Energy, Ethics, and Education

This blog has been written as the first part of the assessment of the DITA module for CityLIS.

I’m 2 weeks into my new masters now and already so much information has been thrown our way! One of the modules we’re doing this term is Data Information Technologies and Applications (DITA). A bit of a mouthful and from the first two sessions it seems the module will be just as jam packed with topics as its title.

Once the introductory part had been dealt with last week we dived straight into what is going to be a recurring theme throughout this masters, what are the ethical implications of our increasingly digitised world and how, as LIS professionals, should we engage with these? A post by David Beers acted as a jumping off point for a wide ranging discussion of the political implications of a digital world. A major point that came up (which may or may not be related to the fact that a number of the cohort are or have been teachers) is the issue of data/digital/information literacy. Are these the same thing? Who should be responsible for teaching it? Are any of them the same as statistical literacy? These are not new questions but no wider consensus seems to have been reached about them. An interesting recent blog post from the ACRL suggested that in defining information literacy we need to teach people to ask:

Can we meaningfully discern the human purpose (and, frequently, the human negligence) lying behind the information artifacts that occupy so much of our lives? How do our information choices make us more (or less) fully human?

This seems to me a reasonable question, but one that does not touch on the numerical comfort that can put people off engaging with information when presented as data (e.g. as a statistic). A relevant book that I’d definitely recommend if you’re interested in the importance of statistical literacy is “The tiger that isn’t” by Andrew Dilnot and Michael Blastland which I heartily recommend even to those of you who think of yourselves as ‘not a mathsy person’.

Given the increasing prominence of climate change in the news it was fitting that this week we moved onto the potential environmental footprint of data creation, collection, and processing. It seems unlikely that as a society we’ll step back from digitisation and increased technological infrastructure (afterall the Luddites aren’t remembered for their success), but it does behove us to think more deeply about what is being digitised and stored, what is being done with this data, why, and by whom? Again the question of education was raised, a number of the class confessed they hadn’t really thought about what is being collected in the background (all that user metadata described so well in Jeffrey Pomerantz’ Metadata) and where everything in ‘the cloud’ actually is. And even now that it’s been brought to our attention what can we do about it? One group pointed out that when you download a new mobile app it doesn’t tell you what the carbon footprint of using it is. Maybe what we need is a digital version of the white goods energy ratings system?

We were then given a brief history of computation and the internet. A small thing that stuck in my head from that was Lyn talking about FTP as though it was an obsolete protocol, as I was using it just a couple of months ago in my job! For the average internet user these older technologies have maybe been superseded by HTTP but for those who need to transfer huge data files via the internet FTP is still very much a part of the standard tool kit. Depending on what roles we go onto after this course it’s important to remember that the users we’ll may end up supporting will all have different information and technological needs and toolkits, and not all of them will be using most common or current (shout out to the wide range of researchers still having to learn Fortran!)

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Author: jennkharris

Library science MSc student at CityLIS. Former planetary scientist, data scientist, book seller, and numerous other things. Interested in the collection, curation, and management of data in research, and the role libraries and librarians have to play in these areas.

2 thoughts on “Energy, Ethics, and Education”

  1. I like your idea of a digital version of the white goods energy rating system. With regard to technology and climate change, you might find this piece by Floridi interesting https://doi.org/10.1080/01972240902848583, particularly the section “The Marriage of Physis and Techne”. He talks about ICTs and carbon emissions and how for information societies to flourish we need to get the right balance between caring for the natural environment and being responsible with how we build our ICTs. ICTS do make a huge contribution to carbon emissions (Floridi cites an estimate that data centres in particular will have a carbon footprint higher than that of the aviation industry by 2020) but they can also help to vastly reduce them. The interesting point for me though is that if we accept the idea that we are now living in the “infosphere” and the subsequent reconceptualization of ourselves and our environment this is causing, we may need to extend our moral concerns beyond care for the natural environment alone. I guess this imparts a moral responsibility upon us LIS professionals to help ensure we get the balance right through education and advocating for ethical approaches to the use of ICTs.

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  2. Hi Jen, thanks for this blog post! I really enjoyed reading it. The third blog I was meant to comment on still hasn’t blogged, so I chose yours to comment on instead. I was (and am) also very interested in the ethical implications of the environmental impact of all the data we store – and how ‘the cloud’ is stored very physically somewhere on server banks, generating an awful lot of heat. The more information we gather, the more energy we will use – this could go on forever unless we develop policies and methods of reducing, or ‘cleaning’, the data. I wondered whether there could be a way of performing an ‘information audit’, as we learned about in Information Management and Policy (Friday’s) on all the data stored on server banks in the world. A gargantuan task, which would need governments to commit to and set aside resources to implement. I think a very current topic given the state of things, and the climate emergency we see ourselves in right now. Thanks again you’ve got me thinking about these things once more. Sam

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