torsdag 12 maj 2016

Refactoring Society


My previous blog post was about a paper we recently submitted to the second workshop on "Computing within Limits". I actually submitted another paper, this one written together with Barath Raghavan (he's the first author) and the paper is called "Refactoring Society: Systems Complexity in an Age of Limits".

This is the second paper that I have write with Barath (the first, "Rethinking sustainability in computing: From buzzword to non-negotiable limitations" was presented at NordiCHI two years ago), and, I think our plan is to eventually extend this short paper into a journal paper.

The paper is basically an attempt to take the theories of Joseph Tainter into the world of ICT and computing. Tainter writes about the benefits, but especially about the costs of cultural/societal complexity. How complexity is the end result of solving problems and how complexity and costs - but not benefits - accrue over time since the ratio between benefits and costs suffer from a bad case of diminishing marginal utility.

As such, the topic of the paper heavily overlaps with a seminar I just held at the Center for Sustainable Communications (CESC) this week, "Cultural complexity and the impossibility of sustainability". A short paper of Tainter's was circulated before the seminar, "Resources and Cultural Complexity: Implications for Sustainability" (available online), and people who attended the seminar were supposed to have read it (about half had). Please see below first for the paper abstract and then for the invitation to the seminar.

If you are interested in Tainter and his theories, please see this blog post about his book "The collapse of complex civilizations" (1988), this blog post about his more recent book "Drilling down" (2012) and this blog post that I wrote after I heard him talk and was the beneficiary of a private conversation with him two years ago.

Refactoring Society Abstract

Research in sociology, anthropology, and organizational theory indicates that most societies readily create increasingly complex societal systems. Over long periods of time, accumulated societal complexity bears costs in excess of benefits, and leads to a societal decline. In this paper we attempt to answer a fundamental question: what is the appropriate response to excessive sociotechnical complexity? We argue that the process of refactoring, which is commonplace in computing, is ideally suited to our circumstances today in a global industrial society replete with complex sociotechnical systems. We further consider future directions for computing research and sustainability research with the aim to understand and help decrease sociotechnical complexity.


Cultural complexity and the impossibility of sustainability

Joseph Tainter’s book ”The Collapse of Complex Societies” (1988) puts forth a theory of the process and the dynamics behind the collapse of various ancient civilizations (The Roman Empire, Mesopotamia, Minoan civilisation etc.). It was almost irresistible for these to solve all societal problems in ways that increased cultural complexity, but, the process of increasing cultural complexity always goes hand in hand with increased costs for establishing and maintaining said complexity in terms of effort, resources, time, money etc.

The problem of retooling industrial societies into sustainable societies, is in this sense no different from any other problem faced by modern (or ancient) societies. Our proposed solutions tend to gravitate towards solving that problem by increasing our efforts (resources, time, money etc.) in ways that will further increase cultural and societal complexity as well as costs. Previous unsustainable infrastructures (for transportation, heating, producing food and stuff and for ”producing” energy) tend to be replaced by new, more complex structures, for example dumb electricity grids being replaced by more complex smart grids, slow trains being replaced by significantly more complex and expensive high-speed trains, adding carbon capture and storage (CCS) to existing coal power plants etc..

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