As I have become more involved in the world of high-performance building, a split in the way our culture talks about technology has become increasingly apparent. It first became clear when I attended two events back-to-back: the Solar Decathlon competition at the National Renewable Energy Laboratories in Golden, Colorado, and the Living Future unConference in Seattle. Both events are hubs for leaders in sustainable design. But the opposing ways in which technology is viewed by those affiliated with these organizations—what Trevor Pinch and Wiebe Bijker famously termed “relevant social groups” —highlights basic assumptions about what technology is and what it can do.
So I will put this to you, reader interested in human-computer interaction: Is tape a technology? For the sake of clarity, I do not mean magnetic tape on spools, the type used by UNIVAC or IBM computers larger than your house. I’m talking about the roll of sticky stuff that may well be sitting in your desk or rattling about in your junk drawer. Your answer to the tape-technology question is important, for it seems to distinguish two broad groups of people. One group sees technology as inseparably intertwined with every aspect of our physical and social world. The other sees it as an external factor, a driving force with the potential to deliver us humans from the many perils of an uncertain future. For lack of better terms, I’ll refer to these groups as technological pragmatists and techtopians .
Why this matters—putting aside the myriad real-world examples that, like most things, dwell somewhere between these poles—is a question of focus. In the world of sustainable building, techtopians see a future fueled by the Internet of Things, where computing systems embedded in buildings analyze their users and where buildings can talk to one another. Enough of these buildings, it is argued, will constitute smart cities, where energy use can be optimized and light and air can be metered to elevate health and productivity. Technological pragmatists, on the other hand, imagine much simpler buildings that achieve similar outcomes. The technological developments they get excited about are in the realm of materials: the potential to sterilize mushroom biomass and process it into a form of carbon-neutral insulation ; the transfer of a decades-old process for creating wood fiberboard from the European to the American market ; and, yes, tape—albeit tape with exciting new properties. It turns out that one of the biggest drivers of innovation in the building market has been a parallel advance in adhesives and the materials that carry those adhesives. Today it is possible to make tape that sticks to just about any common building material, even if it’s wet, and that will stay stuck for the life of the building. Many of these new tapes also let water vapor pass through, a critical quality when it comes to ensuring durability. The role of these tapes (excuse the pun) cannot be understated in helping buildings to achieve exceptionally high levels of airtightness, which is the keystone factor in all buildings striking a level of performance necessary to stem the climate crisis.
Here’s where trust comes in. If you fall into the category of technological pragmatist and you believe tape is a technology, my hypothesis is that you’re more likely to trust the claims of manufacturers and third-party groups that the tape will indeed last for a very long time. If, on the other hand, you’re more of a techtopian, I think you are inclined to be suspicious of an object as prosaic as a roll of tape. You are more likely to put your trust in the promise of elaborate, interconnected communication systems than you are in a strip of vapor-selective polyester fleece coated with an acrylic-based, pressure-sensitive adhesive, no matter how much technology went into its development and manufacture. What we’re left with is an odd kind of push and pull, where people get drawn into an argument about whether we’re best off using existing technology or if we can just coast along with business as usual until something new saves us from ourselves. This argument is fundamentally unwinnable because one side—the technological pragmatists—is focused on what is, whereas the other side—the techtopians—is focused on what might be.
This might be characterized as a collision of two irreconcilable views, but I think there is a different way forward. At the Solar Decathlon competition, several teams, including West Point Military Academy’s winning team, dazzled the competition organizers and jurors with VR presentations of their proposal for new base housing. In real life, faculty and student teams toured lab spaces, including a full-scale mockup of the computer system that controls the national energy grid, and another where experimental equipment was making hydrogen fuel for cars. The Living Future event, on the other hand, kicked off on May Day with a performance by the Seattle Labor Chorus. Breakfast the following day, held in an enormous ballroom at the Hyatt Regency, featured a collective yoga exercise where nearly everyone present (myself included!) danced. Suffice it to say these are two very different cultures.
Collectively, trust seems to be shifting from an attribute associated with ends to an attribute associated with means. That is, we are spending less time thinking about outcomes and more time talking about the tools used to produce those outcomes. We are focusing not on the erosion of democracy, but rather on the particular mechanisms through which Facebook and other social media platforms are accelerating its demise. Returning to the sticky subject of tape, we are focusing on the properties of the stuff itself, versus on why we are using it. Conversations centered on the fundamental practice of asking why would surface the common ground between the technological pragmatists and the techtopians: a belief that the future can, should, and must be better than today. The question is how we get there.
The answer can’t simply invoke technology as inevitable; it must be centered on the inextricable link between technology and culture. Tape is an apt metaphor here, for its function is to connect one thing to another. Trust works similarly, by bridging divides between people who may not see eye to eye but who share a common interest in a brighter tomorrow. These days, we seem to be losing trust in both our institutions and our things. Part of this is the flimsy ways in which the technologies consumers interact with most routinely, such as Uber and Amazon, have repackaged trust as a rating on a five-point scale. Is a driver with a 4.7 rating worthy of trust? What about a product you’ve never tried with an average rating of 3.5 stars? Trust, in this technology-centric incarnation, is a function of interaction between individuals. Or at least that’s what the actors behind the new economy would like you to believe. This configuration of trust allows gig-economy companies from Airbnb to Uber to dodge responsibility for everything from bedbugs to murder by claiming that they are merely platforms through which individuals arrange to engage in direct transactions. As I and others have explored before, this new economic formation is dependent on a repackaging of trust as empathy for others—but only some others [5,6].
In contrast, the vision of a better future for all, not just those with whom you happen to engage in direct economic or social exchange, is clearly shared by the engineering culture of the Solar Decathlon and the kumbaya spirit of the Living Future event. Yet inclusivity requires a different formation of trust than what is now enabled by most online platforms. Rather than a phenomenon that occurs between individuals, trust should be conceptualized as a collective good that is built and rebuilt through repetitive action. In this way of thinking, technology is not an instrument to measure trust, or even a means to enhance it. Instead, technology should be recognized as a pathway through which we are collectively renegotiating the very concept of trust itself. This is not the position of the technological pragmatists or the techtopians. Integrating this way of thinking about trust into the design of human-computer interaction requires the recursive imagination of a better future—and the steps needed to get there.
|Seeing eye to eye? Solar Decathlon co-director Sarah Zaleski experiences a competition entry in virtual reality.|
I am afraid that not only have we given up on technology’s promise of liberation, but also that we are losing trust in others. Worst of all, I fear we may be losing collective trust in a better future. One way to reclaim trust is to acknowledge that there are no boundaries around technology. We need to defetishize it to take away its special power, and acknowledge that it is just as fallible as we are, and probably more so, because we made it. We also need to think about the ways in which technology, like tape, can stick things together—or be used to pull them apart.
1. Pinch, T.J., and Bijker, W.E. The social construction of facts and artefacts: or how the sociology of science and the sociology of technology might benefit each other. Social Studies of Science 14, 3 (Aug. 1984), 399–441.
3. Xing, Y., Brewer, M., El-Gharabawy, H., Griffith, G., and Jones, P. Growing and testing mycelium bricks as building insulation materials. IOP Conf. Series: Earth Environ. Sci. 121, (Feb. 2018), 022032; https://doi.org/10.1088/1755-1315/121/2/022032.
4. Gibson, S. Design-build firm seeks toehold in insulation market. Green Building Advisor. 2017; https://www.greenbuildingadvisor.com/article/design-build-firm-seeks-toehold-in-insulation-market
6. Giesler, M., with Veresiu, E. and Siebert, A. How to design a sharing market (hint:empathy matters). Huffington Post. Feb. 5, 2015; http://www.huffingtonpost.com/markus-giesler/designing-a-sharing-marke_b_6621888.html
Jonathan Bean is assistant professor of architecture, sustainable built environments, and marketing at the University of Arizona. He researches domestic consumption, technology, and taste. email@example.com
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