söndag 24 juli 2016

Limits to moneycomputing (book chapter)

This is blog post #5 - the very last blog post in my "summer spillover series" (here is #4). I'm on vacation but this blog post is again about something I "should" have written about when it happened (more than one and a half months ago) - long before I went on vacation.

Just as with the previous blog post, this is about a proposed chapter that I submitted to the upcoming (2017) book "Digital Technology and Sustainability: Acknowledging Paradox, Facing Conflict, and Embracing Disruption" together with Daniel Berg. I recently found out that we have indeed been invited to develop this proposed chapter of ours into a full book chapter. The (very preliminary) title of the text is currently "Limits to Moneycomputing" and I am writing it together with Daniel Berg who is a ph.d. student of economic history at Stockholm University.

Our extended abstract consists of a short abstract and a steam-of-consciouness "walkthrough" of different lines of reasoning we want to develop in the text. The walkthrough suffers from the fact that my co-author is finishing up his ph.d. thesis (it will be handed off to the printshop in a week, on August 1) and he has been very busy putting it together during the last few months. Daniel had furthermore isolated himself (to concentrate on getting his thesis written) right when the extended abstract was to be handed in seven weeks ago so I had to write it up myself based on our earlier discussions.

We now have to produce a first full draft of the chapter (5000-6000 words) by August 31, and I expect this text to take considerably more time to write than the chapter I will write together with Elina Eriksson mainly due to the following four reasons:

- I'm the first author and I have the main responsibility of writing this chapter. Elina is the first author of the other chapter and she thus has the main responsibility for that text.
- The ideas for this chapter are not as finished/polished as the ideas for the other chapter. For the other chapter we already have an outline (plan) for the whole chapter while we currently only have a steam-of-consciouness "walkthrough" of different lines of reasoning we want to develop in this text. I urgently need to plan a meeting with Daniel to "prune" the abstract and refine which ideas we should develop.
- The very ideas we are writing about are brand new. I (we) haven't written anything about the intersection of economy and computing before and few others have done that - to best of my knowledge (please do get in touch if you have tips for texts that I/we should read!).
- I have never written a text together with Daniel Berg while I have written many texts together with Elina. Me and Elina have a well-oiled routine for cranking out texts while me and Daniel Berg don't yet.

I here spare you of the rambling 2500-word extended abstract and instead present the considerably tighter 300-word short abstract. The abstract is however so tight that it might unfortunately be difficult to understand the main ideas that will carry the chapter and these ideas will have to be further "unpacked" to make sense. One idea (second paragraph below) is that our use of computers make our use of natural resources more efficient (which, in line with Jevon's paradox has "the same" effect as lowering the price of said resources). This is bad from a sustainability point of view as it increases the "social metabolism" and the material throughput in our societies. A second idea (same paragraph) is that by tightening the control and coordination of resource extraction, trade, transportation, production, marketing, sales (etc.), computers increase the velocity of money which again increases the material throughput in our societies (again bad from a sustainability point of view). With that in mind, here is the short abstract:

Limits to moneycomputing

Daniel Pargman (KTH Royal Institute of Technology) & Daniel Berg (Stockholm University)

Sustainability has become an increasingly important topic in computing during the last decade. An increasing number of researchers are contemplating and researching how ICT could be used to increase sustainability in our societies, and, great hope is attached to the potential of computing to help solve some of the greatest challenges of our time. Few researchers however study or indeed even consider what is bad about computers in terms of sustainability, i.e. how computers are oftentimes used in ways that contribute to unsustainability. Two of the top industries in terms of their use of computing power is after all the oil (exploration) industry and the financial industries.

Computers today help increase the effectiveness of our use of resources - with the effect that more numerous areas that make use of said resources are being found (e.g Jeevon’s paradox), thereby increasing the volume of material throughput in society. Computers today furthermore help increase the degree of control over processes of various kinds (Beniger 1986), thereby speeding up the use (and the volume) of material throughput in society. These are two important examples of how computers have, and how they continue to contribute to furthering the unsustainability of modern societies.

The intermingling of raw computing power with purely financial goals constitutes an especially potent witches’ brew that we here refer to as “moneycomputing”. We describe the origins of moneycomputing some 35 years ago, it’s development and its spread in lockstep with globalisation. We end the chapter by outlining some suggestions as to what can be done to counteract moneycomputing and instead allow computing to be used for more beneficiary and more sustainable purposes than it is oftentimes used today.  

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