Start by remembering these words: “structures of participation.” Now let’s go…
I’ve argued before that, when it comes to using resources effectively, it is not only that we should make sure that our designs and production processes are energy- and material-efficient, but that we should also ensure that even efficiently-used resources enhance rather than reduce quality of life.
One way to express this is with an equation for environmental effectiveness (E):
E = life enhancement / ecological resource use.
The more life enhancement (pleasure, health, contentment, security, community, connectedness) delivered per unit of resource, the higher the environmental effectiveness of the product.
In other words, even a conventionally-grown apple has a higher environmental effectiveness than organically-grown tobacco. And a coal station bringing reading lights to illiterate children is more environmentally effective than one which brings more air conditioning to New Yorkers.
For a while, as my thinking went, I thought that consumer technology could not have a high environmental effectiveness. Much of our technology–video games, TV and computer screens–has the effect of isolating us from each other and so may not enhance our lives in the long run.
And I’ve argued about this with Natalie Jeremijenko, the NYU professor whom we’ve met on this blog before and whom I’m helping to teach a course. She always said that technology in itself was not bad for life enhancement, but that it depended on how it “structured participation.”
Her point was that tech could be built to bring people together and promote community and relationship depending how the “participation was structured” (remember I told you to remember that phrase?). In other words, tech could, in fact, have a high life enhancement and therefore a high, by my definition above, environmental effectiveness.
Now watch the video above. It is this wonderful animation, put together by Natalie, that finally convinced me of her argument. It is based on her studies of how people interact in an art gallery, depending on whether the gallery provides information about the art using text, private ear phones, or a push button loudspeaker.
The video shows three cases. As Natalie writes (slightly adapted by me) on her Vimeo page:
The first case demonstrates the traditional public display of text on museum wall, which, because of the social convention of quiet-while-some-one-is-reading, you can be standing next to someone, but not talk to them and never hear anything of what they are thinking.
In the second case, we see the curatorial information is presented as an audio tour via a privatized audio environment via headset (or similar). This has the effect of synchronizing people temporally, but precludes local discussion–you can’t hear what anyone nearby is saying.
In the third case the curatorial information is presented via a deliberately triggered loudspeaker. This creates a shared audio context for a small group, momentarily synchronizing people spatially and temporally, and providing an opportunity for local comments and discussion.
In the Video Interaction study from which this animation is drawn, the amount of convivial interaction surrounding the speakers was remarkable. If there were other people at an exhibition you were very unlikely not to talk to them (3 in 400 cases); you stayed longer at a works with speakers than the same work without, but the length of time you allocated varied with the number of people who were also there. That is, you stayed longer if there were 4 people other people than if there were 1, as if they were valuable sources of information.
There are two important points here.
One is that the technology–and indeed many of our cultural systems–can be used to pull people apart or draw them together. In other words, we can use resources effectively to enhance life or we can simply use them to make a profit on selling gadgets, regardless of their social effects.
And it seems to me that, using the equation above as a guide to effectiveness, the responsible product designer, with an interest in sustainability, would ensure that his/her designs have the effect of at least delivering high life quality in return for the resources used.
But there is one more point to be made from Natalie’s study–what we talk about nonstop here on this blog. It’s a question, as she puts it, of how we “structure participation” in responses to the environmental emergency.
How do we structure our communication, our organizations, and our efforts in such a way that they don’t act like the private headsets that set our efforts apart but like the shared speakers that bring them together.
How do we find ways that get people talking and inspiring further efforts? How do we get people to take part in our democracy?
That, as Natalie might put it, all depends on how we “structure participation.”