In late August 2022 we organised #SICT2022, the 3rd doctoral school on Sustainable ICT, at Université Grenoble Alpes. With the objective to critically look at the current state of ICT, challenge mainstream research agendas and underlying assumptions, and discuss the role(s) ICT researchers can play to build a sustainable and desirable future in a finite world, SICT2022 was by far the most interdisciplinary and also the most exciting iteration of the summer school until now.
Imagine that maybe 50 years from now a paper with the following abstract is published:
11 Seasons In: An Evaluation of Social and Economic Aspects of Re-Connecting The NorthEstelle Butler, Oscar Lopes, Mayana Pellizari. University of São Paulo & Research Council of the UCW.
After The Shift, countries in the Connected World embrace the use of tecnologia minada to maintain digital services. When three major technology deposits were explored and excavated near Santiago in 67:1, the UCW nations engaged in controlled re-connection efforts by preparing and configuring a major donation of 150,000 units of communication equipment for use in rural areas in The North. In this study we report our findings on digital device use in The North in 72:2, eleven seasons into the effort. We rely on data sets collected through the surveillance of individual equipment and interviews with the equipment's users and operators, including infrastructure and personally used equipment. Our data shows that increased digital connectivity has vastly divergent effects on users based on their gender and age: While there is a substantial positive impact on health, safety and education for female subjects below the age of 60, many male subjects of that age group experience adverse effects leading to anxiety, social isolation, and significantly increased suicide rates. We further discuss effects of re-connection and technology uptake on isolated rural economies and compare patterns of equipment use and equipment survivability with those in UCW nations. Our study leads us to conclude that the Disconnected World requires extensive economic and ethical guidance to use digital equipment following igual-e-justo principles, and we make concrete proposals regarding what this education should entail and how it could be delivered. Without such education, re-connection efforts severely endanger already precarious living conditions and social cohesion in target communities.
The above fictional abstract was the result of me trying out instructions for a creative exercise led by Petra Jääskeläinen and Daniel Pargman from the Digital Futures research centre at KTH. Both had spent more than 24 hours on trains to come from Stockholm to Grenoble and spend the week with us, discussing their thoughts about a more sustainable future and leading this half-day workshop on presenting fictional research that has not yet been conducted.
The task for our summer-school attendees was easy to comprehend yet difficult to implement, demanded a lot of creativity by asking people to build a story around a potential research hypothesis: Participants were invited to think forward to the year 2050, when they would be successful and established researchers with much of their work relating to sustainability. Regardless of whether they may work on tracking the effects of climate change or biodiversity loss, ethical computing, grassroots movements, energy efficiency of AI models or post-growth approaches for distributed socio-economic systems, they were invited to step into the shoes of their future selves and think through the consequences of present and future advances in computing.
Set up with a guideline text and a scaffolding of questions (e.g., “What technological are social challenge is your work addressing?” – “What is the promise of this technological trend?” – “What is the societal value? Does it justify the costs (environmental and social)?”), we asked participants to develop their ideas and formulate the abstract of a paper or conference talk that could be published after this research was carried out, following the imagination of the participants. And the imagination went wild! We saw ideas for fair AI design, post-growth computing, health care in post-collapse scenarios, ideas for future power-grid organisation, and ethical manipulation of politicians for sustainable policymaking. Yay! What a wealth of thoughs! What a potential for disaster!
My personal learning outcome is that workshops of this kind can be really fruitful for groups to explore what their shared research interests and objectives are. Depending on the background of the participants with respect to writing abstracts and envisioning future research directions, this has to be moderated and instructed carefully, bringing the right people together and providing feedback at regular intervals. Imagine that we would do such an exercise at a lab retreat or when forming a project consortium: I think there are a lot of exiting aspects here, to be explored by a research group to build cohesion and to work out joint long-term objectives, to get to know each other better, and to develop essential skills in writing and communicating research ideas. Being clear about the workshop objectives is essential, and if those objectives involve the development of a group portfolio or to train junior researchers in writing abstracts, then some form of review process that highlights strong and weak points of individual abstracts, and that allows for discussion of the different ideas in the context of the group, needs be put in place.
Regarding my example abstract above: Let’s assume that this appears some fifty years from now, after some form of societal collapse that reverses Global North/Global South relationships. I wanted to play with, and reverse, a recurring theme in western scholarship that suggest that providing internet connectivity and computing equipment to people in Global South contries is an act of generosity that needs to be carefully monitored and controlled, but that effectively remains a playground for companies from the Global North to explore new forms of digital colonialism. If you ended up with a sense of twisted reality after reading my abstract, then I have achieved my goal.
Lectures and Debates
And now I’m a bit lost. What’s the next best thing after fictional abstracts? The five days of the summer school were filled with lectures and discussions and I can only mention some personal highlights and thought-provoking aspects.
The week had two themes, one around degrowth and post-growth, and one around mobility. The natural question emerging from these themes was that of mobility in post-growth academia, specifically (but not exclusively) in engineering departments. I acknowledge the high impact of business travel on academic institutions’ emission budgets. For example, the VU Amsterdam declares that “in 2019, the emissions from business travel at the VU were more than 3,000 tonnes of CO2. This is equivalent to the CO2 consumption of 150 average households and is around 7% of VU’s total emissions,” with probably a rather small number of PIs being responsible for the majority of these impacts. Thus, a more sustainable travel policy, e.g., “limit the number of intercontinental flights to once every two years” (again from the VU Amsterdam), make a lot of sense.
Anyone who would answer to this question with “yes, science is
neutral” has never taken a basic course in social science. Anyone
defending this should be thrown a sociology book, quite violently.
– Timothée Parrique
Yet I’m wondering whether this is a topic that we need to discuss independently for each discipline? What would be different about a travel policy at a Computer Science department vs. a Law faculty? Ultimately, travel policy might not be the core expertise of researchers in Computer Science and Electronics, and personally I’m very happy to accept policy suggestions from people who know these subjects. Aspects of computing – from purchasing devices and services to life-cycle management of these resources – do contribute substantially to an institution’s emissions and material consumption, and our exploitative footprint. And although computing is really our core expertise, we have little say in how computing at our institutions is to be shaped differently. This discussion has yet to start, which I personally find frustrating.
Other exiting aspects of that panel debate on “Exploring the future of research and Science: opportunities and challenges of degrowth?” explored publishing and neutrality. I had moderated two group discussions around the question of neutrality of science, which left me in a bit of shock over the naivety and believes of the participating engineering researchers. “But I only prove theorems, surely that’s neutral!” Well… I hope that I was able to convincingly raise some counter-arguments here. Ultimately it was Timothée Parrique who, “quite violently,” addressed these believes. Yet, who is to blame? How can it be that researchers doing a PhD in some engineering discipline plainly dismiss questions of neutrality and fairness? Why did that course on ethics fail so fundamentally? And how can I – planning my teaching for the foreseeable future right now – do better and address this as an inherent and important question about technology in my own courses?
I’d also like to highlight one specific lecture on “Post-Growth and Techno-Diversity” by Pauline Picot. Pauline drew a positive picture of technological diversity that, one that helps us to solve emergent societal problems. Similar to biodiversity, Pauline’s notion of technodiversity opens up possibilities for evolution and aims to disrupt technological life-cycles, opening them up for indetermination instead of the current predetermined linear life-cycle where technology eventually ends as landfill or “closed waste”. For me, there is something inherently stimulating about a notion of technological diversity that builds upon diversity of technological practices and policy, and that values relations, openness and intermediation. Though, I don’t know what to do with it just yet. Pauline Picot’s talk is available online.
Right at the start of the summer school we had a talk by Bill Tomlinson, who raised the point of human communities currently having access to an enormous wealth of resources. However, it is possible that future civilisations will need to serve their needs with fewer resources, either through intentional efforts to shrink humanity’s footprint, or through involuntary experience of scarcity. From that perspective, Bill talked about “Designing ICT in the Abundant Present for a Future of Scarcity” and finished with a message of encouragement to researchers: “Pursue your work boldly. Present new world visions. Work together. Look out for those who can’t look out for themselves. Find joy in your work.” – for me, SICT2022 (and also the two previous editions) have been weeks of doing exactly that. And all the discussions, talks over food and drinks, showing empathy with colleagues are so very important for me. Big hugs to all of you!
What I take home after this week is an idea for another fictional abstract that might well evolve into something bigger: What would security and privacy look like if we had decided to go fair and fossil-fuel free ten years ago? As a society? Globally? Or as a sector? What would be the impact on our lives, what would be the economic implications for Europe and for the world? What should we as users of ICT expect from computing infrastructure in a fossil-free economy? I have a bunch of bullet points already but I need to find a quiet moment and the right level of intoxication to write it up.
SICT2023 will be in grenoble again and we need to find a theme. My personal wish would be to look at computing from a perspective of international justice and decolonisation.
SICT2022 was great! Challenging and inspiring, super tiring and still energising. Big thanks go to all the presenters, the local organisers, Blandine Ageron and Maxime Besacier from UGA, everyone else from the SICT Organisation Committee, and the wonderful folks of Le Dauphinois Gourmand who did the most amazing vegan event catering I’ve ever seen.
Last modified: 2022-09-23 11:45:00 +0200