously written about the seminar series on "Digtal media and collective action" that the Dept. of Political Science at Stockholm University organizes. It so happened that I gave a seminar in this seminar series this past week on the topic of "Online networks vs online communities". The seminar invitation below is followed by some post-seminar comments of mine.


Online networks vs online communities
Some researchers have made the connection between social media (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube) and a modern (western), personalized, fast-paced, hypermobile, multiple-affiliation, rich-networked, ”friendster” society (Bennett and Segerberg 2010). In tems of Tönnies’ (1887) well-know dichotomy "Gemeinschaft" - community - and "Gesellschaft" - (modern) society - (Asplund 1991), this seems to represent a continuation that goes “beyond” his ideas about fluid, modern late-19th century Gesellschaft; a “Gesellschaft-plus” society?

In a previous text in this seminar series (“Small change”, 2010), Malcolm Gladwell conflated all kinds of social media and point out how networks (social media) and hierarchies (for example high-risk social activism or even terrorism) in many ways are opposites. His point is that social media does not really entail social change, as summarized by the subtitle of his text; “
why the revolution will not be tweeted”. To him, the strong ties between people engaged in high-risk endeavors (for example political activism for unpopular causes) are the opposite of the large networks of weak ties that are typical of social media "armchair activism" which to him represents “all talk and no action”.

Despite the 130 year that separate them, both Tönnies and Gladwell both paint a picture of society moving in a direction away from strong hierarchies and small groups of people united by strong personal ties (i.e. communities) and towards loose networks and large groups of people connected by weak personal ties (i.e. networks).

I have personally on the other hand seen social media been used in quite different ways in order to satisfy our needs for connection and community (Pargman 2005). This would seem to represent a movement in the “other” direction; towards rather than away from "Gemeinschaft". The best example of how people subsume their individual autonomy to become part of, and for the greater good of the collective, are so-called "guilds"; instrumental, goal- and action-oriented groups inside massively multiplayer games such as World of Warcraft (Lin et. al. 2003).

This leads us to the following questions:
- How can our understanding of these phenomena progress beyond simple causal relationships between individual, media and society?

- How can we further our understanding about different characteristics / uses / "affordances" of different digital media in terms of communities/ hierarchies and networks?

- What does a model that can account for the existence of both tight online communities and loose online networks look like?

- For what purposes and under what conditions do these different forms of organization emerge and thrive on the Internet?

Literature. There are no less than nine texts recommended for this seminar.

- Two texts are repeated references to texts from previous seminars in the seminar series (Bennett and Segerberg, Gladwell)
- One text is a short newspaper article (Thente)
- One text is optional (Granovetter)
- The three scanned texts on Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft are all relatively short

On Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft
- Asplund (1991), “Essay about Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft”, pp. 37-53 [in Swedish].
- Bauman (2001), "Community: Seeking safety in an insecure world", pp. 1-5
- Nisbet (1953), "The quest for community", pp. 69-77

On "Geselschaft-plus" society (repeat use of literature from previous seminars)
- Bennett and Segerberg (to be published), "Digital media and the organization of collective action".
- Gladwell (2010), "
Small change". The New Yorker.

On strong and weak ties
- Granovetter (1973), "The strength of weak ties".

On communities and online games:
- Pargman (2005). "
Virtual community management as socialization and learning". In P. van der Desselaar, G. De Michelis, J. Preece and C. Simone (eds.). Proceedings of the Second International Conference on Communities and Technologies, Milano, Italy, June 2005, pp. 95-110. Dordrecht: Springer.
- Lin, Holin et. al. (2003) "
Exploring clan culture: social enclaves and cooperation in online games". Digra 2003: Level up Conf. Proceedings.
- Thente, Jonas (2010) "
Wow! I låtsasvärlden finns riktiga affärsnäsor". Dagens Nyheter, Aug 30.


I talked about online community for one hour at the seminar. I suggested it was the task of me and the other seminar participants to together discuss or suggest how my musings about "online community" relates to and can be connected to "online networks" (the topic of previous seminars in the seminar series). The work of connecting these two concepts was not an instant success story, but we did ok and some new thoughts were born. What I personally gained was the overall need for a change of perspective on my behalf.

I got some (justified) critique. It was polite, but broken down to the essentials it to me sounded a lot like "so what?" or "what now?", i.e. "how can this be taken further?", or, "in what direction do you want to take this?". I thus realized that I might have become a little too cozy with theorizing about (online) community almost for it's own sake. It is intellectually fulfilling to dig down really really deep and then live in a world of your own intellectual ideas. You can spend pleasurable time there, having small imaginary conversations or battles with intellectual friends (who have formulated ideas you draw on or "cooperate" with) and enemies (who just don't "get it" and have formulated (to you) obviously flawed ideas or theories).

Perhaps because of too much inward-looking navel-gazing (or just the fact that I haven't spent that much time thinking about issues of community in some years), I was however stumped and couldn't really provide good answers on the fly to really good questions such as:
- What sorts of collective action do communities make possible in our modern society?
- What is the role of modern (social) media technologies in relation to (online) communities?
- What is the role of direct (face to face) communication vs mediated communication in relation to (online) communities?
- How do "old" groups and social movements use and incorporate new (social) media? How do "new" groups and social movements incorporate and are in fact predicated upon the use of new (social) media? Two examples of new groups are the Transition Town movement and the right-now launching Swedish liberal democrats political party.

I did however realize that it might be the case that the more something can be called a community, the less relevant it might be to social movements, societal large-scale action and online networks (that can successfully mobilize hundreds of thousands or millions of people). Or, could it (depending on your definition of community) be argued that such online networks build or draw upon online and offline communities? How then would these "communities" need to be defined?

Ending this section of the text, what do you think about community and what do you think community is in the 21st century?

I have a draft of an (unfinished) article about "community and online community" with the aim set for the online peer-reveiwed journal First Monday. It's been sitting in a drawer (or rather in an unopened folder in my computer) for several years. The text starts out really strong, but I have had problems finishing it. I now realize that part of the reason the article never got finished was because of a lack of answers to the same questions that were posed at the seminar, i.e. "so where is this going, how is this important, how can it be applied to other examples or phenomena?".

After the seminar I now realize that my problems finishing and creating closure in the text is not a matter of finding a good example for which to apply the theories presented in the text, but rather has more to do with the more fundamental lack of direction of where to take the theories presented in the text. The theories might be useful to others in their present form, but they do take on an air of theorizing for its own sake. With a clearer and better formulated goal for what to do with these theories, it might also be a lot easier to finally end and create closure in the article and for the article (by submitting it to First Monday).

Some more practical ideas, leads, tips and questions that I took with me from the seminar (and that might admittedly be of little interest to the casual reader of this blog (who did not attend the seminar)) are:
  • On talking about fuzzy membership of categories (i.e. community), I might want to have a look at Wittgenstein's writings on the same issue (about "games"). Me and Wittgenstein, we go waay back you know...
  • On the cynical corporation's use of feel-good terms and concepts (such as community) for the sake of salesmanship ("our family of products" - how can a bunch of products be regarded as a family?).
  • How anonymity/pseudonymity affects relationships and community.
  • One participant wanted to talk about community in terms of "feelings of belongingness". Such feelings might correlate with community but in my mind has little to do with the way I (analytically) conceive of community. There might be feelings of belonging even in a radically dysfunctional family (especially if it is the only family you have). But those feelings might by an outsider (for example a psychologist) be regarded as severely misplaces. The fact that some members have feelings of belongingness does not make this into a loving family - much as feelings of belonging has little weight in how I define and perceive "community".
  • The suggested "community of Södermalm" makes almost as little sense to me as an America Online (AOL) ex-CEO's statement about the "tens of millions of members" who belonged to the "AOL community". Further explanation: If a long-time Södermalm resident meets me on stroll in Södermalm, he/she would not know if I am a "fellow member" of the Södermalm community. The fact that you habitually can't even recognize members of the "community" you "belong to" would in my book be a strong argument for this not being a community in the first place!
  • I regard the medieval village as the "prototypical" community. But what is the relationship between modern and medieval community and between "feelings of belonging" and belonging (plain and simple). What is the relationship between the fact that you to a very small extent freely could chose membership of communities in former days, while we nowadays have large possibilities to choose membership of communities and can jump ship with little regard to consequences and costs (barriers to entry/exit are low).
  • To what extent is (or isn't) community equal to Tönnies' concept of Gemeinschaft?
  • What exactly is "anti-community"? Is it equal to Gesellschaft, (modern) society, the city/metropolis or what? What is the core nature/characteristics of anti-community?
  • To what extend are rich "communities" within large cities, and rich "communities" (guilds) within online games to be regarded as (real) communities (or not)? What are the salient characteristics that make them part of (or disqualifies them from) my analytical concept of community?
  • What is the relationship between rich "communities" within big cities and collective action (in matters that matter to these communities)? According to Granovetter, communities in cities need weak ties to mobilize and defend themselves against oppressive change from the outside. Are the terms/dimensions strong-weak and robust-brittle perhaps of use in such a discussion?
  • Online communication can foster both tighter (Gemeinschaft) connections and looser (Gesellschaft) connections. But it does seem though that it (in a McLuhanesque sense) is in the nature of the medium (Internet - social media) to on the whole make possible/encourage looser ties (Facebook, Twitter). It seems reasonable that the Internet on the whole nurtures loose ties and fluid Gesellschaft rather than the opposite.

- post-Gladwell text on networks, hierarchies, strong & weak ties etc.

måndag 22 november 2010


I have given talks relating to energy and resource depletion a couple of times by now, for example in a seminar at my department this past spring together with Daniel Berg (Dept. of Economic History) as well as more recently in Denmark, at the "Culture of ubiquitous information" network meeting (conference).

This past week I was invited to speak at Vetenskapens hus [House of Science] and I gave a short (25 minutes long) talk to a group of high school students ( ~ 100) for the first time. The talk was part of an afternoon of activities there (pdf file with program in Swedish) and I was one of three invited speakers, the other two being Louise Hård af Segerstad (Albaeco) and Mikael Höök (Global Energy Systems group at Uppsala Univeristy). To speak directly after Mikael was perfect for me! He established Peak Oil as a fact (backed up by oodles of data) and I just took that ball and ran from there.

I had to spend some time thinking about what message I wanted to convey to this audience and how to structure the talk so as to convey a suitable mix of urgency and hope to these youngsters. It was a pity that the event was one-way-ish. There was time for a couple of questions from the audience (not seldom posed by their teachers), but I unfortunately left without having a good grasp of how my message was received. If I do a thing like this again, it would be nice to get in touch with the students and leave the event with a better understanding of their reaction to my (and Mikael's) message about us heading towards "disruptive" change.

The main theme of my short talk was that we all encounter - and have - two conflicting worldviews in our heads; one extolling the virtues of "a world of possibilities" and the other warning about the consequences of "a world of limitations".

We live in a world of possibilities whenever we hear the story of science (and economics and politics) bringing us more, better, faster, more affluent, less expensive and technologically more advanced futures (and gadgets). We move in a discourse of possibilities whenever we are taken in by new social networking software with hundreds of millions of users, by a new-better-faster version of our favorite computer or mp3-player or when we hear that carbon capture and storage (CCS) or cars running on electricity (or hydrogen or compressed air or...) effortlessly will bring us a greener better future. I use these great Motorola ads (for home electronics from the 1960's) to illustrate this world of possibilities:

We on the other hand move towards a world of limitations whenever we read about overfishing, species extinction, ecological damage, climate change, floods or droughts, water scarcity, overpopulation, higher oil prices/peak oil, economic crisis/recession without end, higher unemployment and so on. As a contrast to the above presented pictures of the future (as it was imagined 50 years ago), I show these 100 years old pictures of life (and scarcity and poverty) as it actually was in the U.S. at the time:

These two sets of pictures illustrate the range and the division between the always-present and conflicting world of possibilities and world of limitations. We don't know what the future holds for us, but we can be pretty sure we will land somewhere in-between. The perhaps-overlooked good news is that plain old poverty is still a much better deal than pop-culture eschatological apocalyptic visions of the future as it might unfold if we don't pay heed...

Do you think the idea of these two worldviews (weltanschauung) jockeying for position and fighting for dominance in our culture and in our brains make sense?

torsdag 18 november 2010


I playtested the board game CarbonOpoly this week in the evening course "States and trends" that I take this term. The game is developed by a student at KTH, Patrik Larsson, and he has worked with the concept for two years. It is a labor of love and it is quite obvious he must have poured hundreds and hundreds of hours into this project. Here is the KTH press release from when the game was released earlier this year. Patrik's goal is to find a partner who can finance sending the game to all Swedish high schools. And then there is the rest of the world waiting (something Patrik is already working on).

The game does not really challenge your strategical or tactical skills, so it has limited replayability. You might play it a few times but that's probably about it. On the other hand, it does not try to maximize replayability as it rather aims to be a facts-based trivia game with questions in the fields of energy, sustainability and natural sciences. The goal is to make young people more interested in energy issues and perhaps make a few of them apply to a (technical) university education for a career in that field. The game is comparable to Trivial Pursuit, but I actually found the game mechanisms to be better than TP. Patrik's idea is to send out new packs of cards every year so that the questions stay current and are up-to-date, and this sounds like a really good idea.

As my friend and previous colleague Mats went to Fortum after he completed his ph.d. and started up and developed activities where they invite and "inform" high-school students about energy and about Fortum (including playing a board game), I asked Patrik for a copy of thegame. He couldn't give me one of the trial games then and there, but he promised that he could produce a copy of me. I promised to play the game with Mats and get back to Patrik with feedback in return. This blog post will be a reminder for me to get in touch with Patrik now and then until I get my copy of the game!

All 25 playtesters had lots of advice for Patrik and my most important advice (as a long-time board game geek) was to think about ways for players to interact more with each other within the game. If I can help or hinder another player to a higher extent, this will bring lots of feelings and passion to the game and it might be an important factor in making high school students play the game twice or three times (and go through all the questions), rather than just once. All in all I did find the game really enjoyable and I think it is a great way to challenge your energy-besserwisser-friends on a knowledge duel!

Last but not least, I will from now on try to end each blog posts with a question so as to entice you, my dear reader, to leave a comment and transform it into something different from the one-way channel it is at the present. My first question is thus: Would you like to play the game? With who and in what context?

söndag 14 november 2010

Upcoming virtual worlds book series

This is a busy time of the year and the past week has mostly been filled by teaching. Also, two theses that I supervise (one master's and one bachelor's) are almost finished and the students have sent me the final versions for review before it's time to hand them in, present them and have them judged/graded. Preliminary titles for these two theses are "Cheating and creative gaming in online games" and "Personal integrity in social media: A study of adolescents' personal lives on Facebook" (links to the finished web-accessible theses will eventually turn up here [FYI: both theses are written in Swedish].

What I want to touch upon in this text though is the fact that I have accepted an invitation to be a member of the editorial advisory board of a new book series on Virtual Worlds. Springer is publishing a series of "Briefs" in many different disciplines/research areas and they are now setting up a book series on virtual worlds.

These SpringerBriefs consist of relatively short texts (50-125 pages - up to 68 000 words) on current topics, and the turn-around time is short (they books can be printed in as little as 8-12 weeks after acceptance).

As a member of the board, I am expected to:
  • keep my eyes and ears open to recruit authors for the series
  • review book proposals
  • help steer the direction of the series
  • promote the series (i.e. what I am doing right here right now)
The work to specify the aim and the scope of the virtual worlds book series has just commenced and I will get back to this topic here as soon as there is an official text with more detailed information about the profile of the book series (and a webpage to point to for further information). Typical topics in these SpringerBriefs are:
  • A timely report of state-of-the art analytical techniques
  • A bridge between new research results published in journal articles and a contextual literature review
  • A snapshot of a hot or emerging topic
  • An in-depth case study or clinical example
  • A presentation of core concepts that students must understand in order to make independent contributions

As much as I like the idea of these Briefs - they seem to fill a gap between journal articles and full-length books - I'm not too fond of one specific justification for the SpringerBriefs book series: "Briefs allow authors to present their ideas and readers to absorb them with minimal time investment". What the...? As if the goal of (disseminating) research should be that it's easily digestible...? Behind such a statement I sense an underlying assumption that short, fast and easy is good, and that long, slow and difficult is bad. This immediately gets me thinking about Nicholas Carr's latest book, "The shallows: What the Internet is doing to our brains" - since I'm reading it right now. It is a book-length argument that can be summarized by the "teaser article" Carr published two and a half years ago in The Atlantic; "Is Google making us stupid?". I use the short article in my course on social media.

I don't think it's wrong to publish a book series like SpringerBriefs - I actually happen to think it's a very good idea, but I on the other don't want such a series to be the CliffNotes of virtual worlds literature either. The tagline of Cliff Notes is "the fastest way to learn". I've never actually read a CliffNote, but having only read about them, I hope their tagline doesn't crassly mean "the fastest way to pretend to have learned", or, "learning painlessly and with a minimal investment of time, effort and engagement, and, without having learnt anything of substance and without remembering anything of importance a week after the exam"... I notice that CliffNotes now have downloadable mp3 "CramCasts" where you can listen to "a quick and authoritative summary of [a] classic on the go". I crammed the CliffNotes CramCast for George Orwell's "1984" (4 minutes and 23 seconds) and let me tell you, it was a nightmare. One of the things I now know is "the top three things every student should know about the novel".

Now, I haven't actually read a SpringerBrief myself yet, but I would personally prefer a Brief book to be regarded as a teaser or as an introduction to, rather than as a replacement of something, whatever. For difficult questions, a full-length book might be more appropriate - and that's totally ok.

I'll wrap this argument up by quoting Alan Kay (about the design of programming languages): "Simple things should be simple. Complex things should be possible". This ought to be true for academic publications too. Texts about "simple things" should be simple (short, easy and quick to read). But books about complex phenomena, demanding a more substantial investment in time and brain cycles by both the author and the readers should also be possible! We definitely don't want to trivialize our research so that it will better appeal to the breathlessly fragmented schedule of a scatterbrain ADHD twitterhead, right?

The editorial advisory board (at the moment) consists of around 20 persons and the only other Swede is Robin Teigland from the Stockholm School of Economics ("Handelshögskolan"). I know of her and in some sense I perhaps even "know" her (we have exchanged e-mail), but we have never actually met IRL (in real life). Perhaps this is an excellent foundation for cooperating on a book series about virtual worlds...?

The person who is putting all of this together, working with Springer and recruiting editorial advisory board members is Anna Peachey, but it was my old "nemesis"(?) Ralph Schroeder who floated my name to her. Ralph literally shredded my ph.d. thesis manuscript to pieces a decade ago at a semi-formal "final seminar" half a year or so before I presented the real thing ("Code begets community: On social and technical aspects of managing a virtual community"). Ralph also gave me very helpful advice about what was badly needed to straighten it out, and all in all helped me make it into a much much better ph.d. thesis.

Coming back to the virtual world series, do you have interests that can be related to that theme? If so, which? Do you think they could be published in the form of a Brief at some point in time?

110623: the series will actually be called "Springer Series in Immersive Environments".

söndag 7 november 2010

Social Media Technologies

My largest single committment in terms of teaching this term is a course called Social Media Technologies and it started just last week. The course is an "advanced" course, meaning that is open for 3rd year students and master's (4th or 5th year) students.

Much of the one-way day to day communication is done through the course blog. This is really a great way to off-load my mail inbox. Everything that could have been published on a webpage or sent by mail is instead published on the blog. Any student questions that could have been send by (multiple) e-mails by (multiple) students is instead to be posted as comments on blog posts. I'll answer in the form of another comment for the benefit of all students who take the course. This arrangement of course depends on the fact that students actually read the blog and pose questions there. It also hinges on the fact that I have to subscribe to the RRS message flow of the blog and read/answer regularly. I was surprised at the introductory lecture that so few students make use of RSS readers. Well, it's either that or check on the blog at least a couple of times per week throughout the course.

Besides this official course administration blog, there is a companion blog where I invite all students who take the course to become co-authors. The purpose of that blog is to collectively keep our eyes and ears open and post messages to each other about interesting social media-related phenomena (that might relate to lectures or seminar topics) on the Internet.

The participants themselves are a diverse bunch. Perhaps half are Swedish students from our media technology program and another large group are foreign students who study a masters in "media management" that my department gives. These students come from all over; China, Vietnam, Morocco, Turkey, Indonesia and a variety of European countries (especially Germany and the Netherlands). The final group who attends the course are "free agents", often exchange students from different European countries, who come to the Royal Institute of Technology to study for one or two semesters. They might take the course out of personal interest or out of any other reason, including the fact that they might have a limited choice of English-language courses to choose from at KTH.

After the week that just passed (the second week), I know the students a lot better. I used the first seminars for a speed-presentation format called Pecha Kucha. Each student had to put together 8 PowerPoint pictures in order to on the one hand present themselves and on the other hand present their use of, and thoughts about social media. The slides automatically switched after 20 seconds so each students had a little less than 3 minutes to present themselves in front of their seminar groups. I think it was a great success, but hearing 60+ students and seeing 500 PowerPoint pictures sent my mind spinning.

A really good thing I did was to clearly specify that each student had do include a portrait of him- or herself somewhere in the Pecha Kucha presentation. This solves the very difficult problem of connecting the physical person to the name, something that becomes exceedingly difficult in a course with dozens and dozens of students of which some have names that are very unusual for me (and therefore difficult to remember).

I will post more texts based on the course (for example based on the guest lectures) in the coming weeks as this course will take up the majority of my time from now on and until the course ends (mid-december).

söndag 31 oktober 2010

Cradle to cradle

I'm taking an evening course this term, "States and trends: An innovative course about environmental, technical and developmental issues". It is given by the Department of Industrial Ecology at KTH. I took a similar evening course at the Stockholm Resilience Center two years ago and met some great people there, some of whom are taking this new course together with me. Both of these courses are not so much "courses" as they are seminar series with a very thin red thread tying together a string of great (and sometimes not-so-great) guest lectures.

Examination consists of a couple of different tasks, one of them being a requirement to summarize a seminar in 2-3 pages of text. I listened to a lecture this past week about "cradle to cradle" design and decided that this was the seminar I wanted to summarize and write about.

I found the cradle-to-cradle terms and perspective very intriguing, but haven't yet decided if these ideas actually make sense, or if they are a form of advanced scientific mumbo-jumbo. The ideas are certainly intriguing. The basic premise is too look to nature and biological processes for ideas about how to configure industrial processes. In nature nothing is wasted. In nature the result of one process is the input to the next. In nature, complexity thrives and synergies evolve over time.

The idea is that this is, or should be an ideal also for industrial processes. Waste = food. Nothing should be regarded as waste, but should rather taken care of and become input to the next industrial process. In fact, an alternative to the term "waste" is "food", or, the (hyper-positively charged) term "industrial nutrients".

The term "cradle to cradle" is a play on the more well known "cradle to grave". Cradle-to-grave implies a linear process and linear material flows with a beginning (pristine resources), a middle (manufacture, consumption) and an end (waste). Cradle-to-cradle instead implies a circular process where you end up in the same place that you started.

We got four relatively short articles to read so as to prepare for the lecture. Unfortunately, this is a very hectic time of the year with new courses starting (probably the topic of next week's post) and so I haven't had time to read these texts yet. I am however very intrigued and interested in trying to discern if there is something to these cradle to cradle ideas or if they represent a pipe dream.

When I hear the cradle to cradle lingo, I sort of get the same vibrations as when I hear some of the counter-culture slogans of the 1960's; "under the streets, the beach", "make love, not war", "All power to the people", "Question authority", "Frodo lives". Very positive, life-affirming, imaginative and even utopian ideas/utterances, but looking backwards, also very idealistic, perhaps naive and unrealistic compared to what actually did happen during the following 40 years of unfettered globalization and capitalism triumphantly conquering the world.