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Fall 2010 | Volume 6 | Issue 2


Book Review Perspectives

Computing Our Way to Paradise? The Role of Internet and Communication Technologies in Sustainable Consumption and Globalization
by Robert Rattle
AltaMira Press, 2010, 246pp, ISBN: 0759109486

Published online October 14, 2010


Laura Stanik
School of Communication and Information, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, 4 Huntington Street, New Brunswick, NJ 08901 USA (email: lstanik@rutgers.edu

In his book, Computing Our Way to Paradise? The Role of Internet and Communication Technologies in Sustainable Consumption and Globalization, Robert Rattle examines some of the ecological, economic, and social benefits and consequences of Internet and communication technologies (ICTs). Overall, his analysis of the coevolutionary, interdependent, socially embedded, and transglobal nature of ICTs is cogent and insightful. Surveying an array of arguments, historical perspectives, and research on consumption activities, economic frameworks, globalization, health issues, ICTs, and social processes, Rattle paints a big picture of the intertwined challenges and potential facing the pursuit of sustainable consumption. Rattle’s investigation provides opportunities for the reader to engage and grapple with difficult questions about the assumptions, expectations, and values currently driving the trajectory of globalization and the usage of ICTs. Although considering these interwoven issues and questions through Rattle’s lens is worthwhile, his book seems to contribute to an ongoing, long-term conversation about future potential and does not facilitate the kinds of urgent actions and policies that the author himself indicates are necessary.

Rattle’s central argument is that ICTs have an important role to play in reshaping beliefs and values surrounding consumption, which he argues can in turn shift individual and institutional behaviors creating more sustainability. His frequent references to the beliefs and values that create, foster, and further prevailing social frameworks highlight the underlying normative challenges facing sustainable consumption. He argues that ICTs represent an opportunity to reshape consumption activities and processes in a global, transborder context. It remains unclear, however, how ICTs will, as Rattle asserts, “transform values by restructuring the global world, our values, belief structures, and human behavior and decision making,” given the coevolution and global convergence of the systems and processes he outlines. With so much to cover in his big picture approach, unfortunately, Rattle does not clarify how ICTs might actually facilitate value shifts to create the kinds of behavioral and structural changes for which he argues. The book’s call to focus on shifting values, rather than on shifting behaviors, remains a laudable call to action and adds to a holistic view of the sustainable consumption journey.

Another strength of the book is the obvious care that Rattle takes to contextualize his argument. While the language of the book seems to be written for someone with prior knowledge of environmental debates and research, he situates his book in a way that even a nonspecialist can understand. For example, the volume provides an overview of the different mechanisms and processes currently in place. Without requiring the reader to fully agree with him on a definition of sustainability, he introduces the notion as an ongoing journey rather than as a final destination. The book explores the potential of ICTs, the formation of consumption activities, and the trajectory of globalization from many angles. He also considers ICTs and consumption through several cultural and institutional lenses. As a result, Rattle provides a comprehensive overview of the interrelated challenges and opportunities society faces as it seeks to navigate the potential of ICTs to further global connections and sustainable consumption without crossing into cultural genocide. The broad scope of Computing Our Way to Paradise? is, however, one of the book’s major strengths and undeniable weaknesses.

Unfortunately, the breadth of content Rattle attempts to cover and connect is so massive that his large brush strokes seem to foster more questions than answers. He openly acknowledges the expansive scope of his book as a possible inherent flaw. With so many questions left unanswered, the author is likely to achieve his goal of contributing to the direction of future research and fostering dialogue. It is striking, however, that Rattle makes the case for urgent actions and policies and then does not provide significant detail about how they should be or can be implemented. He notes, for instance, that “[t]he establishment of appropriate policies and actions are urgently needed to counter these forces.” It is unclear, however, from reading his book exactly how to directly harness the potential of ICTs, as Rattle’s prescriptions are less immediate, protracted, systemic solutions. He provides little detail about how to realistically achieve them or take the first step toward facilitating such transformative changes. The book, for example, proposes shifting to new currency and social structures. Changing systems and values are long-term goals entailing individual, infrastructural, and organizational changes that will require broad-based mobilization and adjustments to deeply seated normative behaviors and decision-making processes. As such, these kinds of transformations and value shifts are unlikely to happen quickly, and Rattle proposes no real plan to help expedite the process.

Part of the prescription the book suggests is creating a new social framework and using energy as the new currency. It is unclear how a new energy economy will move away from the current framework and financial system. He claims that energy and resource capital could replace money, but does not provide a convincing argument why such a change is likely to spark collaboration and not just maintain stratified societal structures based on power that the current economy exploits. If, as Rattle argues, the current financial economy of power directs social activity, it seems that a new energy economy would similarly evolve into a system of power that directs social activity. His vision for “an organic transformation of energy, communications, and society” and a collaborative future presents a hopeful image. Furthermore, while ICTs may have a role to play in creating opportunities for collaboration, Rattle’s policy discussion does not offer steps to spark such a transition.

Another specific that the book does not readily consider is the identity of the intended reader, which proves to be a bit problematic as there seems to be some need for mitigating confusion on this point. Rattle frequently asserts that we hold particular beliefs and values, that we must take action, and that we need to reshape our current structures of unsustainable consumption in particular ways. It is unclear, however, to whom the author is referring. Because he is considering the role of ICTs and particular processes on a global scale, this lack of clarity creates both limits and opportunities for the claims that he attempts to further. Are we, for example, all humans, Americans, democratic global citizens, ICT professionals from industrialized countries, North Americans, or perhaps Western inhabitants? While we may be an attempt at inclusivity, this reader does not share some of the beliefs we, according to Rattle, apparently do. In this way, the use of we limits the author’s argument by creating more moments of exclusion than inclusion.

Although there are some inherent weaknesses, this book’s overarching contribution is its integrated and broad focus. Rattle attempts to tackle, from a macro level, some of the conflicting values, dominant paradigms, and opposing worldviews that have led to current consumption decisions and that may lead to transformative change moving forward. He provides a comprehensive and attainable overview and illustrates the complexity of the many interrelated issues and systems society faces. Computing Our Way to Paradise? will likely appeal to those ready to step back and consider the bigger picture that the road to sustainable consumption must navigate.

 

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