1. My thesis in 2-minutes.

    In Liz Danzico’s Thesis Presentation class, we had to present an overview of our purpose statement with (gasp!) no slides. The following is a transcript of what I presented to the class and visiting critics:

    I’m investigating the environmental effects of our overfed data diets, in particular the disconnect that we as producers and consumers of digital content have with the physical infrastructure of the computing cloud. To frame my hypothesis, I asked the question. “Does demonstrating the correlation of cloud-based computing with carbon dioxide emissions lead to a decrease in digital consumption?”

    What I’m talking about is the environmental impact of your data, specifically, the carbon footprint of bytes (KB, MB, GB) which requires infrastructure and energy to transmit and store. These bytes exist in large data centers, some powered in part by renewable resources with energy efficient architecture, while many others receive all their energy from non-renewable resources. Globally, data centers accounted for 1.5% of total electricity use and 2.2% of energy use in the US in 2010. These figures increased 36% (globally) and 56% (US) from 2005; research estimated in 2011 that global electricity use of data centers increased by 19%. 

    I’m not the first to look into the environmental effects of cloud-based computing (thankfully). The work of Mike Berners-Lee, author of the Carbon Footprint of Everything, has – without being too esoteric – actually calculated the carbon dioxide emissions (CO2e) of a text message, google search, email, and the worlds data centers, which weigh in at a staggering 130 million tons of CO2e. Google has also calculated the carbon footprint of a search request at 0.2g CO2e. The amount is seemingly small, but with an estimated 200 million to 500 million search queries per day, 1.3 million tons of CO2e are produced per year just from Google searches.

    Notwithstanding my explanations of environmental consequences, many people I’ve explained my thesis to claim the issue minute – “a drop of water in a sea of larger issues”. Individually, yes. But on a collective level, we encounter a phenomenon called the rebound effect: as technology allows faster and easier access to a resource, the faster that resource is used. The consequence is a low-carbon interaction resulting in a high-carbon lifestyle simply because we do it more.

    More notably is the cloud computing phenomenon. As users, we are comfortable with not knowing the systems that house our data, specifically how much data we actually have amassed, where it is actually physically located, and that the government can access our data regardless of 4th amendment protections. As we produce and consume mass amounts of digital content, it seems that the cloud has become a digital attic for our quickly forgotten information and past interactions.

    As the semester progresses, I will be proposing a set of tools and design interventions for the moment of production and consumption of digital content. Goals for my thesis include: conscious production and consumption of digital content, a higher awareness of the environmental effects and societal issues around cloud-based computing, an understanding of the systems behind cloud-based computing and digital content production/creation, and initiate a dialogue around theses topics.

    References:

    Berners-Lee, Mike. How Bad Are Bananas? The Carbon Footprint of Everything. Vancouver: Greystone, 2011.

    Jonathan G. Koomey, Ph.D., “Growth in Data Center Electricity Use 2005 to 2010,” Analytics Press, August 1, 2011.

    Urs Hölzle, “Powering a Google Search,” Google Blog, January 11, 2009. accessed December 3, 2011. link

  2. On Emerging Themes of Digital Production and Consumption

    Over the past months, I’ve been reading several books on consumption, culture, design, and the environment. Before I close out the bulk of my secondary research, I want to highlight a few emerging themes regarding our digital production and consumption habits. (I still have to read The Information by James Gleick and Glut by Alex Wright)

    I. Either Never Satisfied or Always Curious

    "Our inventions are but improved means to an unimproved end", as Neil Postman paraphrases Henry David Thoreau in Technopoly. A lofty statement, but one that addresses a fundamental question underlying the torrent of technological advancement in the last 20 years - where is all this headed? While some believe the innovations in technology are leading to a singularity as futurist Raymond Kurzweil proposes, other thought leaders question the insatiable demand for new information and our dissatisfaction with the here and now.

    John Thackara, author of In The Bubble, illustrates our growing dissatisfaction with the analogy of a boy, sitting under a tree, looking out over a landscape. In one case, the boy exists before the invention of the internet, cellphones, pagers; the other case describes the boy existing now. Which boy is more thoughtful in the moment, satisfied with the solitude of thought? Those not part of the Millennial generation might agree with the latter. Some, such as writer Clive Thompson, argues otherwise, saying the boy is actively seeking inspiration to share rather than waiting for some serendipitous apple to drop.

    With his analogy, Thackara references the Italian concept of dolce far niente, describing one’s ability to find pleasure in idleness, literally meaning “sweet doing nothing”. Elizabeth Gilbert also writes about the concept in her book, Eat, Pray, Love. Both authors question whether we can enjoy a moment to ourselves without being able to communicate that feeling to others. In On Paradise Drive, David Brooks criticizes Americans who have never been satisfied with what they have and who are constantly pursuing the next best thing. Applied to our various communication devices, are we loosing our ability to be satisfied with our current place in life by chasing digital bits of potential affirmation?

    II. Seamlessness and Time

    A longtime priority of interaction designers has been to erase the boundaries between experiences with technology, i.e. create a seamless experience. This can range from how easily a user can charge or sync an iPod with his/her computer to the consistency of content design across devices (phone, tablet, computer, television). A fundamental promise of technology: save the user from the drudgery of tasks and make the ones required of them easier.

    In Everywhere, Adam Greenfield points out that, as does computer scientist Mark Weiser, seamlessness can make experiences, “hard to tell when one thing ends and something else begins”. Think of it this way: where and when can you check your email? text or call a friend? Practically anywhere. With this ubiquitous power, our divisions of time – work time, family time, play time – are removed. Thackera also warns that even the design of our spaces can make our bodies, “physically desensitized from its sense of time”. Moreover, Postman laments that the promise of technology is to give us more time by accomplishing tasks faster, “Time, in fact, became an adversary over which technology could triumph.”

    Our attempts to create efficiencies with technology and task completion begets more space for other activities; this space however is often filled with more of the same activity – a consequence described as the rebound effect. The concept explains as technology allows easier access and faster use of a resource (time), the more of that resource is used. The effect leaves us wondering where all our time went.

    III. Information as Metaphor: Water, Garbage, Food

    Open access to a seemingly infinite amount of information is often framed as metaphor. In The Middle Mind, Curtis White describes the abundance of information as a deluge, leaving us to drown in sea of entertainment and communication when all we wanted was a drink. Postman moves up the pessimism scale, declaring, “Information has become a form of garbage”. Beyond subjectivity, his point is reinforced with the advent of content farms – creating content on a mass scale as quickly as possible to seed hundreds of websites for daily use, only to then be forgotten and “thrown away” into a far off database.

    The most consistent metaphor used is information as food. Douglas Rushkoff quotes Shakespeare in his Frontline report, Digital Nation, saying “we are consumed by that we are nourished”. The more quickly we snack on tiny morsels of information [sic], the more our ideas are shaped into bursts of disconnected thought. In his report, Rushkoff points out as undergraduate college students produce and consume information through endless multi-tasking, their ability to defend a thoughtful, consistent argument in an essay is diminished. Gone are the days musing by Walden Pond.

    Exploring similar themes in his new book, The Information Diet, Clay Johnson states, “information consumption is as active an experience as eating”, equating our cravings for salt, fat, and sugar in cheap foods with our desire for affirmation. By quickly viewing and sharing information, we fall prey to our desires of affirmation and recognition (as many media companies have learned), resulting in “information obesity”. Similarly, this rapid, cyclical behavior leads Microsoft researcher danah boyd to describe social media as being the “psychological equivalent of obesity”.

    IV. The Cloud as a Virtual Attic and Digital Hoarding

    While Postman describes information as garbage, more and more it seems to be something we can stash away in our cloud. Given the amount of storage available for various cloud-based services (generally advertised as being “unlimited”), producing and saving information is effortless. We are no longer limited by available storage on our computers and devices; we can save our digital content on nearly infinite levels. For example, as of today, I’m only using 88 MB of 7,671 MB available to me on my GMail account. Why delete an email when I can just have it on hand?

    To me, this is a form of hoarding – saving items of little or no utility for the chance of *possible* use in the future. Seemingly irrational, our digital lifestyle has become a paradox of loss aversion, a decision theory determined by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman. Loss aversion states that we can make decisions based on our desire to avoid loss rather than acquire gains; fears of loosing our digital information forever can be alleviated by storing that information in the cloud. In his classic routine, George Carlin jokes that our homes are just places to store all our stuff. I would argue that our cloud-based services are not only means to access our content anywhere, but are actually digital attics where we can just store all our stuff.

    V. Conspicuous Consumption vs. Conspicuous Production

    Way back in 2001, David Brooks wrote Bobos in Paradise, which described a new upper class of now grey-haired bohemians who express their values with a bourgeois budget. It’s not enough to eat “morally neutral sausages”; Bobos must eat sausage made from local, free-range pork using a recipe passed down through the generations, costing far more than any offering from Jimmy Dean. ”Shopping, like everything else, has become a means of self-exploration and self-expression”, he writes. Through conspicuous consumption, we display our values and beliefs.

    It is now 2012. Our consumption as communicating success has shifted to boasting through production of content. We are all our own PR firm and with the tools of social media, we can broadcast our lives and interests with a simple click or tap. This sentiment is echoed by Kickstarter co-founder Yancy Strickler and entrepreneur Zach Klein in a recent post, pointing out that conspicuous production is now our means for transmitting values. With every upload and post, we are not only showing the world what we have or what we find interesting, but we are also searching for affirmation. I doubt anyone would continue to post content without feedback from friends, family, or strangers.

    In another book by David Brooks, The Social Animal, he mentions the ancient Greek concept of thumos: the human desire for recognition of one’s own existence. With today’s social media tools, our ability to fulfill our own personal thumos is for the taking (or clicking); but the question remains – if everyone is seeking recognition, can we all respond to one another despite the cacophony of requests?

    VI. Starting to Lean Back

    Apple founder Steve Jobs, in addressing a conference, said, “We think basically you watch television to turn your brain off, and you work on your computer when you want to turn your brain on.” What Jobs is referring to is the notion of “hot” and “cool” media, a concept first introduced by the late theorist Marshall McLuhan (also recently covered by Paul Ford in our Content Strategy class). “Hot” media are highly defined mediums which engage one sense of the viewer and require very little participation. On the other hand, “cool” media are low definition mediums that demand more viewer participation and require more attention.

    Another closely related classification of media are “lean-forward” and “lean-back” mediums. Television is a “lean-back” medium where viewers want to be entertained and are in a relaxed, passive state. In “lean-forward” mediums, the Internet, for example, viewers are more engaged users of the medium and are in a more active state. But as Eli Pariser points out in The Filter Bubble, the Internet is becoming a “lean-back” medium.

    Increasingly, we are watching more video content online. In fact, nearly a third of all Internet traffic is from watching movies and shows on Netflix. Both YouTube and Vimeo have recognized this trend and designed LeanBack and Couch Mode features respectively, so users can watch content on a television or by simply “leaning-back” in a chair. Notwithstanding online video content, our Internet tools and apps allow us to sort through and parse vast amounts of information, easing the burden of search. This does not sound bad at all, but Eli Pariser warns, “as personalized filtering gets better and better, the amount of energy we’ll have to devote to choosing what we’d like to see will continue to decrease.”

    References:

    Brooks, David. Bobos In Paradise. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001.

    Brooks, David. On Paradise Drive. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004.

    Brooks, David. The Social Animal. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011.

    Clive Thompson, “The Instagram Effect,” Wired, January 2012. link

    Douglas Rushkoff. “Digital Nation,” Frontline. Produced by Rachel Dretzin. Boston, MA: WGBH Studios, 2010. link

    Greenfield, Adam. Everywhere. Berkley: New Riders, 2006.

    Johnson, Clay. The Information Diet. Sebastopol: O’Reilly, 2012.

    McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1994.

    Nancy Miller, “Manifesto for a New Age,” Wired, March 2007. link

    Pariser, Eli. The Filter Bubble. New York: The Penguin Press, 2011.

    Peter Svensson, “Netflix’s Internet traffic overtakes Web surfing” MSNBC. May 17, 2011. accessed January 18, 2011. link

    Postman, Neil. Technolopy. New York: Vintage Books, 1992.

    Thackera, John. In the Bubble. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006.

    White, Curtis. The Middle Mind. New York: HarperOne, 2003.

  3. Going Back to the Future, or to July 2011

    An Alternate 1985

    In the movie Back to the Future Part II, the main character Marty McFly commits the ultimate snafu by leaving a sports almanac in plain sight of an aged version of his arch nemesis, Biff, in the year 2015. Old Biff then hijacks the time-traveling Delorean to travel back to 1955 to give his younger self the sports almanac from the future. Over the next 30 years, Biff uses it to amass a vast sum of money from gambling on sports, always knowing the winner. When Marty arrives back to 1985, he discovers an “alternate 1985” where Biff is his step-dad, mayor of his hometown Hill Valley, and owns just about everything. Way to go, Marty.

    By comparison, Fiona Raby and Anthony Dunne from the Royal College of Art camp put forward the idea of “alternative nows”, offering visions of “how things could be right now if we had different values”. (Moggridge, 2006) Excluding Biff’s iron fist, their work remains in the noir, suggesting, for example, a reality where children grow meat to power their television. Notwithstanding Guy Montag knocking on your door right now, I’d like to imagine a current state where the Knowledge Navigator actually caught on and gestural interfaces – rather than a mouse – were our means of interacting with a computer.

    Coupled with a growing momentum behind the internet with things, these themes formed an area of exploration of my thesis for about 4 months. The notion of creating new forms of internet-embodied objects as a graduate thesis is very appealing; rants about the need for more tangible interfaces along with explorations by firms such as Berg are evidence that interaction design can extend beyond the screen. Earlier sketches of my thesis included a built shelving unit that glowed when I got mentioned on Twitter (I’ve got 78 followers so not that often).

    But as I focused more on the making physical objects, it became apparent that I needed to go beyond, as our chair Liz Danzico put it, “interesting explorations of an interaction design student”. I decided to shift my focus from investigations in academia to what I had outlined in July 2011, consumption.

    Plunging into the Shonash Ravine

    Staying on the Robert Zemeckis’ riff, Back to the Future Part III finds Marty stuck in 1885 with only one way to get out: get a locomotive to push his time-traveling Delorean up to 88 miles per hour, thus enabling time-travel (duh) to send him back to 1985. The kicker, apart from getting a locomotive to go that fast, was the Shonash Ravine cutting off extra miles train tracks, leaving little room for acceleration and error. Marty’s sidekick, the slapstick genius Doc Brown, calculated a point of no return whereby they must commit to reach 88 mph or plunge into the ravine. Spoiler alert: Marty makes it back to 1985.

    Among many environmentalists, there is a consensus that a point of no return exists for Earth, where we have done so much damage to the environment that human beings can no longer inhabit the planet. Doc Brown knew the exact point of no return on the train tracks, but unfortunately, we cannot agree when or what that point of no return is for our planet. Bill McKibben, outspoken author of The End of Nature, offers a number of 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere as the marker, and has founded a non-profit around the concept. As of October 2011, we are currently at 388 PPM.

    So are we going to plunge into a metaphorical ravine? Yes and no. The ability for our air, land, and water to absorb pollution and then provide its bounty is debatable. Moreover, our behavior, particularly around consumption of natural resources, is so far removed from the extraction, production, distribution, and disposal processes that we have difficultly measuring our collective impact, let alone an individual one. Lester R. Brown of the Earth Policy Institute summarizes, “We are crossing natural thresholds that we cannot see and violating deadlines that we do not recognize.” (Brown, 2008)

    Back to July 2011

    Earlier this year, I drafted a thesis proposal that outlined my exploration for the summer. It stated:

    “In great excess, we can consume digitally at near infinite levels which (I postulate) further removes us from the consequences of our actions. The removal of meaning from the actual object offers another opportunity for investigation on how we consume and ultimately experience these virtual forms.”

    To put it plainly, the further removed from the consequences of our actions, the more we will engage in those actions. Pertaining to our digital consumption habits, there are little to no barriers to produce, save, share, and consume digital content. It’s even the M.O. of internet-based services to make sure our digital lifestyle is seamless and without barriers.

    As we shift our content and communication channels to a digital format, we begin to loose sight of exactly how much data we amass. On a personal computer, it’s easy to notice how much hard drive space we’ve filled, but do you know how much data you have in your Gmail account? Facebook? Flickr? What about all of your online content collectively? One New York based startup, Dispatch, is looking to bring all your cloud-based content into once place; a benefit for those who need to manage their content, but not for those who want to know where their content is physically located. As John Thackera puts it, “These technologies are supposed to give us a clearer image-but by sanitizing the subject, they prevent us from knowing reality itself.” (Thackera, 2006)

    This brings me to server farms or data centers or whatever they’re called. They make cloud-based computing possible and can be found in the form of a small stack in a work closet or come by the thousands, housed in a massive building in Oregon. What’s curious about these (we’ll call them data centers) err, data centers is they consume vast amounts of power. In 2010, global data centers “accounted for between 1.1% and 1.5% of total electricity use.” (Koomey, 2011) The industry recognizes the monetary, and environmental, costs involved with powering and maintaining such large facilities. Recent advances are making data centers more energy efficient, however, as more extreme “green” measures are taken in the location and design of new facilities, many others, old and new, still run on greenhouse gas-emitting fossil fuels.

    Now for July 2011, thinking about the consequences of our consumption. How much power does it take to send an email? Consequently, how much carbon dioxide is produced when I do so? Thankfully, research has been conducted around this question, and Mike Berners-Lee, founder of Small World Consulting, even wrote a book on the topic entitled, “How Bad Are Bananas? The Carbon Footprint of Everything.” But do we keep building more data centers as our data cloud exponentially grows? What happens in 10, 20, 50 years? Are all my pictures and sent emails saved in a virtual shoebox forever? These questions and others help lay the groundwork for my thesis as I move forward with my research, and I can’t wait to get started. Again.

    References:

    Berners-Lee, Mike. How Bad Are Bananas? The Carbon Footprint of Everything. Vancouver: Greystone, 2011.

    Brown, Lester R. Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization. New York: W.W.Norton, 2008.

    Jonathan G. Koomey, Ph.D., “Growth in Data Center Electricity Use 2005 to 2010,” Analytics Press, August 1, 2011.

    Moggridge, Bill. Designing Interactions. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006.

    Thackera, John. In the Bubble. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006.