XVII.6 November + December 2010
Page: 24
Digital Citation

Broadening horizons through information technology

Lisa Nathan

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Bill Tomlinson's book, Greening through IT: Information Technology for Environmental Sustainability, explores the design and use of IT to address environmental challenges. Using straightforward writing, he claims information technology systems can help us overcome the limitations of human cognition and develop a less destructive presence on the planet. Tomlinson presents descriptions of three of his projects as evidence of what he classifies as "Green IT." Overall, the text has many strengths: a timely topic, unpretentious writing, and a thoughtful overview of the nascent field of sustainable HCI. Tomlinson builds a strong case for pushing the problem of environmental degradation to the forefront of research and design in the field of human-computer interaction. Yet I suspect the book's most significant contribution is that it reveals the current gap between the large-scale efforts that are needed and the small-scale work that is currently supported. Will HCI practitioners, academics, and researchers be able to develop radical, ambitious projects that achieve this label of Green IT?

back to top  The Crisis

As the human population continues to grow exponentially, so does our influence on our environment. According to government and NGO sources highlighted throughout the book, this influence has dramatically degraded ecosystems around the globe. Tomlinson does not plead for saving starving orcas or drowning polar bears. Instead, he goes straight to the anthropocentric argument that access to the essentials of healthy human life (e.g., unpolluted air, clean water, nutritious food) is under threat. His next move is to lay out why IT systems should be an integral part of efforts to cope with this threat.

back to top  The Claim

Tomlinson's main assertion is that modern information tools are well poised to help people around the world shift to more sustainable lifestyles. He supports this claim by suggesting the reason humanity faces so many environmental quandaries is directly related to our limited ability to think on a broad scale. We have thrived as a species because of our ability to plan ahead, but typically on the order of days, weeks, and months. As human anatomy, physiology, and behavior have evolved, we have become highly skilled in satisfying current needs and evading immediate threats. This time frame was sufficient when our numbers were relatively small and the planet's resources appeared vast, nearly infinite. The situation has changed. The ecosystems that create the resources we depend on are now depleted and polluted faster than they can be restored. In terms of ecosystem equilibrium, the time scale on which humans have been operating is just too short. Addressing changes to ecosystems requires longer-term (on the order of decades or centuries), more expansive thinking. At this point in our development, this challenge is beyond human scale; Tomlinson proposes that we need help in broadening our conceptual horizons.

back to top  The Limitations

Tomlinson expands on the concept of broadening horizons by developing three categories of horizons: time, space, and complexity. These categories frame some of the most thought-provoking parts of the book. The idea that humans have been unsuccessful at working through issues that encompass long periods of time, vast expanses of space, or various levels of complexity is difficult to dispute—witness global climate change, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, or the debate over peak oil. Tomlinson claims the data handling, networking, and communication power needed to address these types of problems are exactly what IT systems can provide. By leveraging the ever increasing capabilities of IT systems, we will be better prepared to take action on complex environmental problems.

back to top  The Terms

To deepen the discussion and clarify terminology, Greening through IT also conducts reflective conceptual investigations of the terms 'sustainability" and "information technology," which calls attention to the complexities beneath both labels. The author avoids the use of heavy-handed philosophical language. For example, after exploring a number of different definitions, Tomlinson offers his own definition of sustainability: "...a characteristic of a system—in this case, the global ecosystem—in which all defining processes, such as the maintenance of biodiversity (including Homo sapiens) at a high quality of life, are able to continue indefinitely." Notice he has raised the bar for sustainability by calling for a high quality of life—for all—to be maintained indefinitely. No small task.

His definition of IT is also simply stated and equally expansive. IT refers to "...the use of digital tools and techniques for manipulating information, and the social phenomena that surround these systems." I call your attention to the social aspects of our information tools that Tomlinson includes in this definition. This socio-technical framing is increasingly prevalent in the literature, but using "IT" as the term to wrap it all together presents its own challenges. At times IT appears to refer just to features of information tools; at other times IT refers to the techniques and social context that develop around the use of an information tool. The conflation of these definitions into one überterm is particularly difficult to work with in the sections of the text that discuss the environmental costs of IT itself.

Consider that the resources used in the creation, use, and disposal of IT have significant environmental costs. Tomlinson acknowledges whether one is considering non-digital (e.g., paper) or digital (e.g., cellphones) IT, the physical form is dependent upon finite resources. These resources (e.g., trees, raw metals, petroleum) require a significant amount of processing before they are put into use. While in use, IT often requires a significant amount of resource-heavy, physical infrastructure to "work," be it electricity or partner IT such as printers. Following IT to the end of its life cycle, once something is deemed obsolete, disposal depends upon yet another round of resources.

It is difficult to separate out the environmental costs of IT that are dependent upon its physical form and the costs that are dependent upon the social phenomena and techniques that have developed around how IT is manufactured, used, and disposed of. By using a broad definition of IT, one that includes physical features and the techniques and social structures that develop around their use, Tomlinson again sets out a formidable problem for those interested in working in this area. It is not enough to think about the physical form of the tools you are creating—it is critical to consider the infrastructure and social context surrounding their use.

back to top  Extended Human-centered Computing

Tomlinson frames his approach to addressing environmental issues as expanding the field of human-centered computing (HCC). HCC is described as centering on humans' use of information systems, with a focus on developing computing devices to support human activity. HCC is contrasted with older approaches in which efforts were focused on shifting human activity to better fit the constraints of computing devices. Looking toward the future, Tomlinson introduces the acronym "EHCC," which stands for "extended human-centered computing." "Extended" refers to incorporating the broader notions of time, space, and complexity mentioned earlier. In particular Tomlinson identifies the need for HCC to expand from an emphasis on individual interactions with IT to an emphasis on the interactions of corporations, universities, governments, and other institutions with IT. EHCC is held up as a more robust line of inquiry for supporting the development of Green IT.

back to top  Green IT Projects

Throughout the book, the author refers to a range of sustainability-oriented projects. Some of these projects make use of existing IT in an attempt to support more sustainable behaviors; others involve the design of new IT, with sustainability as a goal from the start. Tomlinson describes three projects from his research team at the University of California, Irvine, in detail.

  • Trakulus: A Web-based tool set designed to assist people in tracking and sharing personal data in order to help analyze their environmental impact (although appropriated by users to measure other things as well)
  • GreenScanner: A system for using Internetenabled devices to access community-generated environmental-impact reviews while shopping
  • EcoRaft: A museum exhibit for children, designed to introduce concepts of restoration ecology. The exhibit required children to collaborate in their use of personal tablet computers to "repopulate" a virtual rain forest with seeds and hummingbirds.

Each is laudable as a traditional HCC project: human interaction was clearly the focus of the design process. However, in considering them EHCC or Green IT projects, one might ask, how far are they pushing boundaries of time, space, and complexity?

back to top  The Challenge

It wasn't the argument or the exemplars that left me musing about the tractability of these ambitions for HCI as I was reading Greening through IT. Rather, it was the connection between them. I wonder if, after reading the text, other readers would consider these projects to be reaching new horizons. If your answer is yes, you will find Greening through IT an inspirational read. If your answer is no, your challenge is to consider why.

Tomlinson has laid out a conundrum for those working in the area of HCI. He has persuasively called for us to broaden the horizons of human thinking through expanding the horizons of our work. Yet, to accomplish this goal, Green IT projects require a great deal more time, a broad range of expertise, and a different set of indicators of what it means to be successful than what the field currently rewards. Is it possible for career-minded HCI designers, researchers, and policy writers to deeply engage in complex, multiyear projects in today's milieu of summer-long research projects, tight budgets, and an expectation of measurable monthly progress?

Tomlinson's book highlights the need for a fundamental paradigm shift in the way the field of HCI approaches design, research, and policy—an evolution in the work environment. My hunch is this would necessitate significant changes to the tenure process of academic institutions, the funding decisions of grant agencies, the budget allocations of large technology corporations, and the reviewing criteria of elite conferences. Largescale, groundbreaking projects require significant amounts of time, space, and a high degree of complexity. I strongly encourage you to read Greening through IT, consider its arguments and exemplars, and join in the conversation. What would our work environment need to look like in order to support those who want to answer Tomlinson's call and engage in deeply green IT?

back to top  Author

Lisa P. Nathan is an assistant professor in the School of Library, Archival and Information Studies at the University of British Columbia. Her research is motivated by a deep interest in the long-term influence interactions with information systems have on the human condition. Nathan's recent projects engage the areas of: information ethics and policy; information system design methods; environmental sustainability and information systems; multi-lifespan information system design research; and value sensitive design.

back to top  Footnotes


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