Visible Energies @ OpenTech


Last weekend, I went to the OpenTech event at the University of London Union, because I spotted a lot of environmentally themed contributions in the programme as well as some references to Nicholas Negroponte’s bits and atoms analogies. So is the geek world going to save the world from environmental collapse? …or should we rather ask ‘how’?

Probably because of my project-tuned ear drums, a running theme through the whole event seemed to be the wish to make things visible. Whether that was invisible electricity/energy use (or carbon output), invisible data flows, invisible accumulations of consumer goods in people’s homes or invisible government workings. Blogs, social networks (e.g. Edenbee), other interactive websites or software were seen as tools that can be used to give visibility to things, and also ‘hardware’ appliances that made things such as electricity or heat output ‘tangible’ were shown, often in connection with the virtual. It reminded me a bit of the ‘Climatised Objects’ project.

After each presentation, there was quite a bit of discussion going on, especially around the effectiveness of making things visible to a mass audience. ‘Do we need to build a device that shows us our ‘carbon footprint’?’ ‘Shouldn’t we rather introduce heavier carbon taxing?’ Many presenters argued in favour of creating awareness through showing people how they contribute to environmental change (for the better or worse). For instance, if things such as carbon taxing got introduced, people just got hit over the head with it, and would not feel a sense of own initiative and power to make small changes themselves. Also, if you are shown different kinds of possibilities for action as well as this knowledge-through-visibility, you then don’t have to wait for slow or ‘obstinate’ governments to change things (as the DIY Kyoto presenter suggested). And so the discussion went back and forth.

One problem with ‘enlightening’ measures that many people could agree on, however, was that, often, websites etc sound too patronising, ‘boring’, ‘not very sociable’ and are too restrictive in their options. As a reaction, people have tried to create better solutions, and there is now a myriad of alternative projects to choose from. But, as one presenters argued, it is better to have too many alternatives than only one option. Talking of too many options, one presenter was so uncomfortable with the amount of different climate change websites that he decided to create a portal for the topic to attempt some sort of orderly platform!

All in all, it was a very interesting to hear what other people get up to on the web. I was particularly surprised that a lot of the people who conceived the different web projects and sites did not have anything to do with IT (or environmentalism) before they embarked on their quests. They were film-makers, music producers, journalists, graphic designers, business people, politicians – to name a few examples – who thought ‘wait a moment’ and then either taught themselves the how to set these things up or asked other people to help them. They often talked about their bumpy journeys towards their goal and the unpredictability of where the projects would go depending on their financial and creative resources and their users’ feedback.
Other interesting things were terms such as ‘energy identity’ or ‘radiohead activism’. Ah, and the conference made me want to do a post on electricity…! ;)


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