lördag 10 september 2011

Green Futures

I went to a two-day workshop/conference, "Green futures: From utopian grand schemes to micro-practices" in Norrköping this week. It was single-track event with a dozen speakers of which 2/3 were Swedes and the rest were international guests. The program stated that:

"The symposium analyses alternative socio-environmental futures on the basis of the following areas:
- Analysis of contemporary and/or historical utopias/ecotopias/ideas on alternative futures presented in for example architectural visions, politics, or popular culture
- Analysis of existing utopian/alternative practices. How to go beyond current categories, hegemonies, centers, normalities - queer, post-capitalist ecofeminst etc. strategies?
- Theoretical reflections on the tension between what may be described as mainstream and alternative images of the future - alternative in what sense and in comparison to what?
- Reflections on how "utopian" visions and ideas turn "real", processes that enable institutional change, how radical initiative travel or spread and how they change during the process of going from the marginal to the mainstream."

There is nothing in the program itself what would seem to point in any specific disciplinary direction, and so it would not be unfeasible to imagine the people from sociology and psychology, literature and engineering to be represented at the event. For some reason though, people from a few specific backgrounds where overwhelmingly represented both as speakers and as audience at this event; architects, city planners and geographers. My hunch was that this had to do with 1) disciplinary background of the organizers and 2) a perceived responsibility, prerogative or mandate of people in these disciplines to think and to talk about the future (in relationship to and in terms of the build environment) and of formulating and discussion visions of what society could be or become. My hunch was confirmed by one of the two organizers, my friend/acquaintance Karin Bradley.

While many of the presentation were interesting to me in an abstract sense, I think I will have any practical use for only a few of them, and none had much to do with information technology. The highlight for me was hearing (and meeting) Alf Hornborg, a professor in human ecology, who gave a talk about technological utopianism called "Why solar panels doesn't grow in trees". He started by showing a map with a legend I've never seen before, namely GDP per square kilometer. This map is congruent with a world map of nighttime electricity usage, leading to the observation that money and technology and ecology are intimately intertwined, but that we seldom see this connection being emphasized. We usually instead see and treat these three areas separately. Where in the world is advanced technologies happening? Look for the money (GDP/km2). Hornborg's view on technology is so radical that it is way beyond this blog post to discuss it here beyond saying that to him, technology is not so much about progress, as it is about globally redistributing wealth, (embodied labor) time, energy and (the fruits of) productive land use. See further his book "The power of the machine: Global inequalities of economy, technology, and environment" (2001).

I also liked Karin Bradley's talk about commons, commoning and peer production in both software/online phenomena as well as in commons-based housing, agriculture and energy provisioning. How can certain principles that are embodied in online/peer produced social media phenomena be generalized to also encompass (certain aspects of) physical goods - taking into account the difference of non-rival vs scarce resources? Surplus resources can be commoned, but where everything is infinitely reproducible online, many real-world/offline resources can not be seen as "surplus". What are the implication for commoning virtual vs physical resources? Me and Karin have common interests in the commons from differing-but-complimentary perspectives, and this is a great starting point for possible future collaborations. To be continued...

A third who gave an interesting presentation was Catherine Gibson. She hastened through a number of different things, but what I really liked was a table where she had summarized a lot of different phenomena and divided them into 1) market, alternative market and non-market transactions, 2) wage, alternatively paid and unpaid labor, and 3) capitalist, alternative capitalist and non-capitalist enterprises. Alternative market transactions are for example fair trade, alternative currencies, underground market and barter, while non-market transactions are for example household sharing, gift giving, hunting, fishing, gleaning, poaching and theft. The table did unfortunately not come from a specific text/publication, but she instead directed me towards the research project "diverse economics" and the website communityeconomies.org.

Other things I want to keep track of and remember from the conference were:
  • I had a great conversation with Martin Hultman. He suggested I get in contact with two of his colleagues at Umeå University; Finn-Arne Jörgensen who is interested in the intersection between technology and environmental concerns, and, Astrid Mager who is interested in the norms, values and ideas that are built into search engines.
  • "Hackitectura" is a cool name for (Spanish) architects being inspired by hacker principles!
  • Some participants (notably Alf Hornborg) suggested that it might actually be desirable for society to slow down the pace of technological innovation. This made me think of a podcast I recently heard on This American Life called "When patents attack". So-called "patent trolls" are a pain in the ass and create uncertainty in the tech business. The fact that there might be a broad-but-fuzzy patent somewhere that sort of covers what you do in your startup company acts as a wet blanket on innovation, and as a tax on more established companies (and their products that we all love to buy). When I heard the radio show, patent trolls sounded like the biggest waste in history. But as a way of slowing down the pace of technological innovation, what they do is pure brilliance, especially taking into account that it makes stuff not happen or become more expensive without using any natural resources at all. It might very well be that the patent trolls are so much more effective than the Luddites ever where...!
  • Something I wondered was if there would have been a difference if the conference was called "from dystopian grand schemes to micro-practices"? Would we end up in the same place and with the same suggestions? There are a couple of movements with a dystopian bend, most notably the Dark Mountain project/movement. How do their ideas and proposals for going forward differ from more utopian schemes? Or don't they in the end?
  • This made me think of my master's thesis proposal on "social media and sustainability". It would be great writing up a similar proposal but focusing not on the "utopian" Transition Town movement, but rather on the "dystopian" survivalists and their use of social media.
  • Recent readings also made me think about adding a normative dimension to this master's thesis proposal and to my thinking about computer use in general. Some use of computers is truly a boon to humanity, but we can't disregard the fact that much is a waste of time. Inspired by Clay Shirky, I think we can make a difference between lean-back (TV-like use) and lean-forward (active) use of computers. But even the active, creative use of computers can be further divided up and Shirky makes a difference between personal, communal, public and civic use of computers and (social) media.

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