Posted by: soniahs | July 10, 2010

Exam Reading: “Greening through IT”

This book, “Greening through IT” by Bill Tomlinson, is one of the newer ones added to the T&T core reading list, and addresses one area that I think the core list as a whole ignored previously: the broad-scale material basis of electronic technologies. While many of the theorists covered in the program emphasize the connections between mind and materiality (e.g., the physical experience of interacting with a computer is part of what makes reading online different from reading a book), no one thus far has addressed the broader ecological implications of these new technologies.

I would venture that most theorists approaching the T&T field from a critical theory perspective are (understandably) not aware of the ecological sustainability issues surrounding electronic tech- for example, electricity use, e-waste, programmed obsolescence of devices. Most authors focus on the social/philosophical implications of new technologies, and there’s a definite assumption overall that we will be able to continue to physically make and use these technologies in the future, without too much consideration of natural resource limitations. Even the authors who focus on “materiality” of technology focus on the individual user-machine interaction.

So there’s a need in the program for attention to these issues (which are a main concern of mine, given my background in ecology). I think Tomlinson’s book does a decent job of addressing them. It’s not the perfect book on this issue for this program- I can see some of the more theory-centered students discounting it because of its low theory quotient (and that apparently annoying “evidence is used to support my theory, not contest it” thing). However, it does provide a needed perspective to the program, and I’m not sure what an alternative text that addresses these issues might be…

Summary: Discusses potential uses of information & communication technologies (ICT) for environmental sustainability. Tomlinson lays out a framework for “extended human-centered computing” (EHCC), which requires consciousness of scale (temporal, physical, complexity) when analyzing problems, guides system development in green directions, and compares technologies in a range of time/space/complexity scales to identify gaps not being addressed. There’s detail about various environmental problems, social barriers to change, and how we can use IT to address both of these large areas. There’s a lot of detail, but it basically boils down to expanding our sense of/ability to cope with large time/space/complexity scales. Touches on three orders of effects of technologies, which need to be considered: 1st (direct effects), 2nd (specific impacts on other economic sectors), and 3rd (general social or cross-industry effects). He breaks down his discussion of pathways for using green IT ides into industrial, educational, personal motivation, and collective action categories (a lot of detail is outlined for each category). He presents several case studies in education, personal data tracking, and collective action, and discusses how each worked (or didn’t).

Comments: This book was heavy on examples, and perhaps short on theory. It would have been nice to see how the EHCC framework was used specifically to address gaps in scale (is there a heuristic for applying it in specific cases?). In the case studies, it seemed that the more controlled the environment, the better the technology worked for its designed purpose, e.g., the museum display worked better than the online programs that utilized crowdsourcing. I’d like to see more research on whether crowdsourcing/networking actually works for more than just getting Betty White on SNL (granted, this area of research is in its infancy). It’s also possible that more advanced research in museum displays/childhood education in general are responsible for this effect. The question seems to be how to get adults to buy into some of these ideas. Some of the cited examples (Indian fishermen) seemed to be more effective, though that could be because he was emphasizing the positibes. The context/discussion of the theory of punctuated equilibrium was odd-with his emphasis on the importance of metaphors that work on more than just the surface (an idea I feel strongly about), this bugged me.

Links to: Norman (technology design), Feenberg (applied case of design with technical and social ends in mind), Spinuzzi (objects & network formation?), Johnson (design for a purpose, though T. specifically focuses on the larger system rather than the user- the opposite direction from J?)

Edited 8/28 to add links, correct Johnson’s name.



  1. […] to: Tomlinson (theoretical aspects of networks); Haraway (cyborg identity, workers’ need for constant […]


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