What can we learn from digital transformations?

by Nathan Oxley and Adrian Smith

With climate change, inequality, and injustice putting pressure on societies around the world, it often seems that incremental change towards sustainable development is not enough.

A growing number and variety of alliances between organisations across civil society, business, politicians and states are calling for something more transformational. So are there lessons from other kinds of transitions and transformations – like those towards industrial revolution, women’s rights, democracy and other cultural changes? This is the question the STEPS Centre’s ‘Transformations’ event series sets out to ask.

To help answer it, an event last week in Brighton asked what we can learn from the ‘digital revolution’ about how people and societies shape digital technology, and how it shapes them back.

In more and more parts of the world, the digital is transforming everyday life. To early digital pioneers, it looked like the new technology they discovered could empower people, lighten environmental burdens, and improve communication and democracy. But the digital revolution is losing its lustre as we learn about its environmental burdens, surveillance and disciplining of precarious work patterns. Everything and everyone is connected, but how?

The event asked how we could become ‘re-enchanted’ with digital technology – recapturing the sense of adventure and delight it could bring, without falling completely under its spell.

Connecting virtual and real worlds

How can digital and sustainability ‘revolutions’ learn from each other? First, by recognising that they are entangled.

The internet is often talked about as if it almost didn’t exist (we upload things to ‘the Cloud’; the opposite of ‘online’ is ‘IRL’ – In Real Life) but the computers, phones, servers, masts, pipes and satellites that enable it are physical, resource-consuming things, designed, built, shipped, maintained and thrown away by people. Virtual worlds need real worlds to exist.

Yet they can also provide new and creative ways for people to sense and respond to the changing world around them – from using remote pollution sensors or weather stations to monitor and track environmental change, to eco campaigns or social movements organised over the web.

1. The World Machine

At our event, Ann Light introduced the concept of a World Machine – an archetypical device for ‘connecting, sensing and inferring’ for sustainable development. A real-world example might be a cluster of digital sensors that listen to birdsong, connected to people who monitor them, detect changes, interpret and share their knowledge with others.

The World Machine ‘connects the local and global without crushing the defining elements of the local’. The knowledge it generates doesn’t get captured by experts, but goes to and fro among different groups. As such, it’s another way to help citizens join in with efforts to understand and shape their environment for the better.

The sharing, co-operative culture it embraces might be an antidote to a digital ‘sharing economy’ that seeks to monetise every form of human interaction and exchange. World Machines provide an enchanting way to encourage sociable and collaborative relationships.

2. Tinkering and co-operation

rainbow room

Design workshop in the Rainbow Room (@codekat / Twitter)

Kat Braybrooke talked about looking at technology more closely – so we can unpack its social causes and consequences. Spaces to do this include a digital artefact workshop Kat helped to organise at Singapore’s Art Science Museum, and the Tinkering Space at Bristol Science Centre. Networks of human beings and machines are formed, peer production skills are learned and shared.

These, along with thousands of hackerspaces worldwide, help to open up objects people often take for granted – even looking at the code behind webpages, or looking inside phones or laptops, gives people a glimpse of the material and work that constitutes the digital world.

It is hard to critically appreciate what you can’t see. Demystifying the tech doesn’t mean removing its enchantment: it can make it even more exciting, as people learn how to hack, adapt, recycle and reshape things to their own ends. Opening up new spaces of ‘technological citizenship’ in this way might help future developments to be more geared towards social values like sustainability.

Cycles of (dis)enchantment

3. Pokémon Go

Digital culture can also teach us lessons about how people respond to massive changes. What could we learn for example, from Pokémon Go? This, from Tim Jordan, was an example of an ‘enchanting’ technology that caused a rollercoaster of a response from the public.

It starts with excitement at a new kind of game, blending physical space and virtual characters in an ingenious way. Then, disenchantment at terrible privacy settings; widespread hacking and cheating; followed by further changes to the game and a rediscovery of enchantment among many players. Other patterns of delight and rapid disenchantment could be seen in people’s response to Facebook, which went from a single university to a global behemoth, but is now something many young people won’t admit to using.

Playing with, breaking and reshaping tech is an inescapable part of digital culture – from early phone phreaking experiments to today’s hackers, constantly testing the limits of the system, using tech for unintended purposes, even challenging digital culture itself in subversive and creative ways.

What other technological and social changes could provoke similar cycles of enchantment and disenchantment? There is no shortage of innovators who might claim they can fix global problems, or technologies – from smart cities to mass surveillance – that seem to be inevitable, only to be challenged or critiqued by subversive misappropriations and hacks. There are also equivalents of digital hackers in environmental spaces too: from more or less idealistic biohackers, geoengineers or genetic engineers, to more low tech pioneers working on new ways to supply food, energy, clean water. All this work requires enchantment and desire, but also a willingness to tinker and break things.

Urgency and culture

4. Time

The digital revolution is marked by acceleration. As internet speeds go up, and communication gets faster, we’d imagine that we would have more ‘free’ time, but the opposite seems to be true. Swift digital services save time so that we can cram in ever more activity, or be ‘disciplined’ by devices and made to speed up work rates. This is not to say that speeding things up is inherently bad – but it’s clear we can sleepwalk into becoming slaves to it. What if you could check LinkedIn in your bathroom mirror every morning? It’s the closest the digital world has come to Chinese water torture. Meanwhile, giant clocks are constructed in the desert as “an icon to long term thinking”, built by tech entrepreneurs.

The Slow Movement and digital detoxing are possible responses to the acceleration and its anxiety-inducing effects. Another response is to take more responsibility by focusing on computing objects themselves, looking through the electric mirror at the economy of production behind it. This means painstakingly inspecting visible and invisible digital items and arrangements, learning how they work – in Caroline Bassett’s words, “we should concentrate on it more fiercely, the more it becomes invisible.”

By analogy, one way to explore pathways to sustainability is by paying close attention to hidden motivations, connections and economies. What stops us doing that? Sometimes, ironically, a more or less well-intentioned pressure for an urgent response to a crisis. Is there really time to appreciate and debate alternative options? In the face of climate meltdown, should we abandon politics and “put democracy on hold for a while” to save the planet? Instead, shouldn’t we recognise that democratic struggle has always been vital to radical progress of many kinds?

How can sustainability movements influence the digital revolution?

Our event not only explored the lessons of digital revolutions for sustainability. It also provided a glimpse into some ways that digital cultures and technology are becoming more aware of sustainability concerns.

Platform co-operativism, for example, is exploring how the co-op movement can use digital platforms more effectively – an antidote to business models like TaskRabbit that drive down the price of labour. The Restart Project encourages people to learn together about how to ‘fix’ their relationship with electronics through recycling and repairing digital objects, rather than throwing them away – directly inspired by concerns about ecology and justice.

Even if these initiatives seem somewhat marginal or ‘alternative’ right now, sustainability transformations also have lessons on how new ideas become mainstream. Often, there needs to be more than one reason to get involved. For example, cutting our carbon emissions becomes easier through advances in technology like solar panels or smart meters, but there are multiple reasons to join in: from saving money and helping the environment, to consumer choice, interest in new tech, peer pressure, or even the status of being an early adopter.

The overarching message from our digital revolutions workshop was that rather than simply an influx of new tech, the digital revolution is cultural: as such, it includes mess, play, anarchy, harm and subversion, connections and networks, pros and cons, winners and losers, fear, anxiety, surprise, delight and desire. We should be wary if sustainability transformations and transitions are seen as neat, technical and controlled. They will always be surprising: they will always move from enchantment to disenchantment and back again.

Main image: Labyrinthine circuit board lines by hinkelstone on Flickr (cc by 2.0)