computing development

Technology amplifies underlying human forces

Kentaro Toyama

Technology amplifies underlying human forces.

Kentaro Toyama is W.K. Kellogg Associate Professor of Community Information at the University of Michigan School of Information, a fellow of the Dalai Lama Center for Ethics and Transformative Values at MIT, and author of Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology.

Talking points

I realised that with physics you are trying to understand the universe that is not going to change – it exists and the point is discovery – there’s lots of creativity associated with how you discover those things, but it’s convergent, you are ultimately trying to find one solution to a problem. Whereas with computing and engineering, the interesting thing is that it’s diversifying. You are trying to innovate and create things that have never existed, that people have never imagined and may not come into being unless its creators create it.

I became a bit tired of working on problems that were only going to help people who are already quite wealthy and can afford a lot of gadgets. So in 2004 I moved to India to help start a new research lab there, and changed research direction to look at how technologies can be used to address global poverty.

Initially I thought that we could do projects where some kind of new digital technology would make a substantial contribution to alleviating poverty, to increasing healthcare, to improving education, especially in India’s poorest communities – rural villages and urban slums. But as I did more and more of that work I began to see that it usually wasn’t the technology that made a difference, but who we worked with – our partners…that made a difference whether our outcomes were positive or not.

Curiosity driven research with desire to have social impact

Technology amplifies underlying human forces. Ironically what that means is that often in the very places we want the technology to have a positive impact it fails to gain a foothold because there is either a missing human intention or a missing capacity.

The “cult of technology” is the idea that increasingly we are living in a world where we believe that there are technological solutions to just about everything…classically “there’s an app for that”…meaning that there’s a mobile application for just about any problem that you might have in your life. Technology is certainly powerful, and amplification means that for people who have solid education, who have good social ties, who know how to use technology – they can make incredible use of it. But technology’s positive power isn’t embedded in the technology itself, it actually comes from the use that people make of it – which means that ultimately it’s the people who decide whether a technology is going to have a positive impact, a negative impact or no impact at all.

In the context of international development, what this means is that exactly in those places where human institutions are not functioning, technology is not likely to help either.

Efforts (eg in democracy) are not doomed, work to the extent that they amplifying existing forces towards democracy.

Democracy is inherently a political thing, it requires human beings to push for it, argue for it, …those things can be mediated through technology, but it’s never the technology that causes them.

Very difficult to find good ways to use technology in areas of abject poverty, not because it can’t be done, but because people are missing other things that they need in order to fully utilise the technology…good solid basic education, politically marginalised without strong social ties to people in power…those constraints make it difficult to use the technology to dramatically change their situation.

(On the promise of wikipedia etc)..content is the bare minimum…role of education is motivation

I’m not saying we should give up on technology…better technology better engine, still need a driver.

It is extremely tempting to look for technology solutions for sustainability, certainly there will be technologies that we will have to use to attain a more sustainable civilisation. But ultimately the decisions are very human in nature, and at large scale are political. We have to win those human political fights before the technology will actually have impact.

At some level we all know what we have to do to achieve sustainability – we have to consume less, we need to be more respectful of the environment, we need to make sure that the resources we use are being replenished – and while better technologies can help us do those things better, we’re not even taking the most elementary steps as a society to do the sustainability things we could be doing. Which suggests that even if we had great technology, we still might not use them towards a sustainable ends.

Again, technology amplifies underlying human forces – as soon as we as a global civilisation decide that sustainability is sufficiently important, I have no doubt that we will use the technology that we have, and invent new technologies that will help us achieve it, but until we make up our minds to chase that, it won’t make a difference if we have the best technologies in the world, we’ll still not use them for the right purposes.

I think of social change being primarily driven by a process of human maturation – in the sense of people becoming wiser and better and kinder human beings, we can debate exactly what that means, but most of us have a sense…that there’s a continuum…criminal drug lords…saintly, and there’s a sense of a spectrum of humanity, I think that as people our greatest challenge is trying to move up that escalator, being better versions of ourselves. I think the social change we want to seek is a world where all of us are better versions of ourselves. If we can achieve that, even by increments, then the technology will follow, we will use the technology in better and wiser ways.

(Success) Small internal incremental changes – spending more time on work that has social impact, being less concerned with achievements that have public recognition.

(Challenges) Trying to make the world a more equitable place. The two biggest challenges of our civilisation are inequality and sustainability. They’re both incredibly challenging problems that I’ll be happy if I can make even a small contribution.

Research – find forces that technology could amplify that we have overlooked…for example channelling powerful religious motivations

(Activist) Generally not, but because my impact is through other people, my students or partner organisations.

(Motivation) I think that all of life is basically a succession of moments of consciousness…and each one of those moments has the capacity to be either painful or happy, or somewhere in between. I think that our purpose from moment to moment is to try to make as many of the future moments of consciousness as happy as possible. Those might be my own, but also other people or other forms of life, or other animals to some extent. So to the extent that I can, I would like to ensure more happy moments of consciousness.

The questions of sustainability are whether future generations will have the same potential moments of happiness. Are we right now taking massive withdrawals from the potential for human civilisation to continue having happy moments of consciousness at the level those wealthy of us now are enjoying?

Technology will help as soon as we commit to sustainability as an issue that is important to us. Until then, it’s not a technological question.

(Challenges) I’m very conscious that most of my challenges are internal…I’m aware of a need for comfort, while not doing everything that I can for the goals that I have. I can expect anyone else to change if I can’t change myself in those ways.

(Miracle) Everyone to have increase in some percent wisdom.

Each one of us to pursue whatever we aspire to in a single minded way

(Advice) Follow your heart.

This Sustainable Lens is from a series of conversations at University California Irvine in June 2015. Sam’s visit was supported by the Newkirk Center for Science and Society, and coincided with Limits 2015.


Scarce resources: economics and sustainability

Dan Marsh

The study of how people chose to use their scarce resources in attempting to satisfy their unlimited wants. This explains both economics and sustainability.

University of Waikato’s environmental economist Dr Dan Marsh on the potential benefits for a sustainable future from the application of economists’ focus on allocation of scarce resources in the face of unlimited human wants.

Talking points

Economics is not the bad guy in sustainability. Economics is really about people, why they do what they do, and how we can help people, societies to be better off.

A lot of people think that economics is all about money, that we’re more-or-less the same as accountants, but that’s really not the case – what economists study is how to improve human welfare.

Economics is a really great training in a way of thinking – a way of approaching the problems humans face, which is a great foundation for almost any career – how to think, how to analyse, how to take decisions.

The study of how people chose to use their scarce resources in attempting to satisfy their unlimited wants. This explains both economics and sustainability.

The economic study of scarce resources…we only have one world, we only have a finite world, a finite amount of land, biodiversity, all kinds of things, and we’re worried we’re using too much of it. Yet people always want more. No matter how much we have, we seem to want more.

Economics is saying we’ve got this scarce resource, we’ve got humans who want more and more – how can we allocate what we have in order for the greater good, the best outcomes in terms of human welfare? That is what economics is all about.

A lot of people think that economists just want growth and the expense of other things they don’t really care about – I don’t really think that is true. But economics is a very broad profession. I could say I don’t think it – and that would be true – but someone else could find an economist who does think that.

Economics is not like accounting, not a set of things that all economists should use, say and do. There is no defined body of knowledge in economics – in political terms, people who study economics go from the far left to the far right and everything in between.

Growth is not fundamental to being an economist.

Economics should be able to help people (government, policy makers) work out how to give the people what they want. Most people want to improve their incomes…if we want higher incomes then we need growth – this is simply responding to what people want – the way democracy is supposed to work. But, some people have focussed on a narrow kind of growth, and taken insufficient account of the effects of inequality, and the environment. I would agree that this has happened.

Externalities are central to economics. For me it is about setting the framework so the kind of growth we have is the kind of growth people want. And the kind of growth people want, is sustainable growth.

(Is sustainable growth a sensible term?) I believe it is. I’m somewhat of an optimist in this regard. Optimist in terms of what might be possible with technology, also an optimist in terms of how people and human societies can develop.

An important way of thinking about this is the capital approach. Capital can be divided into three main kinds: Natural capital (environment), social and human capital (people, knowledge, health, well-being) and economic (things that we make). When people say ‘growth is not sustainable’, they are assuming that in order to grow we have to have more natural capital.

The kind of growth I would like, would ensure that we don’t use more natural capital, perhaps cutting back on it, as we look after improved technology, education to grow human capital.

We can see this in natural resource per computing power. By 2020 if everyone has a ‘super computer’ in their pocket, imagine the growth in human welfare from that, a massive change and potential for improvement in human welfare that is using a remarkably small amount of resources.

I like to focus on management, and what governments should be (rather than focus just on individuals and business) for we have to have the right frameworks to give individuals and businesses the right incentives that will make it easier and reward doing the right thing.

We’re a long way from being able to bring into play all the externalities. But there are quite a few areas that we’re beginning to get the basic rules right – incentives for sustainable behaviour.

We we buy something, on average, assuming the market is working, then we are paying the market cost – because otherwise business will go out of business. But we will only be paying full cost when we pay for externalities and only when everyone along the supply chain has been forced to pay for it.

Taking account of all externalities is difficult. I’m a practical person, just taking nito account the main ones is difficult enough – it is probably an unrealistic goal.

But markets undoubtedly fail, and when government intervene in markets they sometimes make things worse. We might meddle so much in our effort to make markets take into account all externalities we might get it wrong and make it worse.

I’m not sure who said that ‘climate change is the mother of all externalities’, but it’s right.

Climate change is the biggest and most worrying externality in the world.

Economists tend to favour emissions trading or carbon tax as they would encourage people who can reduce emissions at the lowest cost to do so – and that’s a very desirable thing.

Sometimes people take the approach that “polluting is a bad thing, find the polluter, tell them what to do”. Economists take the view that we need to get the rules right, get the incentives right to find ways to encourage reduction of pollution at the cheapest cost and we’ll get more reduction – it will cost less, and we’ll have more money for other things.

Often the most expensive reduction is 10-20 times more expensive than cheaper options encouraged by trading. The Rotorua lakes, the cost per unit of nitrates leached into to the lakes, this averages hundreds of dollars per kilogram, but farmers can reduce the same for a few dollars. Why would we start with $100/kg rather than a few dollars?

For the good of the environment, we will get more improvement.

The same applies to the cap and trade around Lake Taupo, a scientifically established bottom line, then discharge allowance within that – yes they pay for the right to pollute. Does this “paying for the right to pollute” matter? Assuming that we have correctly calculated the cap – that this is the sustainable level, does it matter that someone has bought that right?

I understand that people don’t like the idea of someone buying the right to pollute, but the fact is that this mechanism allows us to get pollution reduction at the lowest cost. That person who buys the right to pollute, who sells it to them? The person who can reduce their pollution at the lowest cost.

Non market valuations – natural, spiritual, aesthetics – these things not usually measured in the markets, but environmental economists have developed methods of valuing these things. In some cases a non-market valuation can assist in difficult decisions.

Even people who say the environment shouldn’t be valued end up doing it implicitly (case study of Manukau sewerage treatment).

Quite often for some social questions, it’s not appropriate for economists to be telling people what to do.

The way I see it, it is for society to decide on how it wants to run society – what are its core values, to decide on what is ethical or not ethical – and for economists to use their skills to work within these constraints to try to help society meet what it wants to do.

People have tried to value a species (for example Costanza’s total value of ecosystems, 97, 14), but it is open to dispute. Environmental Economists would focus on changes and changes you might be considering.

Trying to value change in species and biodiversity using non-market techniques is interesting but tricky and highly contested.

Bateman‘s work in the UK to produce a national ecosystem assessment decided not to value ecosystems, so instead used a constraint approach.

We should be cautious about claims about dollar values on species and biodiversity change.

Economics can help us think about benefits and costs that happen at different points in time. The Stern Report on the economics of climate change for example.

The key driver is how much we value costs into the future.

Discounting is a reasonable approach for the next 10-20 years, but I don’t think it is reasonable for inter-generational decisions. Unless we use a discount rate of zero, it will mean we put no weight on future generations – most of us would agree, that’s not ethical.

We do struggle with longer time periods, but we’re all making decisions about how we weigh costs and benefits…all the time, to pretend we can’t do it is now very helpful, the economist’s approach is to see how people are doing it (investment decisions in schools etc).

If the discount rate you use is too high it will mean you start putting a low rate on costs (and indeed benefits) into the future and we should be cautious of that, particularly for intergenerational issues where I think that result might conflict with what we muight conclude from ethics.

(What’s the alternative?) Economists might try to contribute but we shouldn’t pretend that we’ve got the only answer, we should acknowledge that that’s about ethics and what people feel is right.

(Activist?) Yes, in the sense that I’ve always been. I always says what I think or say I disagree, I’m not too worried about putting my head above the parapet. I am actively involved in trying to use environmental economics to improve New Zealand’s environment. I’ve always argued in favour of the environment, typically trying to help decision makers better understand the value of the environment to the benefit of the environment.

(Challenges?) Too much to do.

(Miracle?) The National Government brings in changes to make NZ’s Emissions Trading Scheme really work, so people who are emitting carbon really would face a realistic cost of carbon. I believe if we could do that, over time we really would get a reduction in NZ’s carbns emissions, and we could do it in the lowest cost way. The main problem is the international linkage – the trouble is the European ETS caved in under pressure and caused the price to crash and our transferrability means our price has crashed. So we need to reduce our transferrability in order to get our incentives correct. It’s really sad the way things are at the moment, it’s not working because the price is too low.

(Advice?) Study economics.

green party politics

Activist at heart

Kevin Hague

The pre-eminence of the economy and its treatment as if it were the point of society is so powerful, consumerism has been such a powerful force, that people believe their primary relationship is with the economy and not with their fellow members of society.

Green Party MP Kevin Hague has followed his heart through several intertwining careers, in health, in commerce, and in activism. We ask what motivates him and how he sees the world.

Talking points

If I see something that needs doing…I don’t get how you can live with yourself and allow an injustice to continue.

(in the anti-apartheid protests) we created circumstances where people had to make a stand

That experience tells me that it is possible. It tells me that we can go from 20 people on a picket and within six months have 200,000.

It turned our national identity on its head.

It was of justice and deep ethics…

It is possible to awaken some deep sense in New Zealanders that motivates them to move from passivity to action

Climate change maybe the thing. It doesn’t have the same national identity aspects, but there are still the same deep ethical duties that could be awakened.

What is our duty to our kids and their kids? What is our duty to those future generations? What is our duty to the Pacific – our neighbours?

I suspect that when we crack the formula of making the connection for New Zealanders between climate change and their lives and their sense of duty to those future generations – they’re going to be very angry.

Boiling down the sense of duty…what’s the relationship between me as an individual and the collective – being part of a society.

Any one of us in New Zealand could probably construct a life that is a bit insulated from the effect of climate change, but the world cannot insulate itself from climate change. The consequences of the climate change that we have already locked in are going to be catastrophic.

If we can find the key that can unlock that relationship between each of us as individuals and our responsibility to each other and to future generations, that is what will get the 200,000 on Queen Street again.

One of the slogans of the occupy movement that I really loved was “citizen, not consumer”.

A sense of engagement and ownership of government is an essential component of making change.

We have the relationship wrong between the economy, environment and society. We have a situation where the environment is constructed as the raw materials or the waste disposal for the economy. And people are the consumers or the labour input into the firm. And that treats the economy as the end-point, it says the economy is some kind of immutable force of nature that the environment and society need to serve. That’s 100% wrong. We made the economy, it’s not something that can’t be changed – we made it to do a particular set of things, largely to make a small proportion of society richer at the expense of everyone else and the natural world. Well, we can make it do different things. We need to start with our environmental and social goals and then recognise the economy as being the set of tools that we use to achieve those.

We need to be asking the question – what is government for anyway? It is about achieving our environmental and our social goals. A sustainable relationship with the environment, a just society where everybody’s needs are met – those are fundamental to what government is for. And our economy is very clearly not meeting those.

Reaching a consensus on some goals, then working with citizens to understand their agency – their power as a collective – to change that relationship between the economy and those goals. This is high on my list of what we need to try and do as a society.

What we have now is essentially unfettered profit maximisation. If I am a business, I am setting out to maximise my profit, the way I do that is minimising my cost, and that means spending the least I possibly can on labour, and the least that I possibly can on raw materials and waste disposal.

Profit maximisation in a largely unregulated setting leads to environmental degradation, and massive inequality and exploitation of working people.

Deregulation kills people.

People’s health status is a function of their environments

I have a personal theme of inter-generational equity and empowering people

We need to recognise that the lion’s share of the benefit that comes from public education is public good

(Role of student loans in diminished student political movements) Student movements have been a crucial part of the conscience of society…it clearly suits neo-liberal establishment to silence critics.

The pre-eminence of the economy and its treatment as if it were the point of society is so powerful, consumerism has been such a powerful force, that people believe their primary relationship is with the economy and not with their fellow members of society.

Consumerism has atomised and disempowered people, and that’s no accident.

Is there something that I can add? The thing that tipped the balance was climate change. The urgency around climate change was such that if I felt that I could add something, then the duty that I had was to take that risk and give it go.

(Activist) Interesting question. I don’t think of myself as an activist. I see myself and the Green Party in Parliament as the parliamentary wing of a bigger movement for progressive environmental and societal change. That’s the job I have now. I don’t go out and organise demonstrations, I do develop strategy, I do participate in partnership with community based organisations that very definitely are activists. I’m absolutely proud of my record of activism, of the convictions that I have for all of those protest related activities – badges of honour.

(Motivation) I’m motivated by the same things that have motivated me all along – social justice. I don’t see how anyone can be satisfied with their own life knowing that so many people do not have the same opportunities, knowing that so many people live in injustice and poverty. I don’t see how anyone can be happy with their life knowing that we have this unsustainable relationship with the environment that condemns future generations – our kids and our grandkids to a poorer life than we have now.

(Challenges) Enter government, implement green policy for years to come.

(Miracle) A reversal of fortunes. The primary task is to engage a bigger consensus of citizens.

(Advice) Vote Green. Please engage in the process of taking back democracy. Demand the citizenship rights that you are owed.