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Unknown grid intensity


Glasses that are out of focus, making everything appear blurry
Photo by Bud Helisson on Unsplash


I really need a new pair of glasses. I’ve been putting it off. The world has acquired a silky, soft focus filter. Tragically, so has my notebook screen, every doc zoomed to 200%. 

When I was growing up in Johannesburg, my family used to go to this thing by the lake called “Carols by Candlelight.” You brought a candle, you sung songs with “Hark!” and “Deck!” in them. It was great: five out of five stars of Bethlehem. It was a community thing, but what I remember most vividly was a secret private pleasure. I loved to gaze out at the people massed there by the lake, and then, to reach up behind my ears and give my glasses a waggle. When seen through my naked eyes, the precise, dancing points of light would flow into a chaotic, fiery flux. I loved to toggle between a universe of countable candleflames and a universe of luminous mess, and know they were the same universe.

You know the saying, right? “What gets measured, gets managed.” Or sometimes, “What gets measured, gets done.” It’s usually attributed to Peter Drucker, although I’ve been unable to find exactly this sentiment anywhere in Drucker’s writing. Taken literally, it definitely is not true: measurements are often scrupulously collected and stored, only to be never used again. But we get the gist, right? If achieving your goal means swimming against certain currents — against prevailing financial, cultural, technical forces — then quantitative metrics are a way to safeguard against wishful thinking, spin-doctoring, retrospective revision of what the goal actually was, and so on. There’s a certain irony here, of course. The famous maxim promoting precision is itself imprecise. 

Measurement is not just something we do to technology. It can be thought of as a technology itself. And measurement, I suspect, has become one of those slightly-out-of-control technologies. Having spent the last couple years working on digital sustainability, the problem of measurement crops up again and again. “It’s so complex! We don’t know how to measure it!” 

I like Anne Currie’s rule of thumb: early on in the digital sustainability journey, hosting cost is a good proxy for carbon emissions. As your approach matures, you can develop more direct metrics.

But at an even more fundamental level, it is plain as day that many organisations could be making progress on digital sustainability without precise measurement, or even without any measurement at all. Sure, some carbon or biodiversity impacts are surprising, and in the long term we should watch out for false economies. But a lot of it is pretty obvious. Use less energy. Buy less kit. Repair things more, replace them less often. Put more sustainability questions in your procurement process. Imperfect questions can still spark important conversations.


Some things probably should be measured directly. Like in the classic Christmas comedy Home Alone (1990). Why not measure precisely how many kids are in the car before you go on vacation? This is not a job for a Gamma prior and a conjugate Poisson likelihood for the number of McCallister kids observed in the car. Nor is it a job for a mission statement saying how passionate and committed your car is to ensuring the containment of the greatest number of McCallister children, today and always. Just count and re-count.

Other things in life, of course, are better left unmeasured. Free of metrics and models entirely.

Then there are those things — quite a lot of things actually — where the best approach is both. Measure, estimate, model, but hold those figures lightly, be prepared to step away from them. See the wood and count the trees. Toggle between the luminous mess and the countable candleflames. 

And finally there’s what you might call “measurement opportunity cost.” If you are pouring your thought and energy into quantifying one thing, what could you be quantifying instead? When it comes to climate change and net zero, there are some spaces that are absolutely crammed with metrics, models, and frameworks, and some spaces that are curiously sparse. For instance, there appears to be a conceptual space that is under-structured, under-quantified, and under-modelled, between the high-level integrated assessment models of the IPCC and the net zero and sustainability strategies of countries and large organisations

Flip the old saying around, and it’s slightly more convincing: “What gets managed, gets measured.” In other words, there are conventions about what we do and don’t measure, and if you start digging around in the roots of these conventions, and you may find them driven by the desire to control. There may be other drivers for measuring or modelling: curiosity, empathy, a desire for comfort, or for justice. But often it is control. Do we sometimes not bother to measure or to model things because we fear what we find may be uncontrollable, overwhelming?


Nowadays I teach a course where sometimes I ask the students, ‘What would the rest of our day be like, if all the technology suddenly disappeared?’ This leads to another question. ‘What is technology?’ The answers are different every time. But the examples always heavily feature digital technologies — phones and laptops. This year, for some reason, I did that same thing I did as a kid: I reached behind my ears and waggled my glasses. ‘What about these?’

Then we were talking about contact lenses. Then we were talking about medication. And about nutrition too: how the chemical composition of our bloodstreams, our endocrine systems, is determined partly through a vast global network of food production and distribution, shaped by geopolitics and colonial legacies. And about the countryside, and the ‘wilderness,’ and how the nature you see has been shaped by centuries of human activity, drainage and earthworks, felling and planting and grazing. Where do you draw the line? Is a carol a technology? How about a cow?

As the late great science fiction author Ursula K. Le Guin wrote, after someone accused her of being uninterested in technology:

We have been so desensitized by a hundred and fifty years of ceaselessly expanding technical prowess that we think nothing less complex and showy than a computer or a jet bomber deserves to be called “technology” at all. As if linen were the same thing as flax — as if paper, ink, wheels, knives, clocks, chairs, aspirin pills, were natural objects, born with us like our teeth and fingers — as if steel saucepans with copper bottoms and fleece vests spun from recycled glass grew on trees, and we just picked them when they were ripe…

Way before it became cool, the philosopher Donna Haraway was talking about how humans are inseparable from our technologies. You don’t need a glowing red eye and a rocket launcher arm to call yourself a cyborg. Our technologies are part of who we are, including the slightly-out-of-control technology of measurement.

Another saying of uncertain provenance is, “Tech won’t save us.”

It is connected with some laudable stuff: it’s about recognising that technology is intrinsically political. So what might look like a perfect technological solution to an environmental problem is always something messier, more imperfect. Every such solution creates winners and losers, even if they’re not immediately obvious. So whether or not “tech will save us” really depends on which “tech” and which “us.” Nowadays, the phrase often specifically refers to the slow and shaky emergence of Greenhouse Gas Removal technologies, compared with the confidence being placed in these technologies from certain quarters. 

On the other hand, on a broad definition of technology, you might think of all the alternatives to “tech” as technologies in themselves. Climate reparations, voluntary simplicity, postgrowth and degrowth, the commons, conviviality — and many other seeds that are, understandably, presented as alternatives to a tech-led narrative of climate transition, can also be seen through the lens of technology. I’d even suggest that they can be understood as technologies themselves.

Take degrowth, in its rich political and cultural embeddings. The degrowth mantra that “you cannot have infinite growth on a finite planet” is not recruiting as well as it might. For many people, it clicks, it makes instant sense. But many others hear it and think, okay, but maybe we can have a thousand more years, or a hundred more years, or ten, or one? Just till we’ve nailed the Global Goals, and got cold fusion and Direct Air Capture at scale figured out (and maybe jetpacks. And a holodeck). Or they hear “no infinite growth on a finite planet” and think, well that’s obvious, and that’s exactly why we’re doing the circular economy. Doing more and more, with less and less. 

So I wonder if there could be more space within degrowth (and maybe not just within degrowth) for the logic of the moratorium, the temporary measure, the interlude, the fleeting and the ephemeral? A hiatus, with the expectation that things will go back to normal — and then they don’t, not exactly, or perhaps they do but ‘normal’ itself has changed.

Could there be more space for the pause?

It’s only for a little while” is so often a tool — maybe even a technology — of the oppressor. Curfew, detainment without charge, the state of emergency, austerity, the state of war, exceptional circumstances. Yet could it be reclaimed? Put to finer uses?

I’m finishing up editing a collection of essays about tabletop roleplaying games and utopianism (I’m very excited. It’s called Utopia on the Tabletop). So I’m thinking, and reading, a lot about ‘perfection.’ There were more communes set up in the USA in the 60s than I had thought — nobody’s sure how many exactly, but definitely thousands. Some of them are still going, of course, and changing shape and form just as you’d expect. Many of these 60s communes fell apart eventually, some with acrimony, some with bittersweetness. But is it fair to say they ‘failed’? How do you measure the success or failure of a world in microcosm?

The 60s Communes Project interviewed over 500 current or former communards As.Timothy Miller describes, many look back on these transformative interludes positively:

Most 60s Communes Project interviewees were asked whether, in the simplest of terms, the communes in which they had lived had been successes or failures. Surprisingly few said failure, even when their communes had been chaotic, loaded with freeloaders, and short-lived. Just about everyone regarded the time on the commune as a great learning experience, and for that if nothing else it succeeded.

Within digital sustainability, I can see the pause as an alternative to, “We need to figure out how to measure this complex thing.” When ambitions to precise measurement are really just leading to delay and dismay, an important alternative is: “Let’s pause this.” Or why not find beauty in imperfection by knocking together a good old-fashioned compromise? “If we can’t figure out how to get the data we want by such-and-such a date, then we agree to pause it until we can.”

Meanwhile, the French décroissance has a nuance which gets lost in the English degrowth. Décroissance hints at an ebbing, an abating, a subsiding. A sense of respite, like a river no longer in spate, returning to its more sedate flow. In the future, of course, the river may flood again. The degrowth movement, I’m beginning to realise, comes in many political varieties. There are the left wing degrowthers, like Kohei Saito and other ecosocialists. At the other end of the spectrum, some degrowthers just want more data-rich metrics like Beyond GDP, plus effective fiscal policy to ensure capitalism doesn’t gnaw away its own foundations (“Capitalism is in crisis,” writes David Rotman. “To save it, we need to rethink economic growth”). With so much variation within the movement, I’m not sure the “degrowth vs. green growth” debate even makes much sense to me any more. Maybe it’ll come back into focus eventually. Maybe when I get those new glasses.

Jo Lindsay Walton is a Research Fellow in Arts, Climate and Technology at the Sussex Digital Humanities Lab, University of Sussex, where he currently leads the project Designing Sustainable Digital Futures. He’d like to say big thank-yous to Polina Levontin and Hannah Smith for their help with this essay.