Advanced Computing in the Age of AI | Sunday, September 24, 2023

Opinion: Think Caring, not Persuasive, Technology 

Green is a metaphor for a healthy environment, and greening entails activities to restore and maintain its health. Given its current poor health, virtually all greening is aimed at making the environment less unhealthy. 

In preparation for this piece, I scanned the archives on what I thought was Green Computing Report, but my sloppy typing led me to Green Computing News instead where I found this article that left me scratching my head. Here's the first paragraph:

Bally Technologies, Inc. . . . today announced its online slot games are now available on the United Kingdom-based Mr. Green.

Curious as to this mysterious Mr. Green was, I read further and was introduced to him:

Mr. Green was the first online casino to offer games from several different casino vendors through an in-house developed seamless solution, which makes it possible for players to change vendors without exchanging chips or coins.

Correcting my error, I soon found myself scanning the archives of the right site, but Mr Green wouldn't go away. The connection of this Mr. Green to someone associated with "green" in the environmental sense I am used to is tenuous at best. Perhaps it comes from the ubiquitous green baize found in table covers in most gambling rooms. My thinking about green and sustainability starts a long way away from a Blackjack table cover. Green is a metaphor for a healthy environment, and greening entails activities to restore and maintain its health. Given its current poor health, virtually all greening is aimed at making the environment less unhealthy.

This double negative has been one of the key triggers of my concern that greening, although very important, has little or nothing to do with sustainability. Andy Hoffman and I explore this conundrum in our recent book, Flourishing: A Frank Conversation about Sustainability (Stanford Business Press, 2013). For us, sustainability is about a vision of a flourishing future that is worth creating and maintaining. What do we mean? Let's first examine the conventional use of sustainability. Most people do not know what they mean by sustainability, judging not only by their words but, more importantly, by their actions. Sustainability always carries a sense of continuing to create or maintain something. Without specifically naming the something as we do in calling out flourishing as the goal, the cry for sustainability is a call for maintaining something about the status quo.

What might business want to sustain? Growth for each firm and the overall economy. Growth underpins business strategy. Virtually all strategic initiatives aim at producing growth. Eco-efficiency or greening is a means to that end. How about global policy-makers? The answer is the same. Sustainable development is fundamentally a growth strategy. On a national scale, political leaders want, guess what: growth. How about individuals? Their call is for more. Poor people want more wealth to compete for sustenance in the immediate economic zero-sum game. Rich people want more to win the game of acquisition of things and wealth we play these days. All are concerned about getting a bigger share of what is available now.

To get more for everybody the pie must grow. Is there anything wrong with this basic idea, other than the unfairness that it breeds? If the source of growth was an infinite pot of goodies, there's nothing wrong in theory. But this simple economic model has several serious, probably fatal, flaws. One is, of course, that the world, the ultimate source of goods, is finite. Eventually we will exhaust the resources necessary to support human (and other) life. In some areas, we are already doing that.

But there is another flaw that keeps getting ignored or denied. The metabolism of individual organisms and of collective economic activities produces toxins that eventually stop growth and even life. If yeast cells are placed into a sugar solution, a seeming infinite source of nutrients, they will grow exponentially for a while, but, at some point, growth will stop and they come to a steady-state. Good so far, but after a while the entire colony of cells dies, not because the food is exhausted, but because they have been producing toxic wastes that accumulate to a point where life cannot continue. The parallel to our economic world is stark. Humans have more smarts and tools available to them to cope with a finite world than do yeast cells, but even these have limits, too often ignored in the hubristic behavior of modern societies. Climate change is the most evident sign of this.

Growth is not the right thing to sustain, certainly in those parts of the world that already have benefitted from this modern notion. Sustaining growth is not the same as sustaining some thing or quality. This conventional form of sustainability is process oriented. Calls for "sustainability" from the computer world and other business sectors are aimed at maintaining the context for growth, primarily by keeping the world available as a source of growth. Their calls show little or no concern for that world beyond its ability to support growth. I suggest we keep the yeast example in sight.

We are caught in a vicious cycle. Our basic beliefs about humans having insatiable needs has led us to a state that is impossible to maintain. Are we, then, at the end of history? I do not believe so primarily because I do not believe that the model of human being that always calls for more is correct, but clearly dominates modern cultures. That does not make it true. While humans have always needed to protect themselves against the exigencies of life, including those caused by both nature and by human actions, such requirements are not infinite and can be satisfied without growing forever. The persistence of this economistic model suggests that we have lost our original understanding of what makes our species unique.

We evolved as a species that cares about itself and the world. Our unique powers of consciousness enable such care. If an organism, like yeast, is not aware of its existence, it cannot take intentional actions. It can and does survive, but not through caring actions. Care entails intentional acts that require consciousness. Humans have continued to incorporate actions coming from our evolutionary past; we share certain emotions with other life. But care is what makes us both different and special. Care is measured by its quality and state of completion. Care is not about more, except when it has become perverted by our cultural blinders. Flourishing is the term I have used as a measure of both the quality and completeness of one's caring actions. Actions are, after all, what makes us human Beings. Be is a verb. Our existence is constituted by what we do or, bending language a bit, how we be. Sustainability should be about maintaining flourishing, as Andy and I have written.

The computer industry plays a disproportionate role in today's society. Its impact on our lives outweighs its economic scale. Whatever efforts taken to green itself are meritorious, but the industry has yet to do much about sustainability-as-flourishing unless one counts flourishing as the number of apps on a smart phone or the number of friends on Facebook. Maybe the digital structure of computing cannot produce qualities, only numbers?

The real sustainability challenge for the industry is to figure out how to use computers to enable people to satisfy their cares in pursuit of flourishing. Idleness or leisure is a basic domain of care by my account and people should spent time in this arena. But is running 10 or more Games With Friends simultaneously on a tablet the way to authentic satisfaction? Other basic domains of care include subsistence, family, authenticity, and creation. The first is an easy target and there are many computer applications that support one's intentions here.

Care for others, whether in family, membership or other social organizations, is harder. Social media are wondrous in their power to create connections and can coordinate action to take care of the world (another domain). The hardest domain may be that of authenticity, acting from one's unfettered consciousness of self. Using persuasive technology to design apps does just the opposite. The advertising structure that provides income also runs in an opposite direction.

There is no question that computers have made us much more efficient in many ways, but efficiency doesn't create flourishing. Here's a challenge to end this piece. Develop a new design methodology, called, say, caring technology, to replace persuasive technology. Computers and applications that enhance, rather than suppress, authenticity and support caring actions would go far on the way to sustainability-as-flourishing.

About the Author

Dr. John R. Ehrenfeld currently serves as Executive Director of the International Society for Industrial Ecology. He retired in 2000 as the Director of the MIT Program on Technology, Business, and Environment, an interdisciplinary educational, research, and policy program. He holds a post as Senior Research Scholar at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. He continues to teach, do research, and write.