fredag 30 mars 2012

Yet another research grant application

Besides the VR application I wrote about in the previous blog post, I have also in a short amount of time whipped together yet another application that I just sent off to a smaller foundation with a more technical orientation. They promote research on "environmental conservation, energy, urban development and transportation" [miljövård, energi, samhällsbyggnad och transportteknik]. This foundation typically hands out two dozen or so yearly research grants for a few 100k SEK and I applied for money to spend 20% of my time during a year doing research on a project that I named "Beyond ecological modernization: crisis-proofed lifestyles for a sustainable society". Here is the summary:

"There are different opinions about what a "sustainable society" constitutes and how to reach that goal. The politically most established idea assumes that it is possible to combine economic growth and sustainable development. Against this stands the idea that a transition has to encompass more comprehensive changes that also include decreased energy use and decreased resource throughput.

I am in this project interested in persons who 1) live their lives based on a belief that our society is heading towards one or several concurrent crises (economy, ecology, energy) and who 2) practically prepare themselves by concretely changing their lifestyles. The purpose of the project is to map and describe "sustainable", "crisis-proofed" and/or "resilient" lifestyles in Sweden today."

I refer to work done on future (threat) scenarios by the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency (MSB) in the application. The problem is that these scenarios (for the year 2032) are only referred to as "possible" (rather than for example "probable" or "likely"), and I presume no special arrangements are made to handle the "accelerating climate change and rising oil prices" scenario beyond perhaps drawing up some (more or less realistic) plans. In the application I thus propose that the people I am interest in (above) can be seen as pioneers who already today prepare themselves for "the same" scenarios, but who actually go beyond words to actions. Perhaps we have something to learn from them? At least we should try to get to know them a little better and learn what more specifically they worry about and what they do about it (as apart from MSB who are more "cerebral" and exclusively-plan-oriented). The project has a computer networks/Internet/Social media part too.

I will get to know if I get this research grant before the end of June and I applied for money for 344 hours, but I now realize that the money I applied for (20% of my work time during a year) will cover only 340 hours of my time (i.e. I work 1700 hours per year excluding my 35 days of paid vacation). I hope that is ok, and, it's anyway very hard to in detail account for how you spend 340 (or 344) hours...

I asked for some same-day last-minute feedback to the seven pages long (plus four pages of references) application and got some useful feedback from a few friends/colleagues; Per-Anders Forstorp, Jorge Zapico but especially from Division of Environmental Strategies Research currently-finalizing-and-writing-up-her-Ph.D. thesis Josefin Wangel.

I now very much hope that one of this spring's crop of applications will "pay dividends" - it would be so nice to once again be able to say that I'm a researcher and not only a university teacher (which has been closer to the truth during the last few years). While it now seems clear that I and my colleague Björn Hedin will get money for our internal (department) pedagogical project - a small study on students' study/procrastination habits - the amount of time and money is a pittance (a few percent for each of us during the next academic year).

While I very much look forward to the project and to working with Björn in a research project (something we have never done before), the project itself is a "detour" and perhaps even a "distraction" compared to the direction I really want to head in. What I really want to do is much more in line with the application above! The project above would also be a great foundation for further studies and for writing further research applications in the area - despite being relatively small, it would still allow me to start reading literature and to collect material that I will have further use of far beyond this specific project.

Getting one of the grant applications to VR or RJ accepted would be like winning a jackpot on a slot machine in a casino. Great if you get it, but the competition is very hard and the chances are slim. This smaller application would instead allow me to spend 1/5 of a year on research right away (i.e. around 50% from mid-Oct to mid-March). The other/bigger applications would allow me to spend between between 1 - 1.5 years on research during the coming three years (2013-2015). That would be great - but the money is also sought after by a great multitudes of starving (?) wanna-be researchers.

onsdag 28 mars 2012

VR application

Another week, another research application. The two applications that were handed in to Riksbankens Jubileumsfond (RJ) in the beginning of February resulted in one new application being handed in to Vetenskapsrådet (VR, The Swedish Research Council) yesterday. We encountered some problems in the other application and decided to postpone it.

The application that was handed in is (still/again) called "Cities of sharing and the growth of postconsumerist cultures" (see previous blog post with some info about the application). The extremely concise RJ application has now been expanded, but it's the same project idea. The project/application is led by Karin Bradley, and the largest difference this time around is that we have recruited a third person to work in the project, Jörgen Larssson.

Jörgen presented his Ph.D. thesis this past Friday (!) at the Department of Sociology at Gothenburg University. His thesis is called "Studier i tidsmässig välfärd - med fokus på tidsstrategier för småbarnsfamiljer [Studies in Temporal Welfare - focusing on Time Strategies and Time Politics for Families with Small Chilren] (abstract in English). Jörgen has an MBA in business administration and his research interests pertain to time, sustainability and downshifting (working less, living on a lower material level) - i.e. environmental sociology, sociology of consumption, sociology of time and work-life balance. For more info, see his private/professional webpage with lots of further information.

Another change is that we have recruited a reference group for the project, consisting of four distinguished professors:

- Juliet Schor, Professor of Sociology at Boston College, PhD in Economics, whose research deals with consumerist culture, socioecological impacts, work time and economic organization. She is currently working on a project on sharing, environmental sustainability and consumption - hence having synergies with our project.

- Jeffrey Hou, Associate Professor in Landscape Architecture, University of Washington, whose work focuses on spatial activism, Do-It-Yourself-urbanism and engagement of marginalized communities in the making of place.

- Håkan Thörn, Professor of Sociology, Gothenburg University, researching social movements and currently leading projects on environmental movements in a globalized world and urban protest movements - to which this project will be linked (published books).

- Michele Micheletti, Professor of Political Science, Stockholm University, whose current research deals with political consumerism, collective action and sustainable citizenship.

lördag 24 mars 2012

Books I've read lately!

"Books I've read recently" is a recurring topic and here is the previous blog post (same topic, different books). I'm still a few months behind in writing about the books I have read "lately" and I read the book below around Christmas.

This is the first blog post where I write about books that do not relate (only) to social media, virtual communities, internet culture etc., but also to my previously-"private" (nonwork-related), but now increasingly work-related interests about sustainability, ecology, resource issues (peak oil), economy etc. The reason why I have read the particular books below might therefore need some explanation. As followers of this blog probably have noticed, I'm interested in (also) thinking about (for example) the use of computers in a future that will not be more affluent, but perhaps instead more materially poor than the present. So, how would bad times and "poverty" (or, decreased wealth) affect our society? In that context, the best example of the effects of, and the strains that harsh economic times pose for a society might be the (American) depression in the 1930's. In trying to understand the (effects) of the depression, I have thus read the five books (one is strictly speaking not about the depression, but treats with working poor in today's America). These are my summaries and take-home lessons of these books:

I very seldom re-read academic books, but, I did read John Kenneth Galbraith's "The great crash 1929" almost 15 years ago and decided to re-read it. It was much more interesting this time around - there were hardly any underlining in the book from the first reading, but much after the second reading. The book was written 25 years after the crash itself, in 1954, but more than 50 years have passed since. The emphasis is on the run-up, the crash itself and the aftermath of it. The depression is part of the aftermath, but the book isn't about the depression properly, but mostly rather about the mixture of economics and psychology and speed-blindedness leading up to the (stock-market) crash. These are naturally characteristics of not only that particular crash, but of every crash, including the build-up to the latest crash (2007-2008).

The parts about how individual stocks, or the Dow Jones index fared on this or that day (or week or month) is naturally off less interest to me. What is more interesting are John's descriptions of human actions, utterances and beliefs before, during and after the crash. The endless optimism - or exuberance - and the view of reality as if systematically edited and seen through rose-tinted shades is something we recognize all to well in our day and age too. The rallying cry then as now was "this time it's different!". John's dry wit and his powers of formulation can be a joy to read and so I offer you a few quotes from (mostly) the introduction to give you a feel for his dense and elegant writing style. And you can compare the content of the quotes to recent (and future?) events:

"it was plain that an increasing number of persons were coming to the conclusion - the conclusion that is the common denominator of all speculative episodes - that they were predestined by luck, an unbeatable system, divine favor, access to inside information, or exceptional financial acumen to become rich without work."

"Speculation on a large scale requires a pervasive sense of confidence and optimism and conviction that ordinary people were meant to be rich. [...] When people are cautious, questioning, misanthropic, suspicions, or mean, they are immune to speculative enthusiasms."

"speculative episodes have occurred at intervals throughout history, and the length of the interval is perhaps roughly related to the time that it takes for men to forget what happened before."

"Even in such a time of madness as the late twenties, a great many men in Wall Street remained quite sane. But they also remained very quite. [...] So someday, no one can tell when, there will be another speculative climax and crash. There is no chance that, as the market moves to the brink, those involved will see the nature of their illusion and so protect themselves and the system. The mad can communicate their madness; they cannot perceive it and resolve to be sane."

I spend quite some time surfing the web and reading reviews on in order to find a great book about the great depression. I ended up with Robert McElvaine's "The great depression: America 1929-1941". The books was originally published in 1984, but I read the 25th anniversary edition (2009). I was primarily on the look-out for the effects of "hard times" on individuals and on society. While the book was ok, I would still say the focus unfortunately was a little too much on politics in general and the politics of Franklin D. Roosevelt and his "New Deal" in particular. While it is true that he was The President during the depression (replacing the massively discredited Hoover who got to bear all the blame), I'm not so interested in all the different agencies and the motivation for, and the outcome of individual programs that were created, i.e. the Public Works Administration (PWA), the Works Progress Administration (WPA), the Farm Security Administration (FSA), The Civil Works Administration (CWA) etc.

We primarily think of the depression as "bleak" but Robert notes that this might be an effect of the washed-out colors on the photos that have survived. The depression was also the only time during the 20th century when the trends of egoism and the ideals of money-making were broken:

"the sharp swing away from self-centered concerns and toward social values was evident in the popular culture of the decade. Many of the gangster films that were such a staple of the early thirties, for example, were thinly veiled attacks on the success-drien businessman of the twenties. [...] Nothing better demonstrates the shift in values after the economic collapse than the reversal of cultural attitudes toward rural and small-town life. [...] Similarly, the twenties' embrace of things "new" and its modern severance from the past were replace in the Depression decade by a renewed affection for traditional ways."

The book is "only" 350 pages long, but it is very "compact". There are lots of facts and information that will encourage you think about parallels between then and times we live in. Roosevelt's New Deal was originally seen as extreme, and people were only prepared to accept it after more moderate programs (under the auspices of presidents Coolidge and Hoover) had been shown to be inadequate. This is both reassuring and worrying as "extreme" could mean many different things (as in "extremism"). Robert's analysis of popular culture and (especially) movies from the 1930's is thorough and very interesting.

A book that I liked very much was Robert and Helen Lynd's book "Middletown in transition: A study of cultural conflicts" (1937). I read the predecessor, "Middletown: A study in modern American culture" (1929) ten years ago. While the original book was published just before the stock marke crash and the depression, the follow-up study describes the depression as seen during the depression - a view that is very different from the present luxury of seeing it all in the rear mirror. While the depression rages, you don't know if previous dip was the worst there was and you've (finally) have left the bad times behind you, or, if the worst is yet to come. Both of these books are very ambitions attempts to describe (all) aspects of life in a small American tsown (<50 000 inhabitants). The town itself was anonymized, but was in fact Muncie, Indiana.

In 13 chapters, the 500+ pages long book comprehensively covers topics such as "Getting a living", "Making a home", "Training the young", "Religion", "Spending leisure" and "Keeping healthy". Despite their age, these books are very easy reads and the language is surprisingly modern and easy to read. There are so many things (perspectives) in these books that are really interesting. I'm not only referring to the authors' own analyses - it is equally interesting to think about all the things they took for granted back then, but that seem very strange when read 75 years (!) after the book was published.

Take for example the intense localism at a time then the US was not competing with Europe, Japan or China, but when it seemed each city was a rival of, and competed with every other (nearby) city for jobs and opportunities. The US federal government is perceived to be very distant. Or take the severe differences in perspective between the rich, the middle class and the workers (who were "naturally" hardest hit by the depression) as well as the acrimony and lack of understanding between the different social classes. Looking back a few years from 1935 (when data for the book was collected), some members of the business class actually thought that a revolution was just around the corner and stocked up with canned goods "just in case". The term "social class" was not in use at the time as the Americans entertained the notion that only the ability and industriousness of a man determined his affluence and his standing in society. These "natural" ideas (as expressed by the business class in the book) came increasingly under attack when things Just Didn't Improve year after year after year.

It is also fascinating to see the lack of organization and unionizing among the workers. The business class and the captains of industry were insanely successful in atomizing and dividing the workers against each other. Workers undercut their own salaries (or, the salaries of other workers, i.e. themselves) in a crazy "race to the bottom". The lack of a social net and a harsh "a man ain't no man if a man can't support his family" ethos together with a shocking lack of a social fabric (much like in Sweden today where we don't know our neighbors) created a totally miserable situations for the working poor and the even poorer out-of-work workers. Marital problems and the robbery of youths' hope for a decent future (no marriage and family unless you have a job) were some of the consequences of a period of prolonged (5+ years when the research staff arrived in 1935) economic shrinkage. Great book.

While reading these books, I also read a depression-era work of fiction; John Steinbeck's "The grapes of wrath" (1941). It describes a totally rotten and unfair society as seen though the eyes of a poor but honest American family of smallholders, the Joads, who have to flee from the Oklahoma dustbowl and the arrival of tractors as labor-saving devices in the service of mechanization of agriculture. Their dream-turned-into-a-dog-eat-dog goal - California as seen through the alluring pages of colorful recruitment brochures - turns out to consist of seasonal work in the orchards and of desperate workers (again) undercutting other workers' almost-decent wages in order to buy overpriced, poor-quality food from the company store. It is a very bleak story of, well, economic inequality, humiliation, injustice and racism against the "Oakies" who are basically economic refugees within their own country. I also saw the two seasons of the set-in-the-dustbowl-depression-era television series "Carnivàle".

Finally, I have read Catherine Newman's, "Chutes and ladders: Navigating the low-wage labor market" (2006). Catherine explores the travails of the (working) poor and the downtrodden in America, and I have previously read her book "Falling from grace: Downward mobility in the age of affluence" (1999). Chutes (you slide down) and ladders (you climb out of poverty into the middle class) is the result of the second follow-up study (2001-2002) of people who back in Newman's original study (1993), in a very tight labor market, applied for a job at "Burger Barn" (McDonalds? Wendy's? Burger King? Taco Bell?). Catherine tracks them down and asks what happened to them and what their lives and "careers" look like in hindsight. She divides them into the fortunate few "high flyers" who managed to break up and out, and the "low riders", the larger majority who in the end got nowhere. Almost a decade later they still navigate the low-wage labor market and they still remain poor.

My view of "the housing projects" - where I'm led to believe no whites, but only blacks and latinos live - comes from television shows like The Wire. While violence, vandalism, drugs and crime for sure is a problem in such areas, most of the people who live there are neither criminal or stupid. They are just ordinary people who do what they can to get by, put food on the table, if possible improve their lot, while at the same time maintaining their dignity. We never see any American television shows about these people - they are invisible and we (I) thus know very little - hardly anything - about them. This is a book about these persons and their lives as seen primarily through the lens of their make-or-break work lives. What opportunities do they have of bettering their lot in present-day America? To what extent is the US a country where you can "make it" if you are prepared to roll up your sleeves and work hard? The short answer is "not very". The opportunities are few and far between and the hindrances and temptations many.

Many of Catherine's informants have broken-up relationships behind them and one or more children that they have to take care of and support. To "climb" you need a combination of talent, strength of will, tenaciousness and not the least a network of people who support you with "services" such as helping you through a rough spot, or taking care of your children while you work or take an evening course (in the absence of decent and affordable day-care in the US). An unemployed or welfare-dependent mother, sister or cousin can help, but she on the other hand expects a share of your income in return - not exactly a "salary" for day-care services, but a way of informally making ends meet in an informal economy where money, housing (and sometimes goodwill) is in short supply. It gets on your nerves to live on top of, and to be dependent on others, and Newman's tales contain a large number of "family dramas" too. The US might be (have been) the "greatest" (i.e. most affluent) society on Earth - but you wouldn't know it when you read this book as it chronicles the underbelly of that society and the "fate" (or the obstacles) of the under-privileged who "struggle and flounder, weighted down by family obligations, poor training, and racial discrimination".


söndag 18 mars 2012

Sportification of cross country skiing & competitive programming

I went to a seminar at the Department of Science, History and Environment ten days ago. Daniel Svensson, who has apparently been a Ph.D. student only since the beginning of this year presented his Ph.D. project at the seminar. The title of the seminar (which is also the preliminary title for his thesis) was " 'Rationell träning': Vetenskapliggörandet av träning för längdskidåkning" ['Rational training': The Making of a science of training cross country skiing]

Why would I want to go to a seminar about cross country skiing? What's the connection to computers and ICT? Actually, there is no connection, but what caught my interest was the fact that Daniel is writing about the sportification (and the "scientification") of a specific sport. Framed that way, there are obvious overlaps with the sportification of competitive computer gaming (e-sports) and the sportification of competitive computer programming - topics that I have previously written about (here, here and here). Despite having collected great material this Christmas (10 interviews that are upwards to 90 minutes each), I've this far only just had time to start to listen to and transcribe these interviews. The main reason for this delay is that work on writing research grant applications (here, here, here and more on that topic later) has taken precedence & has taken a lot of my "free" time lately.

I'm on the mailing list and got an invitation to the seminar a week i advance. As it turned out, I was the only "external" participant at the seminar. That's not a problem, but I wasn't too happy to find out - when I got there - that everyone else had a copy of a text that I had not received, nor knew about. Everyone (else) was very impressed by Daniel's text/research proposal and only now, one week later have I finally read Daniel's 20+ pages long Ph.D. proposal. I don't know what Daniel's background is, but even though he has (officially) been a Ph.D. student for only a few months, it is obvious that he has a previous interest and previous knowledge about the proposed topic of his Ph.D. thesis. Could it be that he wrote his master's thesis on a related topic?

The topic of this remainder of this blog post consists of some thoughts that his manuscript awoke when I read it. It is fascinating to find out that I can be utterly uninterested in cross country skiing, and still be intensely interested in Daniel's topic - because of the similarities and the implications for my own study about competitive programming... We had a chat after the seminar and decided to meet up later. Daniel unfortunately lives in Gothenburg and only makes it to Stockholm now and then. When he's at KTH, he is pretty much booked up by meetings, so despite realizing that we might have several interests in common, we didn't manage to book at time to meet up until the end of April... I very much look forward to that though. On to his manuscript and the thoughts that it awoke:

- Cross country skiing has a long tradition in Sweden and the other Scandinavian countries, but has been an activity of practical utility for the longest of time. This changed with the rise of competitions and the sportification of skiing. The same thing can be said about programming, i.e. it has been an activity of practical utility in industry and the rise of competitions is a more recent add-on. Even though the "world championship for students" has existed for over 30 years, it was naturally a marginal activity for a long time (and might still be, despite thousands of students participating in the competitions each year).

- Daniel will study the initial period when science-based training was introduced in Sweden and the role of research and sports in cross country skiing (in Sweden). This initial period happened roughly between 1940 and 1970 and with the establishment of physiological measurements, laboratories, experiments and "rational" methods for training. The closes thing I can think of in terms of computer games is the blog "Mind Games: Exploring the mental edge in eSports".

- The introduction of "rational" (scientific) methods in the training is part of the sportification process. One of Daniel's co-advisors, Leif Yttergren, at the Swedish School of Sport and Health Science (GIH) and Leif has apparently has written about sportification - a topic that I am interested in.

- The whole discourse about using rational/scientific methods for training cross country skiing is interesting, but what would be the equivalent in computer programming? In competitive computer programming, practice and training is haphazard in Sweden, but does it work differently in other places (Russia, China etc.)? As far as I know, there are no national organizations for competitive programming and there is no money involved in competitive programming to talk about, so what would be the reason for expanding programming as a competition format as apart from a practical skill of utility in industry and elsewhere, and perhaps also as a hobby-of-sorts? On the other hand, there might exist training camps for promising students in, say, China. If that is so, the fact that none of my informants know about it is interesting in itself.

- Skiing (and competing in skiing) has been justified in several different ways; building a national identity, military utility and patriotically slanted arguments, darwinism, public health etc. Interesting parallels can be drawn to programming, and some informants have argued for the value of competitions and for the nurturing of talents by referring to successful entrepreneurship, to Swedish success stories (for example Spotify), economic growth in general and so on. This drift in the choice of supporting arguments can in itself be analyzed, i.e. from public health and national strength (skiing) to economic growth and national strength (programming). I can see how "strong enduring uncomplaining persevering bodies" might have been a forceful argument at some point in the past, but I have a hard time imagining anyone suggesting that programming in any kind of way is good for your (physical) health (?). But I can imagine arguments about programming being the new latin, or math; that programming is formative and "good for you" and should be taught in schools, for young pupils (instead of "wasting time" on sports or computer games?). Is it not the case that a "tough bodies-" discourse been replaced by a "smarter brains-" discource?

- It is interesting to think about the pre-sportified origins of cross country skiiing. Daniel refers to skiers of former times (before the 1940s) as predominantly working-class men living in thinly populated areas and where training had to combined with outdoors physical work (often in forestry). The practical utility of skiing, partly based on work practices, can be compared and contrasted to the tension between the practical utility of programming vs. competing in it.

- "Old school" cross country skiers expressed skepticism about scientific tests, scientific results and scientific methods. I presume the situation would be the opposite in the case of programming (high confidence in science)? Or is there a distance and perhaps skepticism about "the scientific study of programming" on behalf of "real programmers" (c.f. "real men")? Are there scientific studies of programming. Weinberg's "The psychology of computer programming" comes to mind, but there must be other work in that area since Weinberg wrote his book in 1971!?

- There is also an argument that the fact that skiing became less economically interesting in forestry and for military application (with the mechanization of society) paved the way for a sportification and rationalization of cross country skiing. This is an interesting and perhaps counter-intuitive argument, but only when you did not have "real use" of skiing any longer could it be embellished and polished as a goal in its own right (rather than as a means to other goals). The corollary is that competitive programming will have problems becoming a sport as long as there is a large and competing market for programming skills in industry and elsewhere. Only when programming becomes irrelevant (perhaps through "mechanized programming" by computers themselves?), can it bloom and become a sport? Everyone who could become a competitive programming sports star is just too busy today working in industry or doing a Ph.D...?

- Until the 1940s, "athletes" just didn't have the time, the money or the infrastructure (tracks, tools, methods etc.) to train systematically. Skiers had to work (hard) and didn't have the luxury to spend all (or a substantial part) of their days training. Except for the fact that we are more affluent, there are obvious parallels to programming here. Today there are few professions that require you to ski, but many where you program. There are no "scientific" or even "tried and tested" methods for growing successful competitive programmers "for their own sake" (e.g. only for competing). There are ski high schools and math high schools - what would a programming high school look like? Would it be conceivable to have a programming high school that is geared (also, or partly) towards competitive programming instead of "useful" programming? I realize that what I'm looking for is an education where (competitive) programming is a goal in itself rather than a means for some other (economic growth- or human endeavor-promoting) activity. Is learning how to become a hacker in its purest form a variety of this kind of education?

- Daniel pinpoints the emergence of (personal) trainers in cross country skiing as an important stage in the professionalization of skiing. This can be compared to the support that exists in Sweden and elsewhere for training and practicing programming. There is a coach at KTH how (officially) works 20% with tasks that can be classified as training. This is a far cry from having personal trainers though. What is it like in other countries?

- There is also a debated about the role of the trainer. Is the trainer someone who was himself an active sportsman and who falls back on own experiences, or someone with specialized (scientific?) training? Who trains competitive programmer today?

- On of Daniel's studies will focus on female skiers and their experiences against a backdrop of cross country skiing (and other sports requiring fitness, strength, endurance) having traditionally been perceived as a "male" domain. Many of Daniel's questions could perhaps be reused in programming which is another traditionally male domain.

- In connecting his work to suitable theories, Daniel refers to Foucault and his writings about disciplining the body. What is the equivalent in programming? Exactly what do (competitive) programmers discipline - if anything? Do they "discipline" their minds and thought patterns of different kinds? If so, which thought patters (Levy's hacker ethic? Entrepreneurship and 21st century liberal capitalism?) lives in symbiosis with thoughts (if any) that "come naturally" when you program competitively?

- Daniel refers to the role of nature (and beauty) in skiing. What would the equivalent be in competitive programming - if any? Where do programmers get aesthetic pleasure? There are less sensory input in programming, but can you get pleasurable experiences ("flow") by writing, talking about or looking at "beautiful" computer code? Can you be filled with awe for... yes, exactly what would you be filled with awe for as a high-calibre programmer...? There is also a debate in skiing about long low-intensive training session vs shorter high-intensive training session. Is there an equivalent in competitive programming? What is the best way to practice and to program if the goal is to practice programming and solving difficult problems? Is there a physical component (food you should eat, regular exercise and other habits of the body)? What is the (perceived) status of programming until you drop in front of the keyboard from exhaustion vs programming for just as long - or as short - as you think it is fun?

torsdag 15 mars 2012

Articulating alternatives

Today was the deadline for submitting an abstract (250-words) to the one-day workshop "Articulating alternatives: Agents, spaces and communication in/of a time of crisis". The workshop will be held in London in the beginning of May and I will get to know if my submission has been accepted in just a week from now. In fact, I am the (co-)author of two different workshop submissions, and they both build on the two applications to Riksbankens Jubileumsfond that I (we) handed in last month. The workshop submissions actually have exactly the same names as the applications for research funding had.

Despite the fact that these short submissions are very similar to (but not the same as) the research application abstracts that I published here on the blog only five weeks ago (here and here), I still go ahead and publish them both below. This blog is partly for my readers, but partly also a handy way for me to keep track of what I did and when I did it. It is thus great for me to later be able to look up and have access to these abstracts here on the blog (even though they are slightly redundant to read for the hard-core regular reader - if I have any such readers).

As to the workshop, it seems to be really interesting and the topic overlaps a lot with both of my research applications. I thus hope to be able to attend the workshop and meet great people with similar interests. To have an "instant network" of people with similar interests would be a great way to start a research project...

The workshop call (invitation) starts against a backdrop of a bunch of terms which sounds "fun" (or rather "interesting" or "pertinent"); intensification of neoliberal logic ... crisis of capitalism ... de-legitimisation of political institutions ... citizens lose trust in the political process and confidence in the capacity of political elites to protect their interests ... emergence of actors which challenge the neoliberal hegemony and seeks to construct alternatives.

Is is just a coincidence that one of the workshop organizers, Eleftheria Lekakis, just has to be of Greek origin? I don't think so! Should I get to attend the workshop, I will also have a closer look at the "Center for the study of Global Media and Democracy" to which the organizers belong. There are links and references to some resources there that sound very interesting, for example the "Urban Food Futures: ICTs and Opportunities" event.

The call itself could easily have been cut down by a third to become leaner and tighter. It veers between many (too many?) different disciplines and concepts:

"We welcome submissions [...] from diverse disciplinary backgrounds including (but not limited to): media and communications, sociology, politics, anthropology, cultural studies, geography, and information studies."

The call is also a little "overloaded" and partly repeats or states similar or overlapping concepts and ideas several times and/or in different places. Stuff that I can find and that is (at least partly) covered by the call include:

- Crisis, resistance, counter-capitalist voices
- Mediated communication
- Conventional/mainstream media (commercialization, concentrated ownership, crisis)
- New information and communication technologies, social media
- Politics (democracy, citizenship, confidence in politicians and the political process)
- Public spheres
- The physical (the city, squares, streets) and the virtual
- Agents/actors
- Organization, mobilization (social movements)
- The nation-state (and transnational/global communication and social movements)
- Global economic actors (not specified further which those are - only corporations or also NGOs and institutions?)
- Knowledge production and the articulation of alternatives

... and how everything above relates to everything else above.

That's a hefty bunch of concepts - a bit of this and a bit of that. The risk is that many feel called to attend by a superficial agreement about the purpose of the workshop, but that this nominal agreement will later crumble as it turns out different participants have (widely) differing interests. If the workshop becomes too broad in its scope, I worry that I will not get that much out if it, much like I felt after I attended the "Culture of ubiquitous information" workshop one and a half years ago. This was the core of my analysis/criticism at the time:

"This is the inherent problem in gathering a very interdisciplinary crowd, in this case "integrating researchers from cultural studies, science and technology studies, computer science, interaction design, media studies, art history and digital aesthetics". I guess it's possible to have a fruitful conversation together, but with very diverse participants, a more strict form/format is called for. Participants should perhaps (in some way) be forced to engage and analyze a common theme or problem. I think we were supposed to have done that, but I would say that the organizers of this event should probably have worked harder to nudge/make sure/force people to focus on the same thing (but still, fruitfully, drawing on their different backgrounds and perspectives)."

I think the main schtick of the Articulating alternatives workshop is "to explore some of the complexities of the relationship between mediated communication and politics in a time of crisis" (but it's a little difficult to discern if that is it, or what the actual emphasis of the workshop might otherwise be). Perhaps the organizers themselves were not 100% sure before they sent out their call for participation? If so, I hope they themselves become clearer about it and with a gentle but firm hand will "steer" the workshop in a specific direction, instead of allowing the participants to pull it in many different directions. And finally, here are the submitted abstracts:


Cities of sharing and the growth of postconsumerist cultures

Against a backdrop of fatigue of consumerist culture, privatized public spaces, coupled with the economical and ecological crises, different forms of citizen-initiated sharing schemes have appeared. Rather than just mass-consuming goods, citizens create common-pool resources and systems of sharing tools, vehicles, gardens, working spaces, clothing, books etc. These schemes can be organized in a variety of ways, sometimes appropriating and changing the use of private/public space and creating new hybrid spaces. Reasons for engaging in such schemes may vary and can be politically, ecologically, socially and/or economically motivated.

Our aim is to explore how and why sharing and co-creation schemes appear and function, and reflect on their wider implications for social, economic and spatial (re)organization. We suggest that sharing schemes can be theorized in terms of commons-based peer economy (Benkler, 2006) and as urban commons (Ostrom, 1990, Blomley, 2004). According to Benkler, commons-based peer production (in the digital realm) is the harbinger of a larger societal transformation, away from twentieth-century industrial and proprietary forms of production towards collaborative and commons-based forms of production. Benkler argues that this mode of production – now operating on non-rival (endlessly reproducible) digital goods such as text, music and film – is potentially applicable also to rival goods such as food and other basic utilities. We explore to what extent theories of peer economies and Ostromian notions of self-organized forms of governing can be used or developed for understanding contemporary sharing schemes of food, spaces, means of transport and other utilities.


Networking through crises

The “triple crisis” (economy, ecology, energy) creates anxiety about the future. For some, this triggers a decision to change and “crisis-proof” their lifestyle. The initial step is nowadays to use the Internet to search for information and seek out and associate oneself with topical social networks - online and offline.

In articulating alternatives in a time of crisis, most political activism is conducted against, but still within the framework of the current political and economic system, i.e. most activism aims at (more or less radically) reforming the current system. We are however mainly interested in persons who don’t bother (any longer) to articulate their critique by protesting against, but who instead explore alternatives by practical action.

We are specifically interested in the intimate interplay between the use of ICT and the practical transition to “crisis-proof” or “resilient” lifestyles. Such a move is difficult as it can involve disassociating oneself from mainstream values and mainstream society both mentally – creating a revised world view - and practically – creating a new life. Online and offline networks are crucial in supporting this process.

Our focus is on two social movements that represent different responses, but that both engage in practical preparations for facing current and future crises: 1) the collectively oriented “inclusive” Transition Town movement and 2) the more individually oriented “exclusive” network of “neosurvivalists”.

Our theoretical starting points are 1) “alternative computing” (Stallman 2002, Lievrouw 2011), i.e. using technological infrastructures for social change, 2) Social movements theory (Tilly 2009, della Porta and Diani 2006), especially concerning the role of ICT in social change (Diani 2001, Bennett and Segerberg 2011, Earl & Kimport 2011) and 3) literature about social capital (Putnam 1993, Putnam 2000) and (online and offline) communities (Nisbet 1953, Asplund 1991, Rheingold 1994, Oldenburg 1997, Pargman 2000, Bauman 2001).


måndag 12 mars 2012


I went to a half-day meeting about EIT ICT Labs ("KTH faculty preparation for expanded EIT ICT Labs call"). The meeting was held against a backdrop of a presumed ballooning of the EIT ICT Labs budget during the coming few years (we are talking about tens of millions of € for research each year from 2013 and beyond). KTH is already involved in the EIT ICT Labs thing, and it is in KTH's interest to maintain its "market share" in terms of proposing interesting ideas, conducting research about cool future-oriented research areas and not the least, getting our hands on (part of) that honey pot of research money. Existing activities can to some extent extend their current activities and invent some more, but that is still not enough to accommodate for an increased availability in research funds with a factor of (perhaps) two or three compared to today.

The meeting I attended was an attempt to get people to start thinking about and proposing grand challenges that should be addressed in this area (both the dean and the vice-dean from the School of Computer Science and Communication to which I belong attended the meeting). Most readers probably know very little or nothing at all about EIT ICT Labs, so in this blog post I will start by describing what EIT and EIT ICT Labs are. I will then go on to analyze some interesting tensions and contradictions in the EIT and the EIT ICT Labs idea, as well as my perhaps-entry point into it (it remains to be seen if I will pursue this angle). You can jump down in the text if you already know about EIT and EIT ICT Labs.

--- Background; EIT and EIT ICT Labs ---

EIT stands for the European Institute of Innovation and Technology. The European Commission wants to create more jobs, innovation, entrepreneurship and economic growth (etc.). They think that the current EU research bill (presumably in the shape of the gargantuan "Framework Programs" with their mind-boggling administrative superstructures) doesn't deliver enough of those desirable objectives. EIT is an attempt to fix that. The best description I have heard of what EIT is was to describe it as a "European Vinnova" (The Swedish Governmental Agency for Innovation Systems). The EIT mission is to "increase European sustainable growth and competitiveness by reinforcing the innovation capacity of the EU".

EIT today constitutes three broad frameworks, or in EIT-speak, three KICs - "Knowledge and Innovation Communities". These KICs treat ICT (ICT Labs), sustainable energy (KIC-InnoEnergy) and climate change (Climate-KIC). Each KIC should bring together and integrate "the knowledge triange (business, education and research) with entrepreneurs as its key driver".

The ICT Labs KIC has three stated high-level goals; 1) to speed up ICT innovation by bringing together people from different areas of the knowledge triangle, 2) to breed entrepreneurial ICT top talent and 3) to generate world-class ICT businesses. Instead of having "crazy" EU Framework Program criteria like making it a virtue to combine actors from (all) different parts of Europe in each research project, EIT aims for "quality" and results.

"Quality" here means that ICT Labs activities are centered around a limited number of nodes and "action lines" (research areas) where scientific excellence is an assumed, baseline criteria, to which other selection criteria are added. A necessary requirement for becoming a node is that there is a leading university, a research institute and a large ICT commercial actor present (in Stockholm's case The Royal Institute of Technology (KTH), The Swedish Institute of Computer Science (SICS) and telecom giant Ericsson). There are six nodes in the ICT Labs network and these are Stockholm (Sweden), Helsinki (Finland), Berlin (Germany), Eindhoven (Netherlands), Paris (France) and Trento (Italy). There are also two ICT Labs associated partner nodes (some kind of 2nd class citizenship) in London and Budapest. The other two KICs have nodes in other countries/cities, and Sweden (and KTH) is represented also in the energy KIC, but not in the third, climate KIC.

The large commercial actors ("core partner companies") that are engaged in EIT ICT Labs are Deutsche Telekom Laboratories, SAP, Philips, Nokia, Ericsson, Siemens, Alcatel-Lucent, Telecom Italia and Orange France Telecom (a list of core partners; universities, research institutes and companies can be found here).

As mentioned above, the reason behind the meeting I attended was to prepare the KTH faculty for an expanded EIT ICT Labs call. It was a sort of kick-off, and a way to increase the readiness and preparedness of KTH to follow up and follow through should the (increase amounts of) money come through in, say, 2013, 2014 and beyond. Half the meeting consisted of presentations of EIT and EIT ICT Labs and the second half consisted of a handful of hopefuls presenting their suggestions for new, innovative future research areas (i.e. broader than research projects) that EIT ICT Labs should "get into". The presenters then got impromptu feedback from the EIT ICT Labs Stockholm director Gunnar Landgren and from the audience. The focus at this meeting was thus on one of the three parts of the "knowledge triangle" - research - although business and industry is not just necessary, but crucial in order for a proposal to get traction.

--- Analysis ---

Now over to my (partly critical) analysis of EIT, EIT ICT Labs and the event I attended. My first thought goes to the handful of "core industrial partners". Is this where future European innovation and growth is supposed to come from? Huge companies that were founded several or many decades ago? I haven't checked but I presume SAP is the youngest, turning 40 years old 2012 and I furthermore assume Ericsson is the most gerontologically challenged core industrial partner with its 135 years of age (founded in 1876). Do these companies represent the future of Europe, or are they mostly part of the present or even the past? Where are the European Microsofts and Apples (35 years old), the Googles (15 years old) and the Facebooks (8 years old)? On the other hand I understand the practical difficulties of trying to interact with 100 or 1000 small or medium-sized companies instead of a handful of huge companies, but the age and/versus innovation factor still comes to mind.

Furthermore and even if the core industrial partners were to be successful in a conventional business sense (great innovations and new business areas leading to increased turnover and profit), would that really generate more jobs and more wealth in Europe, as apart from in the corporate chests and among corporate shareholders? Won't new factories be placed in China and won't new, qualified jobs (for example R&D) be placed in China and in India rather than in Europe? Will EIT ICT Labs success stories really make a difference for taxes, wealth, health and jobs/joblessness in Europe (beyond, hopefully and perhaps at the most, a limited range of (very) qualified ICT and management jobs)?

More important though was a semi-acute feeling of mine of being inside a "bubble" when attending this meeting. At this meeting and inside this bubble, no major problems exist in Europe today - only possibilities. At the meeting, these possibilities were focused on "shiny" exciting new research areas, technical developments, research grants and presumably on own research careers. All naturally for the betterment of Europe and humankind ;-) This is basically the traditional industrial/information age worldview focusing on possibilities that I contrasted with the opposing view focusing on limitations in an abstract I recently sent off to the Internet Research 13.0 conference.

As apart from the positive atmosphere at the meeting, outside of the meeting bubble Europe does currently face some very tough problems like the Greek debt crisis (shadowing debt crises in several other European countries that have borrowed too much money against a future of rosy predictions of economic growth that now seems to recede on the horizon). In fact, there was a deadline for restructuring and writing down 107 000 000 000 (107 billion) € of Greek debt the very day before the meeting - but "small" problems like these does not seem to exist (or happen in a parallel universe and are thus not "relevant") in the minds of future-oriented computer scientists who cannot imagine any other future than the recent past extrapolated into the future. Perhaps they are right and I am wrong, but I for one can imagine bleak scenarios where money for research dries up and is used elsewhere (for example for propping up failing banks and attempting to seal yet another black hole of debt), or, where money for research is used for other kinds of research than exploring different new and shiny (advanced, complex, expensive, expansive) computer science frontiers. But perhaps there is an opportunity hidden here for me when it comes to "other kinds of research" (see below).

A last reflection of mine is that all the EIT ICT Labs nodes are in Scandinavia or the northern parts of Europe, while the countries with the most acute debt problems (the so-called PIIGS countries) are in the south (with the exception of Ireland being a PIIGS country and with the exception of Trento, Italy being an EIT ICT Labs node - but Trento is "naturally" (?) situated in the northern, "industrious" part of Italy, near the Swiss and the Austrian borders). In fact, I notice that the three KICs together have nodes in only 10 out of the 27 EU countries. Three countries have nodes from all the three KICs (France, Germany and the Netherlands).

--- My opportunity? ---

After this critical analysis of certain EIT-related topics, I end this (long) blog post with some more critical analysis, but this time rolled up into a (perhaps) more constructive proposal which might be of relevance to EIT ICT Labs and the future of Europe.

1) EIT/EIT ICT Labs background
- As described above; to get research, education and business to rock; to thrive together, to cross-fertilize; to jumpstart growth and job creation in Europe. In search of great ideas and future areas of export and of the next big thing (or "the new new thing").

2) Things to think (e.g. to worry) about that happen right now outside the "meeting bubble"
- Greek and European sovereign debt crisis. A Google-search for "PIIGS crisis" returns 2.8 million hits. The fifth package of Greek austerity measures (February 2011) include 20+% cuts in minimum wages, cuts in pensions, cuts in health spendings, cuts in defense spendings, cuts in number of jobs in the state sector, a permanent cancellation of holiday wage bonuses, changes in laws making it easier to lay of workers, privatization of inefficient government-run companies (including utilities) and more. This is on top of the four previous austerity packages, but the suspicion from up north is of course that Greek promises to implement draconian measures are very different from actually implementing such measures. But still, no-one can deny that many Greeks are suffering harsh economic hardships today.
- Youth unemployment (-25 years) for the third quarter of 2011 runs at an average of 22% in the 27 European Union countries (Sweden is at 23% - excluding I suppose university students). Youth unemployment in Greece and Spain is near 50%! How will this "lost generation" benefit from current EIT ICT Labs activities and outcomes? Could it be possible that the answer is "very little" or "not at all"?
- Another doom-and-gloom indicator that I always keep a close eye on is the oil price - which is very very very high again (the highest since just before the 2008 financial crisis). WTI (West Texas) oil is at 100+ $/barrel and Brent (North Sea) oil at 125+ $/barrel. Industrial/information society runs on energy. Oil is the world's largest, most versatile and thus most important energy source and 95+% of all transportation is dependent on oil! The oil prices are 500 to 600% higher today than what was "normal" both 10 and 20 year ago. For example, with current astronomically high oil prices global airlines bleed, i.e. all airlines together are in the red and loose money. Airlines' fuel bills has quadrupled (or more) in the last decade and now constitute a third or more of airlines' operating costs. When oil (energy) is expensive, everything else becomes more expensive (transportation, industrial production, food production etc.). That is bad for Business-As-Usual (including down the road also being bad for Research-As-Usual).

3) Where does this leave us?
- Although it's like swearing in the church, I would propose that we think (also) about the role of ICT in a less affluent future, a future where the new normal is not a return to the economic growth and prosperity of yesteryear. We should instead ask also what relatively poor people will need in terms of ICT in the future. What do young, unemployed or homeless people need in terms of ICT? Why not have a look at how these and other marginalized/poor groups in affluent (?) societies are doing today? How can we develop "stuff" (products, services) also for them? Who knows - there might be more of them (also in Europe) in the future. What if technology transfer will shift direction; instead of hardware traveling from "us" (affluent) to "them" (poor), what if "they" have much to teach us in terms of using ICT for maximum effect but with an almost-empty wallet? Perhaps there is much to learn from the ICT4D community (ICT for development)?
- Even though such an approach might be "sensible", it assumes that we first imagine (or admit) that the future might be less, rather than more affluent. This assumption did not exist in the meeting bubble I partook in. Instead of high-performance computing, we might have to ask questions about how to make the most out of "low-performance" computing. What would "future-proofed" low-tech, low-energy computing look like ("computing on the cheap")? What if a substantial proportion of the currently 50% unemployed young Spaniards and Greeks (and 25% of the young Swedes) will never attain the erroneously perceived "birthright" of consumer culture membership that we have all aspired to and but taken for granted? The young-and-unemployed of today might come to never own a house or even a car of their own. But processing power, computers and smartphones are less expensive, so how what can we do in the ICT area for a growing segment of disenfranchised members of the already or soon-to-be previously-rich European countries?

That is the challenge I propose. It might be less of a "research area" and more of a "perspective" that can be applied to various existing and future ICT Labs research areas. As to if there is room for such a (bleak) vision within the framework of the EIT ICT Labs activities is a question I hope to get answered in a meeting with the Stockholm node director before the end of this month (he's a busy guy). Perhaps the perspective I propose is "innovative" and can (still) promise to give Europe and European companies an "edge" compared to the rest of the world? Is that enough? The basic scenario of economic decline, or at least the absence of economic growth should not be inconceivable for anyone in Europe who doesn't have his or her blinders on any longer! But for an idea to fly within EIT ICT Labs, you also need to attract the interest of core industrial partners, and where are they in their thinking about these issues? Are they actually doing, or considering doing any work in this space ("ICT for the less affluent"?) already today?

Addition (beginning of April): I finally talked to the Stockholm node director. My basic ideas (decreased or non-existent economic growth) does not fit in this "technology push" program. It might be possible to reformulate parts and latch on to something else, but "negative" visions of the future has no place in the EIT ICT Labs concept. He promised to add me to the mailing list and gave me the advice to talk to two researchers in my vicinity who were "on board" and to keep my eyes open for the May 1 call (with an end of May deadline for writing proposals). But it doesn't look too promising for my ideas as described above. When Gunnar described the ideas behind ICT Labs and how it will "save Europe", it to me sounded like we'll just go on whistling, hope for the best and pretend that there is no "worst case" scenario at all (at least within the EIT ICT Labs drive). To hope for the best is to hope for renewed economic growth (perhaps partly through the results of EIT ICT Labs activities).

Addition (end of April). I just started reading an article, "Networking in the long emergency", where the abstract reads: "We explore responses to a scenario in which the severity of a permanent energy crisis fundamnetally limits our ability to maintain the current-day Internet architecture [...] In light of this, we propose a concrete research agenda to address the networking needs of an energy-deprived society." The article was presented at "Workshop on Green Networking 2011".

onsdag 7 mars 2012

Our new course on Sustainability and Media

We are in the process of planning a new course, "Sustainability and Media Technology". It will be given right after the summer for the very first time. I'm responsible for planning and giving the course (with plenty of guest lecturers passing by though), but I have to say that Ph.D. student Jorge Zapico has been the most active person in brainstorming ideas about the structure and content of the course, and recently refining them into a "package". His suggestion has, after a recent meeting, basically become the de-facto framework for the course. The course (right now) consists of 10 "topics", or 10 overlapping and interrelated parts:

1) Intro
2) Sustainability 101 (basics)
3) Technology, society and sustainability from a historical perspective
4) Environmental psychology and behavior
5) (Direct) negative impacts of ICT and media
6) (Selected) positive effects of ICT use
7) ICT and social sustainability
8) Rebound effects
9) Images of the future
10) Outro/wrap-up

Another Ph.D. student, Henrik Åhman has also become involved (a little), especially concerning social sustainability and related parts. The course will be given for our 4th year Swedish media technology students (compulsory), but it will be given in English and will thus also be open to our international media management masters students, and perhaps also to others.

The basic set-up of the course will be two lectures + one seminar per week during "period 1" (7.5 hp, i.e. half pace during the first half of the autumn). The fact that it is compulsory for a core of 50-60 Swedish students who have to take the course is both good and bad. Good because it's nice to (hopefully) make an impact on many rather than fewer students. Bad because some course participants will have scant interest in the course or even take to it badly (if it clashes with their world view or if they are "tired" of "environmental mumbo-jumbo"). It might be hard to "sell" the actual course contents to a large part of the course participants (possible critique at its most crude level: "why do we have to take this course, it won't help me get a job when I graduate"). It is of course always nicer to have students in your classroom who have made an active choice to be there, rather than students who are there because they have to.

I have a large course load during the autumn as it is, but I will drop my Social Media course in order to take responsibility for this new course. It seems to be the case that Ph.D. student Pernilla - who was my side-kick in the Social Media course this past autumn - will become responsible for it and with me becoming her side-kick (we will trade places).

I will have plenty to do from the end of August to mid- or the end of October this year as I also have other (teaching) commitments. It will for sure be my busiest time this (calendar) year.

söndag 4 mars 2012

Beyond web 2.0: Post-collapse computing

I submitted a 650-word abstract to the Internet Research 13.0 conference this past week (deadline March 1). The conference will be held in Manchester, England later this year (October 18-21).

This is a big conference and they accept most submissions (they used to anyway, perhaps submissions have ballooned since?). I've been to it twice (or is it three times? - I'm a little bit unsure), but it has been quite a few years since the last time. You're welcome to present your stuff at the conference without bothering to write a paper first, so the conference is (was) basically a huge get-together with 5-10 parallel tracks and lots and lots of people. You compete for attention and really do need to make a grab for your prospective audience. I did it by adopting a fanciful title that included the term "post-collapse computing" :-) Nowadays each person is allowed to submit only one paper (abstract), and I had to choose between three different topics (the other two having to do with the previous blog topics competitive programming and networking through crises respectively).

I arrogantly assume that my (in my opinion well-written) submission will be accepted, and I did spend some time to weave my submission and this year's theme, "technologies", together. I especially aimed for the sub-theme "the past, present and future of technology".

For those accepted presenters who want to, it is possible to submit a full paper before July 1 for review and possible inclusion "in an open-access, online collection, Selected Papers of Internet Research (ISSN 2162-3317)". I don't know what that is worth though, publishing-wise? Much more attractive is that "selected papers from the conference will alternatively be published in a special issue of the journal Information, Communication & Society".

Below is my submission (650-word abstract). My point of departure is an (unpublished) paper I wrote & a talk that I gave at a workshop on "The culture of ubiquitous information" in October 2010 and now it's back - bigger and meaner than ever! Here is my submitted abstract:


Beyond web 2.0: Post-collapse computing

Most of us take for granted that the future can be extrapolated from the present and the recent past, and, that the future is based on a narrative of expanding borders and scientific progress, growing economic prosperity and human wellbeing. The place of the Internet in the world of tomorrow is by default taken to be ”it’s current role +1”.

Some take this notion to the extreme and propose that we will soon (within a few decades) colonize the asteroids, create computers that are smarter than humans, be able to download our minds into silicon and live forever, or alternatively to repair our bodies and have them last for a thousand years or longer (Kurzweil 2005, de Gray and Rae 2007, More 2010). These ideas seem hyperbolic and strange to most of us, but the less outlandish notion of scientific and economic progress in small incremental steps forever, or at least for a (very) long time into the foreseeable future is on the other hand part the ”operating system” of modern societies. A world of possibilities is a world where 3G (2001) mobile phone services are followed by 4G systems (2011-2013) and ubiquitous information services, and then by 5G systems (≈ 2020) and more advanced services, and presumably later by 6G systems and 7G systems. The recent financial crisis, with its economic fallout still being felt in many rich (or ”indebted”) countries, is interpreted as a temporary setback in a world economy slated to again pick up speed within the next few years.

This narrative of endless possibilities can be contrasted with a competing narrative of humanity now facing non-negotiable limitations. According to the competing and equally grand narrative, humanity now finds itself at a breaking point, facing several concurrent crises (climate, environment, economy, energy, resources, food, water), together demanding totally new ways of thinking about the future (Meadows, Randers and Meadows 2004, Jackson 2009, Rubin 2009, Greer 2009, Heinberg & Lerch 2010, Fallon & Douthwaite 2011). From now on, technological change will not only switch gears, but will more importantly change direction. Technology and other societal structures will ”collapse” in the sense that societal and technological complexity will decrease over time (Tainter 1988, Diamond 2005). This will primarily be an effect of 1) energy (fossil fuels) becoming more scarce/expensive in combination with 2) financial and economic problems mounting in a no-growth or shrinking world economy. These two forces, acting together and strengthening each other, will lead to a breakdown in the assessments of risks and concomitant rising costs of acquiring capital and servicing debt, fluctuations in price, and the cost of production and transportation steadily increasing over time, exerting stress on the modern globalized high-tech, high-energy regime. In many areas (for example food, energy provisioning, low-tech), complex supply chains and just-in-time delivery will be replaced by simpler, less complex and more energy-stingy national, regional or local solutions.

So what if the place of the Internet in tomorrow’s world is not to be found in today’s high-tech, high-energy, high-maintenance and highly specialized research laboratories, or even in today’s ubiquitous access to connectivity and computing resources? What if previews of tomorrow’s widespread use of computers and the Internet instead are more fruitfully to be searched for among the young, the poor and the marginalized and in less affluent environments such as low-income communities (Dillahunt et. al. 2009), among homeless young American’s use of personal digital technologies (Woelfer and Hendry 2010, Woelfer and Hendry 2011), or among the poorest Internet users in Mexico (Wang and Brown 2011, Contreras Montero 2012)?

This paper sketches out what a world of limitations could mean in a context of access and use of computing resources. The purpose is not to predict the future, but rather to question taken-for-granted “truths” and to open up new vistas of thought as well as to outline under-researched areas that are of relevance to a post-collapse computing paradigm.


torsdag 1 mars 2012

My spring'12 crops of bacherlor's theses

I wrote a month ago that bachelor's thesis season had started at our department. No less than 70 students will write their theses during the spring, but fortunately they for the most part write in pairs.

My share of this crop of students and topics are 10 students writing 5 theses in pairs. We met today for the second time and my students' topics are as follows:

- Two pair of students write theses based on my thesis proposal about "Energy, IT and design". I wrote up the proposal two years ago, but these are the first students to have a go at it. Both deal with the same basic question; how can we (consumers) decrease our use of electricity at home through better visualization tools (vis-a-vis electricity usage) leading to altered behaviors?

- One pair of students work on evaluating current methods for making sure that social responsibility is maintained in the production of IT stuff (hardware) in Asian factories. How is social responsibility certified and guaranteed?

- One pair of students work on mapping the effects of (social) networks in their careers. They will more specifically look at students who have graduated from our engineering education in media technology during the last 10 years ago. These relationships (networks) can, but are not necessarily limited to those established during their years as students at KTH. Lastly, what role does social networking software (e.g. LinkedIn, Facebook) play nowadays?

- The last pair of students will conduct a practical experiment in order to try to discern how Facebook and Google filter content depending on individual history and preferences. How does my results differ from yours when we both use the same search phrases? The inspiration comes from this TEDtalk by Eli Parisier called "Beware of online 'filter bubbles'" (Parisier has also written a book about it).

They (and to some extent I) will work with these topics during the spring (they work at half pace, e.g. 20 hours per week) and their theses will be presented at the end of the term. I will come back to this topic again before the summer and wish my students good luck in the meantime.