fredag 25 april 2014

Rethinking sustainability in computing

I just now (a few hours ago) submitted a paper to the upcoming NordiCHI conference (which will be held in Finland between October 26-30). I've written the paper together with Barath Raghavan and the paper is called "Rethinking sustainability in computing: From buzzword to non-negotiable limitations". I believe the keywords we chose for the paper might give some hints as to what it's about: sustainability; sustainable development; sustainable HCI; ecological sustainability; environmental sustainability; critical reflection; collapse informatics; Limits to Growth; Steady-state economy; Ecological Footprint.

I think this might very well be the best and most profound paper I've ever written, but I did write a very good conference paper back in 2005, "Virtual community management as socialization and learning" (here's the pdf), a good journal article in 2008, "Do you believe in magic? Computer games in everyday life" (here's the abstract) and a great book chapter, "ASCII imperialism" back in 2009 (here's the pdf file).

Still, that was then and this is now. Nowadays I'm interested in sustainability and this is for sure the best and most profound paper I have written in the intersection of computers and sustainability this far. I was also great to work together with Barath and I look forward to future collaborations with him!

Writing is nerve-wracking process where you are oscillate between thinking your paper is great and then thinking it is not-so-great-at-all, as well as thinking you won't get it al together in time, or, that you will for sure be able to pull something together that is at least "good enough". This time I had a couple of hours to just look at small details and make everything just right. In fact, the deadline for the paper is after this blog post will have be published on the Internet (which is unusual for me). Despite having just handed in the paper, I have already thought of three more references that should have been in the paper. But if it's accepted, I will have the opportunity to prepare a final, camera-ready paper and can thus fix such "details".

Me and Barath started the planning process and had an outline for the paper ready quite some time ago, but we only started to roll up our sleeves and seriously work on the paper less than three weeks ago. And, I was on vacation last week and didn't lift a finger to aid in the production of the paper and Barath has been on a train (from San Francisco to Washington D.C) for three and half days this week without an Internet connection. I have instead worked all the more intensively before the vacation and especially after my vacation, during the last five days. My wife is also submitting a paper to NordiCHI and we have kept each other company as she has worked equally hard this week. Only a fraction of what me and Barath wanted to write about fit the paper in the end, so I think we will soon start to work on a CHI 2015 companion paper (the deadline for next year's CHI conference is September 22).

I think our paper is good, but while sustainability has gathered steam at the CHI conference, sustainability hasn't really been at theme at the smaller NordiCHI conferences (for some to me unknown reason). The only thing I worry about now is that it will be reviewed by people who are clueless about the stuff we write about and who might think the paper is "fine", but that it doesn't really fit NordiCHI (?). It was for example a nightmare to find categories and keywords that fitted the paper (so it could be matched with reviewers' interests). It's for sure not "adaptive and adaptable systems", "affective computing", "agile user experience development", "ambient intelligence", "artistic and aesthetic aspects of interaction and interface design" etc. In the end, I had to submit the paper as being about "theory and foundation of HCI" (which fits so-so). That means people who are interested in theories will read/review/judge the paper, but again, they might be clueless about sustainability and that wouldn't be very good for us. But if the paper is rejected, we'll just resubmit it to the larger CHI 2015 conference in September instead...

I have decided to share the introduction and the conclusion of the paper in this blog post (i.e. somewhere around 16 % of the full text).


Rethinking sustainability in computing: From buzzword to non-negotiable limitations

--------------- introduction: ---------------

Sustainability is important. Indeed, the challenge of shifting individual, societal and global developments in a more sustainable direction by decreasing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and stopping climate change is supposedly a crucial matter at this point in the history of humankind, per numerous world leaders as well as the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change [32, 33, 34]. In addition to this challenge, the world remains addicted to dwindling finite resources – fossil fuels, among others – that have given rise to our advanced industrial civilization, including the advancements we have seen in computing over the last several decades [62].

Sustainability has lately become an important theme within every sub-discipline of computer science. The growing importance of sustainability can also be noted in the area of Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) and related areas (e.g. Ubicomp, DIS, CSCW, Persuasive), with the boom in work on “sustainable HCI” following Blevis’ widely cited 2007 paper “Sustainable interaction design” [4]. Sustainable HCI has since been the topic of numerous papers [9, 18, 24, 35]. Similarly, outside of the HCI field, the number of general or specialized “green computing” conferences has mushroomed. These are descriptive statements, but, a normative corollary (held by the authors of this paper) is that at this point in time, the topic of sustainability ought to be an important aspect of HCI (both research and practice), computing in general, and indeed of all other applied academic disciplines.

Despite an active and growing sustainble HCI community at the larger CHI conference, less progress has been made in introducing sustainability as a topic to the smaller NordiCHI conference. With this paper, we want to be conducive to putting sustainability on the agenda also at the NordiCHI conference. Our purpose with the paper is however more ambitious – after having noted that sustainable HCI is a severely under-theorised area. Ideas about what actually constitutes sustainability (i.e. what we are aiming for) are few and far between. Sustainable HCI is furthermore exceedingly insular while at the same time ignoring seminal papers, books, discources and discussion that have been going on for several decades before the term ”sustainable HCI” was coined [19, 21, 39].

Despite the urgent need for a greater emphasis on sustainability both in computing in general and in HCI, we find that it is oftentimes absent, or, that when present, it is unclear or doubtful that the tools, systems, and services that are proposed or developed live up to any meaningful definition of what sustainability actually might entail. In fact, the whole concept of sustainability is more often than not unclear and confused both within HCI and in computing in general. Worse still is that even papers that discuss ”What are, or should be, the boundaries of sustainable HCI” [18], or that (correctly) points out that others’ approach to sustainable HCI is misguided and ”based on a limited framing of sustainability, human behavior, and their interrelationship” [9] themselves contain no discussion about what sustainability actually might entail. It almost seems as if anything and everything that invokes some variation of the terms ”sustainability” or ”environment” becomes part of the seemingly exponentially growing (sic!) corpus of work in sustainable HCI.

In this paper, we aim to evaluate past approaches to the subject and incorporate (and introduce) sustainability thinking from outside of sustainable HCI. The structure of the paper is as follows; we will begin by discussing popular ways of framing sustainability within, but primarily outside of HCI and then proceed to reject them. We will then present four interlocking frameworks that we propose provide a rigorous foundation for what constitutes sustainability, and where each consecutive framework both builds upon and can loosely be seen as a gradual specification and operationalization of the previous framework. We then exemplify with a few of the consequences of using these frameworks and end the paper by proposing avenues for further research in hitherto underdeveloped areas that we believe sustainable HCI should explore.

--------------- conclusion: ---------------

There are many possible ways to end this paper. We have chosen a short and to-the-point ending instead of repeating many of the arguments already made above.

Our main observation is that sustainability does not have to be a term that is conceptually hard to pin down – quite the opposite. Sustainability is a state in which the Ecological Footprint [64] of humanity stays below the regenerative biocapacity of the planet. The problem is rather that the frameworks and definitions we have presented in this paper inevitably have “unpalatable” consequences in terms of requiring major changes on individual, collective, institutional (including academic, research and corporate), societal and international levels. Nevertheless, the frameworks and definitions we have presented are grounded in ecological reality, which we believe must be the starting point of any real effort in sustainability research.

While remaking today’s unsustainable societies and shifting today’s unsustainable trajectories represents a daunting task as well as a break with centuries-long processes and entrenched mindsets, we still believe we have no other option than to face those monumental challenges. Part of the task is to find ways to reformulate today’s probelms first into challenges and then into possibilities (c.f. the quote from Daly [16] at the top of this page). We believe that HCI and computing will remain very important for a long time and that there are numerous challenges that our community could and should work on [70, 50, 51, 60, 61, 63, 46], but, that these challenges are oftentimes radically different from the current thrust of research and development.

Still, we believe that HCI is well positioned or perhaps even in a unique position to make a difference since “HCI researchers and technologists [not only] have the ability to shine a light on society’s problems, [but also to] provide platforms that enable individuals and groups to act on today’s problems” [17]. Before we can do that, we however first have to acknowledge that sustainability in the early 21st century means adapting to a reality of limitations, of trade-offs and of hard choices rather than the much more convenient “more of everything” mentality. This makes sustainability a revolutionary project and at this point we beg to differ from the mainstream sustainable HCI “evolutionary” agenda. The task facing us as a community at this juncture should not be to tiptoe towards sustainability, but rather to immerse ourselves in “the study, design, and development of sociotechnical systems in the abundant present for use in a future of scarcity” [60]. If we acknowledging that by taking small, incremental steps, we’ll advance only a little, is it then not the time to instead take bold action and accept the possibility of becoming ”accidental revolutionaries” [52, 59, 10]?

tisdag 22 april 2014

Articles I've read (May last year)

Last year, I read a whole lot of articles during the first half of the year (Jan-June). I recently wrote about the articles I read back in April last year and below are the articles I read back in May 2013. Now only June remains before I can jump to 2014 as I hardly have time to read articles in the autumns due to my teaching load.

While I've harboured some remorse over the delay, I have however come to realise that to a you, dear reader, it doesn't much matter if I read the articles below a year ago or if I read them last week...!

Batch/week 1 - contributions to the CHI "Post-Sustainability" workshop
Comment: I attended the CHI Sustainability community full-day workshop on "Post-Sustainability" before the CHI conference last year. I read all the position papers in advance - each paper is only a few pages long (4-5 pages at the most). The quality varies a lot. Some try to write something substantial in a "small package", but others just submit something canned and pretty stale just to express an interest in participating in the workshop and/or show of their credentials. I will for the most part not annotate/review these contributions. All position papers are available in the online workshop "archive". Here's the blog post I wrote about the workshop itself.
  • Avram, G.; A. Boden, I. Posch, and G. Stevens (2013). Do-It-Yourself Sustainable Living: Opportunities and challenges for DIY communities. In the CHI sustainability community workshop on ”Post-Sustainability” (co-located with CHI 2013), Paris, France, 2013.
  • Shabajee, P. (2013). HCI 4 Adaptation: A position paper. In the CHI sustainability community workshop on ”Post-Sustainability” (co-located with CHI 2013), Paris, France, 2013.
  • Massung, E. (2013). The future of crowdsourcing: Supporting advocacy, creating awareness, and altering norms. In the CHI sustainability community workshop on ”Post-Sustainability” (co-located with CHI 2013), Paris, France, 2013.
  • Kobayashi, H. H. (2013). Human-Computer-Biosphere Interaction: Beyond Human-Centric Interaction. In the CHI sustainability community workshop on ”Post-Sustainability” (co-located with CHI 2013), Paris, France, 2013.
  • Borning, A. (2013). UrbanSim, ConsiderIt, and OneBusAway: Reflections on three projects and post-sustainability. In the CHI sustainability community workshop on ”Post-Sustainability” (co-located with CHI 2013), Paris, France, 2013.
  • Knowles, B. (2013). Deep interventions to change how we think and act. In the CHI sustainability community workshop on ”Post-Sustainability” (co-located with CHI 2013), Paris, France, 2013. */ This position paper was very good /*
  • Heitlinger, S., Bryan-Kinns, N. & Jefferies, J. (2013). Moving beyond the individual consumer in sustainable CHI. In the CHI sustainability community workshop on ”Post-Sustainability” (co-located with CHI 2013), Paris, France, 2013.
  • Dillahunt, T. (2013). Creating resilient communities for post-sustainable times. In the CHI sustainability community workshop on ”Post-Sustainability” (co-located with CHI 2013), Paris, France, 2013. */ This position paper was good /*
  • Haynes, S. R. (2013). Design rationale as seed bank: Knowledge waste and second-order sustainability. In the CHI sustainability community workshop on ”Post-Sustainability” (co-located with CHI 2013), Paris, France, 2013.
  • Hauser, S, Desjardines, A. & Wakkary, R. (2013). Rethinking and envisioning Sustainable HCI and the role of interaction design. In the CHI sustainability community workshop on ”Post-Sustainability” (co-located with CHI 2013), Paris, France, 2013.
  • Pargman, D., Walldius, Å. & Eriksson, E. (2013). HCI in a world of limitations: Addressing the social resilience of computing. In the CHI sustainability community workshop on ”Post-Sustainability” (co-located with CHI 2013), Paris, France, 2013. */ We actually tried to say something substantial and I think we were successful. /*
  • Ilstedt, S, Wangel, J., Höjer, M. & Bendt, O. (2013). Prototyping futures. In the CHI sustainability community workshop on ”Post-Sustainability” (co-located with CHI 2013), Paris, France, 2013.
  • Rossitto, C. & Cerratto-Pargman, T. (2013). Sustainability in education: Challenges and open issues. In the CHI sustainability community workshop on ”Post-Sustainability” (co-located with CHI 2013, Paris, France, 2013.

Batch/week 2 - texts from the CHI 2013 conference
Comment: I spent the subsequent weeks after the CHI conference reading papers that for one or another reason had caught my attention at the conference. It for the most part went like this: I listened to a presentation, thought it was good and decided to read the paper afterwards. Here's the blog post I wrote about the conference itself.
  • Kirman, B., Linehan, C., Lawson, S., & O'Hara, D. (2013, April). CHI and the future robot enslavement of humankind: a retrospective. In CHI'13 Extended Abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 2199-2208). ACM. */ This paper is hilarious but is also makes you think. "As robots from the future, we are compelled to present this important historical document which discusses how the systematic investigation of interactiv technology facilitated and hastened the enslavement of mankind by robots during the 21st Century [...] We conclude by congratulating the CHI community for your tireless work in promoting and supporting our evil robot agenda". Recommended! */
  • Wyche, S. P., Forte, A., & Yardi Schoenebeck, S. (2013, April). Hustling online: understanding consolidated Facebook use in an informal settlement in Nairobi. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 2823-2832). ACM. */ How is the Internet and Facebook used in the third world? How is is used in a slum in Nairobi, Kenya? "Even in this poor setting [...] having an online presence is no longer a luxury but is rapidly becoming a necessity for popeoli living in underdeveloped regions." Recommended /*
  • Al-Ani, B., Densmore, M., Cutrell, E., Dearden, A., Grinter, R. E., Thomas, J. C., Kam, M. & Peters, A. N. (2013, April). Featured community SIG: human-computer interaction for development. In CHI'13 Extended Abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 2473-2476). ACM. */ This was just a short rallying call for a Special Interest Group. "how [can we] both learn from each other and from those we serve in underserved communities"? on Human-Centered Design for Development (HCD4D), User-Centered Design for Development (UCD4D) and Interaction Design and International Development (IDID) /*
  • Read, J. C., & Hourcade, J. P. (2013, April). Enhancing the research infrastructure for child-computer interaction. In CHI'13 Extended Abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 2481-2484). ACM. */ This is another rallying cry for a Special Interest Group, this time on child-computer interaction, i.e. HCI specifically for children. */
  • Väätäjä, H. K., & Pesonen, E. K. (2013, April). Ethical issues and guidelines when conducting HCI studies with animals. In CHI'13 Extended Abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 2159-2168). ACM. */ Apparently the number of studies of HCI and/with animals is increasing because this paper addresses ethical issues and "guidelines for carrying out studies with animals". /*
  • Mancini, C. (2013, April). Animal-computer interaction (ACI): changing perspective on HCI, participation and sustainability. In CHI'13 Extended Abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 2227-2236). ACM. */ One more paper about Animal-Computer Interaction (ACI), this time by someone who has read everything there is in the area and who wants to (perhaps) create a Special Interest Group around this theme(?) /*
  • Wyche, S. P., & Murphy, L. L. (2013, April). Powering the cellphone revolution: findings from mobile phone charging trials in off-grid Kenya. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 1959-1968). ACM. */ This was a really interesting paper about the conditions for owning and charing you cell phone if you live in rural Africa (Kenya) and don't have electricity in your home village. The solutions that was evaluated a hand-crank cellphone charger and a bicycle charger kit. "Does the early hype hold up in practice with real-world rural condistion and real people? Answer: it worked so-so. Very interesting, recommended! /*
  • Kumar, N., & Rangaswamy, N. (2013, April). The mobile media actor-network in urban India. In Proceedings of the 2013 ACM annual conference on Human factors in computing systems (pp. 1989-1998). ACM. */ The paper "describes the vast, growing mobile media consumption culture in India. [...] we show how the practice of piracy [...] fuels media consumption". Interesting, but I can't recall if the Actor-Network Theory angle added anything in particular. /*
  • Tariq, M. A. (2013 - unpublished). Threat assessment using storytelling. */ Written for an internal doctoral conference/colloquium at my department. I was the designated opponent. */ "This paper, based on the interviews conducted at an organization, elaborates on a framework which extends the attacker persona methodology by using narratives in order to assess the organizations' security." /*

Batch/week 3 - texts from the CHI 2013 conference
Comment: I spent the subsequent weeks after the CHI conference reading papers that for one or another reason had caught my attention at the conference. It for the most part went like this: I listened to a presentation, thought it was good and decided to read the paper afterwards. Here's the blog post I wrote about the conference itself
  • Busse, D. K., Borning, A., Mann, S., Hirsch, T., Nathan, L. P., Grimes Parker, A., Shneiderman, B. & Nunez, B. (2013, April). CHI at the barricades: an activist agenda?. In CHI'13 Extended Abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 2407-2412). ACM. */ A short into to a panel on the connection between HCI and activism; "What is the appropriate role of activism and HCI research and practice?" /*
  • Lomas, D., Kumar, A., Patel, K., Ching, D., Lakshmanan, M., Kam, M., & Forlizzi, J. L. (2013, April). The power of play: design lessons for increasing the lifespan of outdated computers. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 2735-2744). ACM. */ Very interesting paper about the 8-bit home computers and video games that "the rest of the world" use/play/have access to. This system is comparable with the Nintendo Entertainment System that sold 60 million copies in the US between 1983-1995. Taking into account the (real, researched) situation in poor countries, the paper "explores strategies for increasing the reuse of outdated computers". Recommended. /*
  • Rodden, T. A., Fischer, J. E., Pantidi, N., Bachour, K., & Moran, S. (2013, April). At home with agents: exploring attitudes towards future smart energy infrastructures. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 1173-1182). ACM. */ Great paper that "considers how consumers might related to [...] future smart grids within the UK. [...] Users' reaction suggest that [...] they were principally disinterested. Users showed a considerable lack of trust in energy companies raising a dilemma of design. Warmly recommended. /*
  • Heyman, S. (2013 - unpublished). Research proposal: Financial advising systems that support decision making. */ Written for an internal doctoral conference/colloquium at my department. I was the designated opponent. */ An "early plan for research in how to design online banks and/or electronic tools for professional financial advisors, in order to make concepts such as risk and retur graspable to the ordinary layperson." /*
  • Shrinivasan, Y. B., Jain, M., Seetharam, D. P., Choudhary, A., Huang, E. M., Dillahunt, T., & Mankoff, J. (2013, April). Deep conservation in urban India and its implications for the design of conservation technologies. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 1969-1978). ACM. */ These guys *get it*. They frame the paper by referring to peak oil in the very first sentence and then "present a study of energy, waster and fuel conservation practices in urban India." The term "deep conservation" is coined to describe this culture and these practices. An interesting turn away from the almost exclusive western focus of these kinds of studies. /*
  • Irani, L. C., & Silberman, M. S. (2013, April). Turkopticon: Interrupting worker invisibility in amazon mechanical turk. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 611-620). ACM. */ Written by my (temporary) now-colleage Six, this paper describes the appalling working conditions in the premier system for "crowdwork", "human computation" and "humans-as-a-service" (comparable to software-as-a-service), Amazon Mechanical Turk. Big in the US (and India) but almost unheard of in Europe. Won the prize for best paper! /*
  • Starbird, K. (2013, April). Delivering patients to sacré coeur: collective intelligence in digital volunteer communities. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 801-810). ACM. */ A study of how Twitter, distributed cognition and collective intelligence works - in detail - in a specific "case" in the wake of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. Prominently features "digital volunteers", a cross between detectives and do-good network matchmakers and gatekeepers. /* 
  • Erete, S. L. (2013, April). Protecting the home: exploring the roles of technology and citizen activism from a burglar's perspective. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 2507-2516). ACM. */ Interesting paper and extremely interesting methodology. "This paper analyzes three panel sessions with 15 people who have been convicted of burglarizing homes, cars, and /or business. Participants describe in detail what they looked for when deciding to burgalizize a home and what deterred them. Technologies such as security systems, alarms, and cameras do not dissuade burglars. Instead, evidence of neighborhood cohesion was named the stronges deterrent. Sometimes technologh is not the solution. Recommended."

lördag 19 april 2014

Culture and Data in the Digital Field

I attended a full-day workshop called "Big: Culture and Data in the Digital Field" at the end of last week (I've been away on vacation for a week since then with no internet access). The workshop was organised by professor Tom Boellstorff at the UCI Center for Ethnography and also by the Intel Science & Technology Center for Social Computing (ISTC). Several people I "know of" but had never met IRL were there and that's always nice. The idea of organising a workshop appearantly came from ideas of Tom's from when he wrote a a book and a First Monday article about "metadata labor"

There were around 10 presenters (who each only got to give a 15-minute talk - perfect length) and lots of time for discussions and coffee. The organisation of the event was in fact exemplary. It would be hard (but not impossible) to surpass the organisation, but very easy to do a lot worse. There were basically three cycles that went like this:

- Three presenters giving 15 minutes talks (with powerpoint slides, movies etc.)
- A "fishbowl" conversation exercise (geard towards picking up ideas from the audience)
- A 30-minute general conversation (geared towards the presenters and the presentations)
- Break (lunch or coffee break)

On my sabbatical, I've for the most part hunkered down behind my computer, writing. I haven't gone to very many talks and seminars. I have had lots of time to read (my daily "fix" - or "allotment"), but I realise that most of the new ideas I have gotten here at UCI have come from texts rather than from other people. It was therefore really nice to be part of a truly intellectual academic environment - if but for a day. I felt almost cleansed, being among (many) people, hearing about new projects and taking part of a firework of ideas! Also, I met several persons I really got on well with and will meet again here in Irvine - and hopefully keep in touch with afterwards too!

This will (of course) not be a walk-through of the whole day and all the speakers, I'll just discuss a few of my personal highlights of the day.

- Paul Dourish talked about a meeting he had just attended were he was told that "Big Data" is sooo last year because now it's all about the three V's; Volume, Velocity and Variety. Tom reflected on the velocity of terms, something he saw as a dangerous trend. I agree. I would hate to have a text rejected for using "last year's terms" and I would hate for scholarship degenerating to being the first or the best at coining, defining and using the lastest, trending terms, rather than being about clear thoughts and deep insights. I have, for a long time, flirted/struggled with the idea that so much of what we do in the academy is "phony" (a race for positional goods). I would hate to be (even further) proved that that is the case. I mean, wouldn't it be terrible if people started to submit text of little value (or worse - get them published)? Yeah, right - like that never happens today... I even totally opted out of the academic race for some years, but now I'm back at it (like a true sucker, or junkie).

- The previous point can be neatly tied to a conversation we had later during the day about academic overproduction. Mary L. Gray though we should slow down. Talk more to each other and publish less. "We are producing too much of too little value" - and I agree 100%. She also said that the more we can publish, the more careful we should be about what we publish. As to that, am I contributing to publishing "too much" when I write blog posts here once or twice per week? Or is this part of the sought-after conversation she referred to? This all reminds me of Fred Brook's quip from "The mythical man-month" about decreasing returns: "Adding manpower to a late software project makes it later" and the corollary about the fact that it takes nine months to bear a baby no matter how many women are assigned to the task. As I write this, I come to think of Brook's law being an example of Tainter's law of decreasing returns of increasing complexity. I should think some more about the connection between Tainter and Brooks at some point - I know there is one but this is not the time to delve into that.

To summarise the two bullets above, the workshop raised questions (for me) about how big data is shifting our perception and our behaviour as individuals, as citizens and as teachers, academics and scholars. How does the idea and the practice of big data shift our perception of what is possible and what isn't possible, what is easy and what isn't easy, what is of value and what isn't of value, what is right and what is wrong? I'm the born sceptic, concentrating as much (or more) on what we loose as on what we gain. Still and even as a sceptic, I find this project extremely interesting and it would never have come about without big data and number crunching. In fact, I think that research project is an excellent example of the upside of big data as well as of innovative interdisciplinary collaboration.

One of the speakers was Anthropologist Morten Axel Pedersen from Copenhagen University (official homepageown homepage) who talked about "Complementary social science? Reflections from a Deep Data Experiment". More specifically, his talk was about a project called SensibleDTU (DTU = the Technical University of Denmark). The projects wants to "map social networks in real-time" and at the heart of the project is the fact that they have handed out 1000 (!) Google Nexus 4 smart phones to first-year DTU students with the caveat that they agree to have their social interactions with others tracked and mapped by the DTU-developed "SensibleDTU app". The SensibleDTU project is a "large" study. The research project is interested in many different questions, for example "how friendship and networks of behaviour form offline and online" and "how information and influence is transmitted and transformed in the DTU 'social fabric'". As apart from the data collected through the app, the researchers also have access to the students themselves (interviews etc.). The project will run (collect data) for as long as the students keep their phones (i.e. after 12-18-24 months it is expected that students will buy new phones and drop out of the project in terms of generating new data). This project obviously raises huge ethical questions (none were discussed at the workshop), but the students themselves are apparently more interested in the technical back-end than they are worried about in-depth surveillance... (this was a technical university). The project employs (as far as I understood) around 10 persons (half are ph.d. students) and they (Morten) will organise a workshop about [something] in Copenhagen in the autumn. I talked to Morten and we (KTH/CSC/MID - STPMID4SEIDshould be there! This is a project that KTH/CSC/MID (together with other institutions) definitely could replicate. We have the students and the in-house know-how to pull something like this off! Morten discussed mixed methods (big data + social science) in his talk. With an increasing number of users and and increasing volume of data (bits/user) the DTU project is collecting "deep data". The combination of big data + social science/ethnographic interpretation can lead to something Morten called "thick data". These are just terms I'm throwing around here in order to not forget them but I have lit tle deep understanding of what what "deep data" and "thick data" means in practice or what the project status is (are they collecting data now?).

Comment (140421): Although I didn't hear anything about ethical concerns at the workshop, Morten read this blog post and added that "the project have very profound and very reflective ethical rules and practices built into its very edifice".

Malte Ziewitz from NYU talked about "unscaling ethnography" and about big data vs "small data moments". Here's a small data moment: "why did you do that?", "well, I was hungry and wanted to go to lunch so I had to finish the experiment early"... Several speakers talked about the value of mixed methods. You can get a lot of data (logged) from "within" the computer system, but some things will forever elude you (that telephone call between two friends that sets one of them into motion). Complex problems will be hard to understand with only quantitative or qualitative methods and data. Geoff Bowker (Chair of informatics at UCI and leader of the Values and design lab) gave a dazzling high-speed talk ("Make It So, Data") with interesting juxtapositions of cool pictures and neat sound bytes and he said something to the effect that "people are afraid of getting eaten by the cookie monster, but, people who don't love cookies must have had troubled childhoods..." :-)   Geoff had also created a histogram of the presence of the terms "knowledge", "information" and "data" during the last 200 years and in the 1960's, during the computer revolutions, these terms traded place; "knowledge" was on top but switched place with "data" that was previously at the bottom. His tongue-in-cheek conclusion was that the 1960's was the decade when knowledge became overtaken by information and data (and, it goes without saying that we are presumably suffering the consequences of that shift today).

Christine Borgman (Wikipedia) leads the Data practices team at UCLA and talked about "The data citation dance" (she also referred to a report with the great title "Out of cite, out of mind"). As we collect larger amounts of data, big data will change publishing and publications and there are new roles to be filled. Christine quoted [someone] who said something to the effect that "if publications are the stars and planets of the scientific universe, data are the "dark matter" - influential but largely unobserved in our mapping process". You should for example be able to get credit (including tenure) for taking care of and organising large data sets that are useful to other researchers, but you don't (today). Christine compared this to physics where there can be a lot of authors on a paper (including the name of someone being responsible for the scientific instruments). What (to us) seemed praiseworthy turns out to be more fraught with difficulties when you dig down - but it still represents a first attempt at something that will become more important in the social sciences as big data becomes bigger and more important (see the SensibleDTU project above!). This made me remember a slogan I've heard; "data is the new oil" (or, "data is the oil of the 21st century"). This is an intriguing notion even though I personally think oil is the new oil (as well as the old oil) because without the oil (energy), nothing will run and data will loose much of its current allure).

Here are some random observations and comments that I can't (or couldn't care to) attribute to the correct person who raised the issue in question at the workshop:
- The quantified self (QS) community already think about themselves in terms of large data sets.
- Ubiquitous computing, Algorithmic living, Quantified self and Big data are terms that fly around today. Anthropologists are big on "kinship", so, what's the kinship between these terms?
- We explicitly assume that what is mentioned and talked about the most is what is most important and means the most. But what if some things are really import but also taboo to talk about? What are the things that are really important, but that we do not talk about today (at the workshop, on the Internet and in society)?
- When researchers interview an informant, the informant can say "you can use the data I provide you with if I can read your text first". But what can you "interrogate" big data about? How can you correct errors propagating in the network (the baseline is that you can't).
- Social media is archived and lasts "forever". What are the consequences? It's like you yell something stupid out of the window when you're 18 and it won't ever go away. It will become part of your identity. My thought: is that like a stigma (something that Goffman has written about):
- What then could a "Big data stigma" be? What if the potential of a stigma exists that neither you nor anyone else knows about? Still, the potential of that stigma exists - if someone just has access to and manages to get the right information together. How would your behaviour differ from that of someone who had a physical stigma (like a mark on the body)? How would everyone's behaviour change if everyone (potentially) could be stigmatised, if everyone unbeknownst had 1000 "potential" stigmas, readily available to someone with enough data about you? Would that have a chilling effect on people/society? See further Lundblad's excellent 2004 paper "Privacy in a noise society" (short version herelong version here).

I ended by asking a sceptical, contrarian question, basically repeating the question that came to me and was the impetus to write a paper about "Ubiquitous information in a world of limitations" back in 2010. We all assume that big data is getting bigger, and even bigger, and moving faster. But this actually assumes a lot of things (BAU). While we can extrapolate, we don't really know very much about the future. It might turn out to be very different (e.g. disruptive change, "In times of disruptive change your expected future is no longer valid"). I also shamelessly self-promoted just the tiniest bit, referring to my upcoming (end of May) UCI talk about "Peak computing" (more on that later) but it didn't really take (no-one asked about it later for example).

Here's the text that framed the workshop and that made me decide to attend it:

Despite first appearing in an academic publication only in 2003, the term “big data” has swiftly become central to technology and social science. While bearing deep histories, big data is clearly linked to developments in computational storage, algorithmic analysis, mobile devices, and online sociality. But big data is also debated in the blogosphere, portrayed in mass media, discussed in everyday life.

The goal of this workshop is to take these multiple meanings and practices of big data seriously by placing them in conversation with ethnographic methods. Big data has sometimes been said to imply the “death of ethnographic methods” because it ostensibly provides a more comprehensive, accurate, or unbiased view of social life. In this workshop, however, we explore emergent synergies between ethnographic methods and big data. While some speak of a quantitative versus qualitative divide as foundational to social inquiry, there is value in exploring the possibly more consequential distinction between experimental methods “in” a laboratory (based on the control of variables) versus fieldwork methods “out” in the world (based on empirically investigating contexts preexisting the research process).

From this perspective, big data and ethnography lie on the same side of a divide that separates them from laboratory approaches. Both are forms of engagement with “the field.” As a result, considering new possibilities for their creative entanglement and mutual reconfiguration could present “big” possibilities for investigating the digital dimensions of contemporary cultures.

Oh, and one more thing (if you've read this far). I met some really cool people at the workshop:
- Judith Gregory is the co-director of the UCI EVOKE &Values in Design Laboratory. She does work about Quantified Self. We got off and talked non-stop for an hour and didn't really get around to talk about Quantified Sefl - so we just have to meet and talk some more. I actually think someone recommended that I talk to her some time ago (which I didn't). I'm just so happy to have hooked up with Judith as we had an eclectic and electric conversation about so many different things.
- Just as the event was winding down, I also met and talked intensively with UCSD sociology ph.d student Joan Donovan who is also a bona fide social media activist-guru, and who seems to know everyone. She's also has Manuel Castells as her advisor and she's working with ("Connect. Collaborate. Organize.", "InterOccupy is an interactive space for activists looking to organize for global and local social change"). Her private blog is Occupy the Social. We talked about the future of work and I presented her with the concept of "empty labour" while she retorted with presenting me with "the cognitariat"
- I finally chatted just a little with Bill Maurer who is a UCI professor of anthropology. He directed me to the Institute for Money, Technology and Financial Inclusion (IMTFI) as well as to some Swedes who are doing work in "Valuation Studies" (new journal).