Saturday, April 16, 2016

Complexity, Computing, Citizenship

This was originally posted on June 7, 2009 at 9:33 pm by the same name on another blog platform.

Here is a quote from an article ( on the conference I'm attending tomorrow:

"Conservationists will report on using computers to find the best balance of many competing factors in deciding, for example, which tracts of land to purchase to preserve a species, taking into account the budget, cost of parcels, economic impact on nearby communities and the best interests of the species. ... In projects like these, computers offer a way to try out thousands or even millions of possible scenarios, ..."

The scope of the conference is much broader than this one example, but all or most of the projects to be discussed will be looking at complex environmental and societal problems with multiple competing interests -- interdependent interests that have to be (or should be) balanced.

As my plane was touching down in Ithaca -- I mean just as the wheels hit the ground, I was reading this from "Soul of a Citizen" (Paul Loeb), quoting Wendell Berry:

"A bad solution is bad, because it acts destructively upon the larger patterns in which it is contained ... because it is formed in ignorance or disregard of them. A bad solution solves for a single purpose or goal, such as increased production. And it is typical of such solutions that they achieve stupendous increases in production at exorbitant biological and social costs."

and after more acknowledgement of Berry, and Loeb's inferences that "good solutions ... are part of a larger whole", Loeb goes on to say "We can contribute to the well-being of our society, the body politic, by applying a similarly holistic ethic of interdependence, and by listening to those whose voices are too often excluded from public discussion." (p. 131, Soul of a Citizen).

This reading was striking because acknowledging and balancing interdependent factors, concerns, and the like, is largely what this conference on Computational Sustainability is about, and using computer power to converge on and manage complex balancing acts which long-term sustainability will require.

I'm going into this conference, having just finished the conference of policy makers in Copenhagen on Information Technology and the Environment, with several "big" questions. One is what are the different meanings of "sustainability", if in fact anyone has a good definition? Exactly what are people expecting/wanting to be sustained? Of late, I've been disappointed that biodiversity doesn't seem to be something that is an explicit part of discussion -- it seems that as the environment worsens, values that we thought we wanted to be sustained fall away and we are "happy" with increasingly impoverished outcomes. This all fits the addiction model pretty well.

One point that I take from Loeb is that human decision makers ignore or deliberately remain ignorant of factors, sometimes, because they just don't know how to deal with them -- they'll even lie -- blatantly lie -- so that they can avoid the overwhelm caused by complexity. I'm hopeful that computing that enables us to deal with great complexity by processing millions of scenarios will also let us hear and consider all voices, be it the grizzly bears', the ranchers', the tourists', or in another setting, the homeless or the uninsured -- this is, perhaps, a humanistic possibility of computing.

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