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Virtual Environmentalism

How IT can help save the planet
October 27, 2010

Bill Tomlinson, SM ‘99, PhD ‘02, had written a series of what he called “rants” about the interplay of technology and sustainability that all arrived at similar conclusions: we will always struggle to solve environmental problems because we can’t get our heads around the complexity and time scale of climate change. We simply aren’t wired to understand the profound consequences of, say, a centimeter rise in sea level. And if we don’t understand, we don’t act.

But information technology can help us comprehend such things. “When humans have been confronted with complex problems, they’ve always developed information technology tools–from maps to wristwatches to computers to phone networks,” Tomlinson says. In Greening through IT: Information Technology for Environmental Sustainability, he argues that we’re doing so again. “IT systems,” he says, “must be a core part of humanity’s response to the environmental issues we face.”

Tomlinson’s book sets out to provide a framework for thinking about IT and the environment. He explores many real-world examples in which IT is fostering sustainability already: “Smart meters” help households control their electricity consumption. UPS uses mapping algorithms to reduce the number of left turns trucks must take, thus saving gas. Sardine fisherman in Kerala, India, use cell phones to locate buyers on shore; in the past, they lost 5 to 8 percent of their catch to spoilage, but now that they can find buyers more efficiently, they can lower prices and feed more people with the same number of fish.

The multidisciplinary nature of the book reflects Tomlinson’s own scholarly development. After studying animal behavior and ecology as an undergraduate at Harvard and receiving an MFA in experimental animation from the California Institute of the Arts, he came to the Media Lab, where he researched artificial intelligence and computer animation. He’s now a researcher at the California Institute for Telecommunications and IT and an associate professor at the University of California-Irvine, where he got involved in a project that aimed to teach children about ecological restoration. The students used tablet computers to reintroduce virtual species to a simulated ecosystem that had been devastated by agriculture.

With that project, called EcoRaft, ­Tomlinson married his passions for technology and ecology. “It cemented the idea that I needed to make the connection between IT and the environment,” he says. “That had to be the center of what I did. It was my best way to make a contribution.”

The knottiest challenge the book poses is how to address the fact that IT can harm the environment as readily as it can help. Tomlinson acknowledges the problems created by power consumption, toxic materials, and electronic waste but never quite reconciles the paradox, except to say that IT itself can find ways for these technologies to become more sustainable.

“The reality is there’s uncertainty,” he says, “but that doesn’t mean we should stop. We are going to address these problems, and IT will factor prominently in the solutions.”

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