söndag 25 februari 2018

Barcelona thoughts

So I'm on a sabbatical and I'm currently in Barcelona, visiting the Institute of Environmental Science and Technology (ICTA) at the Autonomous University of Barcelona to learn more about Degrowth (see my previous blog post). I've been here for two weeks now and feel it is time to share some reflections about my time here this far. First on more professional aspects of my visit but then followed by some more personal thoughts.

One really cool thing is that ICTA (or rather some persons at ICTA) organise a reading group on Degrowth. Also researchers from other universities are invited and the reading group doubles as a social activity - they meet in somebody's home about once per month and everybody brings something to eat or drink. Here's the introduction to the program for the academic year 2017/2018:

Barcelona Reading group on Degrowth
Organized by Research & Degrowth and ICTA-UAB

This is the 7th year of the Research & Degrowth / ICTA reading group. The group consists of convivial, three hour gatherings every few weeks, where we discuss in detail a classic or recent book, a collection of articles, on an important theme that relates to degrowth, or more broadly ecological economics and degrowth. Over the years, we have read books from Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, Andre Gorz, Silvia Federici, Ivan Illich, Amaia Orozco, Serge Latouche, and many many others. The discussions that took place in the reading group resulted in a series of joint publications, public interventions, Special Issues and the edited volume “Degrowth. A vocabulary for a new era” (vocabulary.degrowth.org). Below is a tentative list of the planned reading groups for the current academic year.

I arrived to Barcelona on a Sunday and it just so happened that there was a reading group meeting in professor Giorgios Kallis' home the following evening on the theme of "The State and degrowth". Other topics from this year's reading group program are for example "Automation, Artificial Intelligence and degrowth", "Commons and degrowth", "Capitalism, socialism, degrowth", "Degrowth and Environmental Justice", "The naturalization of growth" and "Recent work of Juliet Schor" (coinciding with a visit of hers to Barcelona).

The meeting was inspiring and I immediately started to think about how we could "appropriate" the form(at) in Stockholm. I'm not sure we have a theme that works as well as Degrowth does in the one place "where it's happening" (Barcelona) but I guess the closest thing that I can think of in a Stockholm context would just be to have meetings relating to "ICT and sustainability". Sort of like a ph.d. course except it's not aimed specifically at ph.d. - more like a "higher seminar" where ph.d.'s, post-docs and professors (also from other universities) are invited. It's definitely something to think about. One thing that could be done immediately though is to copy the "Recent work of..." format. We have had Eli BlevisJeffrey Bardzell and Ann Light pass Stockholm by and have then taken the opportunity to invite them + one or a few other guests for dinner in our home. That's nice but an alternative could be to ask for a few recent texts of theirs and have a more open "seminar" (or "a convivial gathering") where we discuss their texts and take part of their thoughts. That's definitely something to think about.

I brought quite a lot with me to read in Barcelona but was predictably overly optimistic. It's in fact worse. While I have been in Barcelona physically, I brought a lot of work with me and have worked towards a number of deadlines together (Skype) with colleagues in Sweden. I for example realised that I had offloaded tasks back in Sweden and said "let's talk when I'm in Barcelona, I will have time then...". In hindsight I'd say that was not so smart. My major work effort has been to lead the effort to put together and submit the application "Turning black swans white". On the last day before the deadline, I stayed "home" and worked 12+ hours with finishing, putting everything together and polishing the application. And while necessary, it wasn't very social but it could have been ok had that been the only deadline I had worked towards... All these deadlines and other ongoing projects ”back home" have severely hampered my possibilities to have plenty of free time just to read (about degrowth etc.) and to socialise and discuss with people at ICTA, so the lesson here is that I will make sure to bring no or few projects and deadlines with me next time I come to Barcelona and to ICTA.

That however connects to another thing I've been thinking about. I wasn't really invited to ICTA as much as I invited myself here. So no one here really knew me beforehand and no one have felt a particular responsibility to take care of me. So I have had to be quite active to get to know people and more "free time" would have been helpful. While I have gotten to know a bunch of people, it would have been better had I also had the time to (for example) read a paper or two (on the fly) written by the person I met. Also, no one has read anything I have written and I have to start from zero here. That has been a strange experience. At KTH, I am someone. Lots of people know me or know of me. Quite some are familiar with my work or at least what area I work in. I'm surrounded by people who have interacted with me, cooperated with me, read papers of mine, written papers with me - people who know, like and respect me. Here I'm kind of nobody. Or rather an unknown entity. Here I have to "establish" myself and perhaps even to some extent "prove my worth" in every conversation and with every new person I meet. That takes a toll. Well, it's exciting too - but it's hard work. I have also been at another university, UPC, one day per week. I know two computer science professors there, we have met at conferences and have overlapping interests and things become much easier then. I just slide right into the company (nerdish pretty much all-male computer scientists) and the speech culture is like meeting an old friend - we're very specific about things we say and we make sure we can back up and if challenged can provide "proof" to pretty much every single statement we make (with references to science fiction thrown in for good taste - "multiverse", "42", "Asimov" etc.).

I have also, finally, come to be a great fan of the Swedish "fika" culture. It's actually a pretty great idea to have semi-mandatory coffee breaks twice per day. That's how you meet and get to know Swedes/your colleagues and I wish other countries could adopt this really nice + useful custom. Perhaps IKEA could market it worldwide? ICTA only has a communal coffee break once per week. I went last week and had a great time but I only talked to one single person, a British ph.d. student who is finishing up his thesis and who is the only person I have met this far who has read both of the supremely excellent books "In the servitude of power" and "The subterranean forest" (that I read two years ago - see this blog post). 

So while I have gotten a lot of work done (much of which could have been done in Stockholm), my social life hasn't been great. I didn't think of that as a problem before I came here. But how long hours can you work and when should you go home if you know few people and there is nothing in particular to go home to? I thought that, well, then I'll just read some more when I come home, but I was cooped up in a small room that was nice but at times also felt a bit claustrophobic. So while I'm a person who definitely doesn't need to have people around me all the time and who likes to have (plenty of) time for myself to read books and write blog posts etc., I have come to realise that there is still some minimum level of human contact that "even I" need to feel good and that I fell short of at times. So after a week of eating dinner alone I started to look for Facebook groups with "Swedes in Barcelona". Not that I want to meet Swedes in particular but that's an easy way in. And so I for example went to a talk in the beginning of my second week here equally much to socialise and meet up with people (who happened to be Swedes) as to listen to the (actually quite interesting) talk, "ABBA-Kadabra! How Catalans see the "magic" Sweden". I also have some ideas for "how to build a social life from zero" next time I come back here.

Being away from home is conducive to reflections. About the country you live in, the place you visit compared to place you work in, and, about yourself. I didn't really think about it but I have to some extent been challenged on a personal level and have learned some things about what makes me tick so I guess it's been a learning experience (personal growth etc.). Perhaps it's a bit like travelling alone (something I have rarely done). You have to cultivate a super-social side of your personality or make do without company. Which makes me better prepared next time this happens.

fredag 23 februari 2018

Computing and Sustainability (talk)


I'm in Barcelona and I am more specifically visiting Institut de Ciència i Tecnologia Ambientals/Institute of Environmental Science and Technology (ICTA) at the Autonomous University of Barcelona (UBA). This is the epicenter of research on Degrowth - and that's why I'm here.

As part of my (very sparse) "duties" here, I gave a talk this past week on "Sustainability and Computing" (and on Computing within Limits). The talk was loosely shaped around our recently-accepted (but not-yet-published article) "Computing within Limits". I realised only a few hours before the talk that I didn't actually know how long my talk was supposed to be. The answer was around 30 minutes. I got 35 and managed to run through almost all of my 75 images since I can talk fast and can nowadays adapt my talk on the fly. I only skipped three images - they were too interesting and would have required at least another 5 minutes to explain/discuss).

That talk was followed by a question and answer session and I got some interesting questions despite the facts that no one in this audience (as far as I know) does work that is even close to computing. Below is the blurb that was disseminated at ICTA before my talk:

Title: Sustainability and computing

Speaker: Daniel Pargman (pargman@kth.se), Associate professor of Media Technology, Department of Media Technology and Interaction Design, School of Computer Science and Communication, KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm, Sweden

Talk: Besides wishy-washy industry-led attempts to dilute and appropriate the term ”sustainability” (see for example http://gesi.org), an increasing amount of research in the intersection of computing and sustainability is now being presented at various general or specialized computing conferences. Much of that research has unfortunately set the bar rather low and been aimed at modest incremental change, e.g. reporting on this particular novel visualization that decreased the amount of electricity used in a dozen households by 4% over a period of 10 weeks. A more radical strand that (for example) more clearly engages in questions about climate change adaption rather than mitigation (Tomlinson et al. 2012) and absolute limits of non-renewable resources (Pargman & Raghavan 2014) has however emerged over the last five years. There is furthermore a venue for such research since 2015, namely the annual Computing within Limits workshop. Computing with Limits in concerned with "the study, design, and development of sociotechnical systems in the abundant present for use in a future of scarcity” (Tomlinson et al. 2012) and the 2018 fourth workshop on Computing within Limits (LIMITS) will be co-located with the larger conference on Information and Communication Technologies for Sustainability (ICT4S) in Toronto in May. This talk will describe the main assumptions in computing in general vs the assumptions that guide research in ICT4S and Computing within Limits. Do read the attached (forthcoming) article for more background information about the talk.

Bio: Daniel Pargman is an Associate Professor in Media Technology at the Department of Media Technology and Interaction Design, School of Computer Science and Communication, KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Sweden. Daniel has a mixed computer science/social science background and a ph.d in communication studies. His research interests are situated in the intersection of computing and sustainability/energy research. Some of his most recent publications concern the sharing economy and the commons (Bradley and Pargman 2017), just internet access over time and space (Pargman and Wallsten 2017), sustainability, computing and complexity (Raghavan and Pargman 2017), sustainability, futures studies and design fiction (Pargman et al. 2017) and counterfactual energy histories (Pargman et al. 2017).

Daniel visited the UC Irvine Center for Research in Sustainability, Collapse-Preparedness & Information Technology (RiSCIT) in 2014 and he will visit UAB/ICTA between Feb 12-28 and from May 21 until July (do get in touch to schedule time for a chat - my goal is to be able to write a text on ”Degrowth computing” after my visit). Daniel Pargman’s academic blog (with 500+ blog posts) can be found at: http://danielpargman.blogspot.com.

- Bradley, K., & Pargman, D. (2017). The sharing economy as the commons of the 21st century. Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy and Society, 10(2), pp.231–247. (Special issue on "Sharing Economies? Theories, Practices and Impacts”.) Available online.

- Nardi, B., Tomlinson, B., Pattersson, D., Chen, J., Pargman, D., Raghavan, B., & Penzelstadler, B. (2018, forthcoming). Computing within Limits. Communications of the ACM. Appended below.

- Pargman, D., Eriksson, E., Höjer, M., Östling, U. G., & Borges, L. A. (2017). The (Un)sustainability of Imagined Future Information Societies. In Proceedings of the 2017 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 773-785). ACM. Available online.

- Pargman, D., Eriksson, E., Höök, M., Tanenbaum, J., Pufal, M., & Wangel, J. (2017). What if there had only been half the oil? Rewriting history to envision the consequences of peak oil. Energy Research & Social Science, 31, 170-178. (Special issue on "Narratives and Storytelling in Energy and Climate Change Research”.). Available online at: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.erss.2017.06.007.

- Pargman, D., & Raghavan, B. (2014). Rethinking sustainability in computing: From buzzword to non-negotiable limits. In Proceedings of the 8th Nordic Conference on Human-Computer Interaction (pp. 638-647). ACM. Available online.

- Pargman, D., & Wallsten, B. (2017). Resource Scarcity and Socially Just Internet Access over Time and Space. In Proceedings of the 2017 Workshop on Computing Within Limits (pp. 29-36). ACM. Available online.

- Raghavan, B., & Pargman, D. (2017). Means and Ends in Human-Computer Interaction: Sustainability through Disintermediation. In Proceedings of the 2017 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 786-796). ACM. Available online.

- Tomlinson, B., Silberman, M., Patterson, D., Pan, Y., & Blevis, E. (2012). Collapse informatics: augmenting the sustainability & ICT4D discourse in HCI. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 655-664). ACM. Available online.

onsdag 21 februari 2018

Turning black swans white (application)


I'm on a sabbatical and I'm currently in Barcelona where I arrived 10 days ago. But, as Sherry Turkle  said in her book "Alone together": "a vacation usually means working from someplace picturesque. […] On vacation, one vacates a place, not a set of responsibilities".

To some extent I have been working "as usual" but from a different place and not seldom with daily (often multiple) conference calls about academic papers and other projects. That was especially true last week. I had a deadline for a research grant application on Wednesday February 14 and I spent a sizable part of the first week here in Barcelona in front of the computer, working together with my colleagues in Sweden in a race to perfectify our application, "Turning black swans white: Creating scenarios for envisioning sustainable futures" [Förvandla svarta svanar till vita: Att bygga scenarier för hållbara framtider]. The application was handed in to the Swedish Energy Agency's call "Humans, energy systems and society" (English-language call, pdf file):

"The purpose of this call is to produce knowledge that can lead to change and that address energy and societal challenges associated with transition to sustainable energy systems. ... The focus of the call is research that can ... help society to understand energy and climate issues in new ways. This includes ... research challenging existing knowledge and that open up for alternatives that today seems both unrealistic and uneconomic but that can help us to understand and apply ideas and solutions in new ways. ... Equally important is that this knowledge is used by society. Research shall be communicated in ways that increases the possibilities for actors to get a deeper understanding of change processes on energy and climate, and the effects of them."

I have no idea how our application will be received and judged but reading the text above, I kind of feel that, well, we nailed it. I'm the project leader and I was responsible for putting the application together. I worked together with my colleague Elina Eriksson and with Mikael Höök at Uppsala University. We also worked with Omställningsnätverket, the Swedish node of the international Transition Network and part of the money we apply for will be used to pay them to help us organize and lead workshops in different parts of Sweden. We more specifically worked on the application together with (chairwoman) Pella Thiel and (board member) Martin Hedberg and we also have a couple of project partners; Studiefrämjandet, Näringslivskontoret Region Jämtland/Härjedalen and Hållbar Utveckling Väst. We will hire a ph.d. student if our application is granted and we will know that sometime before the summer.

The application is (for once) written in Sweden but here's the English-language project summary:

"We are today not doing enough to reduce our use of fossil energy sources and our impact on the climate system. We need to develop shared goals to be able to transition to a sustainable society; share understandings, shared stories and shared ideas about how to solve the problems we face today and that simultaneously show and create an understanding for how necessary lifestyle changes can "land" in everyday practices. How can we explore images of future resilient and sustainable societies and move towards them? We will in this project develop new scenario methods and carry through workshops with "predecessors"/”innovators”, i.e. individuals and municipalities who already today do what we all should do tomorrow. The aim of the project is to develop policy recommendations that promote sustainable social development and to develop workshop materials that will be used by project partners (Transition Network Sweden and Studiefrämjandet) also after the research project had ended."

The black swans in the title of the application are explained here:

It is, regardless of the probability, wise from a security and resilience perspective to prepare society also against events that may be rare or unlikely but whose effects are huge (e.g. attempts to manipulate the general opinion or election results, problems with the power supply, oil crises, food shortages, trade embargos, military invasions etc.). Risk researcher Nassim Nicholas Taleb refers to such events as "black swan events" (2001, 2007) and points out that by identifying and highlighting areas where we are vulnerable can "turn black swans into white", i.e. turn unpleasant surprises into predictable and manageable events. In terms of climate change as well as energy shortages, science shows with overwhelming clarity that they are both likely to have a major impact on society if we do not take appropriate measures.

We are also going to work with counterfactual scenarios (which I have written about several times just during the last weeks like here and here)! That's actually where our thinking started and while they are still important, their role in the application has somehow decreased as we have spend more time thinking about what it suitable to do in this particular application in relation to the call. But here's our take on counterfactual scenarios in this particular application:

"In order to create better conditions for consensus and to more easily imagine alternatives to what we currently take for granted, we will work with "contrafactual scenarios" in this project. Instead of discussing possible futures, we will discuss alternative todays that could-have-been and that takes the question "what would have happened if ...?" as their starting point. An example of a counterfactual scenario ("Coalworld") is described in the article "What if there had only been half the oil? Rewriting history to envision the consequences of peak oil"(Pargman et al. 2017b). We see counterfactual scenarios as an interesting method to free ourselves from established imaginings, mental lock-ins, path dependence and other phenomena that prevent us from thinking in new ways and of thinking beyond our own experiences and beyond past societal investments and (infra)structures. By using counterfactual scenarios, we can generate and explore possible futures by placing them in an alternative present. Counterfactual scenarios thus also become a powerful tool for norm critique and to imagine how things could have been, and consequently also a way of visualizing possible mechanisms for transition. By bringing together different actors in workshops to work out thoughts and ideas about "what would have happened if ..." and what we then should have done, we can also reach consensus about what we should do here and now."

söndag 18 februari 2018

Our new FOOD synthesis project

I wrote a blog post in early September about a (small) research grant application we handed in to The Swedish Council for Sustainable Development [Formas] with the facile name "A systematic review of the scientific literature on digital interventions for more sustainable food consumption behaviours". The internal code name for the project is just "FOOD" and the applicants were (besides me): Björn Hedin (project leader), Elina Eriksson and Cecilia Katzeff.

We got the money and will spend 20% of our time this year (2018) working on this literature review/synthesis (Björn will as project leader spend 30%) and we will probably work with the "Hoffice" methodology during the spring (once a week around my kitchen table). We have kicked off the project with meetings where we plan the project as well as meetings with each of our three project partners:
- The Swedish Environmental Protection Agency (Naturvårdverket) - Jan 24 meeting
- The Swedish Consumer Agency's council for sustainable consumption (Konsumentverket) - Feb 1 meeting in Karlstad
- The Swedish Energy Agency (Energimyndigheten) - Feb 7 meeting

From our application:

"these agencies will be directly involved in synthesizing existing knowledge in the area of digital interventions for shaping sustainable consumption patterns [...] In this way results will be communicated directly to stakeholders,who in turn may guide us concerning the value of results and aspects of their applicability. These agencies will, thus, act as a reference group during the project. The project will also, if granted the money, contact other potential stakeholders to widen the reference group and support better communication of the project results. [...]  Finally, we will ask our project partners and experts in the field if they are aware of relevant studies not yet found in our review."

I have been to all these meetings and me and Björn also attended a meeting with a librarian at KTH's library who is specialized in doing systematic reviews and who gave us good advice on how to do that. We haven't really gotten down and dirty and started to work with our actual "algorithm" - that's on hold for the moment as we are (actually) busy writing two new Formas applications right now.

But I guess we will start working "for real" in March and I have already taken the opportunity to print a large number of articles (40-50 or so) about food that has been written within Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) and related areas. I have also read a few of them and will continue to read articles from this collection two weeks from now (when I'm back in Sweden).

I will get back when we have more to report, perhaps sometimes before the summer (?)!

tisdag 13 februari 2018

Petrocultures (paper)

A friend of mine send me a short message with a link to the upcoming conference "Petrocultures" only 10 days before the deadline for abstracts. It looked like a really interesting conference, here's part of the call for papers:

Petrocultures is motivated by the core notion that the humanities and social sciences have significant input to add to both knowledge of oil and energy and the irrevocable process of transformation. ... While much work has been done to highlight the social and cultural significance of fossil fuels, the ecological unfeasibility of high-carbon life urgently compels us to think, imagine and realize a world ‘after oil’. ... The conference will provide an important forum for examining and extending existent framings and sitings of oil and petroculture, while also striving to consider the social, cultural, and aesthetic life of alternative forms of energy, such as wind, solar, and hydro power.
Petrocultures 2018 will bring together scholars, policy-makers, industry employees, artists, and public advocacy groups from across Europe, North America, and beyond. 
We seek proposals for papers, workshops, and special panels that address themes related to transition and/or petrocultures more generally. ... Topics this conference will explore include, but are not limited to:

- oil / energy’s cultural imaginaries
- transition culture / cultural registrations of energy transition and decarbonisation
- histories / futures of transition
- the end(s) of oil / representing petrofutures / low-carbon imaginaries
- oil’s cultural geographies / spaces and sites of extraction, production, circulation, consumption
- imagining and representing alternative energy: the narratives/poetics/aesthetics of wind/tidal/solar/hydro/bio-/thermal/
- oil / energy and the anthropocene / capitalocene
- infrastructure
- cultural / activist interventions
- energopower / the culture, (bio)politics, and economics of oil/energy in an age of transition
material / immaterial oil – financial / environmental / embodied / psychic /affective cultures of oil / energy
- waste / plastic / lubricity
- energy and climate – history, realism, speculation, apocalypse
- theorising ‘renewable culture’ / cultural renewal
- oil / energy utopias / dystopias
- documenting / curating / archiving / modelling / philosophising / designing petroculture / transition
- creative resources – producing energy art / theatre / literature / film
- digital resources
- the energy commons / energy and environmental law / justice
- oil / energy and world-ecology
- representing mobility
- oil / energy and the state / industry
- oil / energy and gender / sexuality
- oil / energy and labour / work in transition / energy and social reproduction
- community responses / creative initiatives to energy transition
- UK / European / Scottish histories / registrations of petroculture

That's a long list of interesting topics. Our submission relates to several of these topics but none more than "histories / futures of transition" and "the end(s) of oil". The submission is a tightened up version of a proposal that was submitted 15 months ago (but not accepted) to conference "Energy and Society":

Title: Coalworld: Envisioning a world with half the oil

Authors: Daniel Pargman, Mikael Höök, Elina Eriksson & Josefin Wangel

Keywords: counterfactual history, energy imaginaries, scenarios, futures studies, peak oil, defamiliarization, infrastructure

Paper proposal: Energy infrastructure decision taken today are dependent on (sometimes bad, sometimes lousy) decisions taken decades ago that will have (partially unforeseen) implications for decades ahead. The weight of past decisions restricts our choices today and limit our imagination of possible solutions - including solutions in “paths not taken” that might be or relevance here-and-now.

In an attempt to widen the boundaries of the probable, the plausible, the possible and the preferable (Amara 1981, Bell & Olick 1989, Bell 2003), to defamiliarize and distance ourselves from the taken-for-granted (Shklovsky 1917, Bell et. al. 2005) and to shatter the shackles that limit our imagination (Tanenbaum et. al. 2016), the Coalworld project (Pargman et al 2017) explores future energy transitions by placing them in the past. The starting point of the Coalworld project is the simple counterfactual (Ferguson 2000, Todorova 2015) statement “what if there had only been half the oil in the ground back in 1859?” What if there ever only existed 1 instead of 2 trillion barrels of oil in the ground (Deffeyes 2006, Campbell 2013)? This initial geological change sets a deviation-amplifying spiral (Maruyama 1963, Sproull & Kiesler 1992) into motion and construes a world where peak oil happened several decades ago. We are currently exploring the consequences of that scenario in a series of articles about Coalworld. The first article was published in 2017 and the second is just about to be submitted to an academic journal.

Pargman, D., Eriksson, E., Höök, M., Tanenbaum, J., Pufal, M., & Wangel, J. (2017). What if there had only been half the oil? Rewriting history to envision the consequences of peak oil. Energy Research & Social Science (special issue on “narratives and storytelling in energy and climate change research”), 31, 170-178.

söndag 11 februari 2018

Books I've read (October 2016)

I read the books below 16 months ago, in October 2016. All three books were written 35-40 year ago and what unites them is that they contain or related to the radical thoughts of Ivan Illich and E. F. Schumacher. The asterisks (*) represent the number of quotes that can be found further down in this blog post. Here's the previous blog post about books I have read.

*********** I've been interested in Ivan Illich's radical thoughts for a long time but "Shadow work" (1981) is the first full book of his that I have read. It's not so much a book as a collection of (five) essays that circle around a topic, work, but with threads leading in many different directions all the time. This is primarily a book about work and the (ballooning) unpaid work that is necessary to perform in order to perform paid work in order to get a salary in order to survive in modern society. Like the daily commute that can easily take hours or spending time shopping and maintaining your business attire or your car or working on your CV or the time spent searching for a new job and so on. It's not about the things we do for ourselves because we want to do them, but (the time we spend on) the things we do to make ourselves employable. It it thus also a book about work in modern societies being the exact opposite of subsistence as well as a book about the flawed ideas behind the term "development" (as in "developing country"). And many other things. From the back cover:

"The essays gathered here deal with the rise of the shadow economy. I have coined this term to speak about transactions which are not in the monetized sector and yet do not exist in pre-industrailized society. With the rise of the shadow economy I observe the appearance of a kind of toil which is not rewarded by wages and yet contributes nothing to the household's independence from the market."

It's a bit hard to read Illich. The book was written more than 35 years ago - at a specific time and place and by a specific person with a specific perspective. I suspect it wasn't that easy to understand all aspects of Illich's thoughts already back then and naturally even less so now. I also suspect the essay didn't so much come out of thoughts that were in circulation in 1970's, but that it still fits 1970's thought much better than the now-predomininatly neoliberal thoughts and frames of references that are in circulations. It's also easy to see that an alternative way of life that is based on subsistence was much closer in time/at hand in 1981 for someone who had spent considerable time in the Global South (primarily Mexico and Latin America) and seen the backside of the effects that "international development" had on the poor of the world - dangling promises in front of them (of education, of a "good job", of affluence, of consumption) that was utterly impossible for them to attain (back then - as well as today).

While Illich is interesting or even intriguing, it feels like I'm missing some important clues to make the texts make sense. It feels like Illich assumes many things and that I just know the half of. It feels like some of what he wants to say eludes me and that I might have to read more books of his to "get" his ideas and to better understand the context in which he wrote his books as well as learn more about what he wanted to accomplish.

******************* Sajay Samuel's edited book "Beyond economics and ecology: The radical thought of Ivan Illich" was published in 2015, long after Illich's death in 2002. The book is primarily a collection of four of Illich's essay. What I didn't know at the time I bought this book is that two of the essays are republished from "Shadow work" which I read right before (see above)! Despite this, I have to say that the two remaining essays made buying this book worth the price and they are "Energy and equity" and "The social construction of energy".

"Energy and equity" was published in the newspaper Le Monde in 1973, just before the first oil crisis (which started in October 1973) and "The social construction of energy" was the opening talk to a seminar that was held in Mexico in 1983 on "The basic option within any future low-energy society". I wish I could have been there!

Both of these essays are choke-full of ideas that need to be digested. Which takes time. Which means I should read them again - perhaps regularly. The quotes further below from "Energy and equity" are incredible provocative, insightful and interesting. I feel I need to know about the man who wrote these things even as I lament that he didn't spend more time writing specifically about energy instead of writing a bit about anything that caught his fancy. Take for example Illich's argument that increased speed creates inequality within societies. It is a very sophisticated argument and it contradicts the dominant rhetorics about the necessity of new motorways and high-speed trains. It is in fact the case that this particular essay of Illich's has made me so interested in the connections between speed, energy and equality that I have bought two books by the premier philosopher/historian/cultural theorist of speed, Paul Virilio!

"Unchecked speed is expensive, and progressively fewer can afford it. Each increment in the velocity of a vehicle results in an increase in the cost of propulsion and track construction and most dramatically – in the space the vehicle devours while it is on the move. … a worldwide class structure of speed capitalists is created. … As societies put price tags on time, equity and vehicular speed correlated inversely.”

The book "Alternativa synsätt på morgondagens samhälle" [Alternative perspectives on tomorrow's society - but the original English-language title is "The Schumacher lectures"] [1980/1981] is edited by Satish Kumar and it's a tribute to German-British heterodox economist E. F. Schumacher. Schumacher is mostly known for his 1973 book "Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics As If People Mattered".  

The book consists of eight talks/lectures that have made it into written form by well-known and sometimes (for me) less well-known academics and public intellectuals; Ivan Illich, Amory Lovins, Fritjof Capra, Edward de Bono, R.D. Laing, Leopold Kohr, Hazel Henderson and John Michell. A sweet mix of philosophers, physicists, economists, historians, psychologists and psychiatrists. I have no idea where this book comes from but I guess I got it decades ago (perhaps as a gift?) or that I picked it up in a second-hand bookshop. 

I have, for some reason, not picked out any interesting quotes from the book and since it's been more than a year since I read it, I will instead settle for quoting the text from the cover:

"The English economist E.F. Schumacher was one of the first to realize the dangers of a high-tech society and the increasingly powerful exploitation of Earth's resources. He fought for the small scale and for decentralization and he coined the term "economics as if people mattered". After his death in 1979, the Schumacher society was formed to further develop his thoughts. This book contains eight contributions compiled by the association's chairman, Satish Kumar, and they are written in Dr. Schumacher's spirit. They all take as their starting point a holistic view of society where nature, society and the economy are adapted to each other."


On development (as in "developing country"):
"On January 10, 1949 … President Truman announced his Point Four Program. Until then, we used ’development’ to refer to species, real estate and moves in chess – only thereafter to people, countries and economic strategies. Since then, we have been flooded by development theories whose concepts are now curiosities for collectors – ’growth’, ’catching up’, ’modernization’, ’imperialism’, ’dualism’, ’dependency’, ’basic needs’, ’transfer of technology’, ’world system’, ’autochthonous industrialization’ and ’temporary unlinking’. … Fundamentally, the concept implies the replacement of widespread, unquestioned competence at subsistence activities by the use and consumption of commodities; the monopoly of wage labor over all other kinds of work; redefinition of needs in terms of goods and services mass-produced according to expert design; finally, the rearrangement of the environment in such fashion that space, time, materials and design favor production and consumption while they degrade … activities that satisfy needs directly.”
Illich, I. (1981). Shadow Work, p.15.

On exploring alternatives to modern society:
"In Germany alone, France or Italy, thousands of groups experiment, each differently, with alternatives to an industrial existence. Increasingly, more of these people come from blue-collar homes. For most of them, there is no dignity left in earning one’s livelihood by a wage. They try to ”unplug themselves from consumption” … In the USA, at least four million people live in the core of tiny and highly differentiated communities of this kind, with at least seven times as many individually sharing their values – women seek alternatives to gynecology; parents alternatives to schools; home-builders alternatives to the flush toilet; neighborhoods alternatives to commuting; people alternatives to the shopping center.”
Illich, I. (1981). Shadow Work, p.16.

On the outsider in Western thought:
"The perception of the outsider as someone who must be helped has taken on successive forms [in Western thought]. In late antiquity, the barbarian mutated into the pagan. … In the early Middle Ages … the Muslim appeared [and] The pagan mutated into the infidel. … The image of the wild man who threatens the civilizing function of the humanist replaced the image of the infidel who threatens the faith. … To impute needs to the wild man, one had to make him over into the native … the construct of distinctly native needs was necessary both to justify colonialism and to administer colonies. … the natives’ limited needs for goods and services thwarted growth and progress. They had to metamorphose into underdeveloped people, the sixth and present stage of the West’s view of the outsider.”
Illich, I. (1981). Shadow Work, p.19.

On development as the flawed goal of the global South:
"decolonization was also a process of conversion: the worldwide acceptance of the Western self-image of *homo economicus* in his most extreme form … Scarcely twenty years were enough to make two billion people define themselves as underdeveloped [but] Development based on high per capital energy quanta and intense professional care is the most pernicious of the West’s missionary efforts – a project guided by an ecologically unfeasible conception of human control over nature.”
Illich, I. (1981). Shadow Work, p.19-20.

On learning language through living vs through formal schooling:
"The switch from the vernacular to an officially taught mother tongue is perhaps the most significant – and, therefore, least researched – event in the coming of a commodity-intense society. The radical change from the vernacular to taught language foreshadows the switch from breast to bottle, from subsistence to welfare, from production for use to production for market”
Illich, I. (1981). Shadow Work, p.44.

On ’new’ as good or as something to be suspicions of:
"As a historian, I am very suspicious of anything which pretends to be totally new. If I cannot find precedents for an idea, I immediately suspect that it is a foolish one.”
Illich, I. (1981). Shadow Work, p.79.

On shadow work:
”I call this complement to wage labor ’shadow work’. It comprises most housework women do in their homes and apartments, the activities connected with shopping, most of the homework of students cramming for exams, the toil expended commuting to and from the job. It includes the stress of forced consumption, the tedious and regimented surrender to therapists, compliance with bureaucrats, the preparations for work to which one is compelled … In traditional cultures the shadow work is as marginal as wage labor, often difficult to identify. In industrial societies, it is assumed as routine.
Illich, I. (1981). Shadow Work, p.100.

On wage labor as a sign of failure:
"What today stands for work, namely, wage labor, was a badge of misery all through the Middle Ages. … In September of 1330 a rich cloth merchant died in Florence and left his property to be distributed among the destitute. The Guild of Or San Michele was to administer the estate. The 17,000 beneficiaries were selected and locked into the available churches at midnight. As they were let out, each received his inheritance. Now, how were these ’destitute’ selected? We know, because we have access to the welfare notes of Or San Michele Guild in proto-industrial Florence. From it, we know the categories of the destitute: orphan, widow, victim of a recent act of God, heads of family totally dependent on wage work, or those compelled to pay rent for the roof over their bed. ... The need to provide for all the necessities of life by wage work was a sign of utter impotence … The need to live by wage labor was the sign for the down and out”
Illich, I. (1981). Shadow Work, p.102.

On the workhouse teaching the vagrants the value of work:
"The pioneering policies and equipment in Dutch Calvinist or North German workhouses … were organized and equipped for the cure of laziness and for the development of the will to do work as assigned. These workhouses were designed and built to transform useless beggars into useful workers. As such, they were … Set up to receive beggars caught by the police [and] softened them up for treatment by a few days of no food and a carefully planned ration of daily lashes. Then, treatment with work at the treadmill or at the rasp followed until the transformation of the inmate into a useful worker was diagnosed. One even finds provisions for intensive care. People resistant to work were thrown into a constantly flooding pit, where they could survive only by frantically pumping all day long”
Illich, I. (1981). Shadow Work, p.105-106.

On scarcity in commodity-intensive societies:
"Economics always implies the assumption of scarcity. What is not scarce cannot be subjected to economic control. This is as true of goods and services, as it is of work. The assumption of scarcity has penetrated all modern institutions. Education is built on the assumption that desirable knowledge is scarce. Medicin assumes the same about health, transportations about time, and unions about work. … The identification of that which is desirable with that which is scarce has deeply shaped our thinking, our feeling, our perception of reality itself. … Being thus immersed in it, we have become blind to the paradox that scarcity increases in a society with the rise of the GNP.”
Illich, I. (1981). Shadow Work, p.123.

On historical studies of the poor:
"The attitude that people have towards the weak, hungry, sick, homeless, landless, mad, imprisoned, enslaved, fugitive, orphaned, exiled, crippled, beggars, ascetics, streetvendors, soldiers, foundlings and others who were relatively deprived has changed throughout history. For every epoch, specific attitudes to each of these categories are in a unique constellation. Economic history, when it studies poverty, tends to neglect these attitudes. Economic history tends to focus on measurements of average and median calories intake, group-specific mortality rates, the polarisation in the use of resources, etc….”
Illich, I. (1981). Shadow Work, p.136.

On Ivan Illich:
"[Ivan] Illich was a radical because he went to the root of things. He questioned the very premises of modern life and traced its many institutional excesses to developments in the early and Medieval Church. In his writings, he strove to open up cracks in the certitudes of our modern worldview. He questioned speed, schools, hospitals, technology, economic growth and unlimited energy – even if derived from the wind or the sun.”
Brown, J. (2015). Preface. In Samuel (ed). Beyond Economics and Ecology, p.9.

On the historical enclosure of the commons:
"Historians have marked the transition from agrarian to industrial society by that phenomenon called the enclosure of the commons, seen vividly in Great Britain but elsewhere as well. The commons referred to the fields, fens, wastelands and woods to which access was free to all for pasturing livestock, planting crops, foraging for fuel wood, and gleaning leftover grain. Well into the eighteenth century, commoners comprised a substantial proportion of the British population and derived the greater portion of their sustenance from the commons instad of the market. From the mid-seventeenth century, but particularly over the hundred years until 1850, thousands of Enclosure Acts legalized enclosures that forced commoners to become landless peasants with no independent means of subsistence. Now fully dependent on paid work, they became the working class.”
Samuel, S. (2015). After Illich: An introduction. In Samuel (ed). Beyond Economics and Ecology, p.16.

On professions as a conspiracy against the common man:
"However, Illich argued, the enclosure of the commons was but one chapter in a longer history of the war against subsistence. Indeed, it may not even be industrial products that best exemplify the separation of people from their ability to subsist. Instead, he suggested, ’the service economy’ offers a more prototypical example for the separation of what economists call ’production’ from ’consumption’. … In the guise of experts, professionals discriminate against people by imputing a lack, an inability, or a need. They then mask such discrimination by justifying it as doing a service, promoted by their care. This expertly managed belief that humans are beings in need of services from certified professionals has deep roots beginning in the eighth century. … it was then that priests became pastors by defining their ”own services as needs of human nature” and by linking salvation to the obligatory consumption of such services”
Samuel, S. (2015). After Illich: An introduction. In Samuel (ed). Beyond Economics and Ecology, p.17-18.

On the destructive power of packaged goods:
"Too many cars on the road spark ’road rage,’ and too much education produces incurious teens. Both are examples of a frustrating subversion that Illich named technical counterproductivity. Speedy cars push bicycles and pedestrians off the streets just as too many emails and television shows overwhelm face-to-face conversations. … Just as consumers of too many passenger-miles believe they can move only when they are sitting on a moving seat, so the buyers of too many student credits believe they can learn only what they are taught. The self-perception of both expresses the cultural counterproductivity that result from the repeated use of packaged goods.”
Samuel, S. (2015). After Illich: An introduction. In Samuel (ed). Beyond Economics and Ecology, p.22.

On technologies embodiment of values:
"In this essay I argue that under some circumstances, a technology incorporates the values of the society for which it was invented to such a degree that these values become dominant in every society which applies that technology. The material structure of production devices can thus irremediably incorporate class prejudice. High-energy technology, at least as applied to traffic, provides a clear example.”
Illich, I. (2015). Energy and Equity. In Samuel (ed). Beyond Economics and Ecology, p.71.

On a ceiling on energy use for the most affluent:
"At this moment … Well-being can be identified with high amounts of per capita energy use, with high efficiency of energy transformation, or with the least possible use of mechanical energy by the most powerful members of society. … The possibility of a third option is barely noticed. While people have begun to accept ecological limits on maximum per capita energy use as a condition for physical survival, they do not yet think about the use of minimum feasible power as the foundation of any of various social orders that would be both modern and desirable. Yet only a ceiling on energy use can lead to social relations that are characterized by high levels of equity. The one option that is at present neglected is the only choice within the reach of all nations. … Participatory democracy postulated low-energy technology.”
Illich, I. (2015). Energy and Equity. In Samuel (ed). Beyond Economics and Ecology, p.74.

On social limits to energy consumption:
"What is generally overlooked is that equity and energy can grow concurrently only to a point. Below a threshold of per capita wattage, motors improve the conditions for social progress. Above this threshold, energy grows at the expense of equity. Further energy affluence then means decreased distribution of control over that energy. The widespread belief that clean and abundant energy is the panacea for social ills is due to a political fallacy, according to which equity and energy consumption can be indefinitely correlated, at least under some ideal political conditions. Laboring under this illusion, we tend to discount any social limit on the growth of energy consumption.”
Illich, I. (2015). Energy and Equity. In Samuel (ed). Beyond Economics and Ecology

On the range between ’not enough’ and using ’too much’ energy:
"A people can be just as dangerously overpowered by the wattage of its tools as by the caloric content of its foods, but it is much harder to confess to a national overindulgence in wattage than to a sickening diet. The per capita wattage that is critical for social well-being lies within an order of magnitude which is far above the horsepower known to four-fifths of humanity and far below the power commanded by any Volkswagen driver. … the rich [need to avoid] a threshold in energy consumption beyond which technical processes begin to dictate social relations. Calories are both biologically and socially healthy only as long as they stay within the narrow range that separates enough from too much.”
Illich, I. (2015). Energy and Equity. In Samuel (ed). Beyond Economics and Ecology

On ’dissolving’ the energy crisis:
"The energy crisis cannot be overwhelmed by more energy inputs. It can only be dissolved, along with the illusion that well-being depends on the number of energy slaves a man has at his command. For this purpose, it is necessary to identify the thresholds beyond which energy corrupts … First , the need for limits on the per capita use of energy must be theoretically recognized as a social imperative.”
Illich, I. (2015). Energy and Equity. In Samuel (ed). Beyond Economics and Ecology

On the uneven distribution of transportation benefits:
"The United States puts between 25 and 45 per cent of its total energy … into vehicles: to make them, run them, and clear a right of way for them when the roll, when they fly, and when they park. … Poor countries spend less energy per person, but the percentage of total energy devoted to traffic in Mexico or in Peru is probably grater than in the United States, and it benefits a smaller percentage of the population.”
Illich, I. (2015). Energy and Equity. In Samuel (ed). Beyond Economics and Ecology, p.78.

On 15 mph as the speed limit in an equal society:
"Once some public utility went faster than 15 mph, equity declined and the scarcity of both time and space increased. … When the ratio of their respective power outputs passed beyond a certain value, mechanical transformers of mineral fuels excluded people from the use of their metabolic energy and forced them to become captive consumers of conveyance.”
Illich, I. (2015). Energy and Equity. In Samuel (ed). Beyond Economics and Ecology, p.79.

On captive trippers and reckless travelers:
"More energy fed into the transportation system means that more people move faster over a greater range in the course of every day. Everybody’s daily radius expands at the expense of being able to drop in on an an acquaintance or walk through the park on the way to work. Extremes of privilege are created at the cost of universal enslavement. An elite packs unlimited distance into a lifetime of pampered travel, while the majority spends a bigger slice of their existence on unwanted trips. The few mount their magic carpets to travel between distant points that their ephemeral presence renders both scarce and seductive, while the many are compelled to trip farther and faster and to spend more time preparing for and recovering from their trips. … The captive tripper and the reckless traveler become equally dependent on transport.”
Illich, I. (2015). Energy and Equity. In Samuel (ed). Beyond Economics and Ecology, p.80-81.

On slow cars:
"The model American male devotes more than 1,600 hours a year to his car. He sits in it while it goes and while it stands idling. He parks it and searches for it. He earns the money to put down on it and to meet the monthly installments. He works to pay for gasoline, tolls, insurance, taxes, and tickets. He spends four of his sixteen waking hours on the road or gathering his resources for it. And this figure does not take into account the time consumed by other activities dictated by transport: time spent in hospitals, traffic courts, and garages; time spent watching automobile commercials or attending consumer education meetings to improve the quality of the next buy. The model American puts in 1,600 hours to get 7,500 miles: less than five miles per hour.”
Illich, I. (2015). Energy and Equity. In Samuel (ed). Beyond Economics and Ecology, p.81-82.

On why ordinary trains are better than high-speed trains:
"Unchecked speed is expensive, and progressively fewer can afford it. Each increment in the velocity of a vehicle results in an increase in the cost of propulsion and track construction and most dramatically – in the space the vehicle devours while it is on the move. … a worldwide class structure of speed capitalists is created. … As societies put price tags on time, equity and vehicular speed correlated inversely.”
Illich, I. (2015). Energy and Equity. In Samuel (ed). Beyond Economics and Ecology, p.84.

On motor-created inequality:
"Beyond a certain speed, motorized vehicles create remoteness which they alone can shrink. They create distances for all and shrink them for only a few. A new dirt road through the wilderness brings the city within view, but not within reach, of most Brazilian subsistence farmers. The new expressway expands Chicago, but it sucks those who are well-wheeled away from a downtown that decays into a ghetto.”
Illich, I. (2015). Energy and Equity. In Samuel (ed). Beyond Economics and Ecology, p.85

On speed and the societal time budget:
"It should not be overlooked that top speeds for a few exact a different price than high speeds for all. Social classification by levels of speed enforces a net transfer of power: the poor work and pay to get left behind. But if the middle classes of a speed society may be tempted to ignore discrimination, they should not neglect the rising marginal disutilities of transportation and their own loss of leisure. High speeds for all mean that everybody has less time for himself as the whole society spends a growing slice of its time budget on moving people.”
Illich, I. (2015). Energy and Equity. In Samuel (ed). Beyond Economics and Ecology, p.87.

On earning money to get to work to earn money to get to work:
"After industry had reached [a] threshold of a per capita output, transport made of man a new kind of waif: a being constantly absent from a destination he cannot reach on his own but must attain within the day. By now, people work a substantial part of every day to earn the money without which they could not even get to work.”
Illich, I. (2015). Energy and Equity. In Samuel (ed). Beyond Economics and Ecology.

On (motor) transport vs (pedestrian) transit:
"Transport stands for the capital-intensive mode of traffic, and transit indicates the labor-intensive mode. Transport is the product of an industry whose clients are passengers. It is an industrial commodity and therefore scarce by definition. Improvements of transport always takes place under conditions of scarcity that become more severe as the speed – and with it the cost – of the service increases. Conflict about insufficient transport tends to take the form of a zero-sum game where one wins only if another loses. … Transit is not the product of an industry but the independent enterprise of transients. … The ability to engage in transit is native to man and more or less equally distributed among healthy people of the same age. The exercise of this ability can be restricted by depriving some class of people of the right to take a straight route, or because a population lacks shoes or pavements. Conflict about unsatisfactory transit conditions tends to take, therefore, the form of a non-zero-sum game in which everyone comes out ahead – not only the people who get the right to walk through a formerly walled property, but also those who live along the road.”
Illich, I. (2015). Energy and Equity. In Samuel (ed). Beyond Economics and Ecology, p.89-90.

On Illich’s prediction about the possible nightmare future of computing and digitization (formulated 45 years ago!):
"progress came to mean the replacement of feet by motorized wheels, the replacement of the kitchen garden by frozen foods, the replacement of adobe by cement, the replacement of the trench by the WC. … In many places you cannot move any longer without wheels, you cannot eat without a refrigerator, you choke unless you turn on the air conditioner. … If the computer has an effect on the environment analogous to that of the car, soon you will not be able to do without it: no mail, no tax return, no voting, no purchase without it. An entirely new kind of poverty is on the horizon: the under-informed. While in the sixties poverty could be measured by the low level of wattage, it will soon be measured by low access to or use of the computer […] and half the population will teach the other half how to use the computer. … We are straight on our way towards … a world that worships work but has nothing for people to do.”
Illich, I. (2015). The social construction of energy. In Samuel (ed). Beyond Economics and Ecology, p.117-118.

torsdag 8 februari 2018

Studying the future with counterfactuals (application)


We handed in an application last week (January 30) for organizing an international workshop, "Looking backwards to the future: Studying the future with counterfactuals", at the Lorentz Center (Leiden University, the Netherlands). The workshop will be held sometime during the first quarter of 2019 if our application is granted and our preferences are for mid-February.

I attended (taught at) a summer school at the Lorentz Center this past summer and our (now-accepted) paper "Undesigning the Internet" is in fact a spin-off from that summer school. The Lorentz center is an excellent place to organize a workshop. It's an international center for scientific workshops and their slogan is "you do the research, we do the rest". Organizing workshops (with economic support from the Dutch state) is their core business and they organize no less than 80 workshops per year at their two facilities on the campus of Leiden University. Here's the 2018 program for the larger Oort facility (55 persons) and for the smaller Snellius facility (25 persons).

I got the idea of organizing this particular workshop back in August when I attended the summer school and I already back then took the opportunity to look up and pitch the idea of this workshop to the Lorentz center's scientific coordinator. He encouraged me to submit an application and he was also interested in our then-not-yet-published (in press) article on counterfactual history, "What if there had only been half the oil? Rewriting history to envision the consequences of peak oil". This workshop is basically a spin-off from the project that generated that article, but the workshop has been reframed to be of more general interest, i.e. it's a workshop about the scientific use of counterfactual/counterfactual history rather than a workshop on our particular counterfactual scenario (called "Coalworld"). Three of the six workshop organizers are also authors of the article "What if there had only been half the oil?" but three aren't (see the short bios below. Here part of the summary that states what this workshop is about:

"The purpose of this workshop is to explore the novel application of counterfactuality and counterfactual history (allohistorical/retroactive scenarios) as techniques for exploring probable, plausible, possible and preferable futures. Building on the co-organizers experience of working with these or with related issues (see the presentation of the organizers below) and on a diverse set of invitees, we aim to develop an approach to futuring that would benefit the social sciences, the natural sciences and the humanities. The basic idea behind allohistorical scenarios is that since the future is wildly unpredictable (e.g. who foresaw the turn to populism in Europe and the US only a few short years ago?), it could be both useful as well as (comparatively) practical to explore the future by creating and exploring the effects of positing “what-if” scenarios/alternative pasts that would have led to alternative presents and futures. The topic of the workshop is well captured by the title of a recent journal article (by some of the co-organizers, e.g. Pargman et al. 2017) that was published in a special issue on “Narratives and storytelling in energy and climate change research”, e.g. “​What if there had only been half the oil? Rewriting history to envision the consequences of peak oil​”.

The scenario that is presented in that article, “Coalworld”, explores an alternative present that diverged from the history of our world some 45 years ago. The main instrumental utility of exploring such scenarios is to add to our readiness to act intelligently in the present by extending the repertoire so that we, besides “lessons from history”, also can draw from “lessons from alternative histories”, “lessons from alternative presents” and “lessons from alternative futures” when we here-and-now plan for the future - including for difficult-to-predict futures that can be characterized by disruptive change.

This groundbreaking workshop will bring together researchers from diverse disciplines (natural sciences, social sciences, engineering, design, humanities) to discuss theory and methods of using counterfactuals (and related techniques such as counterfactual history, futures studies, scenario analysis etc.) to study the future. The workshop will be focused on two areas of application: “energy” and “sustainability”, and will include practical (hands-on) exercises meant to make the subject tangible and concrete. At the time of the workshop, we aim to either have lined up a special issue on counterfactuals in a scientific journal ​or have secured additional funding to publish an edited book on the topic."

If our bid is successful, we will be able to invite 25 persons to this week-long workshop. We have stated in the application that we aim for a third of the participants to be "juniors" (ph.d. students and post-docs) and two thirds (including the six organizers) to be "seniors" (assistant, associate and full professors). We have already been in touch with a bunch of researches and a number of them have expressed interest in participating (their interest also indicated support for our application):

Maarten Hajer, Professor of Urban Futures and Director of the Urban Futures Studio, Utrecht University,  NL
Mattias Höjer, Professor in Environmental strategies and futures studies, KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm, SE
Magdalena Kuchler, Assistant professor, Deptartment of Earth Sciences, Natural Resources and Sustainable Development, Uppsala University, SE
David Lambert, Professor of History, University of Warwick, UK
Betti Marenko, Research leader (industrial design) and studies programme leader (product design), Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts London, UK
Henrietta Palmer, Artistic Professor, Dept. of Urban Design and Planning, Chalmers University of Technology, Gothenburg, SE
John Robinson, Professor in the Munk School for Global Affairs and the School of the Environment, University of Toronto, CA
Josefine Wangel, Vice-director for the platform SLU Urban Futures at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU), Uppsala, SE

I think we have put together a very strong application and that the chances of getting our proposal accepted are good but we have to wait until mid-April before we know if our proposal has been accepted. What I can conclude though is that the Coalworld project (core team: Daniel Pargman, Mikael Höök and Elina Eriksson) is moving forward in exciting and relatively unexpected ways (more to come soon). Below are the six workshop organizers:

Daniel Pargman (main contact person, overall responsibility for the workshop) is an associate professor in Media Technology at the Department of Media Technology and Interaction Design (MID) at KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Sweden. His research interests are situated in the intersection of on the one hand computing and on the other hand sustainability and energy research. He will, during his 2018 sabbatical, visit the Institute of Environmental Science and Technology (ICTA) at the Autonomous University of Barcelona to learn more about Degrowth and other social movements that work towards transformational change of society. Dr. Pargman’s academic blog (with 500+ blog posts) can be found at: http://danielpargman.blogspot.com.
- Selected publication​: Pargman, D., Eriksson, E., Höök, M., Tanenbaum, J., Pufal, M., & Wangel, J. (2017). What if there had only been half the oil? Rewriting history to envision the consequences of peak oil. ​Energy Research & Social Science​, 31, 170-178.

Mikael Höök (​responsible for focus theme 4, Counterfactuals and Energy) ​is an Associate Professor at the Department of Earth Sciences at Uppsala University. His research focus is on energy system transitions, fossil fuels and raw materials, such as lithium and so called ‘critical materials’ for clean/green energy technologies.
- Selected publication​: Davidsson, S., Höök, M. (2017). Material requirements and availability for multi-terawatt deployment of photovoltaics. Energy Policy, 108(12):574-582.

Roy Bendor (responsible for focus theme 3, Counterfactuals and Design) ​is an assistant professor at the Department of Industrial Design, Delft University of Technology, the Netherlands. A critical media scholar, his current research focuses on civic media and civic design, urban sustainability futures, and design for the political imagination.
- Selected publication​: Bendor, R. (2018). Interaction design for sustainability futures: Towards worldmaking interactions, in M. Hazas & L. Nathan (eds.) Digital Technology and Sustainability: Engaging the Paradox (pp. 205-216). London & NY: Routledge.

Mariana Todorova (responsible for focus theme 1, Counterfactuals and Futures Studies) is a futurist. Her interests are in building a new methodology for forecasting using counterfactuals as a futures research technique. Todorova was an advisor to the President of the Republic of Bulgaria between 2008-2012 and a Member of Parliament until February 2017. At present she is an Assistant Professor at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences. She has specialized leadership in the US State Department, the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, and the Chinese Academy of Governance. Currently, Todorova is a Head of the Bulgarian Node of Millennium project.
- Selected publication: Todorova, M. (2015). Counterfactual Construction of the Future: Building a New Methodology for Forecasting. World Future Review, 7(1), 30-38.

Gert Jan Kramer ​(responsible for focus theme 2, Scenarios) is professor of Sustainable Energy Supply in the Copernicus Institute at Utrecht University since 2016. Prior to taking up his current role he spent 25 years at Shell where since 2000 he was working closely with Shell’s scenarios and was responsible for technology outlooks and forecasting. His current work focuses specifically on the role of hydrocarbons in a world with net zero CO2 emissions.
- Selected publication​: Kramer, G.J., Energy scenarios - Exploring disruption and innovation. Energy Research and Social Science, in press (2018).

Elina Eriksson (responsible for focus theme 5, Counterfactuals and Sustainability) is an assistant professor in human-computer interaction and sustainability at the Department of Media Technology and Interaction Design (MID) at KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Sweden. Her current research projects concern ICT for urban sustainability, sustainable lifestyles, and exploring energy futures.
- Selected publication​: Pargman, D., Eriksson, E., Höjer, M., Östling, U. G., & Borges, L. A. (2017). The (Un)sustainability of Imagined Future Information Societies. In Proceedings of the 2017 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 773-785). ACM.

tisdag 6 februari 2018

Computing within Limits (CACM)


Great news! Our article "Computing within Limits" has been accepted for publication in ACM's journal "Communications of the ACM" (CACM). The article is written by Bonnie Nardi, Bill Tomlinson, Don Patterson, Jay Chen, Daniel Pargman, Barath Raghavan and Birgit Penzenstadler and this is a Big Thing for us as the print version of Communications of the ACM has a "readership of over 100,000 ACM members"!

"As the world’s largest computing society, ACM strengthens the profession's collective voice through strong leadership, promotion of the highest standards, and recognition of technical excellence. ... Founded at the dawn of the computer age, ACM’s reach extends to every part of the globe, with more than half of its 100,000 members residing outside the U.S."

Communications of the ACM is ACM's flagship journal and it reaches all ACM members everywhere in the world. We submitted our article in August and we imagined that the reviewers would want us to be a bit more tempered, but they instead surprised us by asking us to emphasize our critique of the economic system more. Bonnie (first author) and me managed to snag some time for a very productive writing session back in October when we met at a workshop about "Solutions for Economics, Environment and Democracy" in Siegen, Germany.

We submitted a rewritten version of the paper based on the feedback we got and it was provisionally accepted for publication in the beginning of January. There were however still a few more things they wanted us to fix urgently - which we of course did. Only 10 days ago we found out they were satisfied and that the text has been place in their queue:


Dear Dr. Nardi (Bonnie):

Glad that we can response so soon after your inquiry!

It is a pleasure to accept your manuscript entitled "Computing within Limits" in its current form for publication in Communications of the ACM.  The comments of the reviewer(s) who reviewed your manuscript are included at the foot of this letter.

Thank you for your fine contribution.  On behalf of the Editors of the Communications of the ACM, we look forward to your continued contributions to the magazine. You will hear from us in a few months, when the article is slated for production.

Dr. Andrew Chien
Editor in Chief, Communications of the ACM

The article will perhaps (I'm just guessing here) be published this summer and it will hopefully generate discussions. I think this is a breakthrough for Limits - perhaps there will be a lot more submissions to the 2019 workshop on Computing within Limits? Perhaps some papers that have been published at Limits during the first four years (2015-2018) will be in vogue and get read more widely? Or perhaps there will be a backlash when techno-utopian computer scientists reject our arguments and our propositions? Here's the abstract:

Computing within Limits

Most computing research relies on the implicit assumption that the future of industrial civilizations will include continuing economic growth. However, scientists across many fields are projecting that our species is approaching an array of planet-scale limits relating to climate change, raw materials, and numerous other factors that we must consider as we move forward. This article explores the implications of these limits, and reviews literature in a growing research community within computing concerned with planetary limits. Through this work, we seek to align the future of computing research and practice with findings on global trends documented by scientists in many other fields.