måndag 24 februari 2014

Networking in the Long Emergency

I met Barath Raghavan a few days ago when he visited UC Irvine and gave a talk about his RiSCIT-related research interests. I really appreciated listening to Barath and to (finally) meet him in person.

I don't know how it came about that I originally stumbled upon Barath's paper "Networking in the long emergency" (pdf file here). I think I must have found his paper when I searched for research papers in the intersection of "peak oil" and "computers" [something]. The title immediately told me this was a paper I definitely should read as it obviously must have been written by someone who was familiar with Kunstler's book "The long emergency" (2006). That was absolutely right and the paper didn't disappoint me. In fact, I thought is was very good - it was obviously written by someone who had thought long and hard about these issues.

I read the paper in April in 2012 and after having finished reading it immediately sent a mail, reaching out to Barath. Some time later I suggested we should think about writing something together, but the timing was all wrong as Barath had just left the academy for work on data center networking at Google. This is however how Barath presented himself in a distribution list I (do think I) recommended him to join in September 2012:

"I'm Barath Raghavan and I've been on the networking, systems, and security side of computer science but have had a parallel side interest in environmental science and energy since I was an undergrad at UC Berkeley. Learning about peak oil around 2007 made med delve deeper into how the various problems facing the globe today converge, and has really been a full-time passion since then.

I finished my PhD from UCSD in 2009, and went to Williams College to teach for a year as a visiting professor. While I was there, I decided to try to convey what I had been learning to the undergrad CS students at our weekly seminar in a talk I called "Computing in the Long Emergency". [...] my talk [...] led my colleague Justin Ma and I to write a paper, "Networking in the Long Emergency" that focused more on networked systems research, since that's the community we're part of.
I've recently joined Google (as has Justin), but I hope to continue pursuing this line of thinking and discussion with you all"

Things petered out between us after that and we haven't been in contact for 18 months or so (besides being part of the same e-mail distribution list) and I know from personal experience how academic pursuits can turn into a very distant concern when you are working in industry. As it turns out, Barath recently left Google (after 18 months there) and now works 50% in the academy (at UC Berkeley, at ICSI - the International Computer Science Institute) and 50% in a nonprofit R&D organisation he started.

In his UCI talk last week, Barath described his 2011 "Networking in the Long Emergency" paper (pdf file here) as the starting point for his explorations in the area. Let's call that paper the FOUNDATION as it has since been followed by four more paper:

- "The energy and the emergy of the Internet" (2011, pdf file here). Here's what I wrote about this article in this blog: "Very interesting attempt to estimate "how much energy is required to construct, run, and maintain the Internet". Includes both "running costs" as well as the emergy - the energy that is "embodied" in the Internet's constituent parts (i.e. the energy needed to construct cell towers, routers, end devices etc.)." This is the follow-up ANALYSIS paper.
- "Macroscopically sustainable networking: An Internet Quine" (2012, pdf file here). I read this paper last spring but haven't come around to writing about it (yet) on the blog. The paper asks how we could built a future low-tech, low-cost "minimalistic" Internet if the need should arise. This is the first of two follow-up DESIGN papers. Our CHI 2014 sustainability workshop position paper ("Usability as a threat to a sustainable future") is partially derived from ideas in this paper.
- "An intermittent Internet architecture" (2012, pdf file here). Here's what I wrote about this article in this blog: "Very interesting thought-experiment to "re-design the Internet for an energy-constrained future powered by diffuse, intermittent, and expensive power sources." This is the second of two follow-up DESIGN papers.
- "Networking for undeveloping regions" (2013) was written for an academic audience but was later (April 2013) posted on Barath's blog, Contraposition. This is the follow-up POLEMIC paper. Do note that the paper refers to "undeveloping" (not "underdeveloped" or "developing") regions and that there's a big difference between these terms, despite referring to the same geographic regions...

I should at this point also mention that Barath's blog, Contrapositon, is a good read. Barath writes it together with a friend, but it's mostly Barath who writes stuff. The current volume is regular but very low, with only slightly more than one new blog post per month last year. It's however possible to see a stark reduction of blog posts at the time when Barath started to work for Google, so perhaps the pace will pick up now that he has switched back to the academy...?

I think there are large overlaps between Barath's interests and perspectives and my own. We even seem to hold the same author, John Michael Greer, in the highest regard. An underlaying question that we are both interested in is how to reconcile 50 years of exponential growth in computing (Moore's law and all that) with the bell curves that characterise limits to growth, depletion of natural resources and limits/scarcity. What will happen when runaway developments in a field (computer science) start to bump up to irreversible natural (for example energy) limits?

In short, I very much recommend all the five texts above. Both me and Barath are furthermore interested in deeper issues than just "how can we make routers [or some other small and separate part of the larger network] more energy efficient?", or, "how can we make this smartphone more energy-efficient so that it runs longer per charge?" (...and so that we can sell twice as many new phones). Not all green computing is green in any deeper sense of the word and some (much?) could be characterised as greenwashing or worse - if we only had better metrics for determining what actually constitutes "green" in a less narrow sense of the word.

Barath currently spends half his time in a nonprofit organisation he created, De Novo Group. It looks a lot larger that it is if you check out the website, but they are (as far as I understand) basically funded by Google to do applied work in figuring out and building/testing solutions for wireless, limited-bandwidth networking in developing regions such as rural parts of Asia and Africa. This work is partially in line with Barath's interest in the (lack of) resilience of our current computing infrastructure. The Internet is nowadays very dependent on a handful of very large key companies to run smoothly. These companies are very good at what they are doing, but they are not failsafe. Having one big, fat Internet for the whole planet makes it very vulnerable, or rather, brittle. If it for some reason would fail, it fails utterly and catastrophically. The problem is that resilience equels "redundancy" and "inefficiency" and thus often comes into conflict with managing (trimming) costs. Why pay extra when, on a day-to-day basis, something works "almost always"? Yes, indeed, why would it make sense to build a more resilient system? Perhaps because the effects of that one indeed very unlikely event are so catastrophic that it would be worth anything to avoid it (but how do you make that case beforehand?). Resilience could thus imply several independent, perhaps loosely connected Internets (plural) - which is just the thing Barath is working on in De Novo.

It is, unfortunately, easy (or at least easier) to get funding for "the next big thing" than to get funding for thinking about a Plan B (if "the shit hits the fan"). A "developing regions" project is however very similar (or the same) as an "undeveloping regions" project and who know, perhaps the "counter-ICT4D movement" that I speculated about in my previous blog post will come true sooner than we think?

fredag 21 februari 2014

My submissions to ICT for Sustainability (ICT4S) 2029

Heavily inspired by a recent call for Human-Computer Interaction visions ("Call for Abstracts: CHI 2039: Research Visions and Speculative Futures"), my UCI colleague Birgit Penzenstadler put together a similar call for the upcoming ICT for Sustainability (ICT4S) conference. I think the call is interesting enough for it being published here on the blog:


Call for fictional abstracts for ICT4S 2029 - Contribute to our paper titeled "ICT4S 2029: What will be the systems supporting sustainability in 15 years?"

Research wants and needs to be inspired by visions of the future.
This can take on various narrative forms, and can fall anywhere along the spectrum from utopian to dystopian.
Even though we recognise the importance of such visions to help us shape research questions and inspire design space to be explored, the opportunity to discuss such visions is rarely given in a research context.

Imagine how civilization will have changes in 15 years.
- What is your vision for systems that will be supporting sustainability at that time?
- Which transformational changes will have occured in the mean time that allow for these systems?
- Is ICT even the right tool or does it contradict sustainability by making our world even more complex?
- How can we simplify systems and our societies by ICT4S?

At ICT4S'13 we (as a research community) have developed a set of recommendations that lead to questions including, but certainly not limited to, closure of material cycles to avoid hardware obsolescence, incentives for sustainable behaviour, evolution of education for sustainability, and systems for sustainability assessment.

Submissions are invited of fictional abstracts for papers on ICT4S systems that might appear at ICT4S'29. They will be compiled into a paper with the above title and submitted to the regular review proces of the upcoming ICT4S'14. Abstracts should be ≈ 150 words long [...] Abstracts will be selected for inclusion based on their ability to represent a diversity of guiding research visions, their excitatory or provocative potential, the space allotted by the ICT4S submission format, and the likelihood of engendering conversations about the future of ICT4S. The authors of the abstracts selected for inclusion would appear as coauthors on the paper.


I gave some feedback to Birgit on an earlier version of the call and suggested the call should be broadened to also welcome submissions with a more "dystopian" slant. In the end I wrote no less than four abstracts of which three share a more dystopian slant. I submitted my abstracts only two hours ago and was subsequently told that they were abstracts number 16-19 that she had received, i.e. Birgit had already received quite a large number of abstracts (with some hours remaining before the deadline). I assume that the abstracts that convey a tension between "good" and "bad" means and outcomes would tend to be most interesting to write and to think about, i.e. where the reader feels that "I like the part about X, but the Y stuff is horrible".

The challenge in this "exercise" was basically to:
1) think up a credible or at least possible (albeit not necessarily desirable) future society
2) think about some kind of "ICT stuff" that would be used for sustainability purposes in that society
3) shape the "ICT stuff" into a fake fictive research paper
4) squeeze all of the above into a 150 words long summary/paper abstract

I think that a few of abstracts below probably could work as a backdrop to a science fiction novel (or at least a short story). Vote by commenting on them. Who knows - I might write it up!?

I would assume that at least one of my abstracts will be accepted (taking into account that Birgit sits four meters away from me ;-)  I would also assume that not all of my abstracts will be accepted. It will for sure be tough for Birgit to choose abstracts and put the paper together, but the fact that she told me she for the most part had received "utopian" abstracts will probably weigh in my favour. I very much look forward to seeing the end result! Below are my four abstracts (in order of inception) with a comment after each abstract:


Computing for all: A sustainable infrastructure in a time of need

With unemployment numbers exploding after the Potemkin-Aramco scandal of 2018, the 2020 Hindsight (great oil reserves) Writedown and the global flash-crash of 2023, the emergence of a "lost generation" has profoundly shaken all Western countries. These developments have had a profound effect on the ICT sector  both in terms of usage patterns and R&D orientation (and budgets) in the 2020's. This paper outlines a broad research agenda for the development of a low-tech, low-cost and ultra low-energy computing infrastructure that can meet the computing needs of the swelling ranks of un- or underemployed consumers, while simultaneously decreasing the energy/CO2 footprint of our computing infrastructure  by an estimated 68%. We draw on previous studies of marginalised groups' use of ICT in affluent societies (immigrants, the young, the poor, the unemployed) as well as studies of reverse technology transfer from underdeveloped to formerly-affluent societies (the "counter-ICT4D" movement). We conclude by suggesting an offensive strategy for the radical simplification of hardware, software and networking and propose the Freeternet - a "future-proofed" resilient low-cost, low-energy, limited bandwidth Internet infrastructure.

Comment: This abstract is written with inspiration from a master's thesis that I am advising and where the empirical material is collected this very moment in Madrid, Spain. With youth unemployment figures above 50%, there does indeed exist a "lost generation" of poor youth in Spain (e.g. university-educated people in their 20's who are unemployed and who live with their parents). We are interested in their use of ICT technologies and the thesis will be finished later this spring (I might write a blog post about it). Dmitry Orlov wrote a great essay (highly recommended!) about "products and services for the permanently unemployed consumer" in 2010 that has been important for my thinking on these issues.


Green lifestyle lessons: Learning form green lead users

With increasing acceptance of the assertion that we live in an age of decreasing returns of increasing society complexity (Tainter 1988), we urgently need to look for examples that can help us transition to simpler, more sustainable, low-energy "green" models of consumption. This paper summarises lessons learned from the decade-long research project "Green lifestyles for reduced energy consumption" (Pargman, Eriksson & Katzeff 2026). More specifically, we discuss 1) the results of early studies of "lead users" (primarily members of eight Transition Town initiatives in three different countries) who voluntarily and proactively chose to simplify their lifestyles (with an emphasis on attitudes, actions, computing habits and everyday energy consumption), 2) the design and development of concepts, prototypes and products that embody lead users' best-of-breed computing and energy-svaing behaviours and 3) the resulting services and products that were developed and marketed by project partner and global retail chain IKEA. We conclude the paper by enumerating the five most promising areas for wide scale energy and computing lifestyle changes.

Comment: I did hand in an application, "Green lifestyles for reduced energy consumption", three months ago (together with Eriksson and Katzeff), but it was rejected. This abstract is written as if our application had been granted and we had performed our project. Oh, and I also extended our 3-year project into a 10-year project above. Everything else is just as it was up to and including our cooperation with the IKEA and the Transition Town movement.


A policy perspective on emissions reductions through heating, lighting and electricity quotas

Written together with Baki Cakici

In this age of great hardship, there is a great need for (1) protecting the integrity of national borders in the face of mounting immigration pressure from "flipped" climate zones and failed states (c.f. Garrett Hardin's (1974) Lifeboat ethics) and 2) to strongly incentivise citizens to do their utmost in husbanding energy and other scarce resources. The first challenge has essentially been met through the development of third-gen drone-mounted search & purge technologies (e.g. OctoSurv). While Swedish CO2 emissions have decreased by 56% compared to the 2010 level of 10 tons of CO2e/capita, much is left to do before reaching the 1 ton/capital goal by 2050. In the face of intertial in citizen compliance with previous emission reduction plans, we propose a radical three-pronged plan for further emission reductions: 1) the introduction of a strict quota system for subsistence-level heating outside of city centers, 2) a general prohibition of lighting in both private and public spaces during non-productive hours and 3) a strict smartgrid-enforced 200 Watt ceiling of electricity usage per household during said hours.

Comment: I have been fascinated by Hardin's hardline (heartless?) attitude for a long time. His 1974 paper is entitled "Lifeboat ethics: The case against helping the poor" and it is accessible online. It is a rebuttal to the (in his opinion) unrealistic Kumbaya-ish vibes behind Kenneth Boulding's (and others') "Spaceship Earth" metaphor. The abstract is also written in order to be very disturbing (if not outright evil), but utilising sterile policy-speak. The picture should be one of Fortress Europe + draconian internal measures to reach climate goals.


Mother Svea Vigilant: Lessons learned from a nation-wide anti-waste initiative

Written together with Baki Cakici

In this paper, we analyse the widely acclaimed "Mother Svea Vigilant" initiative aimed at eliminating wasteful consumption in Sweden. The initiative was funded by the Swedish state between 2021 and 2026 to recognise and classify consumption acts by automatically monitoring commercial transaction logs from all Swedish households and combining them with data submitted by citizens' smart-ID implants. From a technical perspective, we argue that automatic advisory methods such as scheduled comparisons of recycled mass versus the total mass of purchases in a given time period have created new possibilities of ensuring enthusiastic public commitment to monthly recycling quotas. We also analyse the success of social aspects of the Mother Svea initiative such as the "See some waste, tell with haste!" program and the community-enhancing "Tell (on) your neighbour" campaign. We conclude that Mother Svea and other comparable neo-Benthamite national ICT initiatives this far provide the only scientifically proven methods to stem CO2 emissions through the combination of powerful technical and social motivators.

Comment: This is another nightmare scenario that follows from Baki's research on sustainability, data collection, behaviour change and surveillance and on the conflict between "freedom" and "sustainability". Jeremy Bentham ("neo-Benthamite") is of course the guy behind the idea of the Panopticon and the abstract should also convey a "Big brother sees you!" feeling (including Orwellian doublespeak). You can't make an omelette without cracking a few eggs... and who wouldn't want other people to have an implant so that they behave...?

PS (140224). I realize that I used Birgit's invitation to the paper in a strategic manner when I asked Baki if we should write an abstract together. We haven't worked together before but this was the easiest, most fun way possible to "write a paper" together. It was also a way to get a feeling for how the other person works, and if working together some time in the future would be a good idea. The exercise thus also worked as a screening device of sorts. These functions are moreover independent of the quality of the resulting abstracts and whether they get accepted or not is also irrelevant in relation to these functions. All of a sudden, I realise:
1). I could have sent the invitation to other people I would like to work with but haven't (it's sort of the academic way of saying "would you like to be my friend?").
2) This could be the seed of a great exercise in future MID4S team kick-offs or perhaps in a workshop or classroom exercise.
I have to file this idea for future use!

fredag 14 februari 2014

I met Joseph Tainter!

...And you might ask "...and who is that?". Joseph Tainter is a professor at the Utah State University, Department of Environment & Society, and his main claim to fame is his 1988 book "The collapse of complex societies" (which I read 1.5 years ago - but I was pretty familiar with his arguments already beforehand). While Tainter writes about the collapse of several complex societies, his main case is the rapid decline ("collapse", "decomplexification") of the Roman Empire. To an archeologist like Tainter, "rapid" refers to period of decades (but still basically within the lifetime of a human being). I'm sure lots of archeologists quibble about (discuss) the details of the collapse/decline of the Roman Empire, but the big question that everyone else thinks about is the relevance of Tainter's theory is to us here-and-now. Are the global economic woes of the last five years a temporary setback in the larger scheme of things, or are do they represent the foreshocks that precede the larger earthquake?

No one can deny that we for a long time have experienced an incremental and seemingly inexorable complexification of modern societies (with layers after layers of regulations and laws "amending" - but never simplifying - previous regulation and laws). Tainter points out that with increasing complexity, (maintenance) costs also increase over time. Increasing complexity unfortunately yields decreasing returns over time. Increasing complexity (and costs) eventually yields only marginal or even negative net benefits. At that point, civilisations starts to become increasingly "brittle". Over time, they become increasingly prone to collapse under the force of internal or external shocks.

Since I have my copy of his 1988 book back home in Sweden, I took the opportunity to buy and read a recent book of his, "Drilling down", in order to prepare for his visit here at UCI. (I'll get around to writing about it in my series of blog posts about "Books I've read recently - eventually.)

The institutional arrangements around Tainter's visit to UCI are interesting in themselves. As I have mentioned before, UCI has recently formed a center for "Research in Sustainability, Collapse-preparedness & Information Technology" (RiSCIT). Joseph Tainter's talk, "Depletion and Innovation: The Sustainability Balancing Act", was the inaugural RiSCIT seminar (Feb14). The abstract for the talk can be found further below! For Tainter's bio, see the RiSCIT invitation to his talk. There was a detailed schedule for Tainter's visit and people could sign up for a personal 30-mintue tête-à-tête with him. I did sign up and I have to admit that that talk (unsurprisingly) gave me a lot more than the public seminar I attended since I was able to ask some questions that has puzzled me after having read two of his books and a couple of articles of his. As it so happens, I have also had dinner with Tainter twice this week (dinner is however not the best of occasions for in-depth discussions about detailed, thorny issues). I will below first write about Tainter's talk and then about the private discussion I had.

Tainter's talk on "Depletion and innovation"

Tainter's talk focused primarily on the place of innovation in our culture, and especially on the decreasing returns of (increasing) investments in innovation (e.g. in technology) in discipline after discipline (surgery, medical instruments, metalworking, optics, drugs and chemical, energy technologies, information technologies and even in "new" disciplines such as biotechnology and nanotechnology).

In terms of pace and cost of innovations (as in many other areas), we experience diminishing returns of increasing complexity and costs (i.e. "less bang for the buck"). To back this claim up, Tainter has conducted research with Deborah Strumsky and José Lobo on The US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) database with 5 million patents. Over the last 40 years, the number of patents per inventor has decreased by 20% and the number of inventors per patent has increased by almost 50%. Although the quality of patents is unknown (it can not be measured quantitatively), it seems we nowadays get less bang for the buck compared to half a century ago. Larger, interdisciplinary research teams cost a lot more money as they need the support of administrative personnel and formal institutions. This decrease in productivity has been masked by the fact that the whole enterprise (research & development) has grown in absolut terms (i.e. more scientists and more money being poured into R&D).

Most of the talk, and most of the questions the followed the talk concerned issues having to do with innovation. Audience members were unaccustomed to Tainter's perspective and they twisted and turned the numbers and the interpretations presented, trying to come to grips with, or punch holes in, these challenging ideas. What most people didn't notice (and Tainter didn't push the issue very hard) was the fact that not only is the productivity of research and researchers declining, but our ability to finance the current level of innovations (not to mention increasing it further) will become increasingly challenging and expensive in the future. "Expensive" does not here primarily refer to money, but rather to the single most important currency on earth - energy - and to it's "surrogate accounting systems" (Tainter's term); time, money, taxes and annoyance.

What we tend to forget is that innovations (always) increase complexity, and that complexity (for example new nifty technologies) have neat benefits, but always also have costs. In premodern times, 90% of the economy was centered around the production of energy (i.e. food). Before we started to exploit fossil fuels, increased complexity meant one thing and one thing only - that people had to work harder (longer hours etc.). "When energy limits are met, increasing complexity is inhibited" and this is true for pre-modern as well as fossil fuel-driven societies. When we run out of cheap energy (fossil fuels), it will be harder and harder to finance further innovation and new technologies. This does not mean that innovations will suddenly stop, but it does mean that innovation will gradually slow down ("less bucks to buy bangs").

Fossil fuels provide us with huge energy subsidies, both in terms of food production (a few percent of the population can produce all the food that the remaining 95+% need) and for other purposes (ex. transportation, heating as well as manufacturing and using computers). Ample subsidised energy (in the form of fossil fuels - "ancient sunlight" stored in the organic remains of plants and animals that lived many millions of years ago) allows almost everyone nowadays to do things other than to farm/produce food ("extracting energy from the environment"). The bad news is that fossil fuels are finite and they too suffer from diminishing returns of increasing complexity (and costs), since we tend to pick the lowest-hanging fruit first (the best coal deposits, the easiest oil etc.). That's why we nowadays have to drill for oil almost 2000 meters under the surface of the water (Deepwater Horizon) and why we can expect complex, risky actions to result in more disasters in the future (Deepwater Horizon). This trend is unfortunately impossible to reverse - we have and will continue to pick the lowest-hanging fruit first and remaining fruit will always be harder and harder to pick. Our system of innovation (and our current civilisation) requires continued inexpensive energy to run smoothly - and it's getting harder and harder to provide it. Our system of innovation will over time therefore become "unproductive, unaffordable or both". This dilemma was part of the talk (for those who perceived it), but it was not emphasised and I am quite sure many in the audience did not hear or did not understand it.

My privat consultation/chat with Tainter

One thing I asked was about the speed of the collapse ("societal decomplexification") according to Tainter's theories. Collapse implies rapid speed, but "rapid" can to a trained archeologist mean anything from decades to centuries. Tainter clarified that the relevant phase of the collapse of the Roman Empire happened within a few decades, i.e. within the lifetime of a human being. The 10.000 dollar question is where our current civilisation is collapse-wise. This must be a question Tainter has heard many times before and that (of course) is totally impossible for him to answer. Let's just say for now that Tainter doesn't believe that the collapse is imminent.

As apart from the Roman and many other empires and civilisations, there has, to the best of Tainter's knowledge, only been one (1) civilisation ever that has (with their backs against the wall) voluntarily decomplexified in order to survive, and that is the Byzantine Empire between 600 and 700 AD. In 600 AD, energy flowed from the sun to ripen the crops, the peasant harvested the crops and sold them to grain purchases, using the money to pay tax officials who transfered money to the government who paid their soldiers. Each transaction contains inefficiencies (crops in the storehouse gets eaten by rodents, part of the taxes pay for the salaries of tax officials etc.). "The solution was for the army to support itself. Soldiers were given grants of land on condition of hereditary military service. The Byzantine fiscal administration was correspondingly simplified." (Tainter and Patzek 2012). One hundred years later, in 700 AD, energy flowed from the sun to ripen the crops and the crops supported the army directly. Several questions of mine concerned possible Byzantine lessons of relevance today. What would represent a Byzantine strategy for the 21st century? Is someone proposing or trying to implement such a strategy today? Tainter's answer was that such a "solution" is not palatable to the general public. You only every choose it when your back is firmly pressed against the wall, and oftentimes not even then. Voluntary societal simplification might though be used in sub-systems of the larger system (for example some people returning to the countryside to cultivate the land produce their own food in a "green wave 2.0" scenario).

I also asked if it's even conceivable for a politician or a political party (or a "benevolent dictator") to take necessary, drastic and deeply unpopular steps that would "save" civilisation by simplification. We both had a hard time imagining it. Perhaps as a last step, but only if a quick turnaround was promised to the populace. Such a turnaround would however not follow, or might follow (i.e. a local maxima) but in its turn be followed by a yet greater fall. Democracy, as well as all other forms of governance, would have a hard time to cope such developments.

The theory of "climax ecosystems" implies a steady-state ecosystem where energy-in and energy-out are perfectly balanced. I asked Tainter if it was possible to imagine "climax civilisations" with steady-state economies that were perfectly balanced and perfectly sustainable (does not draw down resources or damage soils and other long-term ecological conditions necessary for its own survival). Tainter unfortunately made short shift of that idea for reasons that are too complex (ha!) to spell out here.

Since computers (and networks - including the Internet) in themselves are complex technologies, I was also interested in the future of computers (complexity) in an energy-scarce future. Are computers primarily a problem or can they also be seen a solution to problems having to do with complexity? We unfortunately ran out of time, but I did understand that this is a question where Tainter has very little to say, since he doesn't know and haven't thought that much about computers and digital technologies. I guess this is a question for me, and for RiSCIT to ponder; what should we (informatics/ computer science/ media technology/ human-computer interaction/ interaction design) do to help tackle the intractable problems we will face this century?


Professor Joseph Tainter
Department of Environment & Society
Utah State University

TITLE:  Depletion and Innovation: The Sustainability Balancing Act

Abstract: One of the fundamental debates about the future of the industrial way of life concerns the balance between resource depletion and technical innovation. Technological optimists claim that depletion will always be compensated by innovations that lead to more efficient use of resources (more output per unit of resource input), or by development of new resources. In this view, as a resource becomes scarce, prices signal that there are rewards to innovation. Innovators and entrepreneurs accordingly respond with novel technical solutions.  Optimists believe that this will always be the case, and that sustainable resource use is therefore not an issue. Technological pessimists focus on absolute limits to resources in a finite world, on returns to investment, and on externalities such as pollution. In the history of the industrialized way of life, the optimists have so far been correct: Innovation has managed to keep pace with depletion, so that over the long run, the prices of many commodities have been constant. The factor overlooked in this debate is that innovation, like other forms of knowledge production, grows in complexity and costliness and produces diminishing returns. This presentation explores the productivity of innovation since the early 1970s to inquire whether our system of innovation can forever offset resource depletion, and even whether it can continue in its present form.

fredag 7 februari 2014

Slow Journalism and Delayed Gratification magazine


When I heard about The Slow Journalism Company and their magazine Delayed Gratification the better part of a year ago I immediately thought their take on news was a really cool idea. I heard about them in a radio show (podcast) and immediately checked them out on the web. How can you not love a publication with the motto "Last to breaking news"? I think their whole manifesto/sales pitch (printed in each issue) is positively poetic and interesting enough to reproduce verbatim (see below)! I even went as far as trying to get one of the UK editors to give a (computer-mediated) talk in my course about The Future of News / News of the Future this past autumn. He was more than willing to talk, but wanted to come to Stockholm at the same time and it unfortunately didn't work out (a course budget doesn't have the economy to pay for plane tickets or hotel stays). Besides my attempt to invite Delayed Gratification to give a talk, I was personally drawn to this formulation of theirs in particular:

"written by journalists armed with three months' worth of hindsight, and without the albatross of an hourly deadline around their necks. As the weeks and months speed by we are keeping track, picking out the patterns and seeing what is left after the dust has settled. We strip out the white noise and give you the essentials, telling the story of the world over the last quarter."

So, last summer I signed up for a one-year subscription of Delayed Gratification (4 issues, £48 including delivery to Sweden). I have read three issues and while I do think it's interesting to revisit events from the recent past (with a UK slant), I'm not sure I will renew the subscription. The actual writing is ok and it's fine to get a summary of events and persons, but the articles aren't deep enough for me. It's more of a collage than a plunge behind the scenes of some carefully selected events that says something about the world and the time we live in. 

Another DG focus is on cool, hyper-designed infographics (see below). That's nice, but perhaps not exactly what I personally am yearning for (or willing to pay for) either. They do however have a cool "infographics vault" where you can check out their infographics and even buy your favourites as posters (52*84 cm).

Even if I don't think I will renew my subscription, I still really appreciate the fact that The Slow Journalist Company and Delayed Gratification exists. They are an alternative to the huge flow of shallow, speeded-up, frenzied coverage of pseudo-events that oftentimes passes for news on TV and on the web nowadays. Here's the DG manifesto - enjoy:

"Print is not dead. For all the wily charms of the digital world with its tweets, feeds, blogs and apps there is still nothing like the pleasure created by ink on paper.
   The server farms and all their delights cannot replace time spent in the company of something you can actually hold, whose pages you can turn down and whose spine you can crack. 
   We believe in magazines that engross and insprire at the end of a long week. We have no interest in creating throwaway media - we want to make something that is treasured, that ends its days making the bookshelf, coffee table or toilet just that little bit prettier and more civilized. And we believe everyone needs a screen break.
   Perspective, too, is not dead. Kneejerk punditry, live-blogging and the pounding waves of the 24-hour news cycle have their appeal. But there's also joy in getting your head above the water, sucking in a lungful of clear air and taking your bearings.
   This is our starting point. With our belief and perspective we bring you Delayed Gratification, the Slow Journalism magazine. A handsome devil that curates the news and captures the times, written by journalists armed with three months' worth of hindsight, and without the albatross of an hourly deadline around their necks.
   As the weeks and months speed by we are keeping track, picking out the patterns and seeing what is left after the dust has settled. We strip out the white noise and give you the essentials, telling the story of the world over the last quarter.
   This publication, then, is our flag in the sand - a magazine of records from the editors determined to swipe against the electronic tide.
   We're glad to have you with us."

OSCARS INFOGRAPHIC from Delayed Gratification, the Slow Journalism magazine.
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BOOKER PRIZE 2012 INFOGRAPHIC from Delayed Gratification, the Slow Journalism magazine.
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SPOTIFY HITS INFOGRAPHIC from Delayed Gratification, the Slow Journalism magazine.
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