Obituary of a Master’s Thesis

Many of us (fortunate enough of being born into a relatively wealthy society and privileged enough to go through the university education system) will be familiar with the following experience: To finally receive a degree, we’re bound to ‘work’ relatively ‘hard’ on one single document, over an extended period of time, which eventually ends up being called ‘MA-Thesis_2015_FINAL!!!!!.docx’, or something on those lines. The efforts and pains and chunks of frustration put into this single document are, for the corresponding chapter in one’s life, often unparalleled – for month even, adding the _FINAL suffix to the doc is almost equal to the meaning of life itself – and all that, just to fulfill what is officially required to receive the longed-for academic title and then to subsequently forget about the document for the rest of our existence, banned straight out of our minds, never to be seen or noticed again? Doesn’t make much sense, does it?

Having gone through the above process twice, I thought it’d be time to share some thoughts. In thesis experience #1, I felt like described above, I had a mostly exciting and sometimes despairing (or was it the other way round?) time of writing my diploma thesis on a topic that dealt with something related to virtual project management tools, as I remember vaguely, mostly hiding away in a library in the middle of the most boring part of the United States of America. And then, that was pretty much it.1

In thesis experience #2, I decided to approach things a bit differently. Yet another Master’s thesis that no-one ever reads? Waste of time, or rather, waste of five month, that is. So how on earth, I asked myself, would it be possible to bundle all this time and energy towards somehow not only describing, but actually changing the world, at least a tiny, little bit? How can I write a thesis that will not only be a virtual and physical dust collector, but instead be interesting and possibly even relevant to some? The challenge was on: I decided to identify a topic that was relevant (and thus interesting) to me, personally, as well as to a whole community; on a topic where I thought thing’s weren’t exactly going the morally correct way; on a topic where the research could potentially give a voice to a minority; I decided to do research on hospitality exchange networks.

I’d like to quote some of the feedback from users of such sites that randomly contacted me regarding my thesis:

I’ve just read in Bewelcome that you have summited your Master’s thesis at the Uppsala University (Sweden) on the subject of Hospitality Exchange Networks. I am going to read it after this email, and I am so impressed just for the idea of doing a Master Degree on this subject. I am willing to begin my master in this path of yours, if given the chance.
Just to send my appreciation here!

or

Dear Simon,
I found a link to your Master’s Thesis on beWelcome and I just read the abstract. Your Master’s Thesis is the first Master’s Thesis I have genuinely felt like reading out of a personal interest.
Thank you for spending your time analyzing this important subject in your Master’s Thesis!

or

Very interesting your study thesis about CS

or

This is an issue of such concern as there is a risk that a beautiful initiative could be ruined. I’m glad you are doing this research and wish you the best of luck.

or

Thanks for the opportunity to participate in your survey. I’d be very interested to follow the outcome – and what feedback comes from the survey.
Good luck with your writing – and with your master. – Do let me know how it goes, and if there’s anything else I can do to help you.

Or, and this is possibly my favorite story thus far, I’ve gotten a message from a user stating that he just welcomed a guest who told the story that his father (!) had critically researched on safety issues of hospitality exchange platforms, found my thesis, and therefore guided his son to sign up for BeWelcome instead of Couchsurfing; therefore, the two could meet.

After finishing my degree in Uppsala, I decided to go through the additional effort of re-working and re-formatting the results of the research into a paper-format and submit it to a peer-reviewed journal, in my case, Triple-C. The paper 2 ended up being successfully published in January 2015. This is nice, for now the work can also be seen as a tiny contribution to the field of critical internet studies in particular and academia in general; it’s simply out there and not a sole dust-collector any longer. And as the journal subscribes to the values of Open Access publishing, it is freely available to everyone with an internet access, not only to those (fortunate enough?) sitting in an university library.

Additionally, what deserves to be told is the e-mail I received from one of those dubious companies offering “free publishing for academics” asking me, if, and this is quite worth the quote:

Is it correct that you authored the work entitled “The Commodification of the Couch: A Dialectical Analysis of Hospitality Exchange Networks”?
A short confirmation would be greatly appreciated. I believe this particular topic could be of interest to a wider audience and we would be glad to consider publishing it.
Should the commercialization of your work as printed book meet your interest, I will be glad to provide you with further details in an electronic brochure.

Asking me if I’d like to commercialize my work on commodification processes, already published under a Creative Commons license and in an Open Access journal. Well. What to say. I’ll interpret it as an affirmative example of how contemporary capitalism tries to ‘commodify everything‘, tellingly even academic works criticizing exactly that. At least they tried.

This is the obituary of my Master’s thesis. It felt important to me to show that, given a relevant, motivated supervisors, and a pressing topic, a thesis does not need to be a pointless document formulated with disinterest that no-one ever ready, anyway. Give it an exciting life, it’s worth the extra-effort. After all, it feels satisfying to know that all those hours spent in a library, this time during a (quite depressingly) grey Swedish winter, came to have an impact on someone, somewhere, no matter how small; and be it only be that the work changed the path of a sole lost traveler towards meeting someone and exchanging thoughts over a warm dinner. Now, MA thesis, you can R.I.P.

——————————–

  1. Except that a condensed summary ended up being published in a kind of ‘best-of-thesis’ collection from my old university, which can even be purchased on amazon, but I’d be keen to see stats on ‘number of people actually reading more than the index’ versus ‘number of people using the published volume as a personal reference in their cv’.
  2. Schöpf, Simon. 2015. “The Commodification of the Couch: a Dialectical Analysis of Hospitality Exchange Platforms.” tripleC—Communication, Capitalism & Critique. Open Access Journal for a Global Sustainable Information Society 13 (1) (January 25): 11–34.

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The Commodification of the Couch

For the past couple of month, much of my time was occupied by intensely staring at a single document which was to become my Master’s thesis for the Digital Media & Society programme at Uppsala University. The idea behind the work was basically to explain life, the universe, and everything through the struggle of ‘the commons’ versus ‘commodification’ in online spaces, using the exemplifying case study of ‘hospitality exchange networks’. I am using the wonderful platforms of Couchsurfing and BeWelcome as examples of manifestations for those concepts; the most interesting, inspiring and motivating part of all research process was, indeed, to interact with many members from both communities; thanks, awesome people, for all your input & drive!

For the curious:

Hospitality exchange (HospEx) networks – online platforms facilitating the connection between a traveler and a local resident – embody many of the cyber-utopian promises intrinsic to the Web as it started out 25 years ago. Such sites have often been conceptualized as a new and daring trend in a booming ‘sharing industry’ and have been researched for topics such as trust, reputation, and online identities. Yet, a more critical look uncovers that crucial issues of ownership, power, digital labour, and organizational structures have often been left out. 

To fill this gap, this thesis investigates upon the antagonistic struggle between the commons and processes of commodification in the light of critical theory and political economy. The research shows that examples with characteristics of both concepts are manifested in the niche social networking space of HospEx platforms. The biggest of those platforms, Couchsurfing.org, changed its organizational orientation from a non-profit, commons-based project towards a for-profit company in 2011 – an instance of commodification. An analysis of both quantitative and qualitative community data shows that the transformation consequently concerns a member on multiple levels. The structural change of ownership results in a loss of transparency and privacy, an alteration of the platform’s integrity, a sacrifice of the ‘uniqueness’ of the community, and a differing relationship between the user and the platform. 

To shed light on an antagonistic force and suggest an alternative, community-based governance approach, the work further explores the specifics of a platform guided by the logic of the commons. Interviews with volunteers of the non-commercial, non-profit HospEx platform BeWelcome.org helped to deepen an understanding of how a digital commons can be sustained and what challenges they face. The thesis concludes that the developments observed on Couchsurfing are not an exception but rather characteristic and part of a broader trend manifested in all areas of digital media, and indeed modern society in general: commodification processes frequently jeopardize the commons and incorporate them into the logic of capital.

For the even more curious: Here’s a link to the thesis uploaded on a platform that will require you to sign up & spam you in consequence, therefore you might prefer a straightforward direct PDF download. Of course, it’s all Creative Commons content so enjoy & share (both optional). Questions?

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Social Imaginaries of the Internet

The notion of the ‘good society’ has many contested meanings and nuances, but is generally about social justice and how it can be achieved (Mansell 2012). The philosopher Martha Nussbaum suggests to think of it as a helpful picture helping us to “think creatively about what justice can be in a world” (2006 414). Mansell calls it “unreasonable” to simply leave the development of our communication system to chance and ignore its evolution when “some of its features are inconsistent with the values of the good society” (2012 22).

Therefore, some thoughts about about this communication system called Internet.

Rodger Silverstone (2007 26) insists that the communication system, by mediating our lives, “constitutes our worldliness, our capacity to be in the world”; the relationship between the communication system and our capacity to be in the world therefore “clearly matters for the lives of people everywhere” (Mansell 2012 6), thus dealing with the consequences of our visions of the information society is an important enquiry. Robin Mansell is ‘Imagining the Internet’ (2012) by exploring two opposing tales of how to envision a world increasingly mediated by digital information and communication technologies: the ‘information society’ we live in. The information society is understood “to be arising from an evolutionary process with intrinsic benefits based on the emergent complexity of the technologies of the communication system”. Mansell situates those within what he calls ‘social imaginaries’–“the way people in the information society make sense of their visions and practices and how this is influencing the communication system that is so central to people’s lives” (ibid. 9). The prevailing visions of the information society then are:

  1. The dominant social imaginary, giving priority to market-led commercial developments, in lines with the interests of economic growth. Technological change is seen as an unpredictable process and nothing should be done to intervene in the evolution of the complex adaptive system for it would produce a greater instability within the it. An unregulated market system would create optimal outcomes, assuming private intellectual property ownership rights are enforced.
  2. The alternative social imaginary, highlighting collaborative production and consumption of information outside the conventions of market exchange. Also here, the process of technological change is emergent, but human agency is deployed to create the best conditions for the decentralized sharing within a commons-based peer production model. An empowerment of individuals achieved through decentralized collective action and the ability to make choices is valued.

However, “the prevailing visions of the information society are never settled” (idib. 6), and a new understanding of the two plausible, but contradictory paths is needed to move forward:

“The path towards cooperation in an information commons is presented typically as consistent with equality and social justice, but it does not resolve the problem of how to monetize information production in the virtual realm in order to pay for the non-virtual essentials of life. The path towards market-led development of the information society seeks better means of monetizing information production, but it does not address the problems of inequality and social injustice that emerge as new technologies and modes of information production become integrated ever more tightly into market-based institutions” (ibid. 23f).

Such questions are important, for the Internet is “mediating most people’s lives in increasing number of ways” (ibid. 3). By examining the persistent conflicts between the dominant (market-led) vision and the increasingly popular alternative (an expanding information commons) vision, Mansell sets out to argue that these accounts misread the implications of the two paradoxes of complexity and information scarcity. A paradox occurs when two correct statements are contradictory. The paradox of information scarcity describes the fact that in a digital environment, information is costly to produce but virtually costless to reproduce. Following from that is the challenge of how to create incentives for a diversity if information to be produced. The paradox of complexity describes the situation that, following from the emergent complexity of the technological system behind the screen, there are intrinsic benefits that lead to both a loss of control and at the same time to greater control, achieved through programming within a decentralized system.

Mansell suggests several interventions promoting a new social imaginary of the information society which “resists the excesses of the market without abandoning it, and which encourages experimentation and creativity in mediated environments, with less risk to human beings” (ibid. 13). For such a social imaginary to occur, the paradoxes of scarcity and complexity have to be rendered to the foreground instead of being ignored and re-read by substituting the dichotomous either/or ways of thinking with both/and ways of thinking. Adaptive action then “cannot resolve or eliminate the experience of paradox,” but it can “suggest ways in which reconciliation leading to new pathways can begin to be imagined and ultimately acted upon” (ibid. 184). There are three areas where adaptive action and policy corrections are desirable and urgent:

  1. Monopolies of Knowledge: There should be a critical stance to the point that automation of the communication system automatically leads to “productivity improvements” and that there may be limits to the capacity of “intelligent machines” should be tasked to make choices. Unequal power relationships that influence who has knowledge would be decoded and information diversity “outside the framework of the commercial market would start to encourage a new social imaginary of the information society in which information is understood, not as a ‘thing’, but as a component of the multiple knowledges that are essential for learning” (ibid. 186).
  2. Facilitating Online Creativity: The evolution of the communication system should be corrected in a direction so that the “values of the good society would be served by both the market exchange model for digital information and the information commons model” (ibid.). Citizens need to be empowered to participate in online environments by creating market incentives for the production of digital information and incentives for the sharing of information. For example, artists might be compensated for their efforts by allocating a share from general taxation to information creators. Eventually, expansionist intellectual property rights legislations would be rolled back as to “minimize the creation of new monopolies of knowledge and to facilitate the opening of the digital commons to creativity” (ibid.).
  3. Augmenting the Human Mind: Citizens need to be protected from unwanted intrusions into their digital lives and what they deem private: “the right to be free from surveillance would not be seen as an unaffordable luxury in the face of an emergent complex adaptive system” (idib. 189). It would be questioned whether excessive surveillance should really be the taken-for-granted norm or whether those should be limited. It would be acknowledged that the corporate and state practices are “already well down the path to a non-neutral network,” and debates would focus on the reality of the mediated world behind the screen.

Generally, an improved knowledge of the “interactions within a multi-level communication system” leading to the “genesis of the paradoxes of information scarcity and complexity” is needed. The scholarly community is likely to give rise to unexpected developments and becomes part of the new social imaginary. Researchers should be “open to surprises that disturb their conventional ways of seeing” and be thus more “likely to be cognizant of news of difference” (ibid.). A new social imaginary is important for it is “in no-one’s interest to preserve the status quo” (ibid. 192).

References

Mansell, R., 2012. Imagining the Internet, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Nussbaum, M.C., 2006. Frontiers of Justice: Disability, Nationality, Species Membership, Harvard: Harvard University Press.

Silverstone, R., 2007. Media and Morality: On the Rise of the Mediapolis, Cambridge: Polity Press.

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On Digital Monopolies

A significant tendency to take into account when analyzing contemporary Internet developments is the one of monopoly creation. As McChesney  (2013 130) points out, it is indeed “supremely ironic that the Internet, the much-ballyhooed champion of increased consumer power and cutthroat competition, has become one of the greatest generators of monopoly in economic history”. Looking at the largest U.S. corporations in terms of market value, in 2014 three out of the top four companies are Internet giants: (1) Apple, (3) Google,  (4) Microsoft (number two in market value being the oil-giant Exxon Mobil).1

That is to say that the “Internet monopolists sit at the commanding heights of U.S. and world capitalism” (ibid.); reasons for this include the following:

  1. Network effects, referring to the increased gains experienced when a single resource or service is used by many, i.e. the capturing of customers creates demand-side economies of scale online. “Monopolies are actually even more likely in highly networked markets like the online world. The dark side of network effects is that rich nodes get richer”, resulting in winner-takes-it-all markets (Anderson 2010 online).
  2. The importance of technical standards, necessary for an effective and wide-spread use of any communication technology. The public interest would be to have such standards as open as possible, but in reality, the firms developing the technologies that eventually become the industry standards are off for a head start, e.g. Microsoft with Windows (McChesney 2013).
  3. The use of patents, providing temporarily government protection of a monopoly license as a reward for innovation, seeing an explosion of prominence since the digital era (e.g., Microsoft took a few hundred patent in 2002 and 2500 in 2010) (ibid.).
  4. Copyright law, acting in a similar manner and a discussion by itself, but “the belief that stronger intellectual property protection inevitably leads to more innovation appears broadly wrong”, acknowledging that innovation is a cumulative process (Bilton 2012 online).

The profitability of successful internet firms, explained by the factors above, rests elementarily on “establishing proprietary systems for which they control access and the terms of the relationship” (McChesney 2013 135). McChesney further draws the comparison to imagine the Internet as a planet where each monopoly is like a continent, resembling their monopoly base camp. Each empire then wants to be as self-contained as possible, drawing consumers into its world by offering an array of services and products, essentially to “gather extensive data in its cloud to be mined for prospective advertisers” (ibid. 140).

Mergers and acquisitions of smaller tech companies by big digital giants to increase their monopoly power and consequently ‘expand their empires’ are the state of the art and common practice online. A recent is the $19 billion takeover of the mobile messaging service WhatsApp with its more than 400 million users by Facebook, Inc.2

The value for Facebook in spending such a huge sum, $4 billion in cash and the rest in stocks, is hardly justified by the additional functionality; Facebook itself offers exactly the same comfort of exchanging messages and pictures already. Rather, it is in expanding its demographic user base on the background that Facebook itself has seen a drop in younger users recently, a group where WhatsApp is especially prominent, and, most importantly, Facebook is getting one potential future competitor from the table. As acknowledged by The Economist, one of the benefits of being a cash-flush giant is being “rich enough to buy up potential rivals”.3

Facebook pocketed $16 billion in cash resulting from its IPO in May 2012 and managed to do nearly two dozen acquisitions since 2010, of which the largest until now was the takeover of Instagram for $1 billion.4

This and countless other examples prove McChesney (2013 137) right when claiming that “today, the Internet as a social medium and information system is the domain of a handful of colossal firms.”

The question you should ask yourself is whether this development is desirable for a communication medium that has ever increasing significance and influence on personal lives as well as on society at a whole. If the answer is no, then we should probably do something about it. Yea, something.

References

Anderson, C., 2010. The Web Is Dead. Long Live the Internet. Wired, (18), pp.122–127. Available at: http://www.wired.com/magazine/2010/08/ff_webrip/all/.

Bilton, N., 2012. Disruptions: Innovations Snuffed Out by Craigslist. The New York Times. Available at: http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/07/29/when-craigslist-blocks-innovations-disruptions/.

McChesney, R.W., 2013. Digital Disconnect, New York: The New Press.

Footnotes

  1. U.S. Commerce – Stock Market Capitalization of the 50 Largest American Companies”. List usually subject to fluctuations, depending on the current stock price of the company.
  2. WhatsApp deal – Facebook snaps up messaging service in their largest acquisition,” The Guardian, February 20th, 2014.
  3. A Fistful of Dollars,The Economist, February 4th 2012.
  4. Facebook Buys Instagram for $1 Billion,” The New York Times, April 9th 2012.

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MA Thesis Teaser: ‘Commons vs. Commodification’

Background & Rationale

The task of the my Master’s thesis in the working is to study the relation of the commons and commodification processes on social media platforms. The commons are, based on the work of political economist Elinor Ostrom, to be understood as a resource shared by a group of people that is subject to social dilemmas (Ostrom 1990), whereas commodification, from a critical political economy perspective, refers to the “process of transforming use values into exchange values” (Mosco 1996 141). Internet researchers often neglect to critically engage with issues of power, digital labor, and processes of commodification when engaging with so-called ‘social media’ phenomena. Furthermore, important questions revolving around ownership and the commons are frequently left out. Using a relevant case study exemplifying commodification processes of the communication commons, the thesis is striving to connect theoretical issues around power structures, political struggles, participatory democracy, and the strengthening of the commons with empirical data.

Taking a historical perspective of existing capital accumulation strategies online and further situating current developments on the interconnection of Internet and society within that frame, potential developments and futures can be identified. A discussion of often-forgotten early and non-commercial applications of the WWW (e.g.,  Usenet) will remind the reader of the initial promises of the Web. In this light, the history of the Internet and the WWW can, departing from the usual utopian discourse, be told as a story of increasing commercialization, from the Telecommunications Act of 1996 to the IPO of Facebook, and  therefore as a story of struggle between commerce and the commons, where commodification is a “typical threat” to the knowledge commons (Hess & Ostrom 2011 5).  Arm in arm goes the history of consumer culture and advertising, both shaping and shaped through the emergence of the Internet.

An analysis of sites fitting into the ‘social media’ frame promises fruitful results since the strive for a co-operative society is, at least in theory, especially alive in those realms.Taking the case of social media platforms dedicated to provide alternative ways of traveling as empirical grounds, the research strives to illustrate that the current model of informational capitalism potentially endangers societally valuable projects by commercializing the ownership structures; the resulting strive for profit (and not necessarily user satisfaction) may have threatening  and negative consequences for all potential users and society at large. A discussion will add to and build upon recent work such as Sandoval (2014), questioning the social in ‘social media’, or Fuchs (2014) elaborating on issues of unpaid digital labour of Internet prosumers. Thoughts going beyond the corporate ownership of social media platforms allow a vision of what potentials could be found in ‘truly social’ media and a common-based Internet. Touching on key questions on the public sphere and public debate, the “exploitation of public discourse for corporate interests is a rather undeveloped line of possible research” (Biltereyst & Meers 2011 428), thus this thesis aims towards such a contribution by providing a theoretical discussion about the workings of power and the commons and then empirically examining current developments around social media platforms in the light of critical Internet theory.

References

Biltereyst, D. & Meers, P., 2011. The Political Economy of Audiences. In J. Wasko, G. Murdock, & H. Sousa, eds. The Handbook of Political Economy of Communications. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

Fuchs, C., 2014. Digital Labour and Karl Marx, New York: Routledge.

Hess, C. & Ostrom, E. eds., 2011. Understanding Knowledge as a Commons, Boston: MIT Press.

Mosco, V., 1996. The Political Economy of Communication, London: Sage.

Ostrom, E., 1990. Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sandoval, M., 2014. From Corporate to Social Media, London: Routledge.

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The Shallows in my Pocket

Last Sunday, I was lucky to attend one of the nicest Swedish traditions, spurring the ‘Christmas spirit’, if applicable: The Luciakonsert. The celebration of Saint Lucia is something on the ranks of Christmas in other Christian countries, just that the non-believing Swedish population sets a beautiful emphasis on tradition and folklore instead of religious values. So, the impressive french gothic style of Uppsala’s Domkyrka, the biggest cathedral in all of Scandinavia, working its magic of shrinking everyones mental and physical size, especially when the bell starts to ring, the crowd goes perfectly silent, and the lights go dark. Illuminated only be the flickering light of their candles, not only one but a number of choirs walk in, led by candle-crowned Lucia herself, dressed all-white with the symbolic red ribbon for the girls and a big, pointy white hat for the boys (yes …), they provide a magical stereo-surround-choir-experience of a kind. Slowly moving through the cathedral in a ritual-like fashion, singing touching Lucia- and Christmas-songs, eventually assembling in front of the altar and there occasionally accompanied by the lovely tones of a harp.

An all-perfect experience? Possibly, and I wish it was. But I wouldn’t bother to write a blog post about it if there wasn’t this one, tiny thing that I feel deserves some deeper attention. So imagine the above scene; As I got in relatively late, as usual, I was seated in the back of the cathedral, thus having most of all attendees directly in my vision when looking at the singing Lucia up front. Now, it’s a bit hard since abstract to put this into words, but what feels utterly crucial for me in such a setting is to fully immerse into the scene, listen hard, and appreciate the setting and performance. I mean, fully immerse. So I tried, but then, this happens: People hold up their mobile phones above all heads (and thus, exactly in my vision), abuse it as a camera, constantly tab onto the device’s shiny surface to adjust the focus or something of that kind (to enhance the experience of actually taking a photograph by tapping onto glass), and worst of all, flash. At least half of the people doing this don’t know how to turn off the ‘flash’ and act surprised that it fired in the first place (remember: we’re in a dark cathedral here). Some simply don’t bother and flash three times in a row. Frankly, I have to ask: Why?!

I realize that this might be a minor issue, and yes, you want to have a picture to remember that charming and oh-so-intimate Luciakonsert in December 2013. A reason might be to simply do a quick snapshot to ‘remember the occasion’, to be able to get back to it at a later point in future, to again feel how nice it was. Honestly, how often do we do that? Aren’t we loaded with the yet-next cool thing coming up immediately after? How often do we sit and go through our old smartphonephotos? It is, in a sense, an outsourcing of memory; just that the fundamental problem is that our biological memory is nothing like the electric one; we overlook the organic nature. Carr informs, “biological memory is alive. Computer memory is not” (be referred to the above book for a greater more detail). But my argument here is more that collectively doing so, we end up in a situation where something is subtracted from the overall experience. That something is to be found in the increasing difficulty of total immersion into the scene. I might be overly sensitive to such things, so I’m cautious to generalize, but: If there is, constantly, a glowing-something raised above the crowd, my animalic senses can’t help but to focus on that thing. Even within a split second, my brain realizes that it is just yet another smartphone taking a shitty picture, it is enough to, when repeated, hinder me to fully concentrate on one thing, and one thing only. And yes, there is always some other distraction as well, like the screaming baby or the occasional cough; The difference is that those things can’t be helped, but doing flashy pictures can be helped. It is a decision to do so. However, and this is my second point, this decision might not be as straight forward as a binary “take photo/take no photo”: I think by having a mobile internet connection as well, we feel an urgent need to share the great experience we are currently in, in no time. While the sharing of personally moving experiences  is perfectly understandable and humane, the difference is in the face of who we share those feelings with: Telling a good friend over dinner what happened or posting a mere photo to a (more or less) anonymous audience to ‘like it’; A big difference in time, scale, and geographic reach. The next question to ask is: “Would the collective experience of this concert be different if everybody were to drop her cellphone at the entrance?” If the answer is yes, then we ought to ask why.

Example: Meta-Sightseeing.
Example: Meta-Sightseeing.

Having finally read Nicholas Carr’s ‘The Shallows‘, I can’t but help to draw certain parallels: In his book, Carr brings a lot of scientifically-backed research on the increasing fragmentation of our consciousness and argues for the web to distort our ability of ‘deep reading’, constantly throwing little snippets of information at us and not allowing the user to engage with one topic, at length and in depth. The “media work their magic, or their mischief, on the nervous system itself”, Carr says. How about we extend that phenomena to a new level and claim that the internet, on another layer, also influences our ability of ‘deep listening’ and drastically further even, ‘deep being’? The mere thought of wanting to share the immediate experience is not the problem, rather it is having the possibility in your pocket. Not making use of the possibility seems like ‘losing out’ by not letting everybody know what amazing thing you are doing, right now. And even though we end up not sharing our experiences anyway, the mere feeling of needing to share is what I think distracts from the real experience. That’s weird.

Is this another level of distractedness? Not only when sitting in front of a computer, but merely having the possibility of potentially surfing the web, in our pockets, at all time? There are two levels of distraction, then: The first level of distraction is the real and physical one, i.e. a glowing screen in your vision. The second level of distraction is intrinsic, the constant wandering of your thoughts slightly away from the here and now towards that other place, not here, not here. On that level, it is also me getting increasingly annoyed about my brain of pre-formulating a blog post, after all not relevant anyways, a zero-comments kind of thing, instead of just not thinking anything and enjoying; fully immerse! Why bother? Not sure, but I didn’t particularly like it.

In Carr’s words, the Net is best understood as the latest in a long series of tools that have helped mold the human mind. And really, this is about increasingly feeling distracted when walking through life. Yes, there are many, many good usages in having the world in our pockets too, I absolutely agree, but there is a price to pay (many prices, in fact, that we don’t tend to think about, but energy usage and raw materials and all the other  ‘externalities’ aside, this is about not-so-easy-to-measure price that our minds have to pay). Good old McLuhan called the content of a medium “the juice piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind”. What he could have hardly foreseen is that it is not just the content, but on another level, the medium itself.

Heidegger calls our ability to engage in meditative thinking the very essence of our humanity; “The frenzied-ness of technology threatens to entrench itself everywhere”, he says. Everywhere? Uh.

luciashitphoto
And yes, here’s my smartphone-event-picture. Shitty, right?

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Tasteful Unsustainability (or the Story of a Green Economy)

When I strolled around the European Parliament in Brussels and suddenly noticed a poster that titled ‘Sustaining Sustainability’ in big red letters, then it caught my attention because of two reasons: First, such an over-exploitation of an already over-exploited catchphrase can only mean trouble and second, it happened right here, right now. The subtitle “making economics work for the global environment” combined with the list of high-profile speakers made me consider to send a short prayer to my god, random chance. Wasn’t that exactly the same question that I was pondering about for the last few month? Of course it was! Seeing whether or how an academic perspective would fit with a political, ‘real life’ one, oh how interesting!

The lecture was the STOA Annual Lecture 2013, where STOA is the Science and Technology Options Assessment panel of the European Parliament, being occupied with carrying out “expert, independent assessments of the impact of new technologies and identify long-term, strategic policy options useful to the Parliament’s committees in their policy-making role”. To set things into perspectives here, last year the panel had the General-Director of CERN talk about life, the universe, and everything (however, I’m only positive about the universe, but would imply the rest) or Tim Berners-Lee about an open Internet. That’s how high-key those lectures are. A few solid years into yet-another solid financial crisis, it is indeed refreshing to finally see basic economic issues discussed at such a level; it is overdue to do so.

Trip to the EU Parlament in Brussels
In the EU-Parliament. Red Letters!

Getting back to the working title of the lecture, for me it is a poorly chosen one. For one, what is sustainability anyways, and furthermore, ‘sustaining sustainability’ would imply that sustainability, in an economic context, is something that we already have and now need to sustain, i.e. keep up. An overwhelming amount of evidence tells us that we are, at a global as well as on local level, not even remotely at such a development stage. A more appropriate title would have been ‘towards a more sustainable global economy’, or something on those lines. Anyway, any effort in that direction is a positive one, no matter the title. Let’s discuss what was presented and simultaneously translated into eleven languages.

As always with critical topics about our environment, current extreme weather events make a good introduction (this time: the taifun Haiyan raging on the Philippines). To frame the discussion, the concept of a “green economy” is seen at the core of EU’s 2020 strategy, however still showing disappointing results and an increasingly polarized debate. Too often, it is said, is economic growth focused on short-term results; However, green growth would be compatible within the EU, and it’s task then is to engage global partners. To already do some environmental good, physical presence would be avoided since the whole talk was live-streamed online and questions to the panel could be tweeted in (#STOA2013). Also electronically, MEP and vice-president responsible for STOA, Oldrich Vlasák, opened with optimistically claiming that “today’s discussion might provide an answer” and proposed to “let legislators legislate, markets market, and researchers research”. One might critically point out that, when let alone, the first two of those workings are part of the reason why we are in need for this discussion in the first place; but I agree on the last point.

Trip to the EU Parlament in Brussels
The Panel.

The first keynote (New Thinking, New Measures, New Policies! Presentation here) was given by Ismail Serageldin, Director of the Library of Alexandria and a former vice-president of the World Bank (danger!). In that respect, he seemingly follows Joseph Stiglitz in jumping high from a Bretton Woods institution  to now, finally, question the neoliberal ideology and pointed out a few valuable things to consider while doing so. First, measurements: we, the collective intelligence of homo sapiens, now slowly come to realize that GDP is possibly not the holy grail to chaise for our national economies; It simply measures the wrong thing which then gives wrong incentives. As illustrating examples, the GDP value of a tree is zero while standing but >zero when transformed into toilet paper. Many alternative measurements have been proposed over the last years, for example the UNDP’s Human Development Index (HDI). Notably, when adjusted for inequality as to include a societal measure, the USA dropped twelve places down the ranking. However, even though we note that yes, inequality is certainly an important issue to keep in mind, HDI and similar measurements still leave out valuable variables, especially related to the environment. So, as “first steps in an ongoing journey”, Serageldin environmental national accounts and genuine (green) savings, contributing to an unmasking of many things left out by conventional economic thinking. Of course, no measurement can ever be perfect, given our world’s incredible complexity, but let me at that point refer you to a recent and very interesting discussion on the BBC Forum on the question of why we measure, in general. In this, Oliver James explains our need to measure connected to the rise of the free market economy about 30 years ago, where a business school-educated elite tries to find ways to squeeze out ever more from a broad base (or, us). In other words, an unequal society getting ever more unequal, which then … well, see above.
Serageldin continues to talk about sustainability as opportunity, which nicely framed sounds of course tempting. Not only will we save our planet having sustainability managed right, we also all end up living better! His definitions was on the lines of giving future generations as many, or more, opportunities as we had ourselves; or, in other words, more personal capital. This term comprises four other forms of capital within: (1) man-made (or produced), (2) natural, (3) social, and (4) human capital. Those four kinds of capital are partially substitutes and partially complements, meaning that the mix can change. Looking at the wealth accounting provides the following: only 20% of all wealth, everywhere, can be accounted for by produced assets (which is what economics tends to look at). The rest, or 80%, is made up of natural and human capital, therefore being the “real wealth of nations”. Hence, Serageldin  urges, it is “time for a real paradigm shift in economic thinking”; Our obsession with GDP growth would be “almost criminal” (I have to add: absolutely, although being, after having read Kuhn, a bit reluctant to use ‘paradigm shift’, but lets agree on ‘a new way of looking at things’).

The next speaker, UNEP’s Achim Steiner, left the audience with a video message talking about the importance of the “green economy”, but his talk seemed very much like a high-level UN document, therefore strong in buzz words but lacking any concrete content. To move on, Monika Kirchner from Infineon Austria told us great stories about why her company is so highly efficient, which we accept for now but also note that her views as a CEO may be a bit, well, biased in that respect. To move on further, Hans Bruyninckx (presentation here) from the European Environment Agency (EEA) pledged for an “absolute decoupling” of economic performance and efficiency gains. Also, noting that a simple focus on an increased resource efficiency is not enough (e.g., homes are more efficient, but also larger), we need to rather focus on system innovations, and not on small, incremental ones. Bruyninckx also reminded us that ecosystem resilience must be explicitly targeted – and that, more generally, we need to work on changing the message and the discourse. Yep, working on it.

In an interesting Q&A session after the official discussions, Bruyninckx pointed out that the most dangerous hegemony is the one that allows no other dominant thought (the question was about economic growth). Because it is even hard to think otherwise, solutions will likely not be sufficient because leaving out the root of the problem; we ought to break out of that paradigm (what out, here’s that word again)! Regarding education, the system that was developed during the last 150 years, roughly about having children repeat boring tasks, we do need some fundamental change here, too. And, more specifically, in economic education, which masters leaving out much of the valuable questions altogether. But, Serageldin is convinced, “change will come” (although maybe too slowly). Finding ourselves in a TINA (there is no alternative) situation, we ran out of time to wait and define things; we ought to act. Yes. Finally, on the question whether EU leaders are ready for a green economy: “some are”. Positively stated, the lecture was sympatrically summarized by Anne Glover, Chief Scientific Advisor to the President of the European Commission. Long title, short message: Continual economic growth can’t happen, since (hopefully, by now, most of us realize that) we live on a finite planet which implies finite resources, except three: (1) sunshine, (2) gravity, and (3) human ingenuity [I think (3) is a bit overly optimistic (and in fact not quite infinite, but possibly still very big), and living in Sweden and the month being November, I now even subjectively doubt (1), but I’m sure that’s different in other places].

SO: As we now successfully acquired the knowledge that our Western lifestyles are certainly not sustainable, we have the great opportunity to work towards changing that. However, people tend to be lazy and reluctant to change. So we all clap enthusiastically, walk out of that lecture room warm-heared and ready to change the world just to find precisely a perfect example of what is described above: A breathtakingly variant (for my student standards, at least) dinner buffet with everything from mussel morsels to exotic fruit skewers (with pineapples from Indonesia, kiwis from New Zealand, strawberries from Spain, etc. [NB: educated guess]) to many other things I can’t possibly describe with my limited language skills but assuringly tasted fantastic. Now of course everyone walk up and feasts; because it just tasted so damn good! Also, it’s there. And this ironically illustrates what in my opinion much of sustainability debates are subject to: Ambitions talk yes, but change, not necessarily. But at least, we talk.

tasty!!
Mmmh!

 

So long, and thanks for all the fish.

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