computing design

Saving the world through computing(?)

Vanessa Thomas hails from Alberta, Canada via Lancaster, England.  She’s a PhD candidate in the High Wire Centre and has worked in a lot of different areas, continually exploring the relationship between computing and sustainability.


Sam: Welcome to Sustainable Lens: Resilience on Radio, a weekly show on sustainability topics brought to you by Otago Polytechnic. The show is co-hosted by Shane Gallagher and me, Samuel Mann. Shane’s not here tonight because I’m in San Jose, California at a conference.


Each week we talk with someone making a positive difference and we try to find out what motivates them and what it means to see the world through a sustainable perspective, through their sustainable lens. Tonight’s sustainable lens is that of Vanessa Thomas, who is a PhD candidate at the University of Lancaster and is a research associate in the Institute of Social Futures, also at Lancaster but she’s not Lancastrian. Where’d you grow up?


Vanessa: I’m from Edmonton Alberta, Canada, which will probably give you a lot of context for why I do what I do if you know anything about the environment and oil sands and natural resource extraction.


Sam: What did you want to be when you grow up?


Vanessa: A fire truck but I’m not allowed to say that am I? Initially, in high school, I thought I wanted to be an accountant.


Sam: You saw the light?


Vanessa: I entered university and I took some entry-level classes, then I saw the light. I also took entry-level classes in computer science and learned that all of my skills in mathematics, which was what I always excelled at, could be applied to computing is well.


Sam: You shifted into computing?


Vanessa: Yes. During the first year I shifted away from accounting towards computing because I had thought that it was a more exciting and creative field for me to be in than just plain old numbers and maths and accounting.


Sam: What did you think you were going to do with computing at that stage?


Vanessa: I think I bought into a lot of the rhetoric around computing about saving the world through digital technologies, so I thought that I would get a job with Google. Google was just starting up at the time and it was really, really cool. Alternatively, I thought I would use my programming skills to make cool tools that would help people with their problems.


Sam: Interesting that you described that as the rhetoric. I would say that the “cool tools” rhetoric is a lot stronger than any “saving the world” rhetoric, doing something innovative perhaps with digital technology, but I don’t know if there’s a common “saving the world” vibe.


Vanessa: You’re right. I think retroactively I’m applying the saving the world rhetoric just because of the communities that I got involved with. Probably building the cool tools rhetoric was what I saw at first but that’s quite a long time ago. It’s over a decade ago that I started doing this, so it’s hard for me to remember exactly, back then.


Sam: You said that Edmonton in Alberta, if I know anything about that, I’ll know everything about you. Okay. Pretend I don’t know anything about it.


Vanessa: A lot of people won’t know very much about it, so that’s fair. Edmonton Alberta is a city of about a million people at this point. It was around 800,000 when I was growing up. It is heavily attached to the natural resource extraction industry in Canada and in Alberta specifically.


Obviously, Edmonton is the capital city, so a lot of companies are based there, our government is based there, so policies around natural resource extraction are developed there, which means that groups that want to lobby for and against that are also based there and are also quite active there.


Many people from Edmonton go and work in the natural resource extraction industries and those industries include forestry, they include oil. They also include fishing. There’s a large farming community as well, which you can argue is or is not a culture that sometimes gets looped in with natural resource extraction, if you consider crops, extraction, but some people don’t. In which case, it’s kept separate.


Sam: What I want to know is, were the tensions that are implicit in that, apparent when you were at school?


Vanessa: I would say it wasn’t clear to me when I was a teenager. I’m sure for some teenagers who were far more aware of those issues, it was obvious for them. For me, it didn’t really make sense. These issues came clear to me probably at about the time that I turned 20 or 21, certainly not when I was younger.


Sam: What happened?


Vanessa: I started getting involved with student groups on campus. Just through convenience and interest, I became involved with the Student’s Union at the University. They were a very open and welcoming group who shared a lot of nerdy interests with me and I didn’t know very much about how Alberta’s industries were tied to Canada in global economic issues at the time.


They introduced me to a lot of those issues and retrospectively, I could see how that was linked to my upbringing and a lot of the issues in the area of the city that I’m from, which is quite a low income area, the city. A lot of people that I went to high school with graduated and chose to take jobs in the oil sands, or in forestry, or in the natural resource extraction area industries.


I was one of the few people from my graduating class that went to university. There may be a cohort of like 20 of us from a graduating class of 700, who went to university. The rest all went off to low income housing and/or natural resource extraction industry jobs, things that didn’t require anything else after high school.


Sam: Were you living at home or on campus?


Vanessa: I was living at home. Yeah, with my parents. I couldn’t afford to go anywhere else.


Sam: Did the neighbourhood think you were going off to a day job as a hippie?


Vanessa: I didn’t look like a hippie at the time. I didn’t have dreadlocks at the time. My immediate neighbours, one was an old couple and they were just happy to see us go off and do anything and the other house had quite a transient population, so we didn’t really get to know them very well at all. It changed over a year or two, so I have no idea what they thought of me. They often didn’t talk with us.


Sam: Around the family dinner table, were you bringing in new ideas or was it carrying on ideas, developing ideas that were already there?


Vanessa: No. There was quite a lot of friction, especially when I became vegetarian and then eventually vegan. That caused a lot of friction. My family has a conservative bend to it, I would say. That’s the polite way of phrasing it, because Alberta, for a very long time, for 44 years had a conservative government in power. Everybody was just assumed to be conservative.


You obviously supported the natural resource extraction industries. We had a large active beef farming community, so you obviously ate a lot of beef to support that. Yeah. Very conservative. The idea of having a vegetarian in the family was very off-putting. I remember vividly, a conversation with my dad where he asked if I would still eat my vegan burgers if it was cooked on the same grill as a beef burger, now that I had become vegan.


Sam: Similar conversations in your computer science classes?


Vanessa: No. No. Not at all. No. I had very few friends in my computer science classes. First and foremost, I was one of the few women. In one of the first classes that I took actually, one of my peers said that I never had to do any programming because I was female and I could get away with just letting the boys do the work for me.


I didn’t actually make many friends in my computer science classes. I think that’s part of why I turned to the Student’s Union, because they were an open welcoming group who had similar ideas to me. They didn’t care that I was programming. They didn’t really care what I did for school, we just had these shared values.


Sam: Within the academic frame, where there opportunities to explore the social side of computing?


Vanessa: During my undergraduate, no. No. Not at all. Actually, I dropped out/got kicked out and took an internship, an international development internship, after three years in Ecuador doing something called ICT4D, Information and Communication Technologies for Development.


I worked in a human rights nonprofit called Defensa De Los Niños, Defence of the Children. They helped support street children in Ecuador to do with all of the very many issues that they faced. I helped them set up their database and website, which in 2006 was very new for them. I helped them get email in their workplace. I trained them in how to maintain their website and maintain some of the computers that were also in the workplace. That opened me up to questioning the values of computing.


Sam: You went back and finished your degree?


Vanessa: I did. It was a very slow process. It took me until 2011 to get my degree. I started in 2003 and it took me until 2011 to get my undergraduate degree. I ended up taking courses in feminism along the way. I also took courses in management studies, communication studies, Earth and atmospheric sciences.


I went looking for answers that computer science wasn’t giving me and that meant that it extended the length of the time I spent in my undergraduate but I also had a much more well-rounded and eclectic education as a result.


Sam: Can you see a way of structuring a computer science degree that you wouldn’t need to go searching for those things?


Vanessa: Absolutely. Yeah. If you included more flexibility in the course offerings. If you allowed people to take classes from the … Every University will obviously have a different departmental structure but if you we’re allowed to take courses in the environmental sciences and have that count towards your degree. If you we’re allowed to take courses from women’s studies or indigenous studies and have that count toward your degree, I think that would help.


Sam: Having gone through the left-field way of eventually finishing a computer science degree. Then, you turned your back on all that and went to work in a bank. Is that right?


Vanessa: Well, no. I was also working throughout that entire process because I needed to be able to pay for my education. I had been working for utility company for a bit, so they provided the power and water services in my city. I also worked for the government in my province, both for the energy ministry and the environment ministry.


I eventually also tacked on a Master’s degree at the same time, to all of that. By 2013, I had earned a Master’s degree in interdisciplinary studies while working quite extensively in government and nonprofits and briefly, for-profits. Then, I quit all of that and went and worked in the Inter-American Development Bank for a few months before starting my PhD, so yeah I did get to the bank.


Sam: What were you doing in the environment ministry?


Vanessa: I was doing the same thing in the environment ministry and the energy ministry. I was the internal communications technology specialist. I helped set up and run their websites internally. I also was a member of a lot of projects helping employees feel more engaged within those ministries and to share their work because there was very low engagement.


People were very angry and upset about what they were doing in those two ministries specifically. They had the lowest engagement scores of any of the ministries that the government delivered us, so I was trying to help that.


Sam: What’s the structure of the government? Is the environment ministry to protect the environment or is it to provide a vehicle for extraction to go on? How does that tension sit?


Vanessa: Yeah. There’s no real clear answer there. You can take the slogans that the government offers at face value if you’d like. I believe that, at that time, the slogan for the environment ministry … The full name for the environment ministry was Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development and they were stewards of Alberta’s environment. However you wanted to take stewardship, you could.


Sam: They’ve got all of the options stuck in that title.


Vanessa: Yes they do. Yes they do. That is a very carefully worded title, I think for a reason. I think also, what they pursued policy wise was very different than what many of the employees had in mind with that ministry.


Some of them were really keen on protecting the environment and making sure that Alberta had a long sustainable ecosystem with crop rotations and carefully planned forests that handle different animals as well as bugs and just had a proper forest ecosystem in place.


Then, there were others who were more keen on making sure that we could just move those issues aside to make oil development a more easy process. It was a highly conflicting environment at Environment and Sustainable Resource Development.


Sam: Were you based in the IT department?


Vanessa: No. I was strategically based in the communications department so that we had more flexibility to do what we wanted to do. The IT department was very structured and had a very slow approval process for everything.


When you want to help employees with engagement, you want to have quite a lot of quick movement at your fingers, I would say. You don’t want to be bogged down in bureaucratic structures that take a year just to get a website approved.


Sam: Interesting that you’re a person who’s clearly driven by social justice and the environment. Having coming out with a computer science degree, in which you’ve got none of that, except which you’ve managed to shoehorn in. Did you then manage to find a job that enabled you to do both or was it still more computing?


Vanessa: I wasn’t able to find a job that allowed me to do both, which is why I ended up pursuing that PhD that I’m pursuing. I’m still desperately seeking a way to reconcile the real social and environmental justice activism I used to be involved with and my computing career because they’re not two things that are easily reconcilable, as I’m sure you’re aware.


Sam: Okay. You said you were working for some non-profits as well or at the same time. What was that about?


Vanessa: Yeah. I also worked for another non-profit in Bolivia, which was called INFOCAL. It teaches people from low income areas, skills that they would need to be employed as a mechanic or doing food prep, just giving the skills that people from low income areas from Bolivia would need to find employment.


I was also involved with a bunch of groups that help immigrants when they moved to Edmonton, helped them get settled. I was involved with something called the Sierra Club and also briefly Greenpeace in Alberta. I was the provincial coordinator for the Canadian commission of UNESCO’s Alberta presence and they did work on biospheres and also education support in rural communities.


I was involved with just a peace organisation, the John Humphrey Centre for Human Rights. I was involved with a lot of different things. I didn’t sleep very much because in all of my spare time I went seeking the things that my job didn’t offer me.


Sam: What were you trying to achieve? I’m sure there’s a path to a theme in there, but I don’t know what it is.


Vanessa: Yeah. I think it put a lot of people off because I was doing a lot of things.   The pattern for me was trying to … I don’t know what the pattern is. I still don’t know what the pattern is. You can help me with that baby.


Sam: MSc in interdisciplinary studies, what was that about?


Vanessa: Yeah. It was actually an MA, a Master of Arts in Interdisciplinary Studies. It was focused on something called Human Security, which is a United Nations development programme paradigm for looking at any sort of issue that you may have, any sort of problem around the world.


There are seven pillars to this paradigm. We’ve got the economic security pillar, the food security pillar, to health security pillar, the environment security pillar, the personal security pillar, the community security pillar and the political security pillar. Those are the seven. You look in any sort of thing, you can even look at objects with those pillars and pick apart how they’re related to it.


How does this microphone affect somebody’s food security, their access to food? How does this microphone affect somebody’s environmental security, their access to safe tree spaces, green spaces as well as water? Water’s typically linked with environment. It could be also put under food. Political security is another one. How does this affect whether or not somebody is going to be arrested? How does this link to their community security, which relates to their friendships with people?


If I’m giving this interview now, now that this microphone is recording it, is this going to make somebody in my community hate me? Is it going to make them more accepting of me? All sorts of things. You pick apart anything with these seven pillars and that … As I was searching for, actually something quite like this paradigm, it came into my life through the Masters and it helped me see things differently. I think I was looking for something like it during my computer science undergraduate degree, which is why I went so broad with my extra classes and ended up taking a lot more than I needed.


Sam: In your Masters, did you relate that in any way back to computing?


Vanessa: I did in a couple of papers. I also related it to media systems because I feel like in a lot of … Media systems and computing are connected and have been for quite some time, so I linked them to both of those.


Sam: What did you find?


Vanessa: I found some not pretty stuff. That’s where I first started learning about eWaste – eWaste is electronics waste, so what happens to your electronic devices when you throw them away when you get rid of them. It’s a massive issue globally.


It’s also where I first learned about some of the rare earth minerals that are in computing devices and the flows of minerals and materials that make up our devices. I had somehow not managed to put these pieces together before I got to my Masters. In part because I’d been distracted by the more common things that people are interested in.


Environmental issues, I had been interested in, so at that time it was a lot about oil industry in Alberta and also plastics in the ocean. Food waste was a big thing that people talked about but I hadn’t thought to link all of that with computing.


Sam: Because we don’t go out of our way to connect those things?


Vanessa: I think so. I think we definitely don’t go out of our way to connect those things.


Sam: We’re happily seeing these things as information appliances with no consequences, they just exist.


Vanessa: Yeah. I think some of the rhetoric around those appliances aids that by saying that we’re putting our data in the cloud. I’ve actually had conversations with people where they think their data is up in some cloud. It’s got nothing to do with the ground and the planet. There’s no physical place.


Sam: There’s no such thing as the cloud. It’s somebody else’s computer. People just don’t get it, do they?


Vanessa: Yeah. I think some of the rhetoric supports that, that they don’t want you to think about it in a way. That sounds very, like a conspiracy theory because … Yeah. It does. That’s not how I meant for that to come out. I don’t mean it to sound like there’s a conspiracy but I think the wording around the cloud, I think we need to change it. I think we have to.


Sam: What do we need to change?


Vanessa: I think we need to have some pretty open and honest conversations about what happens with our digital devices after they’re used. I think we also need to have some pretty open and honest conversations about what happens with our digital devices while they’re being used.


What is the cost of a Tweet? Why don’t more people know that? What is in the background of all of those Facebook feeds? How often are those algorithms making calls to a database on the other side of the planet and what cost does that have?


Sam: You finished your MA, then what?


Vanessa: I thought I wanted to go work for the United Nations, to try to tackle some of the big global issues that I had problems with, so I got a job at the Inter-American Development Bank, which is a smaller international development organisation. That was not a pleasant experience, so … I had also applied for some PhD’s at the time, thinking that perhaps I could spend some time researching the issues that I was interested in.


Sam: I’d like you to take this positively but I can’t imagine you ever thinking that going to work for a bank was a good idea, even if it’s a development bank.


Vanessa: Yeah. I completely agree. It was not the smartest decision, I would say in retrospect. I really actually desperately wanted to get out of the Alberta government, so I started looking for options and that was one of the first ones that came up.


When I worked in Latin America, actually the Inter-American Development Bank had a very good reputation. It funds a lot of very successful and very helpful projects around sanitation, around urban development. They support a lot of good work, even if they are a bank and-


Sam: On a continuum of not-for-profit Sierra Club through to corporate bank, where does that sit on that continuum?


Vanessa: Obviously, at the corporate bank end of things but they were at least a corporate bank interested in social justice and they really do support a lot of amazing projects in Latin America that would otherwise not have happened. Most of the bank is staffed by people from Latin America.


A majority of the people working at the bank are from Latin America and they find projects that they care about because they affect the people that they care about. That’s certainly a gross simplification of it and there are bad projects funded and there is money wasted, of course, but I had also just witnessed the exact same thing at the government of Alberta, which was a non-corporate public sector organisation that I thought should have been doing a lot more good and at times it was.


I was perhaps a bit lost and looking for answers and I thought that this organisation that had supported a lot of great projects in Latin America might have had some of the answers and they didn’t, so I pursued my PhD instead.


Sam: Okay. You decided to pursue a PhD.


Vanessa: Yep.


Sam: Where did you look?


Vanessa: In England because I was getting old and I didn’t want to spend eight years in Canada doing a PhD. That’s probably too honest. Also, England has a lot of really unique programmes, a lot of really unique interdisciplinary programmes, which is what I was seeking.


I didn’t want to go back to feeling like I was stuck in one discipline and just needed to study one thing. I wanted to be able to draw on all of my very different knowledge bases and experiences and work that into the research that I was doing.


I applied to a couple of different schools in the UK. When I met the people at Lancaster University, I immediately got along with them incredibly well. Their programme was the most radical of all of the programmes that I had applied to as well and it seemed like the right fit for me, so I joined them.


Sam: Which programme is it or what-


Vanessa: It’s called the High Wire Centre for Doctoral Training. It is a post-disciplinary doctoral training centre, which means we’re supposed to be long beyond any sort of disciplinary confines. The people that it has attracted, I think, share a similar set of values to me.


Sam: You took yourself off to England?


Vanessa: Mm-hmm (affirmative).


Sam: Then what? Did you know what you wanted to do?


Vanessa: Initially I thought that I would look at how digital technologies were being used in rural communities because sorry, I also grew up splitting my time between Edmonton and a farming community where my grandparents are based, in a small town in Alberta called Killam. It’s a side story, it’s not important. Anyway, I was interested in rural development so I thought I would see how digital technologies in rural development would be used, or would be linked rather.


Sam: You said initially?


Vanessa: Yes.


Sam: That didn’t last long then?


Vanessa: No. Part of the fun of High Wire, is that they actually tell you to get rid of your initial idea when you enter. You go through this year-long process of basically being put in a blender with all of these other people from different backgrounds.


I worked with somebody who had studied philosophy. I worked with somebody who had run an arts organisation and was a poet. I worked with somebody from China who had become a service designer and an ethnographer. There’s a fellow from Mexico who does audio locative. It’s called Locative Audio Experiences.


I’ve worked with somebody who had done indigenous studies work with the Sami people in Scandinavia. I worked with a comic artist as well. We were all doing very different things and coming at our ideas with very different perspectives, so we were told to forget that initial idea that we had developed before we met all of these fabulous other people and to instead, come up with something new, with and amongst and even from them, so I did.


Sam: What else did you try in that process?


Vanessa: Throughout all of this, I was also involved with something called the Standby Task Force, which helps the United Nations during-


Sam: Of course you were!


Vanessa: Of course I was! I had briefly thought about studying crisis informatics, crisis response in digital technologies. I actually ended up co-authoring a book chapter about that and I am still involved with an EU project related to this.


I also dabbled in something called Smart Cities, which is a … Do you want to call it a paradigm? Can I call a paradigm? A current research and tech development industry paradigm trying to make cities smarter and by smarter they mean more full of technologies to help make people’s lives easier.


Sam: For someone that’s questioning the value of computing, pumping more of it into a city wouldn’t seem to be a sensible place to start.


Vanessa: Yeah. I think when I first looked at the marketing materials, I was interested in what they were trying to achieve by pumping more technologies into cities. I was very fortunate that right when I started to get interested in Smart Cities, a fellow by the name of Adam Greenfield published a book critiquing them. I read it and immediately connected with everything he said.


He’s a brilliant man and everybody should look into his pamphlet called ‘Against the Smart City.’ That started to help me unpick a lot of the marketing materials, which is mostly what I had been exposed to. There was quite a large body of research at the time, also about Smart cities, but it was mostly about specific digital technologies and how they would address a certain “problem” within a city. None of it seemed to make much sense to me. I was very sceptical and then Adam’s book crystallised a lot of that scepticism.


Sam: That’s what you’re not doing.


Vanessa: Yes.


Sam: What are you doing?


Vanessa: I’m now finally, very happily, looking at how natural resource scarcity will affect people who do HCI.


Sam: In which order is that? How natural resource scarcity-


Vanessa: I should say, might affect people.


Sam: Might affect.


Vanessa: Might affect people who are HCI researchers.


Sam: Why is that of interest?


Vanessa: Because I think that throughout this whole messy process I’ve realised that a lot of what I did in industry was HCI. I was working with people trying to design technologies to support them and help them, which is a lot of what HCI is supposed to be about. Also, I have always had this, not always, I’ve had for the past decade or so, this interest in environmental issues.


I crafted this research as an attempt to unify these seemingly disparate threads in my life and try to crystallise something for me. It’s a very selfish endeavour. I want to know what I can do in the face of natural resource scarcity, as somebody who does HCI.


Sam: What are you doing? Are you talking to people?


Vanessa: Yeah. I’ve done two phases of research. I’m in the middle of the second phase. The first phase I interviewed people who repair and maintain retro computing technologies, so Commodores, super Nintendo’s, Sega Genesis, BBC micros. I was trying to talk with anybody who still repaired those.


Then, now I’m talking with people who are currently active in HCI research and finding out what they do and how they do it, how they develop new things because I think the two groups are linked and that resource scarcity is one of the things that will link them.


Sam: Are you particularly looking for people who are thinking those two things, the HCI, the Human Computer Interaction Research or practise and environmental stuff, the natural resource scarcity?


Vanessa: Yes. Definitely. I work with people who are in sustainable HCI, which is, I think, the closest field dealing with these issues. I’ve also the Limits Community to be quite interesting because they are playing around with similar topics.


Sam: Because, while there’s a few people doing that, the vast majority aren’t.


Vanessa: Yeah.


Sam: What are you hoping to find?


Vanessa: This is not going to be a very satisfying answer but I want to find answers for myself. I want to have a good idea of how I will be affected. I think, because I’m learning that the HCI community is quite a small, close-knit community, I think I will start by sharing my research amongst people who do similar things.


Then, I will progressively get shoutier and try to integrate this into broader HCI discourses because I think that more people within HCI need to think about how what they’re doing relates to climate change and the environment.


Sam: You’ve done some of those interviews?


Vanessa: I have done some of those interviews, yes. I’ve got 17 done so far. I just started a couple of weeks ago. I intend to spend the next three months interviewing as many people as possible and having as many conversations around this is possible. Then, I will try to write it up.


Sam: Has anyone said anything surprising so far?


Vanessa: Yes and no. Most people aren’t thinking about, even if they’re going to maintain their data for the next 10 years because University requirements state that they have to, most people aren’t thinking about whether or not they should go back to that data and reuse it in an interesting way and how that relates to the environment or doesn’t, for some people.


The more interesting things for me selfishly, have just been the differences between countries and the pressures that they face to deal with these things and the pressures that they face to publish interesting new work every year. That’s not a thing that I was expecting. Perhaps that shows how young and naïve I am within the field. I was expecting it to be a little bit more homogenous than it has been.


Sam: The academic publishing cycle of identify a problem or define a problem, identify solution, do an intervention, measuring it and write it up real quick, doesn’t sit very nicely with-


Vanessa: No, it doesn’t.


Sam: -intergenerational equity with looking at changes on large scale over long time periods and messy wicked problems and so on.


Vanessa: Right.


Sam: Has anyone got a solution to that?


Vanessa: Not anybody that I’ve spoken with but I’m hoping that somebody might.


Sam: You’re hoping that there’s someone out there?


Vanessa: I’m hoping. Yeah.


Sam: When you do …


Vanessa: I think I have to hope that other people are thinking about this right now. I don’t have to hope that. I’ve had a lot of conversations with people who acknowledge that it’s a problem, they know that it’s a problem. They don’t like that there is this publishing cycle that they have to adhere to but they also would rather not be fired.


They would also rather not lose access to their immediate colleagues and peers if they don’t do this because you have to make a living as well. They feel almost a sense of discomfort and inability to do anything in the face of this particular challenge. The ones that are saying this to me mostly are ones who are not super senior academics. Most of the senior academics … That’s not true, I’m generalising. I want to take all of that back.


I had a conversation with a very senior academic from Cambridge. He’d given a presentation to a large group of people where he had been calling for more interdisciplinary researchers and he was saying that we need to rethink the publishing cycle and rethink how we value people within academia.


I went up to him after his presentation and I was like, “That was great. That really resonated with me. Thank you so much for saying that. I want to do an interdisciplinary generalist PhD. If I came to Cambridge, how would I do that without facing the pressures of this publishing cycle?”


He laughed in my face and said, “You’re too early. Come back in a decade. We might be able to accommodate something like that then but right now, no. Nobody’s going to allow you to do that.” To me, that interaction optimised the problem in academia. People want it, they will claim it to a large crowd of people. They will say, “This is the thing that we need to be doing,” but nobody’s making steps, they’re just deferring the problem to 10 years from now.


In many ways, that is the exact same issue we’re facing with environmental problems around the world, with climate change. “Oh, we won’t deal with that right now. Come back in 10 years and we’ll have a solution for that. In the next 10 years we’ll have figured it out but right now you’re too early to be trying to figure out the answers to these issues.”


Sam: You’ve been involved in a lot of different organisations.


Vanessa: Yes.


Sam: Probably more than anyone else on the planet and from a whole range of different areas mixing both environmental and social justice and culture and everything else. How come you came down to natural resource scarcity in your question?


Vanessa: Because you have to have a very narrow question to get your PhD done. It was a practical choice. If I could … The paper that I’m writing about the retro computing people, it’s actually far more broad.


It’s just resource scarcity that includes access to knowledge, that includes access to support, that includes access to the physical components that you need to replace broken things on your computer. For my thesis, I had to be quite narrowly focused so that I could finish it in the time and meet the requirements of this academic structure that is not ready for something more broad.


Sam: Do you have a go-to definition of sustainability?


Vanessa: I do not. I know that I probably should but I keep it quite flexible because of the broad variety of people that I speak with. Business sustainability is a very different thing than environmental sustainability, which is a very different thing than community sustainability, even though they’re all connected. If that makes sense. I wish that I had an easy to ramble off thing so that … I’m probably going to need to articulate one at some point in the near future and it’s going to be very difficult for me.


Sam: What do you say when somebody says, “We’re computer scientists, this is not our problem”? What’s your line into it?


Vanessa: I ask them typically, why they think it’s not our problem and then I ask more probing questions like, “Have you ever considered where we get the materials to build our computers? What happens to your data? Where are you storing it? What do you know about the broader context?”


They typically respond with more questions and then through that questioning process, I try to provide them what information I have on hand and that changes regularly as well because I think new research comes up quite regularly about the environmental impact of computing. Yeah. I try to fit that into the conversation as they’re responding to me.


Sam: On the scale I’ve just invented of one to 10, where one is optimist and 10 is pessimist?


Vanessa: Oh. Ah. Scales, again. I fluctuate between probably one and 10, quite regularly, even earlier today, depending on a lot of things. I have to be optimistic because I’m just in my 30s and I know I have a long, long trail ahead of me. I think if I was pessimistic all of the time I would not have the energy to get myself out of bed in the morning but I also see a lot of exciting things happening. I see cool projects like to Restart Project. I see cool projects like Fairphone.  Fairphone’s a great project.


Things like that give me hope and make me quite optimistic but then, talking with lots of researchers who don’t think about the environmental impact of their computing at all makes me quite pessimistic. Attending presentations by large search companies who talk about wanting to provide abundant access to the Internet for everybody and then not having them acknowledge that the environmental impact of that. That makes me quite pessimistic as well.


Sam: The whole paradigm, not just of computing but of technology and business itself really, is make new products and sell more stuff.


Vanessa: Yep.


Sam: Are we kidding ourselves?


Vanessa: By trying to think about environmental issues related to that?


Sam: No. About turning around that sight, that discipline, that science, that industry that’s behind it, the business.


Vanessa: I don’t really care if we’re kidding ourselves. I feel like somebody has to be saying it. Somebody has to be trying to raise these issues with big business or it will never change. I don’t know if in the long term this will matter, I don’t really care.


I just feel like I have to do it. It feels like the right thing to do and beyond that I don’t really care. I should care because I know that neoliberalism is the problem and that we should try to bring it down but I also know that I am one person.


Sam: Some questions to end with. What is your sustainable superpower?


Vanessa: Yeah. Laughter? Am I allowed to say that’s my superpower?


Sam: You just did.


Vanessa: Great.


Sam: I’ve written it down, so that’s what it is.


Vanessa: Perfect. I feel like I have to laugh in the face of some of the things that make me incredibly pessimistic. That’s probably what keeps me optimistic.


Sam: What’s the biggest success you’ve had in the last couple of years?


Vanessa: Oh, wow. Quitting my job at the government of Alberta and pursuing what I cared about.


Sam: Do you consider yourself an activist?


Vanessa: Yeah. That’s a question that I’ve always struggled with. I should, I should consider myself an activist and sometimes I do. Right now I don’t. I don’t feel like I’m doing enough. I’m just doing a PhD and some research. I don’t feel like I’m enough of an activist right now. I used to be.


Sam: Do you see a long-term future where you can be an activist?


Vanessa: I see a long-term future where I will be an activist. Yeah-


Sam: Do you think that you’ve cracked it? Through your myriad of things that you’ve done there’s been a separation between computing and your, let’s call that part that bit of the activism.


Vanessa: Right.


Sam: Do you see a long-term future where you’re going to be able to bring the two together?


Vanessa: Yes, and I’m trying to right now. I just submitted an environmental impact of computing … Yes. I just submitted a digital technologies and climate change proposal to the government of Canada, a competition about a month ago that closed.


I’ve made it to the top 10 for that particular competition, so there’s a very good chance that this submission I have is going to affect policy in Canada, getting the government to think about how their computing regime is linked to the environment. That’s my first step.


I intend to write a lot more for the public sector, more policy document submissions. I’m going to try to engage with some ministers. I intend to be more active about this specific subject, at least within Canada because we have recently had a government change there and I think that we now have the right people in place to think about these issues, so yeah-


Sam: How’s that going down in Edmonton?


Vanessa: I will find out when I’m home in about a week and I start chatting with some people.


Sam: What motivates you? What gets you out of bed in the morning?


Vanessa: Yeah. That’s a great question. What does motivate me and get me out of bed in the morning? There are the typical motivations that everybody has. I need to eat food and survive, those things. I need to have friends…like motivations, whatever.


I am motivated by … I hate this question. I’m so terrible at answering it. I should have an answer to this question and I don’t. I have an idea of what I want to see from the world and I’m motivated by pursuing that idea. It’s a broad, messy, complicated idea that draws in all of these different threads, so it’s not an easy thing for me to articulate. I do end up styling it a bit when I am talking with different people but that gets me up in the morning.  Pursuing that gets me up in the morning.


Sam: Maybe it’s always only ever going to be a broad, messy, complicated idea.


Vanessa: I think it’s going-


Sam: If there was a silver bullet, simple idea, we would have fixed it already.


Vanessa: I would agree. Yeah.


Sam: Good. You can stick with, “Oh, your answer was good there,” remember that one.


Vanessa: Thanks.


Sam: If you could wave a magic wand and have a miracle occur, what would it be?


Vanessa: I can give you a flippant answer or a very serious one.


Sam: Give me both.


Vanessa: Okay. I would wave a magic wand and we would all be transported to Jurassic Park and it would be a fabulous, exciting time with dinosaurs.


Sam: Except we would get eaten.


Vanessa: They need food too. Dinosaurs need food too. I’m not a species-ist, I’m not. Yeah. No, if I could wave a magic wand and make one thing happen it would be that the world would be a less unequal place for everyone and the environment.


Sam: Do you have any advice for our listeners?


Vanessa: The-


Sam: It’s this last question, it’s a free hit.


Vanessa: I know. I know. I’m sorry. The advice that I used to give when I was a mentor for young women entering computing was that you should feel and it’s such a piece of advice from a place of privilege, you should feel that you can pursue the things that you care about, even if they don’t fit into the nice, normal, clean, clear structures that are centred in front of you.


Even if you are an engineer, if you want to learn about knitting, go learn about knitting. If you are a nurse and you want to learn how to fix a car, go learn about fixing a car. That would be my advice. Pursue the things that you’re curious about and be curious. Be curious, please.


Sam: Thank you very much for joining me.


Vanessa: Yeah. Thank you. I’m sorry that was so rambled.


Sam: All of the best stories are a ramble.


Vanessa: Are they?


Sam: You’ve been listening to Sustainable Lens: Resilience on Radio, a weekly show on sustainability topics brought to you by Otago Polytechnic. The show is co-hosted by Shane Gallagher and me, Samuel Mann.


We broadcast on our title access radio, and Podcast on On, we’re building up searchable archive of conversations with people from many different fields who are applying their skills to a sustainable future. In our conversations we try to find out what motivates them and what it means to see the world through a sustainable perspective, through their sustainable lens.


Tonight’s sustainable lens was that of Vanessa Thomas, variously from Lancaster and Alberta, Canada. She’s a PhD candidate in the High Wire Centre and has worked in a lot of different areas, continually exploring the relationship between computing and, let’s just call it sustainability. Although, she didn’t.


You can follow the links on Sustainable Lens to find us on Facebook and you can listen to Sustainable Lens via iTunes for free and it goes out to lots of other party places. Please do like us on Facebook. It keeps the wolves from the door and it means we don’t have to go and get a job working in the oil sands.


That was Sustainable Lens. I’m Samuel Mann. I hope you enjoyed the show.



Loyalty to devices, not just brands



Christian Remy is a researcher at the University of Zurich,   He researches attachment theory and considers how we can encourage loyalty to devices, not just brands.


Talking points
Christian: What kind of consumer electronics do people buy and how can we give them information on how to make better-informed purchasing decisions. We had some information back then, we thought we had some information on this later on, which turned out to be not the case, so that project changed, slightly changed gears in my PhD.

What I stuck with was studying people’s purchasing behavior, what kind of technology are they buying and why are they buying this? Then there was this entire research area around the replacement cycle; basically, so why do people buy a new mobile phone every year, when actually in theory there is no reason why it shouldn’t work for 5 years? If you look at it objectively, there’s lots of motivation to not buy a new phone, because you got accustomed to it, you have all of your data on it, it’s expensive, and all of this kind of stuff, but still people go on and buy a new iPhone every year, or a new AT&T phone, something, whatever, every year.

That got me into this obsolescence thing, obviously. You have this designed obsolescence discussion, which is the sort of paranoid, maybe true assumption that industry is building devices on purpose so that they break after 2 years. There’s this joke usually that a phone has a 2-year guarantee and exactly after 2 years and 1 day, the phone breaks.

Sam: The business model is entirely determined on selling more stuff.

Christian: Exactly.

Sam: They have to sell you that new phone?

Christian: Exactly.

Sam: Even if it doesn’t break, they heavily advertise the next one so you feel quite embarrassed that you’ve got an old one.

Christian: Yeah, and there is the social peer pressure, obviously, like, “Oh, my God, you still have the old phone like from last year. How dare you? That’s unacceptable, you need to have the new phone, 10SE, whatever.”

Sam: Now you have this sustainable viewpoint, is that the killer app? but is that the killer undoing of computing and sustainability that is so fundamental that we need to sell you a new computer, a new phone? Can we overcome that?

Christian: I would argue we can, because the industry itself actually, I see a silver lining within the industry itself, which is the move from selling devices, selling hardware, to selling services, which you see in all of this cloud computing that is coming up. Everything is moving into the cloud. You don’t buy a piece of software anymore, but you buy a subscription for a piece of software, and you have all of those different income strategies. Maybe those at some point can, for industry, make up for the effect of reduced revenue from selling new devices. I don’t know. Like I said, it’s a silver lining. It’s a little bit of wishful thinking, maybe, on my part, but maybe that’s the case.

I very recently, just before I came to this conference, read an article that actually there are signs for this rapid replacement cycle slowing down. I don’t remember the exact figures, but I think there were studies that in the U.S. people were replacing their phones every 14 months, on average, and I think that is slightly going down. It’s probably down to something like 17 months, and obviously at some point every market is saturated as well. I think in 2014 we were producing or selling 1 billion phones a year, and at some point everyone has a phone.

Sam: Have they perhaps reached a zenith of the stuff that they can pack into a phone that’s useful? There’s not many more things, perhaps, that they can put into it that’s going to make such a big difference to me?

Christian: You would think so. Obviously, every phone has a camera right now. Many phones have some kind of super-high precision detection thing, which can even do fingerprint detection and stuff like that. If the new phone doesn’t have any new features, besides just being 5% faster, then at some point people might also just be reluctant to buy a new phone, because they don’t really see the point. Yeah, that could be the case.

Obviously, as history has shown us, Moore’s Law and all those kinds of things that predict that technological advancement will always go on and go on, and go on, and there will always be new things, so maybe in 10 years from now there will be a new thing that needs to be in everyone’s phone, which proves us wrong.

Sam: Yeah, I’m just trying to think about what else are we carrying. You see those pictures of what the phone has replaced, the desk and the typewriter, and the camera, and everything else, but not carrying that much else. I bet there’ll be something else, won’t there?

Christian: If you told someone in the ’80s that every phone once would have a camera, they would be like, “Why? I don’t have a camera with me? I don’t think … ” I don’t know, ask 100 people in the ’80s on the streets if they have a camera with them. I don’t think there would be that many people, so the camera became an essential part of the phone now, even though it hasn’t really been something that everyone has been carrying with them. I think it would have to go beyond just what people have on them, but what artefacts of technology are you using in your everyday life?

It is an interesting discussion. It’s sort of dangerous, because we’re doing the job for industry to find the new thing to carry on obsolescence, almost.

Sam: Yes, but now we’re at the point where we can argue that it’s not going to carry on. Is it a problem that we can say actually that that problem is going to fade away? You’d have to be brave to say that, wouldn’t you?

Christian: Yeah, brave or maybe naïve. I don’t think just sitting back and waiting for the problem to disappear is a good strategy. I’d rather like to be proactive, obviously, and my research has been trying to do that. Yeah, rather than just sitting there and waiting for the problem to be…

Sam: That’s what you started with when you went to Zurich. Then where did you go?

Christian: Yeah, like I said, obsolescence was the kind of issue. Then one of the things that I found out, that there are so many motivators for people to buy new phones, but what are the motivators for people to actually keep their phones? Then I looked at research, and there is actually so much in the research domain that already tells us strategies on how to design devices in a way that people don’t throw them away as easily. There’s lots of stuff about augmentation, so, for example, how can you reuse technology later on?

We have met some people here at the conference, actually, who took their old tablet just as an e-book reader, even though it wasn’t 100% functional anymore. You can, obviously, resell devices like a second-hand market, and then my kind of direction of the research is rather something about ensoulment, or emotional design, as Don Norman called, or attachment framework, which is exactly what I’m focusing on. How can we design devices so that people really get so attached to the particular device that they don’t want to replace it? That’s what I was focusing on.

The thing is, like I said, the research has already been done. Those frameworks exist, but I saw it as my goal of my thesis to bring this to product designers, so that’s what I took. I took this framework, this knowledge about how to create attachment, how to foster attachment, and gave this to product designers and asked them to create a piece of consumer electronics, a tablet in particular …

Sam: Okay, so emotional design or attachment design 101, go.

Christian: 101, well, it has some criteria on how to achieve this, so one of those is, for example, engagement. If you have a device that, when you use it, it creates some sort of … You’re engaged in using it. The way how you interact with the device really is fun and enjoyable; that’s something. Memories is a strong facilitator for attachment. When you look at your device and you remember, “Oh, I’ve used that at this conference. I’ve used that on my vacation, and I really don’t want to get rid of that,” because those memories are connected to the device.

We usually don’t see this connected to devices, but actually to other physical objects, like there’s studies of people who keep old cups, for example, with some kind of labels or whatever on them for many decades, because they remember them or something. Those are the kind of criteria that …

Sam: Isn’t my attachment to the stuff that’s in the device, not the device? The photos that I’ve collected migrate quite happily around my progression of, my series of devices.

Christian: That is exactly the difference between the kind of attachment I’m talking about and the attachment that already exists, because marketing has done a great deal of this research, now to foster attachment, however, what they’re doing is brand attachment, or it’s called “brand loyalty,” in marketing speech. What I’m rather doing is, I sometimes call it “device loyalty,” because rather than just, “I really want this next Samsung phone, or Apple phone, or iPhone, obviously, I rather want to keep this particular device.”

For example, that’s an idea that came out very recently, that someone had just yesterday. What if a phone would have a casing made out of wood and then as you used the phone, obviously the wood gets a different patina, a different look and feel, and it feels very personalized? If you were to buy a new phone, yes, you could take the pictures with you and put on the new phone, but it would definitely look different, and it wouldn’t really feel like your phone. It’s kind of like an old wallet. You know, if you have an old wallet that’s …

Sam: I was about to say that what’s working for me is that my phone, I’m just holding it up in front of me here, looking at it, my phone is attached to my wallet and for me that’s the thing that’s made such a huge difference. I used to lose all the time, misplace all the time, both my wallet and my phone. Having the 2 things joined together means that it’s working for me, and I really, really like this solution. I’ve seen others, and there’s other things that work as well. For me, this 100% works.

Christian: What are you actually attached to? Are you attached to the wallet, or to the phone? It looks to me like you could easily just replace the phone and buy a new one, as long as it fits the form factor of this particular wallet.

Sam: I’m attached to this combo.

Christian: That’s interesting.

Sam: Just thinking about it, I said it’s perfect, but it’s not quite perfect. You see here … Sorry people on the radio, see here that I’ve drawn lines here, and those lines are to remind me, when I put my cards in, I have to put the strip in on that side, because I went through 2 or 3 cycles of breaking cards by putting them in on that side and having the magnets that hold it close, breaking the magnetic strip.

Christian: Oh, there’s a magnet in there?

Sam: Yeah, there’s a magnet that holds that closed like that …

Christian: Ooh.

Sam: … but, once I fixed that, and maybe that’s one of those things about the attachment is that I’m able to modify it to suit me.

Christian: That is a perfect example of attachment through customization, because you personalized this. This is not only like some kind of wallet you’ve found worked really well for you, but you actually modified this to suit your needs. You made some modifications to it and even if I had exactly the same one, it wouldn’t have those personalized marks there, or maybe if I make the discovery and I would put them on there. This is like not just finding this particular brand of wallet and that particular design, but actually just this one is very individual, like you wouldn’t find a second one.

Sam: Actually, annoying, as you said this particular brand. It’s not branded and that has meant that I can’t find a replacement.

Christian: Oh, my God.

Sam: I can’t go into a shop and say, “I want the something, something one,” because it doesn’t appear to exist. I can’t find it again.

Christian: Which is obviously very difficult for consumer electronics, because they’re very much on brand.

Sam: Yeah, and there’s 2 things. One of them, it’s changed my behaviour in 2 ways. One of them is that they little bit that goes around the corner here on the outside of it moves down. As it’s aged a bit it moves down and it covers the camera. Whenever I go to take a photo, I have to remember to do that, to move it out the way. It’s only a little thing, but whenever I get somebody else to take a picture with it I forget to tell them and the picture has got a big shadow across half of it, but I don’t mind, because I remember to do it. I rarely take a picture that I forget to do it, so it’s almost like it’s a personalised …

Christian: That reminds me of another criterion, which is learned functionality, which usually refers more to technological things, but that’s kind of like you learned the particular way on how to use the technology in accommodation with this wallet, which is something that you probably have a certain value assigned to this, like, “I know how to use this.” Like you said, it doesn’t really bother you, so it’s fine, but it you were to buy a new wallet or a new phone that would all of a sudden have a camera positioned slightly elsewhere, and then you have to learn a new behaviour, or learn a new functionality. That would be off-putting, and maybe it’s another reason to be already attached this particular wallet and this phone.

Sam: Another thing about it is that it didn’t actually suit me at the start, and I had to change my behavior in a significant way because of it, and that is because it doesn’t have a place for coins. It quickly prompted me to avoid coins like the plaque, because I’d end up putting them in other places, in pockets and things, and then I’d spend them to get rid of them, because I don’t want to carry coins. I like this. It works for me, except that I had to quite quickly wean myself off coins.

Christian: Well, maybe not too bad, as long as it works.

Sam: Maybe I’m talking myself out of this, but it bizarrely works for me. You mentioned the form factor before, so this is a form factor for an iPhone 5. Not that I’ve needed an iPhone 6, but if I get an iPhone 6, I also have to replace this.

Christian: Yep.

Sam: I imagine if somebody was to give me an iPhone 6, I might solve that problem, but I’m certainly not in a rush because of it.

Christian: Yeah, so that’s a good point. Actually, I don’t remember one of the designers that we did the study with, actually had an idea to that; maybe. Off the top of my head I don’t recall it, but it would certainly be something that we would go back to have … What am I looking for? The kind of peripherals that you have, like the casings, like in the ’90s we had casings for phones and stuff like that you could switch off the keyboards and stuff like that. Now every phone has a bumper, I think they call them bumpers for the iPhone, so maybe those kind of things can also be used in combination to create this kind of attachment. Yeah, could be. Could be potential.

Sam: The companies don’t help the situation by changing, primarily for technical reasons, but, for example, when they changed the big plug on the iPhone and the iPad to a little one, to the Lightning connector, the microphone that we’re currently talking through has got an adapter and for some reason they still haven’t provided a Lightning Adapter for that device. I have sellotaped to the output from the microphone the adapter to go into the Lightning, so I’m kind of like, “This microphone works for me. It’s much, much better than the microphone on the iPad itself.

Christian: Right.

Sam: Where did that lead you, that work?

Christian: Where did it lead me? Now, as I’m finishing my work, as in writing up, it’s kind of a double-edged sword. It’s very interesting because, obviously, it’s both very interesting and very well-received, like even at previous conferences I’ve met people from industry, who actually said this was very interesting, but at the same time it’s also very challenging. I always come across those arguments. It’s kind of like this dilemma that, yes, attachment is great and probably people want to be attached to their personal belongings, especially something as expensive as a phone, but also the industry and economy works against that.

That’s the dilemma I’m facing, but in my future work I would say, in my outlook, I’ve taken this prerogative stance that maybe this is all changing in the future, hopefully, I’d say, as I said before, with more and more upcoming services structure that we’re moving more into companies providing services rather than just hardware.

Sam: Those deals that you can get, certainly in New Zealand and I’ve seen them in the U.K., so presumably they’re wider, where instead of buying a phone you buy the phone service with the company, the advantage of doing that is that they promise continual upgrades. The other way that they have moved to that phone as a service is by doing what we would think is the wrong thing.

Christian: By giving you an entirely new phone every year, you say?

Sam: Yes.

Christian: Yeah, right, so obviously that’s not what I’m thinking of. What I’m thinking of is more like the entire area of modular phones, which has been proposed, I think, first time 10 years ago. More recently, we’ve seen them coming up more and more, and also being more successful. The Fairphone is just one of them, it’s like the very popular one, but there’s Phonebloks, there’s Project Ara, there’s a couple of phones that are coming out and offering those modular things.

I guess we were looking at this, and rather than just giving you an entirely new phone, they would give you the option to … “You have this subscription-based thing. If a new phone comes out, we promise you we’ll just give you the high-resolution screen and you can switch it.” Obviously, the best way would be if you could switch it yourself, because what else would give you more satisfaction than if you could replace something in your phone yourself, rather than just send it somewhere and you get a new phone back, or you get a new part of the phone back?

I think, again, that’s something where we don’t know what the future holds. I certainly hope that it goes into this direction, that’s it’s into the modular phones instead of just replacing entire devices.

Sam: Is this the work that you’re extracting these sorts of themes and calling them as patterns?

Christian: Yeah. I think there is a lot of patterns in there, because as you have said, moving entirely into services, have modular phones, have re-user phones, so you give it someone else after you personally are not using it anymore, for whatever reason, maybe augmenting a device by using it for something beyond its intended purpose. After some of the functionality breaks, maybe you can use the tablet as a picture frame on your cupboard. There are a variety of patterns in there that I see emerging, that could be potentially very useful for us in the future.

Sam: You initially started out stumbling into computer programming by solving your math problems with computer programming. Are we going to be able to solve sustainability problems with computer programming?

Christian: Good question, difficult question. I don’t think that’s a yes or no answer here. I often like to say we are part of the problem, and that’s why I think we have an obligation to be part of the solution. If you look at this conference here, there are 3700 people, I think, around here, and they’re all striving for innovation. They are all, not all of them, but many of them are striving to find the new technological development that brings HCI, human-computer interaction, as a field forward, that brings computer science forward.

New technology is being developed and this obviously contributes to obsolescence, because, as we’ve talked about before, 20, 30 years ago no one would have thought of a camera being on a mobile phone. Maybe in 20 years from now we have something in our pockets that doesn’t look at all like the mobile phone, but it’s something that is super-obvious and we all need then. Maybe that’s something that is appearing here, now, in computing research.

That’s why I think we are part of the problem. This obsolescence is brought upon the society by our computing community, and that’s why I think we need to try to address this issue.

Sam: I’ve thought of an app that we don’t have yet, and that’s if we could take a pill and be filled up with some nanobots. It would be continually monitoring our health from the inside and our phone would be connected to medical specialists and it looked after us. That’s a compelling reason for buying a new phone. I’m sorry, even if I like the device, that would be a thing that would say, “Sorry, old device, you’re gone,” so, are we kidding ourselves?

Christian: Maybe we are, I don’t know. Maybe related to what you mentioned, there’s actually a piece of research that actually talks about, I think they’re called “insertables,” I don’t know, things you put under your skin. We’re almost turning ourselves into robots, as one of my undergrad instructors about HCI used to say, “There is no human 2.0. We can always change technology. We can’t change humans.” Maybe that’s not exactly true, because maybe the future will actually be …

Oh, my God, I don’t even want to think about that, but maybe it is something like that. I don’t know if I want to upgrade something that’s embedded in my skin every year, even if I have it.

Sam: It would hurt.

Christian: Yeah, exactly, so nope, I’d rather not.

Sam: As we get closer to that cyborg thing, we’re going to be more attached to it, because it’s me.

Christian: Yeah, it’s a part of us.

Sam: Maybe that’s where I’m going with my wallet. It feels like it’s mine, it’s part of my identity, hopefully, anyway. Other people might not recognize it.

Christian: It certainly does, yeah. I hope that we are going into a future where we don’t replace the synergy all the time, and maybe also it’s the same discussion we have about peak oil, that in 20 years from now we don’t have enough oil anymore for the entire world. The problem is we have been saying this for 50 years from now, so maybe the same thing happens at some point to some of the materials we are using in technology, that we will run out of them. It doesn’t really look like that, but maybe at some point we will be forced for reasons of availability of resources to change our entire production cycles of those things.

Sam: If you could either go back in time or change it for the people that are doing now, what would you change in your undergrad education? Would it have been beneficial and would it be beneficial for the wider crowd to have more sociological work, earth systems? Is it worth trying to get that into computer science?

Christian: I think so. I have to be honest, when I started my undergrad, I had to pick a minor. It was called “application subject,” or something like that, and one of them was psychology. I was like, “What? What’s the connection between computer science and psychology?” I totally didn’t see that, and obviously once I took HCI courses I was like, “Yes, I see the connection. I want to change,” and I couldn’t change anymore because the European system changed to Bologna and there was lots of political reasons involved, so I stuck with physics, which is obviously very different to psychology, but now I see this, I personally would have liked this.

I personally would say, yes, it would be great if we would give everyone at least the opportunity to more realize how much this all back-feeds into the society. What we do in terms of technological advancement, it also might change society for the better. I don’t know. The thing is that I don’t really know if many people see it that way, especially in undergrad when you start, like me, very naïve. You start and you want to program stuff. You study computer science for a reason. Not everybody is really interested in this. Not everyone really wants to do this. I think it would be great to have more sociology and those kind of things in the curriculum, but how, that’s a challenge, how to get people hooked on that.

Sam: Maybe we need to get better at selling those connections to psychology and whatever else to computer science, in this case, but then there’s the challenges you just raised, that the students want to be doing computer science. Like you, they’ll say, “What’s the relevance of this?”

Christian: Yeah.

Sam: Do you think there’s a killer app out there for sustainability?

Christian: Maybe, but if so I don’t see it. If I saw it, I would be developing it. I would go home and start developing it, but I don’t really see it, unfortunately.

Sam: We’re writing a book of these interviews. We’re calling it Tomorrow’s Heroes, as if we were looking back at people who are doing good, and let’s described those as heroes. Even if people don’t want to be described as heroes, we’re doing it anyway. How would you see your sustainable superpower? What’s the special thing that you’re bringing to us?

Christian: Ooh, wow, that’s a lot of responsibility put on one. Obviously, as I’m writing my PhD thesis, it all comes down to the question like summarize the thesis in one sentence. Like I said, I think the research is already there, but just trying to connect the research that’s out there to practitioners that then apply this in everyday life, and in product design, hopefully, at some point, that would probably be what I would say. Obviously, like you said, I wouldn’t like it to be called like heroes or a superpower.

Sam: What’s the biggest success you’ve had in the last couple of years? You’ve almost written your thesis. I think that is a success. I’m going to name it for you. I think getting to that point of saying, “Right, I’m writing this, it’s nearly done.”

Christian: Yeah, yeah, I guess. It took me quite a while to find a spot in research where I really feel like, “Okay, that’s kind of resonating with the community.” The problem is when you’re doing a PhD, you’re doing this work you’re looking at every day for years, and you’re kind of like, “Everything is so obvious. This is so obvious, what am I doing here? I’m just saying the obvious things.”

Then you talk to other people and at some point they’re like, “Oh, that’s really interesting,” and they show some sincere interest in this kind of work. I think identifying those kind of spots, and obviously that culminates in a PhD, so, yeah, I would agree.

Sam: Do you consider yourself to be an activist?

Christian: I would love to say yes, but I have to say no.

Sam: Okay, there’s 2 questions in there. Why would you love to say yes, and why do you have to say no?

Christian: Because I feel like we need more activists, we need more action. Like I said before, just sitting back and waiting for things to happen, to turn out to be better, isn’t really what we should do, but it’s just more convenient to do exactly that, so I could do so much more besides my research, obviously.

Sam: What motivates you? What gets you out of bed in the morning?

Christian: That depends if it’s a work day or a weekend. I think one of the great things about doing a PhD is that you’re doing work that you really enjoy. I think that that is always something that I’ll look forward to. Yeah, that’s actually one of the things that kept me from writing in the past few months. I have so many other things that are so much more interesting. Obviously, everything else is much more interesting than writing up this piece of research.

Sam: Including doing the dishes?

Christian: Yeah, yeah, everything, cleaning your house top to bottom.

Sam: What’s the biggest challenge you’re looking forward to in the next couple of years?

Christian: In my personal life or in general?

Sam: Whatever you like.

Christian: Figuring out what to do next, honestly, that’s kind of the thing, because I have no idea where it’s going to be in one year from now.

Sam: If you could wave a magic wand and have a miracle occur by the time we wake up tomorrow morning, on San Jose time, what would that be?

Christian: Just one? We talked about so many problems here and we had this great workshop over the past 2 days, where we had about 100 problems that we put on the wall. Solving some of them would be awesome. I’m not going to go for the very cliché like world peace, but something like … Obviously, I have a vested interest in my PhD research, so solving some of those issues with the magic wand would be amazing, yeah.

Sam: Lastly, do you have any advice for our listeners?

Christian: Act responsibility, think responsibility, yeah, maybe just be aware of what your actions are and what they imply. Like I said, activism is a big thing here, but that takes a lot of commitment.


This conversation was recorded at CHI2016.

computing energy

Footprints of digital infrastructure


Knowing the impact can be used to start a conversation, to reflect on choices.

Dr Daniel Schien is an expert on the footprint of digital infrastructure. We talk about his background – Informatics in Berlin, developing software in Australia and teaching computing in Afghanistan. His research has involved the environmental impact of the transformation of the Guardian newspaper. He also teaches teaching environmental management and is involved in Green Hackathon.

Talking points

I was always interested of questions of ethical concern

Curriculum was technical content but it was informatics so questions of ethics and intersection of computers and society, not just the numbers.

Understanding of the consequence of future business

In making a comment on the environmental impact of a service we need to be clear that we are not making a comment on its value from another perspective. …that technology might be liberating…we are not claiming that environmental sustainability is the only criteria that should be applied.

Systems methods of dealing with the complexity of so-called wicked problems.

How can you deal with this wicked problem with no single optimisation criteria

The goal is to make sure that communities who are often marginalised in decision making…when other organisations are dominating the decision making, marginalising some actors. There is a potential here to make a change for good by teaching environmental managers -giving them the tools to involve everybody who is affected.

The Green Doors was a project to see how can we use ICT to make other practices more sustainable

(Superhero) Because I’m a computer scientist I’ve got an understanding of the anatomy of digital systems, but I bring into this a passion for sustainability, and an awareness of processes in the social domain. That’s a good starting point for doing this interdisciplinary work.

(Success) Daughter.

(Activist) No, my work takes place professionally. Activist compromises professional activities.

Guardian, making a difference…environmental footprint, I hope that other organisations follow

Chance here to create more awareness for consumers about the sustainability implications of consuming these services…a decision support tool. Knowing the impact can be used to start a conversation, to reflect on choices. The goal is not to blame people, to make people feel guilty, but to create more awareness and understanding.

By exposing themselves to criticism they should be applauded while other players are shying of that risk.

(Motivation) Chance to make a difference

(Challenges) having impact from academic position

Miracle: The biggest environmental concerns I have are around transportation, domestic heating and consumption.

Advice: trying to remain cool and aware, not too frantic about trying to play academic game

computing education

Searching for Sustainability


Searching per se doesn’t have ethical force, however, it can help you to make a better choice, as a consumer, acting, behaving and voting.

Dr Daniel Russell is a research scientist at Google where has been working in the area of search quality, with a focus on understanding what makes Google users happy, skilled and competent in their use of web search. As a “search anthropologist” he works to understand how people use the tools of technology to amplify their intelligence. So, the big question for the expert in search, how can we better search for a sustainable future?

In searching for this positive future we first consider the role of questions in operational aspects (eg how we can better find information on positioning solar panels), and behaviour change (should I take the bike to work today?), then moving onto the harder questions of sustainability, values, wicked problems, contested concepts, answering ethical dilemmas expanded in space and time and so on.

This conversation was recorded at CHI2016, where Dan was co-chair the CHI4Good programme.

Talking points

Possibility in computing to build your own universe

The beautiful AI systems I was building didn’t work for people…I need to sort this out…so I switched to human computer interaction, the art and science of making things simple to use, so people understand them,

The paradox is that the simplest things are the hardest to design – the things that seem straight-forward and obvious are often not.

What is expert now? Looking up is not the same as knowing

Helping to teach the world to become better searchers.

Searching when it the question gets complicated…that’s the million dollar question

Should is always “with respect to…”. The big shift, as we get better at machine learning, we’ll get better at interpreting questions. But “should”, that’s a tough one.

(Google is us, changing our identity as it changes our relationship to knowledge) yes, but this has been going on forever, when we invented writing we changed our relationship with knowledge, an externalised relationship with information

(Contested concepts – will we see answers to climate change in the same way we currently see movie listings?) Even things like stream flow rates can suddenly become contested. The choice to put it on the homepage is only for pretty clear topics.

(Who is deciding that clarity? Machine or people?) Great question…machine.

(Does Google have expectations of journalistic integrity?) We do our best to have an objective ranking function…we do not consider political intent or perspective.

Searching per se doesn’t have ethical force, however, it can help you to make a better choice, as a consumer, acting, behaving and voting.

Rise of availability of information combined with ability to find it. You now have a chance of finding out.

(Restorative socio-ecological transformation, what will be search’s contribution?) Helping people find out what is going on, discovering underlying causes.

To discover that the aquifers are well managed is a straightforward search. To discover that they are not is a more complex search – not for the least because there are people that don’t want you to know that. But at least now you have half a chance. You can, through Google, access many more information sources than you possibly could before. This is transforming. For sustainability, for making responsible ecologically valid choices. Now you can find out.

Is the truth drowning in the swamp of information? It is incumbent on you as the information consumer to be able to distinguish between publishers.
That’s why I teach people how to search.

One of the fundamental skills is how to discriminate information.

Searching for a positive future. There’s nothing intuitive about this. My big message is it’s easy to search, but it’s easy to get it wrong as well. Let me show you some skills that will make you a better, more accurate, more powerful searcher.

(Superpower:) The ability to teach. What I mean is teaching – a grand a glorious profession, but as a superhero powerful teacher would be someone that can communicate complex ideas easily and efficiently and help you understand what that has to do with your life.

Its relatively straightforward to teach someone how to do, say, calculus. But how do you teach judgement, how do you teach that skill of assessment?

A hero teacher would be someone who could come in and say ‘the world is big and complicated, there’s all sorts of trade offs, there’s stuff going on…let me show you, let me work with you to help you understand how to be a reasonable interpreter of what you see going on in the world so that you can get at the bottom of it.

Judgement requires that you have a bit of self knowledge. You have to understand why am I making this choice in this particular way.

(Success) Mooc. I’ve had 2.8 million students taking my class – teaching people how to do this kind of search.

(Activist) I am active in local things – local politics, local sustainability, local Sierra Club. I’m not a trans-national activist. I think as I get older I might become that.

Multiple political perspectives are respected at work, and there are a lot of politically active people there – so it’s not a barrier. So yes you can, but there are also well understood boundaries around political speech, and activist speech and activist action,

There’s also an interesting distinction between what the corporation does and what individuals do. Google as an organisation is very environmentally conscious.

(Motivation) It sounds trite, but teaching people to do this stuff really does. Communicate ideas…what we’ve been talking about, this is my passion, this is what motivates me. And music, and running, and being out in the world, diving. If I was to be a transnational activist, it would be about coral reefs, ocean acidification and so on. That motivates me in a negative way – it makes me sad and I want to fix it.

(Challenges) Packaging up a lot of these experiences and skills…a book.

(Miracle) Fix the oceans.

(Advice) be a discriminating consumer of knowledge that you find.

computing design values

Values: Working on problems that really matter

Batya Friedman

Multi-lifespan information systems, starts with premise that there are certain categories of problems that we’re unlikely to solve in a single human lifespan.

Dr Batya Friedman is a Professor in the Information School at the University of Washington. She tells us how her early interests in science, arts, education and politics all came together in value sensitive design. Batya’s recent work in multi-lifespan information systems has lessons for sustainability – in particular, the implications for intergenerational equity.

Talking points

Interested in how people organise society, and the choices they make, what sort of society we want to build and what tools we want to build – those themes have stuck with me.

Science museum…exploring residues that we create when we do any kind of work. What is the work we are doing, and when does that justify the kinds of waste we are producing?

I was teaching in a situation where we had 8 computers for 15 kids, traditionally the teacher would allocate them, but I turned it around to the students a and said how are we going to share these? And they came up with policies, and we would vote on those, and them implement them, and then reflect… the policies started to change as the kids saw what the implications and consequences where for this small community, and so they took those things into account as they allocated the resources they were using. It put in their hands this issue of resource allocation., and they were able to have their own conversations about what’s fair, what’s just, how do we create a caring society in our classroom around these kinds of resources. There wasn’t any whining about access to technology, there was mature conversation. The students learned to express what their needs were, what their desires were, and to listen to what other kids’ needs and desires were

(Thesis) Kids understand canonical things – stealing a bike, a car – the nature of the harm is clear, but when you move to the digital realm, it isn’t so clear to them what are the natures of the harm.

When we have new technologies and the conventions around them are not well understood, the adolescents I worked with fell back on moral reasoning – trying to identify harms, and then trying to identify the harms, and then coming up with a way of acting in the world that was respectful of the harms that they understood.

Human beings are tool users, and our tools become a part of what we do and how we go about being in the world. So there’s no strong delineation between a tool-use act, and a non-tool use act

We act in the world and we act with our tools

And as we act in the world, we ask ourselves these questions…am I hurting somebody by engaging in this action, is this fair…what’s the nature of justice, am I building community, am I being a good friend to somebody, am I being generous? These questions these qualities are part of how we want to be in the world, and technologies are an integral part of that.

The issue isn’t whether there is technology of a tool there, the interesting moment is when we introduce a new technology that gives us a very different way of acting or being in the world and we are unfamiliar with the ways in which it will intersect with all the other things we are doing.

By being conscious and intentional about some of the value implications that we are more likely to have effects that are positive or at least to avoid some of the more egregious negative impacts.

Designers of technology don’t control all the aspects of how these technologies will be appropriated and used by society, but they do control some of the important pieces. And if we don’t attend to those then I think there may be inadvertent consequences where had we been attentive, we could have been proactive on something positive.

Does the technology embody values? – yes, the architecture of the technology makes somethings easier and other things harder if not impossible.

Historically the greatest protection on privacy was just the amount of effort it would take. Rules and practices evolved from a time when you had to physically go down to the courthouse and look at records if you thought something was amiss, but it was accessible to you, you could examine them if you thought there was good need. Now you can do that search from your house, with very little effort. That balance between privacy and transparency, that delicate balance in place for a certain kind of technology, that has been changed. So the question for society is what balance do we want between privacy and transparency, then to put in place the technical infrastructure so we can experience that balance that we think is beneficial for society.

We hold a multiplicity of values, and they all sit in delicate balance with each other, just like the strands of a spider-web. If you pick up one value, put pressure on one part of the web, all the other values move with it. Two things can be in tension and together that tension holds them up. These tensions and how they sit in relation to one another is the nature of human life. So the question is how do we hold onto them. Take something like calmness, or the desire to be left alone, and also the desire to be part of community, also to be able to be responsive if someone has a need or emergency. We value all of those things simultaneously – holding onto that is the design challenge.

We can question the presumption about building more and more widgets. How many microprocessors do people have? We can ask is that sustainable? In therms of the resources, power? We’re building things now with the presumption of 24/7 access to power and network, and people are increasingly putting data and activities that are critical to their lives into infrastructure that needs to be on and functioning 24/7. We created this idea of 24/7 ubiquity, we can question that.

Multi-lifespan work, starts with premise that there are certain categories of problems that we’re unlikely to solve in a single human lifespan.

Multi-lifespan because of the nature of the problem: 1. limitations of the human pscyhe…lasting peace…first generation agree to keeping children alive, second generation grow up in environment where they don’t feel threatened, maybe third generation can really build a peace. 2. tears in social fabric (Rwanda) 3. Environmental timescales

We need to recognise that these problems and solutions are going to unfold over longer periods of time.

How do we engage in this longer term design thinking? We can help people understand where their lifespan fits, how that relates in to environmental time-frames, so you can begin to see how decisions in your lifespan can begin to affect and mesh with what might be going on on an environmental timeline. We can think about doing supporting people doing co-design 20-40 years in the future. What might be the systemic conditions in 40 years? then we can bring people back to “well what if we made some different design choices now?”

We’re at the start of the development of systems of international justice – just like where democracy was 200 years ago.

While can be discouraged about how our societies are evolving, we can point to areas of real progress, and that’s really important to hold onto

Take skeptism seriously, then go build something

Starting to do the work, slowly doing the work as best one can, trying to having eyes open to complexity, then over time one has a proof of concept about how you could make progress.

Working on problems that really matter is important

You could spend your life working on things that you know you can solve, but if you and others don’t really care about those problems, then maybe there’s a better way to spend your time.

If you work on something you care about, even if it is really hard, and you fail, or you don’t make progress, at least you know you are working on something that really matters.

For me if failure isn’t a actual possibility, then it doesn’t meet the criteria of a problem for me to work on.

There are things that really matter to us where we know we can do better.

(Learning from stone carving) Continually working the whole, without ever being able to see the whole. I’m comfortable going into a project not knowing where it is going to end or what it will look like at the end. You can use principles and be adaptive in the goals, and as you move into the project you can understand better what the next move will be. If I try and prescribe things, the solution ends up being brittle.

(Superpower) Systemic thinking and approach, it is organic and in some ways spatial or visual, and context, situation, to technically what is there, and then wait until I know how to act. Time is crucial. The same with research, we can be designing a system, and we don’t know yet what the next right thing to do is.

(Success) 25 years ago even saying you were working in values and technology was considered out there, now there are many people doing this.

(Activist) Not in a traditional way, but I am beginning to think of myself as a public intellectual, playing that role.

I would like to participate more in a public conversation about what kind of science and technology we should be engaging in. I would like us to be more thoughtful about which technology we should build out – that is a choice. What sort of society do we want to live in, what technologies do we want to support that?

Yes, I do work on margins, and those margins are always moving. What are the hard questions, but also what are the socially ethically important questions with respect to our tool use and infrastructure building?

(Motivation) Curiosity about each day

(Challenge) Crossroads…art, some big ideas, but also pushing at those margins, multi-lifespan work. And contributing to public discussion… different forms of expression…theatre, animation, artefacts…stories.

(Miracle) Peace

(Smallest thing biggest impact) Sleep: I mean that, seriously, a lot of aggressions and micro-aggressions…when people are exhausted they get cranky, if everyone on the planet could get a really good night sleep on the same night and reset

Advice: Slow down. Get a good nights sleep and wake up in the morning without an agenda, just opening your eyes and looking at the world and what it is offering and take that opportunity. Our society is so goal directed, we don’t see what is in front of us.

This conversation was recorded at CHI2016.