Saturday, November 12, 2011

POW: Alex Steffen

LSE hosted Alex Steffen for a discussion of where the world in general and cities in particular are going.  I thought the most interesting take was the concept that what will save us is better data.  He talks about how everything from how we drive (mileage meters) to how we use power or water will eventually automatically record data and then give us information- how do we do compared to average?  How are we doing compared to yesterday or the year before?  To me it is a profound example of tech making what was once arbitrary and irrelevant into something specific and purposeful- changing how we use the gas and break pedal to be more efficient, connecting actions with consequences.

There is a downside though, in that the process of converting data into knowledge is not value free.  Someone has to determine what the average is and how it should be calculated, someone determines the scales on which we judge ourselves.  For example with utilities is the relevant average per household or per person?  For vehicles should they be judged by class (hatchbacks separate from SUV’s) or all together?  Those questions establish norms for society, but because of their “back room” nature it is unlikely people will be aware of them or the values embodied in their selection.  It’s analogous to what insurers do in developing classification plans, except that if people don’t like the way an insurer classifies them it’s easy enough to find a different insurer.  Not so with society…

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