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.