A most important string to ICT’s bow

In crude terms, the computer industry sees itself as the saviour of the planet and all who inhabit it. Take a briefing from any major ICT company and it will tell you a) how it’s cleaning up its own act and b) how, by buying more ICT stuff, we and the developing world can create a bright and sustainable future for ourselves. The mathematics are fairly simple, if a computer system can run more efficiently and help companies optimise their manufacturing, mining, transport, power generation, power consumption etc, then it’s a win all round. This is built on the assumption that the developing world is doing exactly that (developing) and that the west should help it, providing there’s a buck to be turned in the long term.

God, that sounds depressing. But it’s certainly the case that ICT can help. Problems start when trying to make things happen. Politicians waver this way and that, according to whether they’re trying to be statesmen or representatives of their communities. (Think about wind farms and NIMBYs.) As a long-time sounding board for my rants and self-confessed ’Eco Worrier’ (sic) Al Tepper says, “The political layer is where things won’t happen.” Indeed, individuals also waver hither and thither, according to what authority they’ve most recently read/heard from. It’s hard for them to know which way to turn because of messages emanating from the proliferation of vested interests and fanatics. Exhortation and fanatical evangelism take the place of reason for many of them.

We’ve been here before, many times. The early days of PCs and the web are good examples. Those who could see value then were a tiny minority trying to persuade a slightly larger minority of the revolution that would affect everyone’s lives. In the mid to late seventies, the editor of Computing didn’t want to know about ’microcomputers’. Eventually, PCs and the web went mainstream, but the evangelists were at their most shrill five to ten years before everyone else cottoned on.

Greens go back 30 years, sustainability 22 years and the public web about 16 years and, related to this, social networking has been growing rapidly over the past six years. We ought to know what’s going on in the sustainability/green space and we ought to have the means to share our discoveries (especially for websites and for bloggers that make sense) with others. In this way, we could create a momentum for change based on genuine understanding. It would be based on us as individuals pursuing what we feel to be right, quite independently of the organisations to which we are beholden (like our employers). Through social software, independent and informed communities could coalesce around relevant topics: energy, pollution, water, food or whatever.

This personal mobilisation is in no way a replacement of the predominant top-down systems. Energy suppliers, governments, the United Nations, newspapers and so on, will continue to exert their influence, but upon an increasingly knowledgeable constituency. Change will increasingly start at the bottom and work up, just as some of it will continue to start at the top and work down. As individuals, we each have the potential to separate the good from the bad and the authentic from the greenwash, through our online community connections. This isn’t about exploiting the herd instinct (as much of social media does), it’s about reason and establishing or finding ’reasonable’ social venues to hang out and sharing your discoveries with similarly motivated others.

None of this could happen without the ICT industry. In fact, it could end up being one of the best strings they could add to their collective bow.

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