Addressing critical challenges

XV.1 January + February 2008
Page: 61
Digital Citation

SUSTAINABLY OURSTwo digital divides and four perspectives


Authors:
Eli Blevis

The issue of sustainability and its relation to global warming pervades present-day popular press in a manner that could not have been conceived just a few years ago. There is clear consensus among the scientific community that carbon-dioxide-producing human behaviors are closely linked to and a primary cause of global warming and that continuing without acting differently is unsustainable and holds disastrous consequences for humanity as a virtual certainty. Not the least of these virtually certain consequences is the creation of groups of environmental refugees on a massive scale, as regions of the earth cease to be inhabitable.

There is not much controversy but surprising novelty in the claim that interaction design, indeed all software design, and computing hardware design and marketing practices are implicated in this issue. We as an interaction-design community need to take steps to lay solid foundations to ensure that sustainability numbers among the central foci of all that is designed in the name and service of human-centered computing. By sustainability, I mean especially but not exclusively the sense of environmental sustainability. There are other senses of sustainability, including such concerns as public health and wellness, social equity and globalization, urbanization and poverty, food and the politics of food, and many other issues for which our present choices about how we live hold implications for our future choices about how we will be able to live.

I have chosen the title “Sustainably Ours” to suggest two things about sustainability. First, sustainability is collectively ours in the sense that it is an issue of collective global fate accumulated from individual and sovereign actions. Second, our CHI community is especially responsible for certain issues of sustainability and approaches to sustainability that are ours—namely, (i) understanding—learning how and why interaction design acts as a catalyst to material effects, and (ii) promotion of alternative behaviors—the use of interaction design to promote sustainable behaviors, and (iii) designing otherwise—developing a sustainable practice and cultural-economic frame for the design of interactive technologies, themselves.

The material effects above I have elsewhere described as a rubric of possible material effects [1] of particular interactive systems which includes disposal, salvage, recycling, remanufacturing for reuse, reuse as is, achieving longevity of use, sharing for maximal use, achieving heirloom status, finding wholesome alternatives to use, and active repair of misuse.

I have also elsewhere postulated several design principles for how to conduct interaction design otherwise from the perspective of sustainability. These design principles are (i) linking invention and disposal, (ii) promoting renewal and reuse, (iii) promoting quality and equality of experience, (iv) decoupling ownership and identity, and (v) using natural models and reflection. These principles—like this first article of this new forum—are only a starting point for prompting discourse and actions of sustainable interaction design. They are germane to what follows in this article.

The EICs and I have big plans. In the future, we will have many guest authors and coauthors, interviews, and special articles such as collected responses to particular issues or images that concern sustainability and interaction design. We expect this column to showcase various perspectives within the collective CHI community and characterize and place these perspectives to create an aggregate notion of the role of sustainability in interaction design.

The Second Digital Divide

The photograph depicting shadows of tourists on the Grand Canyon is included here as a metaphor for an idealized perspective of sustainability. This image illustrates what I will call the “second digital divide”—that is, the one between our intended uses of digital artifice and the unintended effects of digital artifice on the natural world. The shadows in the image have no material effects on this enduring natural edifice. They are part of a human interaction with nature that does not destroy anything. Which digital technologies have such a relationship to nature? Few. Perhaps none.

Four Perspectives

Each of us has different behaviors with respect to sustainability and materiality depending on perspective and context. I characterize the perspectives [2] as four in number—namely (i) individual material success, (ii) legacy material success, (iii) collective material success, and (iv) global collective fate. At the outset, I would say that any one person is likely to act according to different perspectives in different contexts and situations.

I should also record that my naming of these perspectives owes in part to qualitative interpretation of quantitative survey data analysis conducted by me and several key members of my Sustainable Interaction Design Research Group (SIDRG). This survey research was conducted in 2006 with a population of 435 general arts and science undergraduates enrolled in a general education required course in information technologies. The research was conducted by Kristin Hanks, David Roedl, William Odom, and me, and reported elsewhere, including the derivations of these characterizations of perspectives toward sustainability. Despite certain empirical origins, some of what follows is speculative and intended as reflection and provocation to interactions—political without apology.

The perspective of individual material success. We can account for some actions as reflecting the perspective of individual material success. The perspective of individual material success is my naming of the motivation for acts which (i) owe to a preference for new things over old ones, and (ii) which do not primarily owe to concerns about the environment or other aspects of sustainability. The perspective of individual material success treats nature as a commodity resource.

To be deliberately provocative, I would say that if you live in a house that has more than 400 square feet per person or if you purchase a new car more than once in five years, then you are acting according to the perspective of individual material success. I will own up to having done both of these things in the past myself.

If you purchased an iPhone (a very chic act at the time that I write this) to replace the Motorola Razr vN you bought to replace the Motorola Razr vN-1 you had, I would say that you have acted according to the perspective of individual material success. I don’t have an iPhone. I do want one. I really want one.

Everyone wants one. The iPhone is an awesome and wonderful paradigm-shifting example of interaction design and fashion. Wanting the latest thing before the thing you already have has reached the end of its useful service life is common and understandable. A third of the students in the survey described above reported owning between four and eight cell phones with the average age of this population being just under 20 years old. A Flickr contributor named “happylandfill” has a fantastic photograph displaying his collection of iPod boxes, artful in its self-described idolatry.

In a sense these interactive devices are even more insidious from the point of view of sustainability than homes and automobiles, since they are seldom designed with a second owner in mind, the modest residual values that eBay endows to nearly anything notwithstanding.

Many people may see the perspective of individual material success as inevitable. Some may consider the production and consumption of material things as an entitlement and necessary condition of the health of market economies. Some may see environmental concerns as being in conflict with the machinery of enterprise, and others may see the same shift in public attitudes toward environmental responsibility as an opportunity to respond in a way that is both sincere and that creates competitive advantage.

As a design strategy from the perspective of sustainability, respective of the perspective of individual material success, I would suggest two things: (i) try to get people to buy things that are more useful to others later and prompt them to reuse by making it easy for them to redeem the residual value in the thing they would otherwise have discarded; (ii) look for ways to show that sustainable practices can be good business.

These suggestions follow from the design principles in the perspective of sustainability in several ways, including (i) the idea of promoting renewal and reuse as a way of overcoming the link between invention and disposal, and (ii) promoting quality and equality of experience as a means of making newly acquired things more useful and pleasant to use in the future by subsequent owners rather than allowing such things to become part of the waste stream.

The perspective of legacy material success. The perspective of legacy material success is my naming of motivation for acts that (i) owe to a preference for preserving or renewing old things over replacing them with new ones, and (ii) that do not primarily owe to concerns about the environment or other aspects of sustainability. The perspective of legacy material success treats nature as a commodity resource, but with the respect of a localized trust such as one would afford to familial property to be handed down from one generation to another.

To be not at all provocative, I would say that if you own things you expect to pass along to your children—your father’s watch, your mother’s jewelry, monetary wealth, a lovingly restored or preserved vintage car—then you are acting according to the perspective of legacy material success. I will own up to having many such things—monetary wealth in particular being a sadly conspicuous exception.

To be somewhat more provocative, I would say—and the survey results concurred—that there are few if any things constructed from the materials of information technologies that fall into the category of enduring, high-quality, upgradeable products that achieve legacy status and that are constructed with transfer of ownership in mind.

As an example, I have great hopes that I will be able to buy conversion kits to make my 1995 car cleaner and that doing so may be a better strategy from an environmental perspective than trading this perfectly preserved, functioning, and much loved car for a new one with the latest clean technologies. I may be wrong about this—it’s hard to tell. Nonetheless, I hold no such hope for my current laptop, which is simply neither upgradeable nor built to last. To be very deliberately provocative—indeed outraged—I would say that the Apple iPhone’s lack of upgradeability and Microsoft Vista’s large and obsolescing technical footprint are examples of environmentally irresponsible design at the best and cynically choreographed obsolescence [3] at the worst.

As a design strategy from the perspective of sustainability respective of the perspective of individual material success, I would suggest two things: (i) build sustainable features into quality things; (ii) promote the means of renewal and reuse by making upgrades and maintenance available to avoid disposal and as an alternative to the need to acquire brand-new things.

These suggestions follow from the design principles in the perspective of sustainability in several ways, including (i) the idea that providing the means of renewal and reuse is an enterprise opportunity that promotes sustainability by overcoming the link between invention and disposal, and (ii) shifting notions of the coupling of ownership and identity in a way that makes the preservation and renewal of old things just as fashionable and status-bearing, or more so, than the acquisition of new ones.

The perspective of collective material success. The perspective of collective material success is my naming of acts that (i) are motivated by a preference for new things over old ones, and (ii) that are specifically motivated by concerns about the environment or other aspects of sustainability. The perspective of collective material success treats nature as a collective resource and perhaps even a collective trust, while still looking toward technology mediation as the solution to issues of environmental sustainability.

I would say that when you have purchased things specifically because they are “green,” then you have acted according to the perspective of collective material success. An alternative-fuel vehicle lets you go on doing what you’ve always been doing—more or less—while relying on new technologies to make such actions more sustainable.

Most of the now pervasive press about the greening of IT describes new technologies and enterprise models as the panacea to unsustainable present-day IT practices by both consumers and producers. Companies are creating corporate green policies. Many interactive devices are being manufactured from less toxic materials and use less power. The opportunities and directions abound, including small-footprint operating systems, responsible recycling and export for reuse, carbon offsetting, carbon calculators, greener data centers, greener manufacturing, manufacturer handling of and responsibility for retired equipment, and others. There are too many such efforts to adequately list here; I expect to report on many of them in future columns, and I invite your input.

What is accomplished under the perspective of collective material success is laudable and yet requires a caution: Technologies and enterprise models that are targeted to make new things less harmful still promote consumption to satisfy increasing needs, rather than changes in lifestyle and cultural behaviors to decrease needs. Buying more new stuff—however green—to offset the effects of the stuff you already have may be more badge of contribution than actual contribution.

As a design strategy from the perspective of sustainability respective of the perspective of collective material success, I would suggest these things: (i) design things that preserve material as much as possible; (ii) make it fashionable to buy green design that holds the possibility of durability and long service life—disposability is the opposite of green; (iii) make it fashionable to think of new-to-me as just-as-new-as-new for things of sufficient quality.

These suggestions follow from the design principles in the perspective of sustainability in several ways, including (i) the idea that the cost of new things includes the cost of disposal or alternatives to disposal, and (ii) the link between ownership of the latest fashionably green things and sense of self-identity provides the potential to promote positive green behaviors on the one hand and what can be little more than empty emblematic green washing on the other.

The perspective of global collective fate. The perspective of global collective fate is my naming of acts that (i) are motivated by a preference for preserving or renewing old things over replacing them with new ones, and (ii) that are specifically motivated by concerns about the environment or other aspects of sustainability. The perspective of global collective fate treats nature as a commonly held resource, a resource in peril, the protection of which is unavoidably political.

I would say that when you have changed your consumption behaviors deliberately to create less environmental harm, you are acting according to the perspective of global collective fate. Minimizing energy use in your household, taking fewer airplane trips, using less fuel in any way related to transportation, avoiding anything that is disposable, and eating only local foods and less or no meat are big things you can do to reduce your carbon footprint.

There are many other things you can do: Bring your own grocery bags to the store or market; ride a bicycle and stay healthy—chronic illnesses that may have been avoided by diet and exercise choices have substantial environmental costs—turn things off when you’re not using them; turn off your computer monitor every time you walk away from it; use the low power settings on your laptop; buy less stuff or used stuff; and make the stuff you have last longer.

It is not practical to expect that everyone will commit to making the lifestyle changes needed to act according to the perspective of collective global fate. Furthermore, even if you are committed to making such changes, it’s not always easy to know what the best changes to make are. Should you buy a hybrid vehicle or a new clean diesel or wait for the wide availability of hydrogen-powered vehicles or move within walking or cycling distance of your work? What will happen to the vehicle you already own? Should you switch to the small-footprint Ubuntu operating system in order to use your present computing equipment longer, and what are the implications of doing so for your collaborations with others in your present workplace?

As a design strategy from the perspective of sustainability respective of the perspective of global collective fate, I would suggest these things: (i) make it fashionable to think according to this perspective; (ii) help enterprise see a way to frame its sustainable future by finding models of commerce that are less and less based on material resources; and (iii) do research to allow people to make informed decisions about their behaviors with respect to sustainability—even when you’re sincere, it’s hard to know what to do.

These suggestions follow from the design principles in the perspective of sustainability in several ways, including (i) the idea that renewal and reuse are preferable to invention and disposal, (ii) the idea that things of sufficient quality provide greater equality of experience to more people and extend useful service life, (iii) the idea that things are not needed as much as we think to establish positive outside perceptions of our identity, and (iv) the idea that taking inspiration from the natural world may hold the key to alternative, more sustainable ways of being in a manner preferable to blind faith in technology.

Looking Forward

I have described a second digital divide—the one between nature and technology—and four perspectives on sustainability and materiality. Each one of us acts according to these perspectives in varying contexts, and it doesn’t seem realistic to expect that any one of these perspectives can prevail. Nonetheless, these perspectives serve as a frame for understanding what is sustainably ours. I invite your responses to this article and look forward to our future discourse and interactions on the matters at hand.

Acknowledgements

I very gratefully acknowledge the essential contributions of Kristin Hanks, David Roedl, and William Odom of the Sustainable Interaction Design Research Group (SIDRG) of the School of Informatics, Indiana University at Bloomington.

References

1. The rubric of material effects and five design principles in the perspective of sustainability first appear in:E. Blevis. “Advancing Sustainable Interaction Design: Two Perspectives on Material Effects.” Design Philosophy Papers. 2006 #4. Team D/E/S, Queensland, AU. ISSN 1448-7136, andE. Blevis. “Sustainable interaction design: invention & disposal, renewal & reuse.” In Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems San Jose, Calif., April—May 2007. CHI ‘07. ACM Press, 503-512.

2. The named perspectives and rigorous interpretation of the survey results will possibly appear in:K. Hanks, W. Odom, D. Roedl, and E. Blevis. (2008, under review). “Sustainable Millennials: Attitudes towards Sustainability and the Material Effects of Interactive Technologies.” CHI’08, Florence, Italy: ACM Press.

3. My use of the term choreographed obsolescence is owed to M. Woolley’s “Choreographing obsolescence—ecodesign: the pleasure/dissatisfaction cycle.” In Proc. of DPPI ‘03 Designing Pleasurable Products and Interfaces. New York: ACM Press, 2003, 77-81.

Author

Eli Blevis
Indiana University
eblevis@indiana.edu

About the Author

Eli Blevis serves on the faculty in the Human-Computer Interaction Design Program of the School of Informatics at Indiana University. Dr. Blevis’ primary area of research is sustainable interaction design for which he is best known. This area of research and Dr. Blevis’ core expertise is situated within the confluence of human-computer interaction as it owes to the computing and cognitive sciences and design as related to the reflection of design criticism and the practice of critical design. Dr. Blevis has published more than 40 articles and papers, and has given several invited colloquia internationally on sustainable interaction design and the larger context of notions of design.

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