Lisa Nathan, Nassim Parvin
Stories have long been recognized as powerful drivers that mobilize individuals, communities, and societies. There are stories that chronicle individual lives and those that explore the nature of life itself, such as creation stories or morality tales. Stories that orient us toward life itself are collective stories; they shape our social and collective actions and interactions. Many stories function as both, or morph from individual to collective. Chernobyl is one such story.
In early 2019, a Wired article introduced its audience to a 21st-century paradise, the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant Zone of Alienation . Some readers may recognize this site by its shorter name, the Exclusion Zone. Marked by an image of a lone fox gazing at the reader against a backdrop of snow-covered ruins, the Wired piece highlights how this area—previously known as the most radioactively contaminated place on the planet—has turned into a rare refuge for wildlife. The optimism of the story is palpable: Researchers and tourists alike can now take short excursions into the zone, enhanced through remote controlled digital cameras and other cutting-edge digital research equipment. The 30-kilometer sector is framed as both an ecological restoration area and a space for introducing high-tech innovation. With enough digital tech, the site of a catastrophe is transformed into an opportunity for value extraction. Technology emerges as an emancipator that frees us from the inconveniences of environmental disasters. Nature emerges, once again the subject of humanity’s gaze, a resource for meeting our needs and fulfilling our desires—including the desire to be reassured that nature will rebound even after our worst screwups.
Before the meltdown, the Chernobyl power plant specifically, and nuclear energy more generally, was hailed as a scientific and technological answer to our insatiable need for energy. It was a marker of scientific progress and the technological triumphs of the 20th century. After the disaster, the no-go zone around Chernobyl began to thrive only because humans stayed away. Yet the article describes humanity’s moves to reoccupy the zone. Once again, we plant ourselves and our interactive digital tools with the aim of harvesting data and monetary value from this “new” resource. The cycle repeats, contributing to new potential forms of meltdown, perhaps massive storms, floods, or fires, but no less devastating than nuclear disaster, all persuasively rationalized through the irrepressible narrative of neoliberalism.
Individual accounts from visitors to the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant Zone of Alienation make an argument for a particular orientation to life, one that manifests features of the neoliberal logic: Near-future time horizons, fixable problem orientations, individualism, human mastery over nature, continuous economic growth, and an unwavering commitment to technological progress are its hallmarks. If these features appear commonsense, it is because they are also familiar assumptions in the training, practice, and research of interaction design:
- Near-future time horizons. The focus on the short term and cutting edge stems from and contributes to an ahistorical orientation that fails to recognize the entanglements of science and technology development with trajectories of dominance and marginalization. The sense that we must sprint toward the future leaves little space for reflection, with few lessons learned and historic entanglements left in knots. New HCI designers are assumed to have all they need to thrive simply because of their technical know-how and ingenuity. Tellingly, HCI curricula are typically devoid of history courses.
- Framing of problems as fixable. Using a climate perspective, many of us grew up hearing about imminent climate-related threats. In the ‘60s and ‘70s it was global cooling; in the ‘80s it was the ozone hole; and in the ‘90s, running out of oil (i.e., peak oil). Surely permafrost melting and glaciers disappearing are just new problems, next to be fixed. Even the Wired article promises that although many suffered because of the Chernobyl explosion, valuable lessons were learned, and fewer “mistakes” will happen in our better future—partly because of the disaster!
- Individualistic mindset within Western ethical frameworks. Dominant, individual-focused ethical approaches have been critiqued from many perspectives (e.g., 3rd-wave HCI, more-than-human design, as well as those from adjacent disciplines such as STS), yet interaction design problems in general, and climate issues specifically, are still presented as matters of end-user responsibility, based in utilitarian and deontological framings. Within these frameworks, humans have a privileged position, somehow separate from and superior to nature as opposed to being deeply connected to—in and of—nature. This positioning ignores decades of feminist, decolonial, and Indigenous critical theory that offer robust ways to reconsider users as diverse peoples whose lives are entangled with and dependent on myriad other lifeforms.
- Continuous economic growth and technologicalprogress. It is long past time to reject the assumption that limitless growth fueled by technological progress (or if you prefer, technological progress fueled by limitless growth) is possible on a finite planet. However, when the main focus of interaction design is on end users as consumers—satisfying their immediate needs and desires—it allows us to ignore the entire lifecycle of products, from mining precious metals, to electronic waste, to exploited land and labor. References to new, ever-gleaming digital products are pervasive in interaction design firm marketing, academic program advertising, research papers, public outreach efforts, and grant applications. Yet evidence strongly suggests that our current path of rampant resource extraction is not the fabled road to Progress.
Although many HCI scholars have critiqued these assumptions, the market orientation of the field remains strong, reinforced continuously through the same economic tides that pull on each of us.
With enough tech, the site of a catastrophe is transformed into an opportunity for value extraction.
Stories told overtly in magazines such as Wired, or stories told more subtly, through field-specific promotional campaigns, orient us toward the assumptions. Whether you look at the field of HCI or the Exclusion Zone entrepreneurs, market exchange is an ethic in itself. Stories that center market exchange as the highest good have saturated minds, systems, and institutions around the world. The neoliberal ethos remains the dominant orientation, in spite of numerous critiques and calls for alternatives, leading to the existential dilemma that is our climate crisis. Interaction design that centers on improving relationships or addressing inequalities through services and practices has yet to reach the same status as those who design consumer artifacts or system features for the marketplace. Consider the work of interaction designers at the Mayo Clinic, who offer a different focus, designing better systems of care. Their explicit objective is to design “shared decision-making interventions developed to support the conversations in which patients and clinicians think, talk, and feel through medical decisions together” .
Most readers of this forum are familiar with the reports, journal articles, and books that forecasted, and now document, our climate catastrophe. Climate scientists are unequivocal that each year will set heat records, along with larger and more violent storms and rising, acidifying seas. Drawing on this scholarship in presentations, interviews, documentaries, and online petitions, internationally renowned experts, activists, and journalists attempted for decades to inspire public action, shift political will, and avert a climate crisis. They failed. Communities worldwide are experiencing the early symptoms of global warming: flooding, failing crops, devastating fires, mass human migrations, species extinction, and more. We are learning that early climate forecasts suffered from overstated optimism and understated threat levels, yet there continues to be a reluctance to appear alarmist in the face of this crisis. Perhaps because those who have the highest professional status also have the most to lose when dominant institutions and structures are threatened.
Increasing numbers of those facing the crisis have given up on the belief that our climate can be “fixed” by any assemblage of human ingenuity, technological innovation, sustainable development goals, or carbon targets. Rather, human communities, in their diverse manifestations, will adapt to our radically shifting climate or perish. Recent scholarship by Jem Bendell  continues to ripple across academic back channels, stunning readers with his conclusion that since societal collapse is imminent, continuing with his own sustainability-oriented research agenda is pointless. Although it is easy to critique portions of the research Bendell drew upon to bolster his argument, many experts agree with his conclusion of impending widespread disruption. However, fear of public panic and professional censure ensures that such conclusions are kept quiet or receive tremendous pushback if printed, vividly manifest in the heated responses to David Wallace-Wells’s New York article in 2017 .
Although there are projects documenting overt science censorship (e.g., Silencing Science Tracker; http://rebrand.ly/k6t9nn) and more subtle media censorship of experts , it is difficult to identify and verify personal suppression tied to fears of the censure of our colleagues. Yet the evidence of climate degradation happening more quickly and more severely than earlier predictions suggested is all around us. For interaction design as a field and a profession, to continue ignoring the implications of this research calls into question our ability to recognize and adapt to a dramatically changing world.
To date, the prevalent HCI response to the ever-worsening climate crisis appears to be to continue the status quo. Digitally enhanced homes, networked workspaces, and smart cities assume the West’s continued access to unlimited electric (and geopolitical) power, fast Internet, clean water, safe food, and secure housing. Perhaps the dominant approaches to HCI will continue, well aligned with visions of an interactive, digitally enhanced, radioactive future paradise. If that isn’t desirable, it is time to openly acknowledge that the climate crisis cannot be addressed by HCI through the same methods, approaches, and market-based ethos that is leading us to this paradise. Until we reject the assumptions listed above, our work will continue reproducing the pattern that is creating a future we can’t survive.
Similar to our climate scientist colleagues, those of us working on sustainability-oriented work in HCI have failed. In spite of repeated attempts to imagine otherwise—many shared through this forum—we failed to move beyond the status quo and challenge core stories in HCI research and education. The pressing question remains: How can we shift the assumptions of HCI in a way that is commensurate with the issues at hand and still leaves room for imaginative action and active engagement? If we were to change our stories of what is desirable, could narratives that reject the neoliberal story of progress move to the center of the field of interaction design?
1. Rogers, A. The Chernobyl disaster may have also built a paradise. Wired. May 13, 2019; https://www.wired.com/story/the-chernobyl-disaster-might-have-also-built-a-paradise/
3. Moyez, J. Interview with Ian Hargraves. Journal of Health Design. May 14, 2019; https://www.journalofhealthdesign.com/JHD/podcasts/view/157
5. Wallace-Wells, D. The uninhabitable earth. New York (Jul. 10, 2017); http://nymag.com/intelligencer/2017/07/climate-change-earth-too-hot-for-humans.html
6. Petersen, A.M., Vincent, E.M., and Westerling, A.L. Discrepancy in scientific authority and media visibility of climate change scientists and contrarians. Nat Commun 10, 1 (Aug. 2019), 1–14; https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-019-09959-4
Lisa P. Nathan is an associate professor at the University of British Columbia, Musqueam Territory, Canada. She co-edited the book Digital Technology and Sustainability: Engaging the Paradox with Mike Hazas. firstname.lastname@example.org
Nassim Parvin is an associate professor at the Digital Media program at Georgia Tech. Her research explores the ethical and political dimensions of design and social justice. She serves as a member of the lead editorial team of Catalyst: Feminism, Theory, Technoscience. email@example.com
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