söndag 28 april 2013

CHI conference Post-Sustainability Workshop

I'm in Paris, attending the huge yearly conference on Human-Computer Interaction, CHI 2013 together with (I've been told) 3300 other persons. The conference starts tomorrow, Monday, but I attended a workshop on "Post-Sustainability" yesterday (and had the day off today).

My interest in CHI was rekindled when I understood that there had been a sustainability community around at CHI for no less than five years. I did read the 2007 paper by Eli Blevis that touch off these developments ("Sustainable Interaction design" - pdf file), but I did not at the time understand that it was the beginning of a "movement" within CHI (or, a CHI Special Interest Group). My interest turned a lot hotter last spring when I heard about (and read) Tomlinson and co-authors' paper on "Collapse informatics" (pdf). When I found out about this year's Post-Sustainability workshop coupled with the fact that the CHI conference was going to be held in Europe (Paris) this year I decided to attend the conference.

The workshop had accepted 13 paper and they are all online. There's even an online list of workshop participants (with a short blurb about each). My workshop contributions (an 8-page "position paper") was written together with my colleagues Åke Walldius and Elina Eriksson and it is called "HCI in a world of limitations: Addressing the social resilience of computing" (pdf file). As to presenting our papers, we were asked to submit 4 slides and talk no more than one minute about each slide before they were changed automatically. I guess this was a new format for many participants as there were a few instances of talking about the previous slide, or of falling silent while waiting for the next slide to show up. This fast-paced format allowed us to burn through all our presentations in just a little more than one hour.

Most of the remainder of the workshop was used for group talks using the "Open Space" format, i.e. one person taking on the responsibility of a theme, while all other participants are allowed to flutter between tables and themes (although it seemed most people for the most part chose one theme only and then stayed put). I didn't take any notes on the Open Space themes we worked with (five for the before-lunch session and another five for the after-lunch session), but I did myself suggest one of the themes and will primarily write about that particular theme and the results of our discussions. I will end the post with a few other notes and thoughts about the workshop.

-------------------------- Post-collapse computing --------------------------

Since no-one else suggested it, I proposed either a future-oriented "post-collapse computing theme" or a more present-oriented "design for disadvantaged communities" theme. We chose to do both, with a timeline tying together "now" (the present) and "then" (the future) to structure our poster. Except for "now" and "then", a third theme also crystallized on our poster which we can call "technology/computing/Internet in a post-collapse society.

First a note about the term "collapse". On the one had it is "burdened" with strongly negative connotations. It's basically a downer. So should we do away with it and replace it with something more up-beat? But it has it's uses on the other hand. No-one can imagine that we will avert collapse by turning down the thermostat in our homes. It shakes people up and implies that we have to radically rethink our situation. I personally think of the term collapse in terms of how Tainter describes it. It is a process that can go on for decades or even centuries and that implies a (slow) "decomplexification" of society. Here is what I wrote about Tainter's book, "The collapse of complex societies" in a previous blog post:

"Collapse is a political process that makes itself know as a "significant loss of an established level of sociopolitical complexity". [...] 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."

In preparation for a future of "decreased sociopolitical complexity" (i.e. "collapse"), we might do well to look at creative survival strategies of groups in our society that are marginalized or that eke out a living "at the edges" of our society, for example the poor, the homeless, street children, tight immigrant/language groups, small-time criminals or outlaws, people making a living in the black or the gray economy, people who radically downshift (i.e. work as little as possible), gypsies/roma and people in less affluent social strata or less affluent societies (say, people experiencing hard times in Greece or the poor (or the not-rich) in Bangalore, India. What can we learn from them? And how can we support them? If they want access to computing and the Internet, what kind of access do they want and for what purposes?

A personal worry of mine though is that some studies seems to indicate that these groups use the Internet for the same purposes as the majority of us does; for wasting time on "mindless chatter" on Twitter and Facebook and for entertainment purposes (movies, games, internet porn), i.e. perhaps not necessarily for learning things or improving their lot. So what should be studied and supported might indeed be creative survival strategies rather than their quest for diversions and entertainment? Or is that a patriarchal/colonial/imperialist/parochial perspective?

The expression "necessity is the mother of invention" is very much in line with "creative survival strategies", but some groups that have a tough time do invent creative survival strategies, while others don't (to the same extent), but rather just suffer. Which of those two groups is most interesting/pertinent to study/design for? Or is this a false dichotomy, i.e. everybody invents, it's just that [something].

In terms of practices well worth supporting (rather than groups/communities), we came up with a list that for sure could be further extended:

- Time banks
- Farmer's markets
- Alternatives currencies
- Shrinking cities (i.e. dealing with degrowth/declining cities)
- Transition tows (and ecovillages)
- Civic social media
- Collaborative consumption
- ...

A theme that came up and that is relevant both for "now" (the present) and "then" (a post-collapse future) is Putnam's concepts of "bonding" and "bridging" social capital. Bonding capital is turned "inwards" and unites a group. Bridging capital consists of groups being open to and creating ties to other groups in society. How do these types of social capital function in groups at "the edges" of modern society? And how will they (or would we want them to) work in the future? What kind(s) of social capital could or should be encouraged and supported by computer systems?

What does a post-collapse world look like? If collapse is, as was suggested above, "nothing more than" a (perhaps slow) process of societal decomplexification, it might very well be the case that people will not really experience the collapse as "a collapse". Things will for most people and for the most part look the same from one year to the next - only a little harder (for some), with opportunities (for some or perhaps many) turning up less often, with (some) more people becoming unemployed every year and (for the most part) suffering in silence and hoping for better times. Will society then perhaps diverge, like in for example some South American countries where the upper middle class enclose themselves behind walls and live "normal" (high-income, high-tech, highly civil and comparatively less stessful) lives, while the rest will have to make do as best as they can?

But this does not seem very desirable, so where will the good examples that we can aspire to come from - which are the lighthouses that we should aim for, support or try to replicate? Perhaps it would be possible to make a list with desirable and less-desirable examples. Greece and Spain with their 50% youth unemployment (a "lost generation") would be low on that list, but so-called "failed states" are of course at the very bottom of that list. Transitions towns will on the other hand be high on such a list - but could you please fill in the blanks in-between!?

A question that was raised was how to keep progressive social agendas going even when times are hard? This is a tough nut to crack, only something we would like to aspire to. It was observed that it's for example very easy for very traditional gender roles to be reproduced in Transition town and in the back-to-the-land movements (the men plow and the women bake and take care of the kids).

Two observations that I personally think are very interesting to ponder are that when things change;
- strengths can become weaknesses (having a high income and buying all the services you need from), and weaknesses can become strengths (knowing how to mend your clothes and how to survive on little).
- behaviors that are on the margins today can move to the center tomorrow (urban agriculture), and behaviors that are at the center today can move to the margins tomorrow (consumerism and throwaway society).

Some more specific ideas about (computing) technology and the Internet also came up. Can we envision what a low-energy, a low-bandwidth or a low-[something else]-Internet could look like? What   does low-tech (resilient, energy-stingy) computing, low-tech social media or a low-tech Internet look like? What if we have to cut back on moving images (video, online games), or if using the Internet (based on some metric we don't even care to think about today) would start to Cost For Real? Some creative suggestions for what would stay around were SMS-based apps, Twitter as a low-cost medium (have been used in crisis situations when nothing else works), DIY amateur radio or a favorite of ours, carrier pigeons with SD cards strapped onto their legs! We also discussed other animals that perhaps could do our bidding and convey our messages (ants? mycorrhiza? wolves?). Birds howeveer seemed best, perhaps complemented by dolphins or whales? :-)

One last thought was whether developing and relying in ICT solutions today could be something that actually creates a more brittle society? What if providing "marginalized groups" and groups "on the edges" of society with computing power is something that would make them more rather than less vulnerable in a post-collapse scenario?

Although I didn't mention it at the workshop, I've been thinking about the well-known William Gibson quote; "The future is already here, it's just not evenly distributed". He of course meant that not everybody has access to the latest high-tech stuff (especially if it's not on the market yet!). But what if the future is already here in the sense of Greece not being an outlier, but rather pointing at a future that will become more "evenly distributed" when phenomena that is currently to be found in the margins (debt crises and the terrible social effects of draconian austerity measures) moves into the center (are adopted in one country after another)?

----------------------- A few notes on the rest of the workshop -----------------------

When I didn't lead a theme, I walked between two different themes, "How do we change the dominant narrative?" and "Building communities". How do we change the narratives - my suggestion was to write a book, "Fairy tales for the 21st century". Building community turned out to be a very large and complex theme and resulted in a complex poster with many things connecting to may other things.

I read almost all the position papers before the workshop and I would very much like to get to know some people I didn't have time to talk to (enough) at the workshop!  

The workshop ended with a round where every participant had to answer two questions;
- What follow-up action(s) are you willing to commit to?
- What follow-up actions would you like others to take up on?

I promised to write this blog post and disseminate it to the workshop participants. As to what I would like other to take up on are:

- Formulate master's thesis proposals based on the workshop discussions and make them accessible on the Internet. It would be great to get inspiration from other people's proposals and it would be really cool to do "the same" study in different places around the world! I've already published a bunch of thesis proposals on the web, and of special interest (in light of what I have written about above) is "IT use in the post-modern city"

- Share
 post-collapse research proposals that have been submitted (even if they have been turned down). It would be great to see how others frame their proposals in this area.

- I also asked for the workshop participants to contribute with papers and workshop proposals to the upcoming ICT for Sustainability conference (ICT4S) that we will organize in Stockholm (Aug 2014). It would be great to see as many as possible of the workshop participants again next year!

tisdag 23 april 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 quite a few books over Christmas (Dec-Jan), but they were for the most part "lightweight" - easy reads in comparison to some of the other academic works I plow through. I guess these books represent "vacation" for an academic like me :-)

The first book I read was definitely not "vacation" though. I was the designated opponent to Katarina Elevant at her "final seminar" right before Christmas and thus carefully read her draft ph.d. thesis with the preliminary title "Shareweather: design and evaluation of a web 2.0 concept". Despite being many months late, I really should write a separate blog post about this event - and I plan to do so before the summer. What can I say - I was very very busy back in December - 'nuff said (for now).

The second book wasn't really vacation either, but rather the end product of last year's course, "Future of Media". The course theme last year was "magazines" (i.e. The Future of Magazines / Magazines of the Future) and I wrote several blog posts about the course during the autumn (for example here and here). As part of the process of grading the student projects, I naturally had to read the students' final reports - neatly collected in the above limited-edition book we printed. Although the limited-edition book is hard to get hold of, the texts aren't - they're online! You can either read individual chapters or download and print/read the whole book (pdf file, 2.0 MB).

The quality of the chapters (project groups' final reports) vary, but I do have to say that the two most-appreciated projects (solid texts and great ideas in general) were MagZone (pdf) and Seasons (pdf). Do note that not only the texts, but also some really great concept movies about the projects are available in the online archive. An alternative to reading the book above might be to download and watch some of those movies (and then deepen your understanding by reading the book chapters about your favorite projects). 

Since the book consists of 12 very different chapters, it's difficult to say something about the book as a whole rather than about the individual chapters/projects. I do have to say that the book itself looks great though! I hope we can reach the same level of quality when this year's course (with a new, different theme) starts after the summer.

"Möteskokboken" I & II (2009) [The meeting cookbook] by Erik Mattsson & Anna Jöborn are great. The subtitles to these two books are "The foundation for creating effective meetings" and "Methods for creating effective meetings". The second book combines methods (building blocks) from the first book to create more complex methods for more complex purposes, for example "building groups", "creating ideas", "analyze", "discuss", "formulate", "evaluate" etc. Each of these purposes has suggestions for 2-5 complex-but-concrete methods (or exercises) with names like "secret supporter" (building groups), "idea hunt" (creating ideas), "the root of the evil" (analyze), "claims for sale" (discuss), "slogan competitions (formulate) and "mood barometer" (evaluate). Some of these exercises (complex methods) are pretty quick, others take the better part of a day to carry through.

These are two (very) practical book and they should be evaluated based on the utility of the books, and I do have to say that the books were very inspiring (and beautiful) and I got a lot of ideas about methods and exercises that I can use in education and for leading meetings (or conference sessions etc.). The books are highly recommended but are however pretty expensive at 300+ SEK and 500+ SEK respectively!

Despite the appearance, "Hjälp studenterna att undvika plagiering" and "Guiding students away from plagiarism" (2009) by Jude Carroll and Carl-Mikael Zetterling are not two different books, but rather two sides of the same book. Turn the book over and you will find the corresponding title in English (or Swedish). The book is printed by KTH and I got in my job mailbox some time ago (as did all my colleagues and, I presume, every other teacher at KTH). 

The book discusses plagiarism ("submitting someone else's work as your own") as well as related phenomena (cheating, collaboration, unallowed collaboration, exam cheating, disruptions). The book does a great job in making me as a teacher understand the complexities of drawing the line between one and the other of these phenomena (for example in terms of "intent" or "attempt to deceive") and also has concrete (much appreciated) advice for teachers on how to go about to "fix" the problem.

At different points in the book, there are also comments that can be connected to the work that I and my colleague Björn do on "procrastination" (see the previous blog post), such as:
- "Why do students deliberately cheat by plagiarism? Students who deliberately cheat can almost always offer explanations for their actions [...] such as poor planning and leaving work to the last minute" (p.14).
- "Provide early practice, early 'wake-up call' [...] structure the assessment process itself [...] Suggestions for managing the process include using structured demands [...], requiring peer feed-back on interim writing and breaking large tasks into sections with interim deadlines" (p.23).
- "get students started promptly on assignments (since those who delay until the last minute may regard plagiarism as one of their few remaining options) [and] assess the process by which the student creates his or her work as well as assessing the student's final product" (p.32).

It is possible to read between the lines and figure out that plagiarism has been a problem especially with students from certain countries/parts of the world rather than others (without of course pointing at any specific countries), but also with teachers' lack of pedagogical skills in terms of structuring courses and tasks in such a way so as to help students avoid plagiarism as well as KTH's inability to explain basic rules and expectations regarding higher education at an "elite university" in Sweden (some plagiarism can be explained by misunderstandings etc.). As such, and in amending this problem, this book is admirably structured and I walked away with some really good ideas. The book also has links to online resources for (KTH) teachers, expanding both the usefulness and the lifetime of book. The only thing lacking was a compelling reason to read the book at the time when I got it (some years ago) - for example in the form of "discussion clubs" (therapy?) for teachers to discuss recent/difficult cases and possible solutions. This is a book that shouldn't just be read, but also discussed among teachers (and perhaps also among students). 

Sometime during the end of the autumn term I went to listen to a talk by Joakim Lilliesköld, one of the coauthors (together with Mikael Eriksson) of "Handbok för mindre projekt" (2004) [Handbook for smaller projects]. As I write this blog post, I notice that the book has also been translated to English.

There are many methods and tools for "real" project leaders, but this book asks how smaller projects - for example student projects in higher education - should be led/run? The projects in question could for example be a project courses or indeed a bachelor's or a master's thesis.

The basic idea I went away with from the lecture and the book is that concrete projects represent a trade-off between 1) aimed-for functionality/quality, 2) time (deadline), and 3) costs (work effort/time put into the project). If your project isn't going too well, you'll either have to revise you goals (the functionality/aimed-for quality of your project), beg for an extension of the deadline (usually not possible for student projects with the exception for an individual master's thesis) or pour more time into the project.

Despite the title ("smaller projects"), I did find that the medicine was sometimes worse than the cure. I'm sure the methods for keeping track of time and resources is useful if you plan the Nobel Prize dinner (an example used in the book), but most student projects aren't that complex and it seems like overkill to use some of the more "ambitious" (complex) ideas proposed in the book. The book states that projects in project courses are between "a couple of hundreds of man-hours to a couple of thousands of man-hours". A master's thesis (30 hp) corresponds to 20 weeks of full-time studies (800 hours) from the beginning to the end. I have estimated that students who take the Future of Media course "should" put around 180 hours into the project and that means a four- or five-person group should work somewhere between 700 and 900 hours on their projects. Despite this, I for example found that the book's suggestions for strategies about handling documents and creating a "risk analysis" would be too cumbersome in that project course (too much time and effort spent planning - as apart from doing). Other things in the book were however directly applicable.

I really do want my students to be able to handle the very issues that this book raises, but I feel that the best way to handle some of these problems can be just to jell the group by kicking off with some social activities and then later by solving problems encountered informally, rather than by structuring stuff up (like in a "real" (large) project in the business world). Still, I found the interesting and (again) went away with a couple of new and immediately useful ideas that I can apply in my work as a university teacher.

lördag 20 april 2013

Procrastination project progress

I have written about the topic of procrastination before, but the last time was more than a year ago. Here is an update on our procrastination project. It isn't finished yet (no surprises there, right?), but not because we are lazy, but rather because it has been growing and then growing some more. We have collected a lot of new material and thus have a wealth to draw from now. We have had less time though to analyze and write stuff up (yet). One reason for that is that I'm busy writing other texts right now (will get back to that on the blog) and my colleague Björn wisely spends his time finishing his 10 years-in-the-coming ph.d. thesis rather than jumping onto a new project with both feet.

As I have mentioned before, we have a program-integrating course in our media technology engineering programme. In that course we mix students who are at different stages of their education. I was responsible for last year's course and the theme was "procrastination" (and studying habits and distractions and technostress). I wrote a blog post about the procrastination course theme at the time; "On procrastination". I then wrote a follow-up blog post with some reflections about my personal relationship to procrastination and my own (work) habits; "On work habits and on getting things done".

That was 18 months ago and finally, a year ago, me and my colleague Björn applied for some internal KTH research money (a pittance) to analyze the procrastination-related material that our students had generated in the program-integrating course. Our project is called "Supporting students' studying habits in the age of procrastination".

Beyond the material we collected during the previous academic year, we have now also collected new material from the neighboring computer science engineering program and thus presently have almost 700 (uniform and compulsory) answers to two questionnaires (about procrastination habits and about Internet/media use habits). We furthermore have upwards to 1000 one- or two-page essays answering a couple of open-ended questions about procrastination habits. We can also correlate the collected material with actual outcomes, i.e. find out if students who have problems with procrastination also have problems passing their courses, or problems passing specific courses etc. I am furthermore the advisor of a master's thesis student who is right now analyzing the 200+ media technology students' essays about procrastination (one written in the middle of the autumn (18 months ago) and the other essay written half a year later - a year ago).

After my meeting with Björn earlier this week, we now have ideas and themes for no less than six academic papers "in the pipe":

1. A general/quantitative paper about (our) students and procrastination based on the almost 700 answers we have gotten to our questionnaires. Comparisons to other studies, comparisons between 1st, 2nd and 3rd year students, comparisons between media technology and computer science engineerings students etc. Probably quite a lot of statistics in this paper (?)

2. A specific/qualitative paper about (our) students and procrastination based on in-depth comparisons and analysis of ≈ 50 computer science students who Have Problems vs 50 computer science students with better-than-average habits when it comes to procrastination.

3. A paper on students' media habits (boxed TV sets, computer games, Facebook etc.) and procrastination habits.

4. A critical paper about the drawbacks (procrastination- and distractions-wise) of having ubiquitous access to computing on the campus and in our lecture halls. The preliminary title is "What's behind the screen?". This paper will counter the simple-minded discourse about the advantages of ubiquitous access as we also want to pay attention to and write about the drawbacks... (ubiquitous procrastination?).

5. A short "best practices" paper outlining what we have done in our course(s) and how we did it. This might lead to others also implementing a course module about procrastination in their respective university programs.

6. "What happened afterwards?" A follow-up with correlations between procrastination habits, academic performance and dropout rates.

As to paper number 5, we plan to (later this spring) submit a Swedish-language paper to a Swedish conference, 4.e Utvecklingskonferensen för Sveriges ingenjörsutbildningar [4.th developmental conference for Swedish engineering educations]. After the conference, we plan to submit an updated English-language version (with feedback and ideas from the conference worked into the paper) to a Scandinavian open-access journal. In fact, we wrote a draft version of an abstract for that paper when we met earlier this week. The paper doesn't have a title yet and we will review it again before we submit it to the Swedish-language conference (deadline May 31), but here is the 300-word abstract:

Procrastination, or deferring tasks against your own better judgement, is a problem in general and a large problem for students in particular. [One or two sentences that supports the previous statement]. The step from high school to university studies can be large for many students since it includes fewer checks and increased responsibilities in terms of studying habits, performance and results.

We have developed a course module that treats the topic of procrastination. The module involves 1) reading literature on procrastination and 2) filling out a survey about procrastination/studying habits, 3) writing a short reflection on studying habits followed by 4) discussions in small groups and 5) eliciting and later following-up on a “promise” related to improving procrastination- and/or studying habits that was given by each student at that was supposed to be upheld during a period of 60 days. The module was given as a part of a compulsory course for 465 computer science undergraduate students during the spring of 2013.

We have collected a wealth of materials enabling us to evaluate the efficacy of the module, including 1) two quantitative online questionnaires, 2) a qualitative questionnaire with open-ended answers, 3) elicited promises as well as follow-ups of said promises, and 4) an evaluation of the course module.

57% of the students responded that the course module had a positive effect on their studying habits and only 7% responded that the module did not have any effect. Among the students who indicated that procrastination was a “large” or “very large” problem for them, the responses were even more positive towards the module.

The module in question was used at another KTH Master of Science in Engineering programme during the previous academic year (2011/2012), and is also planned to be used in a brand new Master of Science in Software Engineering programme at Linköping University during the following academic year (2013/2014).


tisdag 16 april 2013

Articles I've read (autumn)

Last April, I pledged to read a lot of academic articles (in our "30-day challenge" at the department) and then I promised to do the same thing again in May. I did manage to uphold both of these promises and read 200 pages of text per month. That effort resulted in two blog posts about "articles I've read lately" (April articles, May articles).

More recently, I made reading articles regularly into one of my new year's promise, with the caveat that I only promise to uphold it during the spring term - since I have a lot of teaching (= less time to read stuff) during the autumn. I have (more or less) kept that promise, but I haven't come around to writing blog posts about "articles I've read lately" yet.

In fact, I now and then seem to be behind in writing about stuff I do here on the blog. Instead of writing about things that happened this week or last week, I sometimes write about things that happened a month or two ago...  There are even a few things that happened back in December when I was oh-so-busy and didn't have time to write blog posts that I might squeeze in during the spring since I think they are still of interest.

Despite not having had a lot of time to read articles during the autumn, I did have some time and I did read some articles, and, here they are (shortly annotated). The articles can for the most part be found through Google scholar (good luck!).

This time around I have not primarily organized them alphabetically, but have instead first divided them topically; I read a bunch of articles about ubiquitous computing during the autumn and I have separated these articles from the rest since that makes more sense.

Articles about ubiquitous computing:

- Bell, G., & Dourish, P. (2007). Yesterday’s tomorrows: notes on ubiquitous computing’s dominant visionPersonal and Ubiquitous Computing11(2), 133–143. */ Great article about the discrepancy between scientists' continued use of a 20-year old vision about "the future" that is contrasted with the much more messy-but-ignored present of ubiquitous computing; "the framing of ubicomp as something yet to be achieved allows researchers and technologists to absolve themselves from responsibilities for the present". Great article./*
- Coroama, V., Kostakos, V., Magerkurth, C., & De Vallejo, I. L. (2005). UbiSoc 2005: first international workshop on social implications of ubiquitous computing. Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems: CHI’05 extended abstracts on Human factors in computing systems (Vol. 2, pp. 2111–2112). */ Two-page overview of the area, input for a workshop../*
- Dourish, P, & Bell, G. (2008). Resistance Is Futile": Reading Science Fiction Alongside Ubiquitous ComputingPersonal and Ubiquitous Computing. */ A rhetorical analysis of how visions of the future are constructed and used - complete with the connections between active researchers and the cultural backdrop of five iconic science fiction TV shows. "visions of the future are particularly revealing about the present. An account of "how we shall live" is inherently grounded in assumptions about the problems and opportunities of the time at which it is written." Great article./*
Dourish, Paul, Anderson, K., & Nafus, D. (2007). Cultural mobilities: Diversity and agency in urban computingHuman-Computer Interaction–INTERACT 2007 (pp. 100–113). Springer. */ portable computing/urban mobility "design practice runs the risk of privileging particular viewpoints, forms of mobility, and social groups./*
- Galloway, A. (2004). Intimations of everyday life: Ubiquitous computing and the cityCultural Studies18(2-3), 384–408. */ Thesis: "social and cultural studies have been almost entirely absent in discussions of the design of ubiquitous technologies". Galloway thinks this is wrong. Social and cultural theories of everyday life can bring much much to the table. We want in!/*
- Ito, M., Okabe, D., & Anderson, K. (2009). Portable objects in three global cities: The personalization of urban placesThe reconstruction of space and time: mobile communication practices, 67–87. */ The results of a study that tracked how young professionals in three cities (Tokyo, Los Angeles, London) used "portable objects" (music players, credit cards, transit cards, keys, ID cards and mobile phones)./*
- Jain, R., & Wullert II, J. (2002). Challenges: environmental design for pervasive computing systemsProceedings of the 8th annual international conference on Mobile computing and networking (pp. 263–270). ACM. */ Thesis: pervasive computing can have "possible negative environmental impacts, particularly in terms of physical waste and energy consumptions." Can software fix or ameliorate the problem?/*
- Kinsley, S. (2011). Anticipating ubiquitous computing: Logics to forecast technological futuresGeoforum42(2), 231–240. */ Based on interviews with hotshots in the area, "this article seeks to address: a logical certainty with which the technological near future is frequently addressed"./*
- Tolmie, P., Pycock, J., Diggins, T., MacLean, A., & Karsenty, A. (2002). Unremarkable computingProceedings of the SIGCHI conference on Human factors in computing systems (pp. 399–406). ACM. */ An analysis of "invisible" computing/technologies - stuff that comes to be routine and unremarkable as we come to take them for granted./*
- Weiser, M. (1993). Some computer science issues in ubiquitous computingCommunications of the ACM36(7), 75–84. */ One of the foundational texts about ubiquitous computing. Good but both visionary and a little dated at this point./*
- Weiser, M. (1994). The world is not a desktopinteractions1(1), 7–8. */ One of the foundational texts about ubiquitous computing. Only two pages long. Great article./*
- Williams, A., & Dourish, P. (2006). Imagining the city: The cultural dimensions of urban computingComputer39(9), 38–43. */ Thesis: urban computing views "the city" as a generic city and produce findings that might apply to any city. Williams and Dourish instead view cities as culturally and historically specific./*
- Woelfer, J. P., & Hendry, D. G. (2011). Homeless young people and technology: ordinary interactions, extraordinary circumstancesinteractions18(6), 70–73. */ Also homeless people (in the US) have computing needs (cell phones, iPods etc.), but it is difficult to satisfy these needs. What can be done?/*

Other, non-ubiquitous computing articles. Several are very critical of both this and that.

- Baumer, E. P. S., & Silberman, M. (2011). When the implication is not to design (technology). Proceedings of the 2011 annual conference on Human factors in computing systems (pp. 2271–2274). ACM. */ To the man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. To the man with a computer science degree, everything can be solved by building a computer system. But "it is important to consider situations in which computational or information technologies may be less appropriate"./*
- Blevis, E., & Blevis, S. (2010). Hope for the best and prepare for the worst: interaction design and the tipping point. interactions, 17(5), 26–30. */ "We describe the potential role of interaction design in preparation for and adaptation to a post-tipping point world. [...] at least some if not many of us need to also consider the degree to which some of our efforts need to be directed toward designing digital interactivity to prepare for and adapt to the potential effects of global warming and climate change."/*
- De Decker, Kris (2009). The monster footprint of digital technology. Low-tech Magazine. */ The title pretty much says it all. ICT production has huge costs in terms of energy and materials. Great article./*
- Heinberg, R., & Mander, J. (2009). Searching For a Miracle: Net Energy Limits & the Fate of Industrial Society. Post Carbon Institute. */ What (desirable or less desirable) characteristics do different energy sources have (renewability, reliability, energy density etc.)? What different energy sources are at our disposal? No less than 18 different energy sources are analyzed and compared with each other and with society's need of 1) quantity of energy vs 2) avoiding global warming and climate change. "Can any combination of known energy sources successfully supply society's energy needs at least up to the year 2100?" Great report. /*
- Hilty, L. M. (2012). In Arndet, H. K. (ed.): EnvironInfo 2012, Proceedings of the 26th Environmental Informatics ConferencesWhy energy efficiency is not sufficient–some remarks on “Green by IT.” */ Text about the dreaded "rebound effects" and with a great case study of smart, energy-efficient vending machines in Japan that still in the end (by way of the dreaded rebound effects) managed to use more energy than their non-smart and energy-wasting predecessors - since more (energy-efficient) vending machines were produced. "In short, as technological improvements increase the efficiency with which a resource is used, total consumption of that resource may increase rather than decrease." Great article/*
- Nelson, T. H. (1997). Crush and crash: logic of a terrible tomorrow. Communications of the ACM, 40(2), 90–91. */ The inventor of hypertext predicts doom and gloom for humanity/*
- Silberman, M. S., & Tomlinson, B. (2010). Precarious infrastructure and postapocalyptic computing. Examining Appropriation, Re-use, and Maintenance for Sustainability, workshop at CHI 2010. */ "'HCI as usual' tends to assume no serious disruptions to infrastructure or the availability of energy and raw materials [...] Post-apocalyptic computing, on the other hand, act as if it has already occurred. [...] The term itself may simply be too inflammatory to be of scholarly use."/*
- Wong, J. (2009). Prepare for descent: interaction design in our new future. Defining the Role of HCI in the Challenges of Sustainability, workshop at CHI 2009. / Sustainable interaction design assumes "that the right technology can change behaviors of society-at-large quickly enough to avert irreversible damage. [...] sustainable interaction design should also consider the design context to be a world radically altered by environmental damage"/*
- Åhman, Henrik. (2012). Social sustainability - Society at the intersection of maintenance and development. Draft - submitted to a journal (I don't know the status of the article). */ Written by a ph.d. student/colleague of mine. Thesis: "much of the debate about sustainability has been dominated by ecological perspectives", but social sustainability is really important (and under-valued) too. "This article addresses the lack of theorization [of social sustainability]"./*

lördag 13 april 2013

Student Competitions

I went all the way to Kista earlier this week to listen to a lunch talk by Gustav Borgefalk, co-founder and head of business development at Student Competitions (http://studentcompetitions.com/).

As I have written earlier, me and Ph.D. student Daniel Svensson (KTH division of history of science, technology and environment) are working together, writing about competitions and the sportification of blue-collar (cross-country skiing) and white-collar (computer games, programming) professions/practices.

As I have furthermore written earlier, we submitted a paper (actually an abstract - the paper is not written yet) to a sports conference two months ago and another paper (actually another abstract) to a cultural studies conference one month ago (both conferences will be held this summer). We had already identified Student Competitions as an interesting company after having read a newspaper article about them (in Swedish), and the opportunity to listen to and get in touch with one of the co-founder proved to be too tempting to miss out on. (Other articles about the company is available through their online press room.)

The lunch talk was great. Student Competitions is all we wished for an then some more (they are for example already international and have organized competitions (remotely, from Sweden) in the US, Brazil, India, China and Malaysia). Chatting with Gustav after his talk, he was very interested in our research and invited me to hang around the office and interview him and some other people there (the company has quickly grown to around 20 persons).

Student Competitions is basically a head-hunting company ("challenge-driven recruitment"). And a marketing and perhaps also an event company. Instead of placing a job ad, some companies choose to organize a competition with the help of Student Competitions (for example "Business law challenge" or an architecture or business plan competition). Organizing a competition is thus a way both to find prospective employees, to market your company and perhaps also to get some new "not-invented-here" ideas. Or to sum the recruitment spiel up in Student Competition's business lingo, "to connect talent with demand". I think the idea is pretty cool and it would be great to talk to (interview) these guys - no matter exactly what they say, the results would make our day and fit our paper(s) perfectly.

The whole premise of their company is on the other hand to some extent (I guess) a threat to the authority and the value of universities who have had a near-monopoly on awarding credentials to students for hundreds of years (but that's another issue and besides the point in relation to our study...).

Student Competitions produce and market "the world's best competitions for students". They have more than 200 000 student members in their "network" (contact book?) and 400 "student ambassadors". They started 2009 (four students from KTH and Stockholm School of Entrepreneurship, SSE) and have grown since then, especially lately (2012). They now have a more advanced division of labor in the company with different people working with (and being responsible for) technology, finance, new business (that would be Gustav), marketing, operations and community. No less than 60% of their clients are already outside of Sweden. A short (1 minute) video about the company and their passion for competitions starts with the CEO stating that "we have all been competing since before birth" :-)

I think this is really cool and I look forward to interviewing a bunch of Student Competitions co-founders and employees later this spring (before the summer)!

PS (130415): Now it's decided - I will visit the office of Student Competitions in the beginning of May to present myself and our project and will be back two weeks later to conduct interviews with key personnel.

onsdag 10 april 2013

My problem with "economic sustainability"

Last week I wrote about a seminar I attended two months ago about social sustainability. Well, I also attended another seminar about economic sustainability one month ago. I appreciate the fact that these seminars were organized at/by KTH, but unfortunately none of them helped advance my understanding about these two important concepts.

I wrote a blog post about my problems with the concept "social sustainability" last week, but my problems with the concept "economic sustainability" are more severe. Just as in the previous blog post, I will concentrate on only of the two talks at the seminar in question. While the second talk was interesting, it didn't really treat the concept of "economic sustainability" but rather discussed how a course module about topic X ("sustainable business development") could practically be integrated into different university courses.

So what is economic sustainability? As apart from when I wrote the previous blog post, I don't have access to the lecturer's slides so this text will build exclusively on my notes (i.e. I might have misunderstood something). The guest speaker in question works as an environmental economist at Enveco - an environmental economics consultancy. Do note that Enveco is not an economic sustainability consultancy and the difference bears some significance. I wanted ideas and theories about economic sustainability but got an explanation about how environmental accountancy is practiced today.

The speaker differed between "strong" and "weak" sustainability. Strong sustainability assumes that ecological sustainability (or certain ecological values) are non-negotiable and can not be compensated through strong positive consequences for social and economic sustainability. Weak sustainability thus assumes that it can sometimes be worth it to sacrifice (some) ecological values if that act has (strong) positive consequences in terms of social and economic sustainability. It is Enveco's job to do the counting and determine the outcome of the trade-off between different values i.e. to determine what is and what isn't "economic desirable development" in particular situations.

The question Enveco answers is thus "what is 'economically desirable'?". Enveco consultants are basically beam-counters who take into account not just costs (money), but also people's environmental preferences as expressed in (or transformed into) the (monetary) value they place on certain "intangibles". They then transform preferences and costs into a "net-present value" (using a complicated formula) and if that value is positive, then project X should go ahead and if the value is negative, then it should stay on the drawing board (or it's back to the drawing board). That's all. I posed a questions specifically about the meaning of "economic sustainability" and got a nonsense answer (i.e. "something is economically sustainable if the net-present value of the proposed project is positive"). I asked about all the assumptions and variable that goes into such calculations and it was agreed-upon that the assumptions and the pricing of "intangibles" is very important (what is "beautiful nature" worth and how does it stack up compared to the economic values of building a dam and a coal power plant?). The practice of this particular strain of bean-counting did to me seem totally devoid of principles and values. Values had been replaced by math and a "positive net-present value" was basically taken to be equivalent to "economic sustainability". The talk awoke many (very critical) thoughts. Here are a few:

- Oscar Wilde on "what is a cynic?": "A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing".

- How do you practically go about to price what is priceless in dollars and cents; human wellbeing, justice, equality, fairness, beauty, habitat for endangered species? How certain can you be that your end result (positive or negative net-present value) really makes sense?

- If you value the factors above (human wellbeing, justice etc.) by asking consumers how much they are willing to pay for it, how do you (for example) take into account rapidly shifting preferences? Perhaps people on Iceland, in Greece and on Cyprus today have different preferences than only a few years ago and today wish for other decisions and other tradeoffs retroactively? And how to you put a value on (for example) the absence of child labor in a product, on social stability or even on the presence or the absence of civilization? What if we "like" and "value" X highly, but X (for example our current lifestyles in affluent parts of the world) leads to the ruin of the planet? How do you count on that? Do you leave values and long-term consequences "at the door" and settle for what people say. That can obviously lead to absurd consequences although I have to admit that I here hint at a paternalistic perspective (i.e. people don't always know what's best for them (or for their grand-children)).

- Comic strip: "What you environmentalists don't understand is that a ruined planet is the price we have to pay for a healthy economy".

- Another comic strip: in the cave and around the campfire a guy dressed in the remnants of a three-piece suit says: "Sure, we blew it, but for a time we did create some great shareholder values".

- I perceived a conflict between two different perspectives at the seminar. The lecturer preached that "we must pay respect to people's values" in terms of how much they are willing to pay for X of for the absence of Y (but what about the dirt poor who don't have any economic leverage - do or don't their preferences count?). This perspective can be contrasted with the patently true strong-sustainability slogan "Mother Nature doesn't do bailouts". How do you, based on these contrasting perspectives, figure out "what to do" in different practical situations?

- In the end I have a hard time understanding the difference between what environmental economics consultants do and what market researchers do. Both ask people "what they want". Or at least what they are willing to pay. Depending on the answer to that question they then go about applying the logic of capitalism and the market to make it come true (or not - if the price is "too high").

I for sure hope there is deeper theorization about the meaning of the concept "economic sustainability" elsewhere... I for example still don't really have any analytical tools whatsoever to discuss the relationship between economic sustainability on the one hand and ecological and social sustainability on the other hand.

söndag 7 april 2013

Carbonopoly - back with a vengeance!

Two and a half years ago I played a game called "Carbonopoly" and I also wrote a blog post about it at the time. That was it - until I read an article about Carbonopoly in the internal KTH newsletter Campi in November last year (article in Swedish). 

Tho years after I played it, the game had been redesigned (once more) but it had at this time also been used in the regular education (160 first-year students used it in the beginning of the autumn 2012). The game designer (Patrik) has at this point teamed up with a lecturer (Jon-Erik) and they had created a module with a lecture followed by a game session followed by a new lecture followed by a new game session and so on. All in all five lectures with four game sessions in-between (with the game sessions neatly tying back to the content of the lectures etc.). 

It sounded pretty great and I got in touch with Patrik and Jon-Erik. After "negotiations", we have now come to an agreement and my course on Sustainability and Media Technology (DM2573) will include a bunch of lectures and Carbonopoly game sessions next (academic) year!

There are some very important things that need to be done before that, during the spring. We primarily need to translate the whole game to English (my course has International students and is given in English). We also need to supplement the current cards/questions with questions that are more relevant to our course (i.e. more emphasis on IT and Media Technologies, not just sustainability, sustainable development, energy and so on). After that, we will print 20 copies of the game (good for up to 80 students) over the summer and use them when the autumn term starts.

The game has been quite heavily redesigned since I played it in 2010. I have a hard time remembering the details of the game I played back then, but I think the redesign is all for the better. I met up with Partik and Jon-Erik before Christmas and Patrik gave me a copy of the game which I play-tested a couple of times over Christmas. Also, our sustainability team play-tested the game in the beginning of this term and everybody loved it. I really look forward to using the game in our education and in my course! 

Also, when me and Elina met up with Patrik and Jon-Erik before Christmas, we suggested Patrik and Jon-Erik should submit a paper (abstract) to the Engineering Education for Sustainable Development (EESD) conference which will be held in the UK in September this year. I just found out they did that, and that their contribution has been accepted for presentation. This also happens to be true for both of the two submissions I'm involved in, and one of these papers is based on the course where we will use Carbonopoly. That will be fun!

I'm sure I will write more about Carbonopoly later. If not sooner then at least in the autumn, after we have used in our course!

torsdag 4 april 2013

My problem with "social sustainability"

This text can be seen as a follow-up to a previously published (Aug 2012) blog post about the connection between ecological and social sustainability. The impetuous to write this text comes from participating in a seminar called "What is social sustainability?". I did wait for quite some time after the seminar to get access to the speakers' slides, but I now realize that the seminar was actually held almost two months ago! What can I say - time flies.

I went to the seminar in the hope of finding out 1) what social sustainability is and 2) what the connection is between social and ecological sustainability. I unfortunately can't say that I'm much closer to an answer to any of those two questions after having attended the seminar.

My basic problem with the concept "social sustainability" is that it feels like an edifice built on quagmire. I still don't know the difference between "social sustainability" and the all-inclusive and more general category "stuff we like". "Stuff we like" could potentially be a very long list of stuff that we (liberal modern democracies) like - stuff like (taken from the seminar slides) social mix, social capital, community, safety, life quality, service, identity, cohesion, influence, democracy, cooperation, inclusion, health, security, local resources, well-being, neighborliness, place identity, solidarity, tolerance, order, justice, inclusion, security, just distribution, equality (gender etc.), level of education, (public) health data, crime level, accessibility, housing costs and standards, degree of resettlement, participation and local democracy, active community organization, participation in local networks/community organizations - and probably a whole bunch of other things...

If social sustainability constitutes any and every criteria on that list, what analytical use can we have of that concept? How can people (researchers) who are interested in, but who emphasize different aspects of social sustainability even talk to each other? How is it possible to "measure" or compare the social sustainability of different societies? It seems to me that "social sustainability" is a pretty useless concept. I can be wrong and if so, I would very like someone to convince me of the opposite...

If you happen to be a researcher who is interested in, and would like to promote a "just society", you "only" have to define exactly what a just society means and then go out and "measure" (or interview etc.) people. Fine, but why then not just state that you are doing research on what constitutes a just society, or that you measure and compare the justness of different societies? Why dress it up as "social sustainability"? That was in fact my question before the seminar and it is (still) my question after the seminar.

I personally think that sustainability has to do with that which can be sustained over time. Unfortunately I can't really see that any of the criteria in the long list above has anything in particular to do with sustaining (a just or indeed any kind of) society over time. It might be the case that a just or a democratic society can be better sustained over time, but then again it might very well be that case that the opposite is true. We just don't know enough about that (yet). Many unjust and/or autocratic societies in history for sure were around a lot longer than democracy has been around yet... In my previous blog post, I wrote:

"In ancient Egypt, 95% of the population worked in the "agricultural sector" and they managed to (only) generate of surplus of food that was sufficient for feeding the remaining 5% of the population who were slaves and who were busy building the pyramids (beyond of course the minuscule ruling elite). The ancient Egyptian civilization coalesced around 3150 BC and was around for more than 3000 years. Do note that it came to an end not because of environmental degradation, but as an effect of military conquest - it became a Roman province 30 BC and was a veritable granary for Rome.

A civilization that lasts for 3000+ years seems to fulfill any possible requirements as to sustainability ("that which can be sustained over time"). Ancient Egypt with is ruling elite and with its peasants and slaves thus ought to be regarded as being a society that was "socially sustainable", right? If not, I'd like someone to please tell me why"

I asked one of the two seminar speakers if ancient Egypt can be considered to have been a socially sustainable society. She couldn't really answer the question, but professor and vice-president Göran Finnveden jumped in and answered that "Ancient Egypt did not live up to the Brundtland commission's definitions of sustainability as it did not fulfill the basic needs [of those who lived in that society]", e.g. sustainable development is supposed to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

I thought it sounded good at the time, but as I have thought about it some more afterwards it really makes no sense to me for several reasons:

1) By which standard do you measure if needs are fulfilled? If dirt-poor ancient Egyptian peasants were happy (for example of the fact that they were peasants instead of pyramid-building slaves), who then are we to state that their needs were unfulfilled? What about most of the people who lived in premodern times or as as hunter-gatherers for millions of years before modern civilizations came to be - were they happy? Happy according to who? Happy by their standards (whatever they were) or happy by our modern standards? If by our standards, which exactly and whose standards? More specifically, which exact needs needs to be fulfilled and how? Are the needs of current-day Haitians fulfilled? Are the needs of current-day Greeks fulfilled? Are the needs of current-day Cubans fulfilled? Are the needs of current-day Swedes fulfilled? Are the needs of "the 1%" (the richest people in society) fulfilled? At what material level do you need to live in order to have your "needs fulfilled" and be regarded as socially sustainable? Or is fulfilling the needs of the present primarily about other things than material needs? If so, what is the connections between material and other needs on the one hand and the act of fulfilling them on the other hand?

2) Let us assume that the needs of ancient Egyptian peasants were not fulfilled. Still, their environmental footprint was so small that they for sure made sure that they did not compromise the ability of future generations to meet their corresponding-but-unmet needs. Let us assume that the needs of current-day Swedes are fulfilled, but that it also is patently obvious that we nowadays fulfill our needs by "stealing" the ability of future generations to meet their needs (since we consume non-renewable resources at an unsustainable pace). It is thus obvious that future generations will not be able to enjoy the same standard of living that we have today. The conclusion would then be that neither ancient Egypt nor current-day Sweden lives up to the Brundtland definition of sustainability. Which society is then "best" at being (partially) sustainable, or which society is worst at being unsustainable? Isn't "social sustainability" (the long list above) defined in such a way that present-day societies nominally (arguably) live up to such a definitions, while all other/previous societies don't? But isn't that some sort of "presentism" equal to a discrimination of sorts of both the past and the future?

I'm a great fan of Richard Heinberg's text "What is sustainability?" (pdf file). It's (only) about ecological sustainability and it is a lucid text that clearly and logically outlines a definition (with five axioms) of what constitutes a sustainable society. It doesn't say anything about abstract stuff like "needs" or about weighing the future against the present. It instead says things like: Axiom three; "To be sustainable, the use of renewable resources must proceed at a rate that is less than or equal to the rate of natural replenishment". The meaning of such a statement is very clear, the statement is further explained in the two following paragraphs and it would be easy to measure if we live up to that challenge or not (we of course don't). 

I would like to read a similar text about social sustainability, but I'm afraid I will never see it because I suspect it will never be written. I in fact suspect it can't be written since social sustainability seems to be an unagreed-upon hodge-podge of "stuff we like". Stuff some of us like, that is. Other people like other stuff more, and the chances of agreeing on a definition, let alone clearly outlining the implications in a logical manner seems to be an innately elusive goal.

Hopefully someone can contradict me and bring some light to this issue...?