It’s been a long time since I posted. I’ve been working on lots of things: finishing some writing about knowledge cultures, starting some research on data and ethics, cities and ‘smartness’ , and developing some new teaching provision in these areas. Some of what I’ve been working on is up at academia.edu, and much of it is available at my university’s open access repository.
I’ve also been thinking a lot. Often I’m thinking about the stark contrast between the mundane beauty of the everyday and the almost overwhelming complexity of the reality of the world, with its seemingly insoluable problems of climate change, perpetual war, and rising inequality in the rich world. How is it ethically possible to continue to enjoy the benefits of a highly developed society in the knowledge of these problems? What responsibilities do we have?
The barrier to taking on this tension lies in the difficulty of connecting the everyday to the systemic, the banal action to its complex consequence. It requires thinking about the extent to which the global connects to the local, and the present to the unknown future.
This is a picture of my street, located in the middle of an enormous city. It is beautiful, I think. It is also full of complexity. There is a school: an institution with power, with connections to the state. There are trees full of birds and squirrels and foxes. There are lots of people who live on the street who come from different countries in the world and who are all trying to get along in this city. There are airplanes flying in the sky hazed with pollution, in the warm November (and remember, there used to not be warm Novembers).
There are millions of streets in the world. Indeed, most people in the world will shortly be living in cities, if they don’t already. Streets and cities are persistent human constructions. Given that we are now living in a new epoch, an ‘Anthropocene‘ characterized by the massive impact on the entire planet of the human species and our particular habits, perhaps we could think more carefully about how we live within these particular environments created and shaped by us.
Even in cities the humans are not the only ones around. Recent research indicates that cities have surprisingly high biodiversity. London supports bee colonies, in part because of lower pesticide use. Foxes are a permanent part of the city environment. On my street there are also snails, slugs, bats, bugs, and rats in abundance too (I am sure there are rats. There are always rats).
So we are somehow managing to live alongside these other creatures, although every time a neighbour replaces their back yard with a big extension I wonder about the consequences. How can we live with others?
This question is valuable in terms of the human world as well. This week I got to go to an event called ‘Design for Sharing’ that launched a report into the practices of collaboration. These are the everyday things that keep neighbourhoods and people together: sharing food, or tools, or trading goods, or time. Although the ‘sharing economy’ of Uber and Air BnB is gaining attention, this is actually a distributed rental economy, and the attention is often focusing us away from understanding how people share and why.
The research that Design for Sharing presented shows that there are many ways to share – starting with one small thing, weaving people and objects and ideas together. But what is significant is how little ICT tools feature in sharing practices. It seems that in the everyday world of communities and objects, trust and relationships are built face to face. We can contrast this with the way that many relationships including the online ‘sharing economy’ examples are mediated by data, information and metrics. How then are the relationships of trust meant to be constructed? The response, for Uber and Air BnB and many other businesses, is to apply data analytics, and use them to broker the relationship.
This means that sharing relationships can scale up enormously. They are no longer limited by who you know and hence who you trust. There are clearly many possible social gains in this kind of understanding. But what of the losses? What does it mean to cede judgement to an analytic process? In part it means that only information that can be placed in the process can be considered. For the creation of online relationships, this often means quantified data. We are now starting to understand what the cultural consequences of quantification may be: Benjamin Grosser has written a revealing essay “What do Metrics Want” about the shift in culture aligned with a culture of metric. He writes, “Theodore Porter, in his study of quantification titled Trust in Numbers, calls quantification a “technology of distance” that “minimizes the need for initmate knowledge and personal trust.” Enumeration is impersonal, suggests objectivity, and in the case of social quantification, abstracts individuality.”
This abstracting of individuality is part of the influence that the metrics have within the system. This influence is oriented around the idea of ‘more’ – more measurement, more participation, more value for the owners of Facebook. And the quantification of social interaction simultaneously renders the content and meaning of the interaction less valuable.
This is the precise opposite of the kinds of intimate trust relationships that motivate people to solve problems together. It is also a dangerous reduction of the kind of relational complexity that I evoked when I wrote about the many things, beings, and systems that exist and interact on the street where I live. What is important becomes what can be measured, and what is measured becomes what is valuable. But what of the things that are difficult to measure, like the feeling of the leaves, or the friendliness of the neighbours? Or even those things that are transformed through the process of measurement, like a sense of community? What might be lost in the measuring process?
I would like to think of another way being responsible. Everything counts, yes, but what if we thought that everything matters?