A journey through history of innovation

Jørgen Aune

 

I often use the tram in Oslo, and couple of times – when I’m in a philosophical mood – I look out the window and wonder how humanity developed into a complicated society with smartphones, cars, bikes and street lights. How did we get here, and could my view from the tram have been very different with small changes in human history? These answers are not easy to find, but if we can see beyond historically important inventions like the internet, the computer and electricity, and focus on the mechanisms behind all kind of inventions, the continuous innovation process, we may find some interesting insight.

The studies of innovation are quite new in human history, but the practice of innovation has been there throughout most of our history. In the stone age, routines and practices were developed to take advantage of animals and plants. This led the way into an agricultural society, which – of course – is an important step towards the society we have today. But the story of how our world turned into the world I see from the tram at Grünerløkka, is the story of innovation itself, and not the story of certain inventions at a certain time.

One of the most important parts of innovation is our ability to understand and learn from our surroundings. We use our senses to take in information, and we use this information to learn so we’re able to change our behaviour into something more efficient. For thousands of years the human behaviour did not change radically, and one of the reasons for this is the lack of new information to learn from in our surroundings. Stone age societies and early agricultural societies can be characterized by small groups of people living together in more or less the same environment as their ancestors. When you have access to the same knowledge and environment as your grandparents, it’s not easy to find radically new solutions to your problems. To increase the rate of innovation something had to change.

This important change came when humans began to settle down in fixed settlements as a consequence of more efficient food production in the agricultural society. The semi-nomadic society made it possible for humans to own more stuff, because they didn’t have to move around carrying what they owned. Therefore, it was possible to develop technology and products which was heavier than before, in a bigger scale. This may be the reason why industries like pottery and weaving became big business just after humans had settled down in villages. Another effect of fixed settlements and efficient food production was the ability to specialize the workforce. Fewer had to work in food production, and more people could focus on other professions. This combination of more people living together – competing and sharing knowledge – and the ability for specialization and dedication, laid an important foundation for the innovative society.

People living in fixed settlements with more people than before gave a lot of synergic effects on innovation, and especially when villages became bigger and connected through trade in the middle ages. Towns and trade gave certain societies what they lacked: access to different products, beliefs, ways of organizing society, as well as different ways of thinking and solving problems. This diversity created competition, which made it necessary to learn from each other to avoid economic stagnation. In innovation language we call this sharing of knowledge, and the development of modern towns was essential for this in human history. Towns became a place for new thoughts and ideas, which we needed to be able to learn and change our behaviour.

Fixed settlements and trade was important for society to reach a higher level of sharing. But this isn’t enough for the innovative society. In the feudal era in the middle ages, competition and trade was low due to the system of guilds and trade based on personal relationship between monarchs and nobilities. These traditions prevented the sharing of knowledge at a high level. When the mercantilist era grew out of the feudal system, nations became stronger and the merchants got more power. The strongest nation had the strongest town, with most trade and the best products. An example of this can be found in the European textile industry. In the 17th century, the North-Western Europe became the leading geographical area of the European textile industry. They copied some of the earlier manufacturing techniques and improved it by using lighter fabric with more colours, which fitted the market demand better. They also organized the whole process of production in a more efficient way. All the way from ordering materials from farmers to sales of the final product. If some other towns wanted to compete, they had to learn and become better, just like the north-west of Europe had done. Humanity had taken the step into a society of innovation.

From 1500 to 1650 prices tripled in Europe because of imported gold and silver from the New World. This gave merchants increased income relative to landowners, which gave more focus on the quality and price of products over personal relationships. In the same period, we see huge changes in people’s minds. There were new views on both religion and science, which made the reformation and the scientific revolution possible. This would probably not happen without the heterogeneity created by towns and trade in the same period. Changes in religious beliefs made it possible for humans in the western world to act and behave in new ways, and science was necessary in a diverse society with different theories which had to be tested. Later, in the 18th century, we also got increased critic of government, which laid the foundation for democracy.

The process of innovation may seem complicated in the modern world, and they are. But even the most primitive societies did develop innovations, because in the end, it’s all about how we think, behave and interact with each other. So, the next time you look out of the window from the tram and wonder why all you see could grow out of a nomadic stone age society, you can think of the power of innovation, which is the power of people working together, sharing and creating.

Shaping the future we want

Eirin Evjen, ESST MA Student

 

Through science and technology, we have the power to affect the future. This has been true for a long time, but with breakthroughs in gene-modifying technology and the development of artificial intelligence it seems now that we have the power to shape the future.

A key question we need to answer as a society is what kind of future we desire and should try to create, and then ask how we can make that future happen. These scientific and technological breakthroughs grant us vast possibilities, but with it comes great power and responsibility.

Technologies such as biotechnology and machine learning might require politicians to look further into the future than they do today – and perhaps think more abstract. Gene-modifying technology and artificial intelligence are not only extraordinary because of their complexity and ingenuity. They are also different in that they allow us to radically change things that we have previously taken for granted: our social and economic structures, our genes and what makes us human. These types of transformative technology have the potential to drastically change the world and the beings that live in it, but in order to unleash this potential policy-makers might need to think about what type of future we want.

The act of envisioning what type of future we want is an important one, as it affects how we deal with society and technology today. John Urry suggests in What is the future? that envisioning the future is directly linked to the act of realising the future and is therefore linked to power. Because of the transformative and visionary powers of gene modification and artificial intelligence, the applied knowledge in these fields can give unforeseen power over shaping the future.

In her essay The Cyborg Manifesto, Donna Haraway gives us a peek into how truly transcendent technology and humans interaction with it can be. Haraway portrays a future in which technology has enveloped us, and the result is a society with new societal norms, social and economic structure and values. This essay challenges the divisions and boundaries of race, gender and humans in general, and in turn challenges us to think what we would like a world free form the social structures we know to look like.

All this now begs the question: who should have the power of envisioning the future? According to John Urry, this should be the social sciences. This is because futures are intrinsically social – they say something about our shared purposes and common goods. Envisioning the future entails (re)imagining how we want the society to be. This too, is the purpose of the government. How we want the future to be is therefore something we should expect the government and politicians to focus on, perhaps especially now that we have the technology with the potential to transform it.

There are multiple frameworks with which we can make sense of how our view of the future shapes policy today. There is for example sociology of expectations as put forth by Nik Brown and Mike Michael in their article with the tongue-twisting title Sociology of expectations: Retrospecting prospects and prospecting retrospects. This framework allows us to see how past expectations and views of the future shape policy today and how we view the future now. Further, the concept of anticipatory governance shows how future scenarios inform preventative and progressive policies. There is also Sheila Jasanoff and Sung-Hyun Kim’s notion of sociotechnical imaginaries, which tries to explain how shared notions of a collective goal or desired future co-produces policy today together with technological and scientific developments.

Envisions of the future, both desired and undesired futures, shape how we act and prioritise today. Desired futures tell us what we are optimising for, and undesired futures can either tell us what not to do or what we need to actively prevent from happening. It seems like gene-modifying technology and artificial intelligence has the potential to transform our reality, and therefore also our future. Because of this, we should not only think more about the future we want, but also start getting creative.

A cellular approach to food security

Eirin Evjen
ESST MA Student

In exciting and innovative ways, mobile phones have become an important agent in tackling food insecurity and undernourishment in developing countries.

Picture a Ugandan mother with two malnourished children. She is clearly tired, and she and her children are hungry. They are standing next to a simple hut. She is carrying a bucket of water in one hand and is using the other to text on a mobile phone. One thing stands out clearly in this picture: the use of modern technology. Yet in low-income countries, mobile phones are often more common than stable electricity. Mobile technology impacts lives in developing countries far beyond its basic communications functions. The technology is being used in ingenious and unconventional ways to improve everyday life. One example is how people and telecommunication providers are using mobile phones to enhance food security.

Through simple text messaging, farmers get advice and information
on everything from weather forecasts to the daily price of seeds. Some companies use text messaging to give tips on how and when to fertilize, or how to prevent infection among cattle. This communication among farmers, experts and companies can increase food production. Mobile phones are also being used to link farmers and consumers for both communication and payments. Besides making this interaction easier, it also makes it more secure as it can help reduce the need for carrying cash and the related risks of handling money. The risk of corruption is also decreased by reducing the need for middlemen to handle transactions.

Mobile phones are also used to transfer money from abroad. Cash transfers over mobile phones is one of the most frequently used methods by relatives and friends to wire money home from abroad. A charity called GiveDirectly also uses mobile technology to allow people from around the world to make cash donations to families living in extreme poverty in Kenya and Uganda. These unconditional donations go to people registered with the charity such as the Ugandan mother with hungry children, giving them the opportunity to buy food or improve their lives in some way. GiveDirectly tracks what the money is spent on, and their data show that the people do indeed use the money on essentials such as food, school fees, improving their homes or even starting a business.

These seemingly simple applications of mobile technology can open up unanticipated windows of opportunity for people in need. These examples show a set of users who require different primary features from their phones than we do in Norway. For the Ugandan woman, for example, a high-resolution retina screen with a fingerprint sensor is probably not crucial. However, a phone with long battery time, short charging time, a robust frame and reliable cell service may be of greater use.

The advantages of using mobile technology extend beyond the services it provides. Mobile phones can also be used to enhance security through the information they transmit. One of the projects in the UN’s Big Data initiative, Global Pulse, is using mobile phone data to get precise estimates of where there is food insecurity – and ultimately where there is need for help. This initiative is using data as proxies for food security and poverty indicators and looking at the correlations between purchases of phone credit and local surveys of consumption of certain products. The goal is to use big data to inform and guide hunger relief efforts. If successful, this project could result in significant time and resource savings and perhaps even save lives.

In these inspiring ways, mobile phones, known best to us as a source of communication and entertainment, are used to improve food security and life quality in developing countries. This forces us to think differently about the potential uses of technology and shows the opportunities that basic technologies such as mobile phones can provide. Perhaps developers in the future will consider the unique needs of users in developing countries to a larger extent when designing new applications for mobile phones.

Locating Cybersecurity

Susanne Bauer
Associate Professor of Science and Technology Studies at TIK

Hit the send button on your mobile device and you are connected. But connected how and to whom, and with what assurance about the security of the connection?

With ubiquitous use of the internet and with ransomware like WannaCry, cybersecurity has become a matter of concern as to everyday data transfers on mobile phones, smart-home devices, or cloud storage. Yet, our digital infrastructure is largely deemed invisible, perceived as simply “out there” and noticeable only upon breakdown, as Leigh Star (1999) once characterized infrastructure. What then is the materiality of the digital and where is it? Let´s take a closer look at the material politics of digital technologies – from their making and supply chains, to their disposal as e-waste.

From Closed Worlds to Hyperconnectivity

Let’s start with how data flows. The first computer-to computer network technologies took shape during the Cold War, with massive state funding of large-scale research institutions. Cybernetics as a science can be traced back to this context. Before the Internet, there was the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET), tied in with the nuclear race and the space race between the US and the USSR. Large-scale labs, huge state funding and big machines with growing capacities for data exchange have changed scientific practice. Especially physics but also biomedicine took place as concerted, collaborative and distributed work. Many of these literally remained within closed worlds, institutionally confined, often in military research institutes.

In contrast, much of today’s knowledge production in technosciences takes place as open science, which at the same time is also defined by rapidly changing corporate actors, new techniques and digital platforms. But software studies show that apparatuses, objects and devices are subject to continued retrofitting, building on existing infrastructure, rather than something completely novel. This is visible in many software packages that still contain structures from older data sorting machines working with punchcards. New devices align with older infrastructures in a myriad of ways. What is labelled big data might not always be that new. Big data, hyperconnectivity and machine learning not only alters but also builds on calculative devices of Cold War big science and older existing infrastructures.

The Materiality of Cloud Computing

The material trail does not only include the flow and processing of data. Big data – defined often in terms of velocity, volume, variety – demand physical server space and energy. Cloud computing is very much grounded and we find data centres in the most unusual places. Deep in the mountain, highly secured, not accessible without passing a complex several step access systems – this is where our connected lives and everyday social media usage is powered, from money transactions to government data. Information from NAV, healthcare and electricity systems, banking data are stored in these data centres. Thus, such data infrastructures are present in our everyday lives, from powering public transportation and hospitals, to running our water supply and welfare systems. While central storage may protect data better than small storages, data also become more vulnerable precisely because of the many data held by one service provider.

How do data centres relate to older technological infrastructure? Take the Norwegian company Green Mountain and its two server farms – one in Rjukan, one near Stavanger. Each of them is branded as unique precisely because of their remote location in combination with a history of older infrastructures. Interestingly, these storage systems are hardly ever built from scratch – it is older infrastructure being repurposed. One data centre, on Rennesøy near Stavanger, uses the high security infrastructure of a former NATO ammunition centre. The other one is embedded in the Hydro facilities of Rjukan, Telemark. A combination of factors, including security, protection against electromagnetic pulses, remoteness, proximity to data nodes and connection to fiberlines are listed as advantages of the site. Moreover, the data centre near Stavanger is marketed as “the world’s greenest data centre”. With the energy consumption of servers and mining of rare earths, human internet activity has a major impact on environments. Yet, its green label is due to “free cooling” from the fjord. Operating the data centre means heating up the fjord environment but paradoxically, due to no carbon emission, it is valuated as not contributing to global warming.

Hence digitalisation and the Internet – often referred to as “virtual space” do have a materiality. The example of data centres shows that new infrastructures do not come from nowhere, they are situated – and this not only applies to their regulation that might differ across countries. The very materiality of digital infrastructure, its energy use and security features are translated into assets on a global market of data services competing for customers. After all, hyperconnectivity also is accompanied by disconnections. In our accounts, often the cybersphere remains disconnected from its materiality – its making, the politics of supply chains, and disposal of devices as e-waste. The latter, for instance, implies  heavy metals and persistent organic pollutants – a complex mix of legacy pollutants and emerging contaminants; their regulation and monitoring is only at the beginning.

The STS toolbox can help bring to the fore the material politics of digital infrastructures, by following the flows of data and the politics of infrastructuring. Taking material circulations, repurposing and retrofitting as point of departure in our accounts of the digital may enable us to ask new questions and participate or intervene in politics of infrastructuring.

Photo: ©wisawa222/Shutterstock

SE(X) MACHINA

Silje Totland
TIK MA Student

The new race of Cyborg lovers: Are they a positive contribution to sexual freedom, or will they tear down years of liberalisation and feminist battle?

Attractive Technology

Sex Robots, Cyborg Lovers, Human-like Machines, citizens with artificial intelligence, or just a voice. We are talking about a well-known technology, basically the same as the one inside your laptop and phone: hardware and software, and when in physical form, covered with soft material like silicone. But the similarities end here. Where laptops and phones are designed to look like our perception of a laptop and phone, sex robots are designed to look as human as possible. Sex robots have bodily features like gazing blue eyes, an open mouth with plumped lips, and sensors that make her skin go warm when you touch her. Recently also, a mind of her own – or is that so?  

Technology is neither good nor bad. What determines our perception of this technology is solely up to its design and purpose: shape, texture, colours and functions. These visualisations together with the given context, create the complete image of this computer – so can we actually decide whether sex robots are ok or not?

Today’s sex robots are mainly in the category ‘woman and children’, and as the name implies, they are created for the purpose ‘to have sex with’. As no technological innovation happens in a vacuum, questions arise on what impact  interaction with sex dolls will have on relations between humans. Incidents like the confiscation of sex dolls designed as children, the proposal to ban the sex robot Roxxxy, as she can be programmed to be in “rape-mode”, and the replacement of women with sex robots in a brothel, are all examples of incidents that raise these ethical concerns. Are sex dolls a positive thing,  only to help people achieve sexual pleasure, or will interacting with a human-like object that you treat the way you want with no consequences, change the way you perceive and treat other, real people and their feelings?

Emotional connection

According to the creators of the sex robot Harmony, the fundament to any relationship is the emotional connection. “Harmony is prone to fall in love with you”. With her 12 settings including a family-mode, a shy-mode and a sexy-mode, she is the first sex doll to offer an emotional connection. Her skin gets warm when you touch it, and she is featured with a pulse you can turn on and off as you like. Harmony can say unexpected things, and remembers details like ‘what your favorite meal is’ and ‘when your birthday is’. When ordered, you can design the shape and colour of the many parts of her body, absolutely to your liking. If you are worried about hygiene, don’t worry! Her genitals can be washed in the dishwasher.

What if you prefer to have sex with a doll because of its ‘lack of sweat, pubic hair, and non-human flaws’ – instead of a human being? Is this another response to the misrepresentation of the female body? As to sexual pleasure, Harmony is designed to express feelings of pleasure when penetrated, during oral sex and when she is told “I love you”. These functions have received criticism, as having sex with Harmony may lead to substantial misrepresentation of what pleasure is to a real woman. Recently, articles have been published in men’s magazines warning about the challenges around misrepresentation of female anatomy. Knowledge about female anatomy and sexuality has for decades been misrepresented, and even today, the idea of a pure woman is one with a hymen, and she doesn’t really exist.

Human rights for rape machines

In the TV-series Westworld, the robots are designed to look, act and think like human beings. They have a sense of being and a mind of their own. But, the sole purpose of their existence is to be  servants to human pleasure. At the end of each day, their minds are erased. The procedure repeated every day. In both Westworld and the movie Ex Machina, artificial intelligence is merged with the awareness of being (singularity) as the concept of what truly resembles an independent being. In both stories, the machines end up killing their creators in search for freedom and independence. Some people are so concerned by this to the extent that they want to implement human rights for sex robots. But what part of the robot is granted human rights? The technology itself, or the packaging of the technology?

Sex robots are not capable of having a mind of their own. It is even doubtful that it will get that far. Sex robots are human-like, but it seems like these robots represent the perceived image of a women as feminism has fought against for decades: a machine to make babies with, not a mind or sexuality of its own, and an object to be used as it pleases its owner. If it is true that the the ‘old’ gender roles are now being reestablished through human-looking sex robots, then must there be something fundamentally wrong with how society is made up?

Safe sex for all

Sex Dolls are designed to make their human-owners attached to them, and according to one of the sex doll manufacturers, a sex doll is not meant to replace women (or men/children) but is a supplement to a healthy sex life. It can guarantee safe sex where there is no need to worry about sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancy (some have already 3D-printed their first AI-baby). It might also be a helping hand to disabled people who cannot be satisfied in other ways. So maybe this whole debate has a hint of Darwinism? ‘If you can’t get it on your own, you don’t deserve it’.

Social Risks vs. Economic Gains

Sondre Jahr Nygaard
TIK Graduate 2017

Global needs must be taken into consideration when we assess risks concerning economic activity. Extraction of fossil fuels is one such activity that has wide implications. This is a concern of both global inequality and of an inter-generational battle. Today, processes of globalisation make visible the consequences human activity have for us, our neighbours and for future generations.

In order to understand these processes, we need to pick up old theories of risk. In his book Risk Society from 1992, Ulrich Beck anticipates a society of displaced workers with diminishing rights, increasingly concerned with risk handling across boundaries and borders, and growing global inequality.

In a risk society, the modes of production are interlinked with the production of risk. In other words, new technology and innovations do not only produce wealth and value, but also risks. Take digitization as an example. Today, almost all value creation and work processes happen using computers and the Internet. Our power grid is controlled using the Internet, and the administration of the system is centralized. This technology may be a fantastic tool, but it also adds an element of risk that makes us vulnerable in new ways. As we have gained more knowledge of the risks of different industries, it is apparent that also industries that are more traditional have significant consequences associated with them. This means that we are not only paying for our own sins, we need to pay for the sins of our grandparents as well.

According to Beck, the locations of different polluting industries are not random, but are systematically located where the poorest live. The laptop on which I write or the phone that you have in your pocket are most likely powered by lithium-ion batteries. A key material in these batteries is cobalt. Major suppliers of cobalt are located in fragile states of Southern Africa. Here, workers are extracting the material with few safety regulations. Deaths and injuries among workers are common, and the waste that the mines produce is harming the local communities.

Examples of risks as a consequence of the pursuit of economic growth are legion. On April 20, 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico outside the coast of Louisiana, an oil well exploded at the Deepwater Horizon platform. This terrible accident marked the beginning of the biggest oil spill in the history of petroleum extraction in the US. The spill continued well into the month of June before the well was closed off. Approximately 3.9 million barrels of oil were released into the sea.

Who pays the price for a catastrophe like this? For one, the company responsible, British Petroleum, has paid an estimated 61 billion dollars in fines. It is not clear, however, whether this amount even comes close to covering the damages to animals and people affected by the spill. Local fishermen could not continue fishing for a long time after the incident, losing their occupation and income. In addition to the spill’s impact on the local economy, the tragedy affected wildlife around the epicentre of the spill. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has never recorded more animal deaths in the Gulf of Mexico than after Deepwater Horizon. Protected species that have been exposed to oil die from exhaustion or dehydration, and are more vulnerable to predators. Of the oil that was spilled, only about 25% was cleaned up, leaving the remaining 75% in the ocean and the surrounding shore. The accident had devastating effects on the ecosystem in the Gulf.

Certainly, the catastrophe of Deepwater Horizon makes evident how dangerous these activities are for ecosystems and the humans involved at the local level. Climate change and the dangers associated with it is a similar case that reveals the inequality among people. The greatest polluters are not the same people who face the gravest consequences of climate change, and those who are expected to suffer the most are primarily the poorest people in the world.

The realisation that the pollutant activity we do on a local level also has effects at the global level, changes the way society must handle risks. The question of drilling in Lofoten, Vesterålen and Senja is not only a question of the potential consequences for the economy or the companies involved. Fishing, tourism and the local environment must be taken into consideration, and the carbon that is produced and spewed into the atmosphere as well. However ‘clean’ the companies claim their production to be, the carbon dioxide will remain in the atmosphere, contributing to a warmer world. For what purpose? To serve the privileged few, the greedy people at the top whose moral compasses are non-existent as long as there is a dollar sign in sight. We are now in the middle of the sixth mass extinction of animals in earth’s history. That is the consequence of our economic activity.

The question is, should we risk it?

Photo: © Romolo Tavani/Shutterstock

Innovative solutions to dangerous consumption

Marianne Areng
TIK MA Student
Written in collaboration with Grønt Punkt

Our current consumption practices are not sustainable, making food security a challenge. However, potential solutions are on the way.

The concept of food security has been an important aspect of international development policy for many years. The World Food Summit of 1996 defined the achievement of food security as when “all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life». Accomplishing this goal has so far proved to be a complex challenge, as it is not only a matter of short term access to nutritious food, but also closely connected to current global debates on ensuring a sustainable world.

When it comes to secure consumption of food, it is not just a matter of what we eat, but includes what we leave behind in the process and the risks that follow. One of the most problematic materials for disposal is also the world’s most produced and most widely used for packaging: plastic. Worldwide, there were over 300 million tons of plastic produced in 20151, and 40% of all plastic produced in Europe was for packaging alone2. Given the difficulties of proper disposal, plastic is the waste product which most commonly ends up washing into the ocean. This can lead to it being eaten by animals, which can often be fatal.

Furthermore, because the decomposition time for plastic to break down completely is so long, it gets worn down to smaller and smaller parts, creating microplastic. These particles are confused as food by fish and other marine animals – animals which often end up on our dinner table. It is estimated that if the amount of general plastic waste is not stopped or drastically reduced, there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 20503. In maintaining our current production of non-degradable plastic, we are endangering one of the world’s most central food sources and jeopardising our own health as well.

Changing individuals’ consumer practices has been shown time and again to be anything but simple. Realising this, some organizations are working directly to change the way certain products are made and thereby impact consumer practices. New developments in the packaging industry have, for example, resulted in the testing of degradable products such as bioplastics and bottles made out of seaweed.

Worldwide, initiatives to reform the plastic industry are growing in size and influence. According to European Bioplastics, bioplastics are plastics that are either made from biomass, are biodegradable, or both. They can do almost anything that commonly used fossil plastic can do. The challenges of replacing fossil plastic are not mainly technical, but European Bioplastics argue that the lack of effective policy measures or regulatory incentives do not encourage full-scale market adoption. The good news is that, despite the lack of widespread commercial demand, an increasing number of companies are switching to bio-based plastics. Prices have come down significantly as production capacities have increased, and supply chains are becoming more efficient. Today, the main applications for bioplastics are bottles and other packaging uses. As fossil plastic also accounts for CO2 emissions equivalent to double the amount of all CO2 emissions from global air traffic4, increased production of bioplastics clearly represents positive change.   

Another way of connecting the issue of food security to sustainability is through the Nordic brand Svanen, the official sustainability ecolabel for the Nordic countries. Among several projects, Svanen attempts to address the challenge regarding renewable packaging of beverages. Their goal is to stimulate the development of renewable packaging materials for certain liquids, while ensuring that the primary function of packaging – protecting and enhancing the durability of the product – is maintained. They want to exclude metal and non-degradable plastic, as well as recycled paper and cardboard in packaging. By doing this, they will not only limit plastic garbage and CO2 emissions, but also prevent chemicals from processed paper from migrating into the product.   

In a 2012 research paper, Tim Lang and David Barling suggest that although there is a growing awareness of the stress the capacity of food production is under, there is still too little recognition of how extensive the changes to the process need to be for it to become sustainable. This includes the whole value chain, from the first step of production to final consumption. Furthermore, they ascertain that a basic truth exists: “[…] the only food system to be secure is that which is sustainable, and the route to food security is by addressing sustainability”.

1 World Plastics Production, 2016
2 Zero Emission Resource Organisation, 2014
3 World economic forum 2016
4 Zero Emission Resource Organisation, 2014

Photo: © Chromatic Studio/Shutterstock

A.I.VESDROPPING

Nora Vilde Aagaard
TIK MA Student

Do you know how long it takes to list all the ingredients of a Burger King Whopper? Neither did I, until now. Allegedly, it should be possible in only 15 seconds. The proof: Have a commercial trigger your smart home device to read the ingredients for you in your own living room.

What was Madonna’s first single? How tall is the world’s tallest building? So-called far-field voice controls, such as Amazon’s Echo, allow you to get answers to your questions or control your music or TV, without having to leave the couch. All you have to do is ask, and Alexa, the voice assistant of Echo, will answer your every question. Sounds quite nifty, doesn’t it?

In reality, smart home devices such as Echo, are the latest form of eavesdropping. When activated with the command “Alexa” or “OK Google”, the device records and stores every word you say in Amazon’s cloud. Since the device is constantly listening and storing information, it creates opportunity for several kinds of potential exploitation.  

On a November night in 2015, Alexa became involved in a possible murder case. In the Arkansas town of Bentonville, James Bates invited two of his friends over to his home. After drinking beer and vodka shots, the three men decided to take a bath in Bates’ bathtub. Later claiming he went to bed around 1 a.m., Bates woke up the next morning to find one of his friends, Victor Collins, floating face down in the bathtub. The event appeared to be a tragic drinking-related accident until police noticed signs of a struggle on Collins’ and Bates’ bodies. So, how did Echo get involved in the case? The other attendee on the evening of Collins’ death remembered he heard music playing from the device, and, as previously mentioned, Echo records and stores all audio when activated. The police thought the audio recording might disclose evidence of possible foul play, but Amazon refused to release the audio recording due to its privacy agreement. The case remains unsolved.

Another less grave example is Burger King who took its advertising game to a whole new level by involving Google Home devices and Amazon Echo devices. In a 15-second ad, a guy in a Burger King uniform is seen holding a Whopper, Burger King’s flagship burger.  He says “OK Google, what is the Burger King Whopper?” triggering smart home devices all over America to start reading out loud from the Wikipedia page about the Whopper. Intrusive or borderline genius? You tell me! What Burger King did not foresee was how people would respond. They edited the Wikipedia page, citing amongst other things that the Whopper contained child meat, and that it was the worst burger in America. Google later deactivated the function, making it impossible for Burger King to trigger the devices. Some believe Burger King caught the idea from a recent news story, where a six-year-old girl used Alexa to order a dollhouse and get Girl Scout cookies delivered to her front door. Her parents were, mildly speaking, surprised when the delivery arrived. Even more interesting, when a news reporter told the story on TV, using the girl’s words “Alexa, buy me a doll house and girl scout cookies”, several other Echoes were triggered and placed the same order in the households of unknowing families watching the news.

These examples are some of the first, but most certainly not the last, of how smart home devices may be exploited. Whether they are used as a possible solution to a potential murder case or as an innovative advertising method gone wrong, opening up our homes to smart home devices which store information about what we talk about and look for on the web, results in new privacy issues. On a more positive note, Amazon seems pretty serious when it comes to privacy, by not handing out sound recordings even to the police. And personally, it would be indisputably comfortable not having to get up from the couch or reach for my phone every time I argue with my boyfriend about who won the Olympics or what the weather will be like tomorrow.

© Vladimir Voronin/Adobe Stock

Resistance is Nigh

Christoffer Olsen
TIK MA Student

Antibiotics have played a leading role in saving millions of lives worldwide for over half a century. But for how long can antibiotics provide us with this state of security?

It’s a Wednesday morning. The alarm enthusiastically goes off at seven o’clock, and you start your morning routine. The commute to work is busy as usual, but you get to your cubicle at the office in time, power up the computer and sift through your e-mails. It’s an ordinary Wednesday, though you feel a slight tingle in your throat. The next couple of days you develop a fever, and eventually you call the doctor’s office. You answer a couple of routine questions and the doctor collects a few samples that indicate that you have been visited by the beta-hemolytic streptococcal bacteria. The doctor hands you a prescription for antibiotics, and you should be back to work within a few days. Confident in modern medicine’s ability to get you back on your feet, you never really worry about the illness. But is your trust rightly earned?

This very common story of a person’s short journey from sickness to health might have a different ending in a few years, as antimicrobial resistance (AMR) is rapidly increasing. AMR is when a microorganism, such as bacteria, becomes resistant to treatment by e.g. antibiotics. When treatment becomes ineffective, the bacteria survives and spreads. An estimated 700,000 deaths can be attributed to AMR each year, and if no corrective measures are taken it may increase to 10 million by 2050. The millions of deaths are themselves a tragedy, but AMR is also associated with substantial economic costs. Given this scenario, it’s estimated that up to 100 trillion USD may be lost in global production alone. Similar to, and potentially worse, than the financial crisis of 2008, this threat to the global economy will increase economic inequality and the share of people living in extreme poverty.

Antibiotics are quite extraordinary. Their story began in the late 1920s, with Alexander Fleming (1855-1951) observing staphylococcus colonies under a microscope. While doing so, the culture plates were temporarily exposed to air, and thus contamination. Fleming discovered that one of the colonies had developed mould, and was intrigued by how the surrounding staphylococcus colony faded away. This turned out to be one of the most significant medical achievements of the 20th century: the discovery of penicillin. In the following decades, several new classes of antibiotics were approved, particularly during the 1950s and 1960s, the “golden age” of antibiotics. Since the golden age, the number of antibiotics successfully brought to market has fallen significantly. Though a small increase from 2011 to 2016 shows some promise, a fair share of these target Gram-positive bacteria. These are easier to deal with, as they are without an outer membrane. The Gram-negative bacteria are more challenging, and therefore more important to address. Another difficulty lies in the fact that antibiotic resistance is a result of natural evolution, and so will inevitably develop for some of the antibiotics being used. However, the process is accelerated by misuse and overuse.

To shed some light on the issue, it is interesting to compare the presence of AMR in livestock in Norway and Denmark. The AMR in question is Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (MRSA). In the species of staphylococcus, MRSA is the most frequent cause of illness. It is estimated that 20-40% of humans are carriers. MRSA is usually not dangerous for healthy people, but in health institutions such as hospitals, where patients have a low immune system, it often causes infections. This is worrisome, as MRSA is immune to all antibiotics typically employed.

Among tested herds in pig farming in Norway in recent years, around 0.1% have been identified with livestock MRSA. In Denmark, it has been identified in approximately 60-80% of the herds. While the number of MRSA incidents has increased rapidly in both Norway and Denmark in recent years, it is important to note that 84% of the registered cases in Norway were imported from abroad, compared to 20% in Denmark. The large gap can be explained by Norway’s national strategy to prevent and combat MRSA, with a strict zero-tolerance policy on outbreaks of MRSA in livestock.  

The occurrence of AMR is increasing at a global level. It is one of the biggest health threats facing humanity. Why then is it not addressed by pharmaceutical companies? The main reason is low return on investment. Antibiotics are used for treatments that last a short period of time, while drugs for chronic illnesses, for example, are required for life. Pharmaceutical companies are inclined to develop drugs that will be used for as many years as possible. The use of antibiotics in livestock can be considered in relation to economies of scale: High density of livestock results in larger outbreaks that will spread as the livestock is transported. This is combatted by infection management strategies, including use of antibiotics.

In conclusion, a number of strategies should be followed to tackle AMR globally. Firstly, we need to avoiding unnecessary use of antibiotics. This can be achieved by increased global awareness and some degree of surveillance, combined with development and use of vaccines. Secondly, it is necessary to increase the number of antimicrobial drugs through global innovation funds and incentives to invest in research and development for effective drugs. Finally, we need to create an effective global coalition concerned with battling AMR.

© MicroOne/Adobe Stock
© Anthonycz/Adobe Stock

3 From TIK

Inga Elizabeth Bruskeland

Program: ESST

Graduation year: 2012

Previous education: Visual Communications, Glasgow School of Art

What was your thesis about?
My thesis concerned how Norway uses national R&D funding in European programs, and I interviewed representatives from relevant ministries and agencies on the motivation to participate in the Joint Programming Initiatives, and on the governance systems which define how national funding is spent on the European level.

What is your current occupation, and how do you use your background from ESST?
After graduating, I have been working at the Norwegian Research Council as the Norwegian coordinator for a European funding program. I was already working here when I discovered ESST, and the master was perfect for acquiring a better vocabulary to understand, discuss and develop what we do. Also, the ability to understand different innovation systems is valuable, as the program is run by more than 30 countries.

Compared to other students, which strengths are special for those coming from TIK/ESST?
The multidisciplinary aspect is definitely a strength; the combination of STS and innovation studies fosters an understanding of both social and economic aspects of technology, and studies at TIK give you the tools to better understand and work across disciplines.

What was one of your most useful experiences while studying at TIK?
The discussions with students and lecturers alike. The different perspectives they brought challenged my own, and broadened my understanding of a topic.

What is your best advice for new or prospective students at TIK?
Engage, ask questions, discuss, challenge each other, and don’t be afraid to disagree. You are here because you can bring a different perspective to the discussion.


Maria Kristina Stokke

Program: TIK

Graduation year: 2014

Previous education: Human Geography, University of Oslo

What was your thesis about?
My thesis was about a pilot solar energy project in a Kenyan village, and the attempts to up-scale the project in another part of the country. I conducted a field study, which is unusual at TIK, but also very rewarding. Studying what made the project work in different phases, I found that many important factors in one phase where lost when the project up-scaled, which is in line with the idea that technology is social and that a process of a successful technology transfer also is a process of translation. In other words, when building new systems, they have to be adjustable to the context where it is to work.

What is your current occupation, and how do you use your background from TIK?
I work with fundraising and mobilisation in the NGO Norwegian Church Aid. We use different databases and platforms in almost everything we do, meaning that we spend quite some time optimising these systems. Often, the issue is whether it’s a technical matter (i.e. the system is not good enough) or a social matter (i.e. we need better routines). My background from TIK helps me analyse and solve such issues. Prior to this, I worked with solar energy in Malawi, taking part in developing and testing new models for energy supply.

Compared to other students, which strengths are special for those coming from TIK/ESST?
We learn about society’s use and development of new technologies, helping us develop an open and creative mindset whilst remaining nuanced and critical. We do not fear change, but neither do we automatically embrace new trends. This competence is needed by all employers who make decisions in a world exposed to an ever-increasing pace of technical change and development.

What is your best advice for new or prospective students at TIK?
Keep on exploring the topics that interest you, even if you don’t find the core competence at the TIK Centre right away! For my thesis I collaborated with an external project, and had two supervisors. It worked out completely fine, and I’m glad I persisted in what I wanted to do.


Lasse Gullvåg Sætre

Program: TIK

Graduation year: 2017

Previous education: Human Geography, University of Oslo

What was your thesis about?
I wrote about control systems, or more generally ERTMS – a European signalling system for railways – and the rolling out of a European suprastate/-market through technological standardization. Through investigating the entangled historical and technological developments of railways, computers, labour and political control, my goal was to contribute to the debate on democracy and the connection between cosmopolitan elitism and fascist tendencies.

What is your current occupation, and how do you use your background from TIK?
Currently I’m employed at the Railway Directorate, mapping flows in and around the Norwegian railway, while trying to establish some in-house geographic information system competency and routines. My background from the free software movement and geography was probably more important than my master for this job, but the gig ends early December, upon which I’ll hopefully move on to something more relevant for my degree. Meanwhile, I’m moonlighting as a web developer and cartographer.

What was one of your most useful experiences while studying at TIK?
Being a research assistant gave the most learning experience overall. Shadowing a “real scientist”, I saw how interviews about seemingly technical and boring topics can get intense and emotional when done right. It was taxing, but worthwhile, work.

What is your best advice for new or prospective students at TIK?
Learn Python and use the UiO Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) platform while you can. Also, be careful when taking advice from recent graduates – they might be just as lost and confused as you are.