torsdag 28 februari 2013

Books I've read recently

"Books I've read lately" is a recurring topic and here is the previous blog post (same topic, different books). I read the four books below between mid-September and the end of October last year. It has unfortunately been no less than three months since the last time I wrote about books I've read "recently". 

The four books below are a mixed lot. The first two concern sustainability and the last two books corner economy and history.

I actually went to a release party for Anders Wijkman and Johan Rockström's "Den stora förnekelsen" (2011) [The great denial] and I bought my copy of the book then and there on a whim. Some time passed 'til I read it, and it by now seems like the translation into English had been finished. The English-language version is called "Bankrupting nature: Denying our planetary boundaries". Johan Rockström's claim to (scientific) fame primarily rests on the concept of "planetary boundaries" as developed in his 2009 Nature article "A safe operating space for humanity". Johan is also head of Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) and Stockholm Resilience Center. Co- and first author Anders Wijkman is primarily known for his political work, having (for example) been a member of the European Parliament for a decade (1999-2009). The one strange thing about Anders' political career is that he was a member of the Christian Democrats rather than then Green (environmental) party. He has also been the general secretary of the Swedish Red Cross for a decade before that and is now co-president of the global think-tank Club of Rome.

So what about the book in itself? The book is obviously an attempt to do several things at once with an emphasis on popularizing science about the state of the world (it's bad), questioning the current societal "growth paradigm" (a crucial task) and the direction we seem to be heading in (straight to hell), lowering the threshold for political action (much needed) and hammering in the lesson that economy, development and environment are interconnected and that the prize (monetary or otherwise) for disregarding environmental (climate, sustainability, energy) issues are larger than the costs (it makes sense to care about the climate also from an economic point of view - because sawing of the branch you're sitting on is obviously a non-sustainable strategy). That one overly long sentence basically summarized the whole book. The authors' tone of voice is serious but still conveys the message that "we can fix this" if we only [list of lots of things that needs to be done as soon as possible]. So is the book successful in its endeavor? For the most part I think it is. It does a great job of popularizing the science and the seriousness of our current course. Whether the suggested "fixes" are enough (or even the right ones) can be discussed, but I think "The great denial" would be a great book to put in the hands of a host/hostess at a dinner party (instead of a bottle of wine) - but for that to happen there needs to be an inexpensive pocketbook edition. Right now the hardcover edition is more of a semi-expensive birthday present.

Another book in a similar genre ("public education") is Magnus Redin's "När resurser sinar" (2010) [When resources dry up]. We are here moving to the other end of the spectrum as Magnus is far from a global player, but rather a local politician (as well as an acquaintance of mine). The book is self-published and relatively hard to get hold of. It is possible to find the book in web but not in physical bookstores (I bought my copy directly from the author). The book is written in the same genre as Stellan Tengroth's "Tillväxt till döds" (2010) [Growth to death], except that Stellan has been more successful in his outreach. Both books are written by sensible persons who have thought and discussed Important Issues a lot, and now have taken the time to formulate their thoughts in short, to-the-point manuscripts (pamphlets).

Beyond natural and energy resources drying up, Magnus is very concerned about political stability and societal coherence in collapse or exhaustion scenarios. How things turn out in the end to a large extent depends on how we as individuals, groups and societies react to prolonged scarcity and economic and other hardships. Will we band together or will we fight each other over the remnants at the dinner table? As a local politician, Magnus has a keen grasp of everything that "goes together" to get our society to work. In the parlance of Tainter (below), Magnus is sharing his ideas about how to deal with (societal and economic) decline in his book and Magnus is a "doer". He embodies standing with his both feet on the ground and a stubborn peasant/engineer reasonableness. He's the kind of person who could be a radio amateur - making things happen and working with what resources there are to make the best of the situation - like a bricoleur:

"The Bricoleur is adept at many tasks and at putting preexisting things together in new ways, adapting his project to a finite stock of materials and tools."

I've decided to re-read a few "old" books every year that I thought were pretty great back when I read them the first time around. The first such book is James Beniger's "The control revolution: Technological and economic origins of the information society" (1986). Some of Beniger's thoughts made a very strong impression on me when I read the book the first time and have been with me since, so I figured I owed it to him to re-read this book of his. As apart from all they hype about information technologies remaking the world from scratch, Beniger's book puts these technologies in a 100+ years long context of data processing and bureaucracy. Before the digital computer came along there were typewriters, calculators and punch cards, and before digital computing there was analog computing, punch-card processing and desktop calculating. To Beniger, computing is just one (the latest) in a long line of inventions we use in our attempts to (re-)gain control over time, space, information, resources and material flows. Beniger makes the point that:

"Once we view national economies as concrete processing systems engaged in the continuous extraction, reorganization, and distribution of environmental inputs to final consumption, the impact of industrialization takes on new meaning. Until the Industrial Revolution, even the largest and most developed economies ran literally at a human pace, with processing speeds enhanced only slightly by draft animals and by wind and water power [...] By far the greatest effect of industrialization [...] was to speed up a society's entire material processing system, thereby precipitating what I call a crisis of control, a period in which innovations in information-processing and communication technologies lagged behind those of energy and its application to manufacturing and transportation."

This perspective blew my mind when I read the book some 20 or so years ago. This particular summary basically went against everything I thought I knew at the time: "computer technologies, contrary to currently fashionable opinion, are not new forces recently unleashed upon an unprepared society, but merely the latest installment in the continuing development of the Control Revolution".

The crisis in control took as its starting point a general speedup of materials throughput. This led to consecutive crisis in other parts of economy; a crisis in transportation (railroads) in the 1840's, a crisis in distributions in the 1850's, a crisis in production in the 1860's and a crisis in marketing in the 1880's. Furthermore,

"Each of the major sectors of the economy tended to exploit a particular area of information technology: transportation concentrated on the development of bureaucratic organization, production on the organization of material processing [...]‚ distribution concentrated on telecommunications, marketing on mass media."

The last book in this blog posts is Joseph Tainter's masterful "The collapse of complex societies" (1988). "The collapse of complex societies" together with Jared Diamond's more recent and more popular(ized) "Collapse: How societies choose to fail or succeed" (2005) are the literal bibles of all collapsitarians. Tainter's book is part of the "New studies in archeology" series at the prestigious publishing house Cambridge University Press, but this is archeology as I have never seen it before (not that I've seen that much in the first place :-)

Tainter's basic thesis is that societies are problem-solving entities. When civilization (agriculture, cities, bureaucracy etc.) takes off (which has happened many times in history), the payoff of solving basic problems (food production, trade, overcoming/deterring barbarian invasions etc.) is huge. But as time goes on and more problems are thrown at, or are invented by a society, societies experience decreasing returns of increased complexity. As each new problem is solved, the structural costs of added layers of complexity (rules, laws, bureaucracies, political systems amending (and adding to) earlier rules, laws, bureaucracies and the intricate details of political systems) stay in place with maintenance costs increasing over time but without much actual utility being added. The developments over time are summarized in one neat picture:

Figure: Level of complexity (x axis) = cost. Benefits of complexity (y axis) = utility. After an initial burst, the marginal return (benefits) of increased complexity decreases. After a break point, complexity (and cost) continues to increase, but adds not increased but decreased net benefits. Confused? Think about the costs and the benefits or the European Community or the Euro currency...

As an archeologist, Tainter's quest was to find underlying factors for the collapse of past civilizations. The collapse of the Western Roman empire (0-500 AD), The classic Maya collapse (0-1000 AD) and the Chacoan collapse (New Mexico, 1100-1200) are case studies in his book, but "collapse is a recurrent feature of human societies". What goes up, must come down...

As an archeologist, Tainter uses the term "collapse" in a very specific manner, but let's first make clear that collapse is not the same thing as apocalypse. Collapse is a political process that makes itself known as "a rapid, significant loss of an established level of sociopolitical complexity". Rapid to an archeologist in this case means that it takes "no more than a few decades". Sociopolitical complexity manifests itself through (for example) increased stratification and social differentiation, increased specialization of individuals, groups and territories, increased trading and redistribution of resources, increased regulation and centralized control, increased monumental architecture as well as through artistic and literary achievements, increased flow of information between individuals, groups and between a center and its periphery, increased coordination and organization of individuals and groups and larger territory integrated within a single political unit.

The collapse of an empire can take many decades or even centuries with temporary revivals (in themselves lasting for decades (i.e. a lifetime)), but the general direction over time is still towards decreased complexity. Despite for the most part directing his gaze backwards in time, Tainter also glances towards the future and asks whether modern societies too are vulnerable to collapse, and adds that "to some historians of the early twentieth century the twilight of Rome seemed almost a page of contemporary history". I'd say we are back there again. I'd go one step further and state that collapse is not something we might experience in the future, but rather something we are experiencing today. Writing about the collapse of the Roman empire, but equally applicable in the context of an ailing EU and an ailing U.S., Tainter writes:

"Serious stress surges [...] began to affect the Empire in the mid second century A.D., and increasingly thereafter. Unable to bear the cost of meeting these challenges out of yearly productivity, the emperors adopted a strategy of artificially inflating the value of their yearly budgets by debasing the currency. This shifted the cost of current crises to future taxpayers. Such a strategy assumes that the future will experience no equivalent crisis. When this assumption proved grossly in error, the existence of the Empire was imperiled.

A series of escalating crises [...] both internal and external, proved increasingly detrimental to the welfare of the State. The costs of meeting these crises fell on a decimated support population. By debasing the currency, increasing taxes, and imposing stringent regulations on the lives of individuals, the Empire was, for a time, able to survive. It did so, however, by vastly increasing its own costliness, and in so doing decreased the marginal return it could offer its population. [...] In being unable to maintain an acceptable return on investment in complexity, the Roman Empire lost both its legitimacy and its survivability."

There are (hopefully) some differences too between then and now, because the crisis in the Roman Empire wore on:

"As crops were confiscated for taxation and peasant's children sold into slavery, lands were increasingly ravaged by barbarians who could not be halted with the Empire's resources. [...] many peasants were apathetic about the dissolution of Roman rule, while some actively joined the invaders."

Let's hope it won't come to that! ...But if a slated collapse will play itself out over a scale of centuries, who can really tell...?


lördag 23 februari 2013

Books I've read 2012

This is a summary of the non-fiction books I read in 2012. It is just as much a way for me to keep track of what I've read as it is a service to you, dear reader.

Actually, it isn't really a list of the books I read during 2012 as much as it is a list of the books I wrote about on this blog during 2012. There is a lag between reading a book and writing about it here on the blog (currently - since I have slipped - around 5 months). I regularly write blog posts about "books I've read recently", typically summing up three or four books I have read "lately" and I wrote such blog posts in FebruaryMarch, May, June, July, August, September, October and November. All the books I wrote about last year are listed below.

Despite posting this blog post almost two months into the new year, I find it useful to sum up the academic books I "read last year". I will probably back-date this blog post later so that it will look like it was published in the beginning of January...

Julian Dibbell, "Play money: Or, how I quit my day job and made millions trading virtual loot" (2006).
Peter Zackariasson, "Cyberk@pitalism: Om konsten att tjäna pengar på att döda drakar, stjäla vapen och dansa naken i virtuella världar" (2009). ["Cyberc@pitalsim: On the art of earning money by killing dragons, stealing weapons and dancing naked in virtual worlds"]
Tim Guest, "Second lives: A journey through virtual worlds" (2008).
Maria Bäcke, "Power games: Rules and roles in Second Life" (Ph.D thesis/pdf file, 2011).

John Kenneth Galbraith, "The great crash 1929" (1954).
Robert McElvaine, "The great depression: America 1929-1941" (1984/2009).
Robert and Helen Lynd, "Middletown in transition: A study of cultural conflicts" (1937).
Catherine Newman, "Chutes and ladders: Navigating the low-wage labor market" (2006).
John Steinbeck, "Vredens druvor" (1941). [The grapes of wrath] Bonus - fiction!

Allen Guttman, "From ritual to record: The nature of modern sports" (1978).
Jane McGonigal, "Reality is broken: Why games make us better and how they can change the world" (2011).
Mikolaj Dymek, "Industrial Phantasmagoria: Subcultural interactive cinema meets mass-cultural media of simulation" (Ph.D thesis/pdf file, 2010).

Richard Heinberg and Daniel Lerch (eds.), "The post carbon reader: Managing the 21st century's sustainability crises" (2010).
Richard Douthwaite and Gillian Fallon (eds.), "Fleeing Vesuvius: Overcoming the risks of economic and environmental collapse" (2011).
Paul Kingsnorth and Dougald Hine (eds.), "Dark Mountain (Issue 1)" (2010).

Barbara Ehrenreich, "Gilla läget: Hur allt gick åt helvete med positivt tänkande" (2009). ["Smile or die: How positive thinking fooled America and the world"]
David Jonstad, "Kollaps: Livet vid civiliationens slut" (2012). [Collapse: Life at the end of civilization]
Björn Forsberg, "Omställningens tid: Tillväxtens slut och jakten på en hållbar framtid" (2012). [The Age of transition: The end of economic growth and the pursuit of a sustainable future].
John Barnes, "Mother of storms" (1992). Bonus - fiction!
Thomas Mann, "Buddenbrooks" (1901). Bonus - fiction!

Bill Tomlinson, "Greening through IT: Information technology for environmental sustainability" (2010).
Lorenz Hilty, "Information technology and sustainability: Essays on the relationship between information technology and sustainable development" (2008).
David Owen, "The conundrum: How scientific innovation, increased efficiency, and good intentions can make our energy and climate problems worse" (2012).

E. F. Schumacher, "Small is beautiful: A study of economics as if people mattered" (1974).
John Michael Greer, "The ecotechnic future: Envisioning a post-peak world" (2009).
Richard Schickel, "Intimate strangers: The culture of celebrity in America" (1985).

John Markoff, "What the dormouse said: How the 60s counterculture shaped the personal computer industry" (2005).
Fred Turner, "From counterculture to cyberculture: Steward Brand, the Whole Earth Network and the rise of digital utopianism" (2006).
Richard Barbrook, "Imaginary futures: From thinking machines to the global village" (2007).

Chris Carlsson, "Nowtopia: How pirate programmers, outlaw bicyclists, and vacant-lot gardeners are inventing the future today" (2008).
Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello, "The new spirit of capitalism" (1999).
Peter Jakobsson, "Öppenhetsindustrin" (Ph.D thesis/pdf file, 2012). [The openness industry]

My recommendations for best buys (a combination of quality and price) are:
- Jonstad, "Kollaps" (45 SEK)
- Ehrenreich, "Gilla läget" (49 SEK)
- Dibbell, "Play money" (109 SEK)
- McGonigal, "Reality is broken" (109 SEK)
- Greer, "The ecotechnic future" (125 SEK)
- Heinberg & Lerch, "The post carbon reader" (158 SEK)

The three Ph.D. theses listed above are of course possible to download for free - and you can't beat that price! Do note that the contents of the hefty and very reasonably priced Post carbon reader for the most part can be downloaded online!

Are there any books you have read? Do you for the most part agree or disagree with my opinions about these books? Have you bought/read any of book above because I wrote about them of this blog?

tisdag 19 februari 2013

ICT4S conference

I went to the first international conference on ICT for Sustainability (ICT4S) in Zürich, Switzerland last week. By train! Riding a train for the better part of 24 hours (twice!) represented a good opportunity to get to know a couple of colleagues better...

This was the very first ICT4S conference and the KTH Center for Sustainable Communications (CESC) had encouraged affiliated researchers first to submit papers and then to attend the conference. CESC was represented by around a dozen contributions to the conference program and by no less than 17 CESC members. Adding the two Ericsson research employees - who through their research is affiliated with the center - we constituted a sizable part of the conference attendees.  

I didn't submitted anything, the deadline for abstracts was already in the beginning of June last year and the timing didn't fit me at all. I did however go to a really interesting workshop in Vienna at that time and already then heard about the conference. I was happy to meet up with a dozen persons at the ICT4S conferences that I had previously gotten to know in Vienna, one of whom was professor Lorenz Hilty himself - organizer and big boss of the ICT4S conference as well as keynote speaker at the Vienna workshop. Since I met him in Vienna for the better part of a year ago I have also read his book

Here is the official schtick for the ICT4S conference:

“ICT for sustainability” is about utilizing the transformational power of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) for making our world more sustainable: saving energy and material resources by creating more value from less physical input, increasing quality of life for ever more people without compromising future generations´ ability to meet their needs.

As to the papers and presentations at the conference, the quality was mixed. I had printed no less than 10 (short) papers beforehand (to read on the train trip) - and I have now read them all. I have also selected another half a dozen papers that I will print now that I'm back and read later. 

I was a diligent student at the conference and I listened to presentations from early morning to late afternoon (9-18). The scope of the conference and the presentations was wide, spanning studies of computer hardware and software to social and societal (sustainability) consequences of ICT. I suspect the acceptance rate to the conference was quite high, i.e. some of the papers that ended up being accepted and presented were in my opinion sub-par. I hope the general quality of both papers and presentations will be better the next time around.

As to the next conference, it was announced that the 2nd international ICT4S conference will  be hosted by KTH and CESC in Stockholm. The exact date has not yet been set, but the conference will be held at or near the end of August next year (2014). The deadline for abstracts will be sometime around January 2014 and the deadline for full papers will be April 2014 or thereabout. I guess I will be involved in organizing the conference in some way (and will thus probably post more about the upcoming conference at some later point). 

Here are some of the highlights that I want to remember from the conference:

Robert Laubacher from the Center for Collective Intelligence and the MIT Sloan School of Management, MIT, was a keynote speaker and he talked about The Climate CoLab ("Harnessing Collective Intelligence to Address Climate Change")
- The Climate CoLab is a contest of sorts to address climate change. Experts suggest topics (challenges) that differ from year to year. Contestants/community members submit proposals (as individuals or teams). A panel of experts review the suggestions and award prices for best proposals and the wisdom of crows vote for the Popular choice award. The best ideas are presented to potential implementers. For the 2010 contest (topic: "climate diplomacy") there were 29 entries and 3 winners. For the 2011 contest (topic: "green economy") there were 64 entries and 6 winners. The greatest challenge is not the competition itself, but rather the social context around the competitions and in creating a community. There is also a need for help in overseeing the contest in the role of "advisors" or "fellows" (not sure exactly what that entails). Other partners beyond MIT are Technische Universität MünchenBrown UniversityStanford University and University of Toronto.

Jennifer Mankoff from the Human-Computer Interaction Institute at Carnegie-Mellon was a keynote speaker and she talked about "Moving beyond feedback".
- After a disheartening wakeup, Jennifer started to question the real-world impact and the potential of her work on smart meters, sensors & feedback and behavior change. From that starting point, she has tried to broaden the focus for an agenda for computational sustainability. How can computers help measure impacts, expand the audience, encourage environmentality (pdf file) instead of just efficiency, and how can results be scaled up to the level of governments and nations? Jennifer also referred to two papers of hers. I already had her UbiComp 2010 paper on my desk, in the to-read pile ("Understanding conflict between landlords and tenants: Implications for energy sensing and feedback" - pdf file). She also referred to a brand new paper (to be presented at CHI two months from now?) about ICT and energy and with fieldwork having been done in Bangalore, India. The paper is (I believe) written together with Srinivasan and Seetharam (?) - I'll keep my eyes open for it. 

Don Gotterbarn, professor emeritus and leading computer ethics researchers gave a very entertaining and informative talk about computer ethics at the post-conference workshop I attended.
- We have an intuitive grasp of ethics when it comes to stuff your mother taught you; don't hurt other people etc. These are the problems we (as individuals and as a society) have thought about many times before. But then there are problems we haven't thought of before; whose "property" is stuff on Facebook? What about pictures I send through my Gmail-account? My holy book doesn't say anything at all about Twitter...

There were two papers with the term "community" in the title; "Small community media for sustainable consumption" (from Hungary) and "Urban sustainability through the web: Using ICTs to build a community for prospective neighbors" (from Italy). I've read the first but didn't like it that much due to a severe lack of focus and gaps in the author's background reading/knowledge about communities. The second paper looks more promising but I haven't read it yet (will do!). I had a nice conversation with the first author of the Italian paper but was snubbed when I asked a dicey methodological question to the second author. :-(

Some great quotes and one-liners I took down at the conference:
- Wangel & Katzeff talked about smart grids in terms of "new networks of power" (also referring to issues of who has the power to set the discourse, determine the rules etc.).
- Hilty: "What is a battery? It is a limitation! And as soon as we have absolute limits, innovation thrives."
- Hilty on the cloud: "Big brother could save a lot of energy!"
- Gotterbarn: "The ethical grid" (should have been "the electric grid")

I end this blog post with a whole bunch of ideas for possible papers for the next conference in Stockholm:
- A paper about our (mine and Elina's) upcoming use of the board game Carbonopoly in our course on media technology and sustainability!
- A paper with Karin about collaborative consumption and "the growth of post-consumerist cultures".
- A paper with Jörgen about, uh, well, something. Perhaps on the use of social media among "hard-core" sustainability activists and/or crisis-proofed lifestylers?
- A paper with Henrik Å about ICT + ecological and social sustainability would be fun, but is it possible to unite our different opinions?
- A paper about "sustainable use of social media" - whatever that might mean...? Perhaps I should go for "ICT for supporting ecovillages"?
- An analysis/study of the consumption of virtual objects as the ultimate goods for a sustainable society? What could be better than people spending lots of money for buying a virtual sword in World of Warcraft, or buying a virtual island (or a space station) in Project Entropia - pixels-for-money galore! But I don't have the time to write this paper - perhaps I should just write up a master's thesis proposal instead and try to get someone to write a thesis about this particular topic during the autumn?.

Post-script (130226):
- Keynote speaker Jennifer Mankoff's wrote a trip report of her own from the conference.
- At the Conference website, there is a webpage called "Documentation" which is very useful. The conference proceedings (pdf file, 11.5 MB) are for example online, as are the "Conference recommendations". These recommendations are basically a taxonomy of what the conference organizers and participants think "ICT for Sustainability" encompasses. This is thus a great document to consult when contemplating whether or what to submit to the next ICT4S conference (Aug/Sept 2014 in Stockholm).

Post-script (120311):
- Perhaps an ICT4S paper together with Cristi Bogdan since I just learned he has gotten quite a lot of money to study "ICT-, energy-, and network [social?] structures to decrease energy usage".

fredag 15 februari 2013

On the sportification of professional practices

I collected material (interviews) about programming competitions in general and the ACM International Collegiate Programming Competition (ICPC) in particular a year or more ago. At that time, I wrote two blog posts about competitive programming and programming competitions and both blog posts are among my top-ten most-read blog posts (out of the 150+ I have written in the 30-month long history of this blog).

This blog post is the very first about actual results of that study. I have been working with a Ph.D. student at the KTH Division of History of Science, Technology and Environment, Daniel Svensson. He started his Ph.D. studies relatively recently and the topic of his research is the sportification of cross-country skiing with a focus on "rational" (scientific) training methods and practices. His question is: how did skiing go from being part of everyday blue-collar forestry practices to something that you compete in? And how did the skiing itself become a practice colonized by scientists and taken into the laboratories?

Earlier this week we submitted an abstract to the 18th annual Congress of the European College of Sport Science (ECSS). The conference will be held at the end of June in Barcelona and I hope that my co-author will be able to go there and present our paper - should it be accepted. Here is our abstract:

"Being a good sport? On the sportification of professional practices." 

Theories of sportification have shown that modern sports tend to develop along similar patterns, albeit from very different starting points (Guttmann 2004, Yttergren 1996, Yttergren 2012). It is also clear that scientifically based, rational training methods have been an important factor in sportification processes of many sports (Heggie 2011, Hoberman 1992). We argue that modern sports can be traced back to a variety of practices, including professional practices (skiing), cultural-historical practices (fencing), public health practices/concerns (athletics) etc. In this paper we are primarily interested in traditional sports that can trace their origins back to professional (working-class, blue-collar) practices, such as skiing, skating and cycling. 

Today, an increasing number of competitions are organized in areas that are strongly connected to professional practices, but far outside of what the majority of people would consider to be sports. These professional practices are not  linked to the physical, working-class blue-collar professions of yesteryear, but rather to modern intellectual (upper) middle-class white-collar professions, as embodied and expressed through programming competitions (ACM International Collegiate Programming Competition, ICPC), engineering competitions (European BEST Engineering Competition, EBEC), legal competitions (Business Law Challenge) and innovation/business plan competitions (Venture Cup). We here refer to these as “white-collar competitions”.

In this paper, we explore both similarities and differences between traditional (blue-collar) and modern (white-collar) competitions. Our material primarily consists of examples from the sportification processes of 1) cross-country skiing and 2) competitive (team) programming. A significant difference between these two kinds of practices is that skiing is based on working-class forestry practices and even older practices of wintertime personal transportation, while the entrants to white-collar competitions typically are university students, bent on high-flying careers in their respective fields. We conclude the paper by using theories of sportification to critically examine white-collar competitions, as well as to ask what these competitions in their turn tell us about sportification processes.

söndag 10 februari 2013

Info society sustainability impacts

As I wrote recently, I'm involved in a research project that just started - "Scenarios and sustainability impacts in the information society". Beyond planning activities that went into the project during the autumn, the formal project kick-off was held a week ago. This blog post will treat the project and is based on the 6-page project plan as well as the half-day kick-off meeting itself.

The project is run under the auspices of the Center for Sustainable Communications (CESC) at KTH and it is led by Åsa Moberg and Mattias Höjer from CESC and the Department of environmental strategies research (FMS). The project will run between 2013-2015. Besides a bunch of people from KTH (where my department is represented by me and ph.d. student Malin Picha), there are also a number of CESC partners involved in the project; Ericsson, TeliaSonera, Interactive Institute, City of Stockholm, and Regional Growth, Environment and Planning at the Stockholm County Council [Tillväxt, miljö och regionplanering (TMR) vid Stockholms Läns Landsting].

As to the project, I think it is most fair to place it under the "discipline" of future studies ("future studies methodology will be used"). The two project leaders have their specialities in the areas of future studies and Life-cycle assessment (LCA) respectively and the aim of the project is to "assess the potential for ICT-solutions on a societal level". More specifically, the project aims at developing 3-4 scenarios of future ICT-societies and describe potential sustainability impacts (primarily pertaining to environmental impacts) of those various scenarios on a societal level. A requirement is to describe at least one scenario with a low environmental impact. The objective of the research project is: "How can a sustainable society be supported by ICT, i.e. reduce negative environmental impacts and promote socioeconomic development?". It is also stated (again on the very first page of the project description) that "The project will focus on one overarching question: What are the local and global sustainability implications of different scenarios of ICT societies?"

I think there might be subtle differences between the aim of the project, the objective of the project and the overarching question of the project. At the kick-off, there were several detailed questions about the specific meaning of certain words and terms, and my own question was what the difference is between a) sustainability implications of (future) ICT societies and b) sustainability implications of using ICT in (future) societies, i.e. do the ICT societies of the future differ from future societies in general, i.e. is "ICT societies" a "technical term" with a specific meaning or does it just mean something like "how we will use ICT in the future"? It turned out that "ICT societies" is not a technical term with a specific definition and a specific meaning. This question of mine might seem like nit-picking, but I was truly interested in the answer, and had the answer been that "ICT societies" refer to some specific kind(s) of future societies, I would of course have been very interested in knowing more about how those ICT societies of the future are defined and how they differ from more "ordinary" ideas and visions of future societies.

As the most important changes from a sustainability perspective are long-term, it has been deemed suitable to use scenarios in the project to identify and assess the impacts of both potentials and challenges of "harnessing" ICT to support (long-term) sustainable development. So, how will the scenarios describing possible future information societies be developed? On the one hand this is still a black box of kinds to me (even after having partaken in the workshop and helped identify trends and ideas about future societies). It seems fun and I look forward to develop future information society scenarios, but it doesn't seem particularly "scientific" to me. I got a paper written by my project colleagues on using scenarios, and I hope I will have a better grasp of the methodology after I read it. At this point I have to put my trust in the future studies researchers in the project (there are two or three) and just go with the flow and see how I can contribute. Defining scenarios is on the other hand just the kind of work that we will work on in the project during the first half of 2013, i.e. "Defining the ICT systems, ICT societies and impacts to assess". I suspect I will thus know a lot more about this pretty soon and it might be the topic of a future blog post...

The scenarios will focus on Sweden and use a "consumption perspective". That sounds innocent enough, but what it means is that the project will focus on the consumption (of services, gadgets, resources) of Swedes - both within and outside of the Swedish borders. That is, people who live in Sweden but are not Swedish citizens (such as several of the researchers in the project) are outside the scope of the project, but people who are Swedes (Swedish citizens) but live abroad could feasibly be studied in the project. Perhaps this won't make a huge difference in the end, but we had a discussion about this particular issue, and I think we might get back to it a few more times before it's perfectly clear to everyone. As of right now it seems easy to become confused and mix things up.

Some of the interesting questions the project aims to explore are:
- What can future ICT societies look like ("environmentally-drive, accessibility-driven, growth-driven" etc.)?
- What are the environmental impacts and what are the social implications of the scenarios?
- What could the paths towards sustainable information societies look like?
- What actors (stakeholders) will promote/counteract different developments? What conflicts of interest can be foreseen and what can be done about them?
- How can "conclusions" (suggestions?) regarding ICT and sustainability be integrated into long-term regional planning in Stockholm?
- How can what is learned in this project be generalized and transferred beyond Stockholm?

As to the kick-off workshop and beyond a run-through of the project (above), we also worked practically and collaboratively with brainstorming and generating future trends (and later clustering them). That was fun and we suggested a lot of different (and sometimes contradictory) trends, for example (in no particular order but my suggestions in bold style):
- metal depletion, especially rare earth metals
- higher demand of personal trips due to many global connections
- energy scarcity/higher energy prices - implications for travel, trade, manufacturing etc.
- increasing rate of ICT hardware consumption and shorter lifespans
- better tools to help people share their used/second-hand ICT devices
- more expensive gadgets/hardware
- ICT-induced unlimited global access to knowledge and entertainment
- (continued) high (youth) unemployment in many "affluent" countries leading to increased interest/need for "computing on the cheap"
- increased quality of video conferencing in terms of usability/user experience
- more computer-savvy youth/young people, but also more socially inept "otaku" youth
- improved logistics in industry
- increased general environmental awareness
- people will work more at different places
- physical location less important, online presence more important - people can settle anywhere (countryside) OR travel, move around a lot
- more efficient use of energy for computers, servers
- decreased CO2 emissions (due to harsher policies on the political level)
- ICT will make it even easier to shop (consume) by ordering stuff online
- Less emphasis on material possessions (except for smartphones and other personal ICT gadgets)
- ICT society = urban society
- ICT can lead to re-ruralization
- increased transparency of ICT footprint & environmental impact

All in all, it was a interesting, fun kick-off. I look forward to the next workshop (March) but will most probably meet the project leaders before that for discussions about my role (and my responsibilities) within the project.

lördag 9 februari 2013

Innovations in Magazine Media World Report

I got an unexpected out-of-the-blue e-mail earlier this week from John Wilpers, who apparently is the editor of the world association of magazines (FIPP - never hear of it before) annual book "Innovation in Magazine Media World Report" (never heard of if before, but here is some info on the 2012 report).

They were apparently writing up a story on the future of magazine reading and John had, during some last-minute research, stumbled on my course "Future of Media" and it's autumn 2012 theme "Future of Magazines/Magazines of the Future". John wrote that "The ideas seem fascinating based on the summaries on your website, so we'd like to get a little more detail".

I read his e-mail Tuesday morning and his deadline was Thursday! But we still managed to set up a Skype meeting already later that day.

I also sent him a bunch of useful links and he was really happy about what he found ("This is a GREAT resource. Thank you"). These links included the final presentation website, the list of guest lecturers in the course, the archive with texts and movies and especially the introduction (pdf) I wrote for the book we printed and that "explains it all". I talked with John over Skype later that day and suggested he take a closer look at some of the projects, for example by downloading the short movies that many project groups had created and then pursuing (reading about) projects which seemed particular interesting to him.

I have no idea what will come out of this. Everything that happened was confined to that one particular day. But I am really happy we put some extra effort into documenting this year's project and and also made an added effort to make the resulting materials more accessible on the web (thanks are especially due to Johan L and Sofie A!). John Wilpers promised to send me a copy of the book they're putting together and I look forward to receiving it later this spring and to find out what he made out of our course and the different magazine futures we proposed. As to the book he is editing, John wrote that:

"The book is distributed to 600 magazine executives in March at the annual Innovations confine in Berlin [never heard of it before] and then sold to magazine media people around the world (some 6000 copies)."

Cool! I really look forward to see what comes out of it! John also gave me access to the previous three Innovations in Magazine Media World Reports (2010, 2011, 2012), but this has been such a busy week I didn't have time to check them out. Now I have, and I realized these reports would have been a great resource for my course - it's a pity I didn't know about this when we gave the course last autumn!

söndag 3 februari 2013

I'm an activist!

Last month I couldn't even spell the word "actevist" and now I are one... :-)

Being an academic, I read a lot of text (no shit, Sherlock!?). In fact, it just so happened that I read three academic books about social movements at the end of last year. One of these books specifically concerned social movements in the age of the Internet. But no matter how many books you read, it's only possible to get non-personal, theoretical insights from reading books, and what has happened lately is that I've been part of a groundswell grassroots social movement. So much has has happened in the last two weeks, and this is my chance to write and reflect about this extremely intensive period while it's still recent. I still wish I would have had time to write this blog post a week ago since so much has happened and so much has changed in that short time!

This blog post consists of three parts. The first part "tells it like it is". In the second and third part I analyze two different aspects of collective action in the age of social media.

It all started less than two weeks ago and this is what I wrote in my Facebook feed "back then" (only 12 days ago - but it feels much longer):

Found out yesterday [Mon Jan 21] that the local school is "full". The presented "solution" is that my son and 95 other 5- and 6-year old kids will be bussed every day to a nearby [high] school where they will spend their first five years (until a new nearby school is finished in 2018). Not an acceptable solution -> eruption of discontent and online activities among 200 parents (and parents with younger kids should care too, because our situation will also be theirs a year or two from now).

The suggested solution is an [half] abandoned high school (Brännkyrka gymnasium) near the E4/Essingeleden highway - one of the busiest highways in Northern Europe with almost 200.000 cars passing by each day less than 100 meters from the school and with noise and air quality levels that licks (or is above) legal limitations.

Politicians and civil servants have utterly failed to plan for this situation despite having had 5+ years to prepare, think and act. Us parents found out about this only yesterday, and we all have to choose a school for our kids only three weeks from now. Thanks for that! (irony). The responsibility for this total fuck-up is distributed among a variety of institutions and actors - i.e. "no-one is responsible".

This really stinks! The only upside at this moment is the enormous amount of collective energy that has been unleashed (organized through a FB page), as well as the high level of specialized and relevant knowledge among (affluent, well-educated) parents. Some have knowledge and/or skills and others have time (perhaps being on maternity or paternity leave with a younger sibling).

I have just offered to help set up an evolving Google-docs document archive as a resource. Right now I'm not just reading about activism in the Internet age, but am part of it.

As a result of commenting and being active on the Facebook page, plus setting up a bouquet of Google documents to organize and coordinate internal activities, I was invited to a "steering group" meeting on Wednesday (only two days after the information meeting and one day after I wrote the Facebook message above). I have since spent quite a lot of time being an activist, but less in the very last 4 days (further explained below). Although I wasn't drafted to the steering group solely on the merit of being a man, my gender didn't hurt as we ended up being ten women/mothers but only two men/fathers in that group.

This far, I can divide the last two weeks of activism into a number of distinct phases:
- Phase 1, information meeting in the school auditorium - ignition (Jan 21)
- Phase 2, outpouring of my energy and frustration on Facebook - explosion (Jan 21-22 - one of the posts I wrote was really nasty and mean and I had to apologize and distance myself from parts of it a day later when I had calmed down some)
- Phase 3, I was drafted into the steering group and became a part-time activist and rabble-rouser - direction (Jan 23-)
- Phase 4, We won (?) - victory? (Jan 31-)
- Phase 4, Second and final information meeting in school - endgame (Feb 11)

--- Background/rant ---

At the information meeting (Jan 21) about the upcoming deadline for choosing schools, all parents were very surprised to hear that there is no place at all in the local school - nor anywhere else in the local area - for any of the 96 kids who were born in 2007. We live 200 meters from the school and my oldest son already attends that school. These reasons would carry quite some weight if not for the fact that they apparently had decided not to accept any children at all this particular year. Instead there would be a bus service for five years (!) to a nearby (3 km) high school, until a brand new school was to be finished in 2018.

How long is five years? I'm a university teacher. To get an engineering degree at KTH takes half a decade (five years) and that represents half an eternity to my students. To my son, five years is a whole lifetime - since he is five years old. And now we find out, with too little time to make any alternative plans, that he is supposed to make daily excursions to a highway where more than one million cars pass by every week for his "second lifetime" (the next five years of his life). That just wasn't acceptable. The proposal that was presented wasn't even thought through and many practical questions remained unanswered:

Parent: "will there be seat belts on the bus?"
Parent: "there is no physical space outside the ordinary school for 100 parents and 100 children to congregate and wait each morning - where exactly will the bus pick up the children?"
Parent: "how will you "deliver" my daughter back to the local school just in time for me to pick her up in the afternoon?"
Parent: "who will keep my son company outside the school if I'm delayed by a stop in the subway?"
Spokescreature standard answer: "[I can't answer that right now as] we're behind on the detailed planning".

Parent: "what about the air quality and noise?
Spokescreature: "we are doing new measurements. If they are above the legal limits, this alternative is off the table".
Parent: "so what is the back-up plan?"
Spokescreature: "there is no back-up plan"
Parent: "if so, how do we make a choice concerning which school to choose three weeks from now?"
At this point I don't remember exactly what spokescreature's answer was, except that it was an implicit plea to "put you trust in us" - which unsurprisingly did not go over well or have a lot of traction in this particular audience and at this time.

This was all very upsetting, but I have also noticed that you sort of had to be at the meeting at that time to become upset and worked up enough and take things one step further. Almost only people who actually were at the meeting have become activists afterwards. Part of that is because the meeting was such a sham and the answers given to reasonable questions were so flimsy. One angry dad shouted: "admit it, this proposal is something you thought about over a coffee break last Friday". I was angry too. I confronted the spokes and told him that there is only one thing that both he and us parents agree on, and that is that this all is a great failure. He replied and said that he had never used the term "failure". He had repeatedly used the terms "poor foresight" or "insufficient foresight". He claimed to not have used the the term "failure" and said that was my personal interpretation of what he had said.

I've been thinking about the terminology some. I have realized that he could not use the term "failure", because that would imply responsibility on his behalf and with that responsibility also an obligation (of sorts) to fix and "make up" for this failure. If instead it was only a matter of "insufficient foresight", then that's just one of those unfortunate things that happens now and then. I personally on the other hand think that half a decade of "insufficient foresight" happens to be a pretty good definition of "failure". Don't you agree?

It later turns out that the city of Stockholm has bought prognoses about the number of children (and the need for building schools) from an engineering consulting firm, Sweco. They apparently make predictions based on complicated models of "reality". The city bought a prognosis in 2010 that estimated that the number of school children in this area of the city would reach 362 in 2019. The latest prognoses, arriving just before Christmas revised that number to 943(!). How is it possible to go so wrong? At this point I'm pretty pissed off. Exactly how does the procurement process for buying worse-that-worthless prognoses look like? Exactly how incompetent do you have to be to work as Sweco building and managing software for making prognosis? But wait - the city of Stockholm doesn't have to buy worse-than-worthless prognosis from a private company, so exactly how incompetent do you have to be to buy these prognoses (taxpayer money!) and to make long-term plans for basic social services (schools) if you are a civil servant working for the city of Stockholm (salary = taxpayer money!).

I know this sounds like a rant where I'm going of the top, but the thing is of course that almost all of the 96 children born in 2007 already went to day-care in this area back in 2010 (and earlier). The school became full this past summer, so why didn't someone figure out that that would pose a problem one year later? It's actually really easy to search on the web and find all the day-care centers and how many children there are in the area. There are currently almost 700 children in our soon-to-be 10 local day-care centers. These are children born between 2007-2011 (between 1 and 6 years of age as of today). They all want to start school as six-year old before 2018 - when the new school is finished.

The politician with the ultimate responsibility for schools in Stockholm (Skolborgarrådet Lotta Edholm, Fp) now says that "we should look at the demographics that the local city administration [with responsibility for day-care services] see, that is, how many children there actually are". No shit, Sherlock!? I think that's a great insight - the only problem is that it is five years late. And really, anyone with any kind of responsibility for this mess and just the slightest sliver of imagination ought to have been able to figure this one out a long time ago without even getting up from the chair...

Ok, so now I've displayed some of the righteous anger that gripped me and many other parents at the meeting. And we organized. Many people have chipped in, hunting down and hounding civil servants and politicians, searching for answers and suggesting alternative solutions. The pace has been high and it has sometimes been difficult just to keep track of what has been done (not to mention who has done what). 

I was working at home this past Monday, but let's face it - I didn't get much work done, but rather spent most of the day working as an activist out of my home. I sent more than 40 activist-related e-mails that day and the majority was sent to my fellow members of the steering group. I've spent most of the time during some evenings, and some of the time during all of the evenings as an activist during the last two weeks. I've spend some more time during the daytime hours too, to keep up with the flow.

--- Division of labor ---

Being part of the inner circle, I now have insights both into the public face of this movement as well as the behind-the-scenes footwork. A LOT happens behind the scenes, away from the public eye, including brainstorming, strategizing and planning actions that haven't been launched (yet). Over the course of just a week or ten days, a division of labor of sorts quickly emerged and my "slot" in the steering group has become note-taker at meetings (we don't really have an agenda and a secretary), trying to make stuff we want to happen "actionable" and preferably also finding the name of a specific person who is suitable and willing to take it upon herself to do that particular task.

I should sometimes have done a better job of following up and making sure that tasks were in fact performed, but haven't had the time to do that in the hurried tempo of this distributed effort. Also, people do a lot by themselves when filled by a purpose and a mission, and it has in fact been quite an effort at times just to keep up with what everyone else has done, is doing, and plans to do! I have also been responsible for a variety of specialized Google documents that have supported our effort (one document with names, titles, job descriptions, mail addresses and telephone number of politicians and civil servants who are of interest to us; another document with ideas for topics we could/should write about in on our Facebook page, another document with notes from the steering committe meetings and so on). 

It's not that that necessarily had to be my slot, but since no-one else volunteered and it thus seemed I was best one suited for the task... (having had a vision of how eminently useful Google documents would be for this specific task and creating them in the first place). Other persons did other things (division of labor). One women had liberal access to the telephone all day long and took it upon herself to call people left and right (something that would have been very difficult for me). Another man works a construction firm and thus understands the business of building things (like a school for example). Another woman is on maternity leave and has time to do "grunt work" (draw posters) should that be needed. Yet other people have specialized knowledge about how to understand environmental measurements, primarily air quality and noise, as well as how to interpret previous environmental court cases. Yet other people know how to get in touch with and pitch our message to the media (there are parents in our network working in both print media and TV). We've been on TV, radio and press a number of times and that is a great way to put pressure on politicians (who in their turn put pressure on the civil servants). There really is strength in numbers, in diversity and in a good division of labor too!

--- Social media ---

Social media really has been our best friend. There are some deep truths in Clay Shirky's book "Here comes everybody: The power of organizing without organizations" (2009). The cost of coordinating any activity has fallen through the floor with the arrival of social media. To do what we have done is 10 or 100 times less costly (in terms of money, effort, coordination) that it would have been 20 years ago. It's not necessary to build up a hierarchal organization with many levels. All that is needed is a "place" online where people can congregate (in this case a Facebook page - it currently has more than 360 members but we are unfortunately missing out on the people who don't use Facebook). Social media almost makes it unnecessary to make detailed plans and portion out tasks. If there are enough persons with enough energy, one person can identify a need (we should call this person), another person can make the telephone call and report back and a third person can aggregate and disseminate information for the benefit of all. This is totally in line with how open-source software is developed, and that's pretty cool.

Another aspect I find interesting is that you don't really even need to know anyone (to have a relationship to specific other parents) in order to participate and chip in. You don't need to spend a lot of time and energy ringing on doors in order to recruit people. It's enough to lean back and see what happens on the Facebook page only to later invite the most active parents to the steering group. I was invited myself despite not knowing any of the four "founding mothers" of the Facebook group. And we can work really effectively despite hardly knowing each other at all only a week earlier. That would never have happened (or been a lot more difficult) before social media. Our children attend a bunch of different day-care centers in the area, so it's not like we were all best friends beforehand. And it's definitely an advantage to have parents from many different pre-schools get together (for example if you want to distribute leaflets to all the 600+ children, which we did last week).

All-in-all, it's been a pretty intense period. I mostly wear my "parent hat", but in this blog post I have also at times shifted to my "researcher hat". I have to admit that as a researcher I find this experience interesting and will for sure be able to relate to it and make use of it when I read about social media and activism from now on.

Oh, and we won. Perhaps. Four days ago we got an open letter where it said they are changing the directions and are now primarily looking for a local solutions that doesn't need a bus service for the children. While it looks good, the actual wording is bureacracy-speak and there is unfortunately a lot of hedging. "Primarily looking for..." can fail and make the fall-back option seem necessary. We won't know for sure until the second/extra information meeting which has been planned for next Monday (Feb 11). But if they go back on their "promise", the parents will for sure be furious and ready to tear down city hall brick by brick - so let's hope that doesn't happen. The city hall is after all a nice building and I got married there...

It's of course not possible to build a brand new school in a very short time, but the proposed solution is to build some kind of temporary classrooms. And us parents will be there to make sure it turns out all right. Now that we are organized, I think we will be powerful factor in expressing our opinions and negotiating with the school for many years to come - and that another interesting insight.

I've been thinking about more sneaky stuff but I don't want to "show our hand" and write about strategical and tactical decisions and moves that we have made. That can wait until after the extra information meeting on Feb 11 and a later follow-up blog post.

Here are a couple of photos. They might clarify the point of why I don't think the proposed high-school is an acceptable alternative for my son. My son would be taken to school in a bus, but I might want to go pick him up now and then and this is the road seldom travelled:

This is (part of) the nice and cosy high school where my son and his 95 five and six-year old friends would spend their first five years in school - in the company of their new 17-year old "friends":

Below is the view of the next-door neighbor of the school, Essingeleden and the E4 highway. The highway passes the school by slightly more than 50 meters away. It is one of the busiest highways in Northern Europe and it might just be the one road in Sweden with the heaviest traffic of them all. It's not the ideal environment for small children (that's an understatement).