The Internet at the eco-village: Performing sustainability in the twenty-first century
First Monday

The Internet at the eco-village: Performing sustainability in the twenty-first century by Teresa Cerratto-Pargman, Daniel Pargman, and Bonnie Nardi



Abstract
Is the digital infrastructure and its footprint an ideological blind spot for recently emerging ecological communities, including eco-villages? This paper examines how a group of people who are concerned with environmental issues such as peak oil and climate change are orchestrating a transition toward a more sustainable and resilient way of living. We studied a Swedish eco-village, considering how computing in this community contributes to defining what alternative ways of living might look like in the twenty-first century. Drawing on a social-ecological perspective, the analysis illustrates, on the one hand, that the Internet, along with the digital devices we use to access it, capitalizes and mobilizes values, knowledge and social relationships that in turn enhance resilience in the eco-village. On the other hand, the analysis shows that an explicit focus on ecological values is not sufficient for a community of individuals to significantly transform Internet use to conform to ecological ideals. This work contributes to a deeper understanding of the imbrication of social technologies with practices that are oriented to perform sustainable and resilient ways of living.

Contents

1. Introduction
2. A socio-ecological lens
3. The research setting: Ekoby
4. Findings
5. Discussion
6. Conclusion

 


 

1. Introduction

The Swedish eco-village studied here (hereafter referred to by the pseudonym “Ekoby”) can be regarded as a type of community-led initiative that is part of a broader social movement aiming toward a transition to an alternative way of living. Similar initiatives include grassroots movements for sustainable development (Seyfang and Smith, 2007), co-housing (Sanguinetti, 2012), Voluntary Simplicity (Merrick, 2012), Simple Living (Alexander and McLeod, 2014), and the Transition Town movement (Hopkins, 2008; Gui and Nardi, 2015). Most of these initiatives are motivated by desires to preserve natural resources and promote community resilience (Dawson, 2006). They oppose the environmental and economic costs of hyperconsumption (Merrick, 2012) and attempt to encourage the establishment of sustainable and self-reliant communities in a future characterized by climate change and the effects of peak oil.

Some of what we know about the organization, visions, and functions of these transitioning communities comes from research on the Transition Town movement. This movement has lately been the object of studies within a variety of academic disciplines and fields (Alloun and Alexander, 2014; Wells, 2011). Questions pertaining to governance and notions of participatory democracy have been discussed (Connors and McDonald, 2010) along with issues related to the promotion of transformational change in communities (Bay, 2013) and building green networks of cities (Taylor, 2012). The investigation of these issues has, as suggested by Barry and Quilley (2009, 2008), developed a research agenda focused on sustainable and resilient communities from an ecopolitical stance that regards sustainable communities as characterized by “hands-on, DIY politics, which may have the potential for actual transformation of local communities, preparing them practically for adapting to the twin challenges of peak oil and climate change” [1]. These works have contributed to the understanding of transitioning communities as laboratories of social learning (Dawson, 2006), sites of innovative activities (Seyfang and Smith, 2007), emblematic cases of emergent practices that challenge dominant codes of everyday life (Mier and Keane, 1989), and loci of social experimentation, learning, and innovation wherein people are reinventing everyday practices as well as themselves (Connors and McDonald, 2010).

Attention to people’s everyday use of information technologies in transitioning communities has been relatively sparse (Balls, 2010). Exceptions can be found in human-computer interaction (HCI), where a handful of scholars working at the intersection of technology and sustainability issues have delved into questions of sustainable practices and their relation to technology design (Nathan 2008, 2012, Woodruff, et al., 2008; Håkansson and Sengers, 2013, Håkansson and Sengers, 2014; Peirce, et al., 2013; Gui and Nardi, 2015; Tomlinson, et al. 2013; Pargman and Raghavan, 2014; Pargman and Raghavan, 2015; Cerratto-Pargman, 2014; Joshi and Cerratto-Pargman, 2015). Our work follows these studies, focusing on community activities and community members’ thoughts about ICT as well as their practical, concrete everyday ICT practices. These activities and practices inform us about how computing contributes to incrementally enacting alternative ways of living (Merrick, 2012). We illustrate how eco-villagers at Ekoby make use of technological capital to form, activate, and/or mobilize other types of resources, i.e., human, social and moral capital. These resources in turn help develop and enhance the sustainability and resilience of the community. We note, as Nathan (2012) does, that community members’ explicit focus on ecological values is not sufficient to transform their ICT use away from mainstream practices. While Ekoby members are intent on raising their awareness about many issues, their own everyday use of ICT is not one of these issues. Ekoby shows us that the path toward sustainability and community resilience can at times be contradictory, messy, fuzzy, and non-linear.

 

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2. A socio-ecological lens

Our interest in the social ecology perspective (Stokols, et al., 2013; Lejano and Stokols 2013) stems from its holistic understanding of how relationships between natural-ecological and socio-semiotic dimensions of our environment play a role in enhancing resilience. Grounded in Husserl’s phenomenology (i.e., his early work on natural and semiotic worlds), Stokols, et al. (2013) consider the resilience of our socio-ecological environment as a qualitative attribute emerging from the mutual relationships between the natural dimension (i.e., the material-ecological facet) and the dimension of meaning, values, moral judgments (i.e., the socio-semiotic facet). Resilience depends on the “active or missing, supportive or perverse” relationships between these dimensions and the formation and mobilization of multiple forms of capital (Lejano and Stokols, 2013). Two principles in this perspective are especially interesting for us: the principle of multidimensionality and the principle of transactions.

Multidimensionality points to the multifaceted nature of human activity, i.e., its social, cultural, political, financial, and material dimensions, along with an understanding of multiple units of analysis, i.e., groups, households, communities, towns, organizations, and societies. Attempts to discern how resilience in socio-ecological environments is built up thus needs to account for this array of complex interdependencies. The principle of transactions draws upon key concepts from systems theory including interdependence, feedback, and homeostasis. These continuous, bidirectional and mutually influencing relationships between the material-ecological and social-semiotic dimensions lead to changes in humans and our environment that are neither transformations nor translations but transactions. They are transactions in the sense that resources mobilized, activated and formed are not interchangeable. On this point, Lejano and Stokols (2013) carefully emphasize that there is no “exchange rate” that translates one type of resource into another as “the social ecological framework prompts us to study how the different forms of capital interact, support, or conflict with each other” [2].

Drawing on Bourdieu (1986, 1977), Stokols, et al. (2013) distinguish between the following forms of capital: financial (e.g., money), natural (e.g., natural resources), human-made environmental (e.g., buildings), technological (e.g., machinery, digital devices), human (e.g., education) social (e.g., changes relationships among persons that facilitate coordinated action), and moral (e.g., shared guidelines for mobilizing and distributing community resources). The principle of transactions is key in our work as it specifies that exchanges among diverse actors, assets, and resources play a major role in the adaptability, resilience and long-term sustainability of our socio-ecological environment.

 

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3. The research setting: Ekoby

Ekoby is situated 100 kilometers southwest of Stockholm. It is loosely associated with Transition Sweden, the Swedish part of the international Transition Town network. The eco-village was founded in 2009 by a group of six people who each paid approximately US$65,000 to buy a farm with 54 acres of land with the purpose of building an intentional sustainable, resilient community. The property consists of 20 acres of arable land, 15 acres of forest, and 19 acres of pasture. The farm had previously been used for farming and for keeping horses. There is a number of buildings on the land; houses (some in the process of being extended, renovated or re-purposed), outbuildings, barns, stables, workshop, and a garage. The group that initially bought the property consisted of people aged 40–65 with a variety of different professional backgrounds: a high school teacher, a hospital aid, an ex-telecom manager who is also one of the founders of the Swedish Transition Town Movement; a masseur, two university professors, a technology consultant, and a social assistant. This loose network of people came to know each other through their active participation in various overlapping forums such as climate change and peak oil online forums, as well as an agricultural self-sufficiency movement.

In 2011, the ownership structure was reorganized and widened and the financial investment at stake for each member was decreased to currently less than a third of what the original owners contributed. Today, the eco-village is owned and operated as a legal entity and there are 18 full co-owning members. One of the members has re-localized completely to the eco-village and, two members are currently building houses there. The rest commute there on weekends, school holidays, and vacations. Some members have jobs or schedules that makes it possible for them to stay for extended weekends or for a whole week now and then [3]. With the addition of hens, it is now necessary for at least one person to be on the premises at all times (or at least to pass by every day).

Most members currently live and work in Stockholm (100 kilometers away) but have chosen to be part of the eco-village partly as a reaction to their perception of the inevitable and impending end of economic growth. Members’ motivations can, however, differ over time and across individuals. Various motivations nonetheless point in the same general direction. It is assumed that members have the intention of moving to the eco-village at some point in the future. Each full member has paid at least US$18,000 for his or her share. There is a maximum of 30 shares available, a limit set by the theoretical maximum amount of food that can be produced at the farm. Each member pays a monthly fee of US$100 to cover operating costs and is supposed to contribute, primarily with their time, to the management and development of the eco-village.

When away, members rely on ICT technologies to communicate and coordinate activities. The eco-village has had a Web site from the very beginning (based on the ning platform) that has attracted 325 members including “netmembers” who support the effort. Netmembers receive information about ongoing activities, the latest collective achievements, courses and ongoing discussions. They also have the opportunity to participate in activities such as work weekends and social events. The ning platform ensures continuous communication with non-members and gives visibility to the project. Community members own cell phones and personal computers and use ICT daily to inform and discuss a variety of themes concerning the development of the community. Applications including Google Groups, Google Docs, Google Drive, Microsoft Word, Microsoft Excel and e-mail are the community’s most important computer mediated tools beyond face-to-face communication.

3.1. Choice of the eco-village

We chose to study this particular eco-village for a number of reasons: (1) the majority of the community members have not yet re-localized and can thus shed light on the process of transitioning toward alternative and sustainable ways of living; (2) community members are not turning inwards, but instead want to inspire others to form sustainable communities within mainstream Swedish/Western society; (3) community members do not romanticize sustainable lifestyles through idyllic images of rural communities of the past, but concretely engage with ideas about the end of economic growth in a pragmatic way; (4) community members find the idea of living collectively liberating and appealing rather than austere and depressing; and, (5), community members accept individual and collective use of the Internet and digital devices to advance their goals.

3.2. Methods

We collected data through 1) an e-mail survey; 2) written materials about the eco-village; 3) digital communication between full members on their e-mail list (Google group) for one year; and, 4) observations and personal experiences gained in the field, from 2009 and forward.

  1. The e-mail survey consisted of 10 questions about full members’ presence in the eco-village, the types of activities they engaged in, their reflections about why they originally became members and why they continue to be members, what they consider to be the most important “tools” to be at the eco-village, which communication channels they use, and their thoughts about their own future in relation to their eco-village membership.

  2. Three key public documents were examined: 1) the eco-village’s prospectus — an attractive promotional brochure that presents the eco-village to prospective members (see Figure 1); 2) the eco-village’s statutes; and, 3) the application form for becoming a full member in the eco-village.

  3. The digital communication analyzed consists of the 850 messages that were sent by the full members through a dedicated Google Groups from May 2013 to March 2014.

  4. Two of the authors have been involved in the development of the eco-village since it was founded in 2009. One of the authors is currently a member of the economic association. While they have not been the most active of members, their observations and personal experiences underpin our understanding of the eco-villages’ vision, organization, principles and practices.

All materials are in Swedish. Excerpts reported here have been translated by the native Swedish-speaking authors. We refer to participants with pseudonyms. The implied gender of participants’ names matches participants’ gender. Participants have given their consent to be part of the study.

The data were coded and analyzed according to principles of qualitative content analysis (Bardin, 1977).

 

Prospectus on the eco-villageProspectus on the eco-village
 
Figure 1: Prospectus on the eco-village.

 

3.3. Community members

Ekoby distinguishes between full members (the 18 people who co-own the farm) and netmembers (about 325 supporters and visitors who have registered on the web platform). Here we focus exclusively on full members. This group is socioeconomically heterogeneous and there is a spread in terms of age (between 30–70 years old). Most members have a university degree. Some have children of various ages. Table 1 summarizes the backgrounds of the members who participated in our survey (i.e., 14 out 18 full members).

 

Table 1: Members’ backgrounds, and approximate number of days spent in the eco-village between March 2013–March 2014.
SannaAuxiliary nurseFemale, Finnish300 days
ÅsaWorking with healthcare (unemployed)Female, Swedish200 days
MoaSubway driver (part time)Female, Swedish130 days
YngveRetired (former high school teacher)Male, Swedish100 days
SimonFree lance journalist, writerMale, Swedish38 days
LivNurseFemale, Swedish35 days
LeoEnvironmental consultant (biologist)Male, Swedish25 days
LynnCivil servant, traffic planningFemale, Swedish20–30 days
PålPh.D. student in ecologyMale, Swedish20 days
EmmaCivil servant at the municipalityFemale, Swedish20 days
MiraLandscape architectFemale, Swedish20 days
JörgenChemistMale, German20 days
BertaResearcher in sustainable development and technologyFemale, Swedish11 days
BarryFree lance sustainability expert (formerly worked as project manager in a multinational company)Male, British6–10 days

 

 

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4. Findings

4.1. Community members’ motivations and values

Similar to Nathan’s findings about two American eco-villages located in the U.S. Pacific Northwest and the Midwest (2008), and Håkansson and Sengers’ (2013) study of 11 simple living families in the US Northeast, we found that Ekoby’s members spoke of a personal need to change the current course of their way of living; they expressed a strong commitment to inspire others to enact social change consistent with living on a finite planet. Such a change entails not only transitioning between two contradictory ways of life — from mainstream Swedish lifestyles to an alternative based on ecological and communal premises — but also a transformation of the inner self (Barr and Devine-Wright, 2012). Such changes take time and a lot of work and commitment. The vision statement on Ekoby’s Web site states that the transitioning character of the community means that the eco-village is:

a place where you as a member are offered community, ecological living, and a sustainable lifestyle close to nature and food security. It represents an opportunity to be part of transitioning to a more sustainable and resilient society while experiencing the joy and strength of working together with others, toward a common goal. Much suggests that we are heading into a future characterized by increasing competition for energy and other resources, as well as economic instability and climate change. In light of this, Ekoby works as a way to adapt to a changing world and a way to reduce our demands on both the earth and other people’s resources”.

These ideas and values are reflected in community members’ answers to the survey. Members reported that changes toward a sustainable way of life are linked to: 1) a personal need to reconnect with nature and others (i.e., “[a] desire to live closer to nature and being able to support myself, to some extent of soil”; 2) resisting urbanism, consumerism, and individualism (i.e., “[I wanted] to find a personal balance in relation to a highly individualized society”); and, 3) preparing for upcoming crises and collapse (i.e., [I decided to become a member because] “I was worried by the crises that society is going through and about the collapse of industrial civilization that is a likely consequence”).

4.1.1. Reconnecting with nature and the others

Most answers to the survey reflect a holistic approach toward change that embrace how life, in general, is experienced and how this sensual, emotional and intellectual state can be transformed (McCarthy and Wright, 2007). For example, Leo, a biologist, commented:

I wanted to be in good company and be part of the community of the eco-village. My partner and I joined together. I felt that the eco-village would lead to good things in my life. One thing leads to another and so on. It felt like a good thing to use my money for. I often find that group situations are energy-consuming and annoying and they make me stressed. So I also saw the eco-village as an opportunity to work on this side of me. I also hope that the eco-village becomes a place where many nice people live, children, adults, and a place where things happen — a place where people do things. It would be fun even if we don’t move there, I thought. My partner and I also see the eco-village as an insurance for the future if the economic crisis escalates. This thought was stronger for my partner but also exists for me. And finally, I looked forward to concrete action to create and to inspire a sustainable lifestyle”.

Emma, a civil servant, underscored the role that the collective plays in such a social initiative. “[I became a member] one and half year ago. I very much liked the people there, I wanted to test how it is possible to live more sustainably together with others, both socially and in terms of sharing of resources. [I became a member] in part because of anxiety about the future but also because of joy.”

4.1.2. Resisting urbanism, consumerism and individualism

The malaise of mainstream Western society and the values it promotes were mentioned by several community members. For instance, Sanna, a nurse, said, “[I] wanted to live in the countryside, growing inexpensive food together with others. I wanted to go counter, counter urbanization, shopping hysteria, the exaggerated individualism. I wanted to enjoy the simple life.” Jörgen (chemist) observed, “I became a member of the eco-village because] I wanted to find a personal balance against a highly individualized society.” Leo wanted to become a member “[because I wanted] to initiate and inspire a sustainable lifestyle and to protest against current lifestyles in our part of the world. I wanted to do just something.

4.1.3. Preparing for upcoming crises and collapse

Community members’ desire to change was reflected in their visions of the future. For example, Simon, a journalist and writer, said, “I [became full member] in 2009. I was attracted by the idea of building both social and physical resilience and by owning and operating a farm together with others. I was worried by the crises that society is going through and about the collapse of industrial civilization that is a likely consequence. I also sought an opportunity to spend more time close to nature in a context of people who are concerned and involved in the same things I am.”

Pål (ecology researcher) reported: “We joined in June 2013. There were several reasons. The possibility for more meaningful leisure, meet people with similar values about the environment / future, curiosity / desire to learn more about self sufficiency, practical care of the farm and the lands [so that my infant son] would get to spend more time closer to nature, a ‘good investment’ — much better to own part of a farm instead of having 140,000 Swedish crowns in the bank, given that the financial system is going to collapse when the growth becomes increasingly difficult to sustain in the context of peak fossil fuels.”

These responses reflect the values that bring people together in Ekoby. They illustrate people’s need to go against the grain of society and enact change at personal and collective levels. The answers mirror a sense of distrust of the realism of political solutions, and of current Swedish politicians’ abilities to solve the problems we face. Political distrust and personal malaise can be understood as tensions that led community members to mobilize their moral capital (Stokols, et al., 2013). That in turn, brought them together to start creating a strategy for transitioning toward an alternative way of living.

4.2. Activities scaffolding the organization and development of the collective

Four main activities constitute the backbone of the community. These activities are: (1) Production and maintenance of the land and the infrastructure of the eco-village; (2) reskilling; (3) socializing; and, (4) strategizing. These activities are either public (open to everyone) or private (only for full members). Members join at least one work group: the cultivation group, the social group, the construction group, and the infrastructure group.

 

Work groups in actionWork groups in action
 
Figure 2: Work groups in action.

 

 

Table 2: Workgroups have been responsible for organizing 110 of public or private activities between February 2009 and February 2013.
* Note: This is an estimation as the number of meetings have been calculated based on the meetings registered in the Web platform during the period February 2009–February 2013.
Off-line and online communication practicesActivitiesActionsMeetings*
PublicProduction and maintenanceWork weekends (working with the fields and gardens and on the infrastructure of the eco-village)50
PublicReskillingOrganization of courses and workshops25
PublicSocializingInformation meetings and visits to the eco-village, social events and social gatherings with the local community at the eco-village15
PublicStrategizingMembers-only meetings; discussion of current and future issues20

 

4.2.1. Production and maintenance activities

To preserve and increase natural and human-made environmental capital, community members created a structure for organizing work with the land (natural capital), the buildings and the infrastructure of the farm (human-made capital). During “work weekends” a sub-set of the community members contributes (about once per month) with their time, knowledge, competence, or just good will. Work weekends have seasonally reoccurring purposes such as forestry, building, cultivation, and harvesting. Construction of latrines, compost bins, urine collectors, a henhouse, and fencing are other typical tasks.

Production and maintenance activities promote the exchange of resources, i.e., time, labor, relationships, and knowledge, both within and outside of the community. With more people involved during work weekends, success depends on how well activities have been prepared and coordinated. Work weekends usually start on Friday evening with a communal dinner and end on Sunday afternoons, but participants are free to come and go. Most adults choose to spend free time in the evening together with others, perhaps having coffee and cake, gossiping, informally disseminating information, chatting about endless practical or philosophical topics, or perhaps playing a game of cards, a board game or watching a movie or documentary together.

Collective activities are scaffolded by face-to-face meetings and by members’ use of ICTs. The eco-village’s ning platform, in particular, is crucial for spreading the word about upcoming events. In recent months, people have been turned away since the work weekends have become fully booked. With Google Groups, Google Docs, and Microsoft Office documents, community members exchange task assignments such as coordinating where people can sleep, discussing budgets, and disseminating notes from meetings. These means mobilize social capital that is key for the preservation of natural and man-made investment.

4.2.2. Community members’ reskilling

Preserving the natural and constructed environmental capital according to permaculture principles [4] requires knowledge and skills that the majority of the community members did not have in 2009 when they bought the farm. For example, they learned to create composts, plant trees, build with clay and straw-bale techniques, tend berry bushes and fruit trees, and felling trees for firewood in wintertime. Such skills were more widely distributed in rural populations from a century to just a few decades ago, and learning these “forgotten” skills has been termed “reskilling” (Hopkins, 2008). The old skills often have a low impact on the environment and thus become useful in a world of drastically reduced access to energy.

New skills constitute the development of human capital (Stokols, et al., 2013). Much reskilling takes place during work weekends when people learn from each other or participate in specialized courses and workshops. More than 20 such courses and workshops have taken place between 2010–2014. They include courses about permaculture, beekeeping, local economies, local food, ecological and sustainable ways of living, wind power, passive solar techniques, and wattle and daub, straw-bale, clay, brick, and passive solar building techniques. Since the courses and workshops are open to the public, the eco-village promotes the formation of human capital that in turn eases the development of contacts and the establishment of relationships with neighbors and the local community, for example, local farmers. The Internet plays an important role in reskilling as members often exchange links, YouTube videos, blogs, articles, reports, and smallholders’ stories that contribute to the development of knowledge in the community.

4.2.3. Social activities

Social activities consist of those that involve ensembles of spontaneous as well as planned activities. For instance, the Swedish “fika” — a shared coffee break — promotes social capital. Participation in more formal activities such as events organized for celebrating seasonal festivities are occasions for increasing social capital with the local community. For example, being part of the pool of local people who take responsibility for the Sunday café in the village, community members create goodwill and ties with key members in the village. Helping a neighbor with sheep is another example of increasing social capital; some members assist with the heavy work of cleaning out barns every spring. In return, the eco-village gets manure that is spread out on the fields. These bartering transactions mobilize social capital that in turn increases natural capital.

4.2.4. Strategic activities

Deliberations concerning daily matters and visions for the future of the community are an important activity. Only full members are invited to talk about matters such as the joint purchase of goods and services; relationships with the local village; and creating conditions for building infrastructure. Discussions on the future of the community are attended only by members of the board who discuss issues such as the development and sustainability of the community, or ideas of relocalisation. Using ICTs for strategic purposes plays a key role in coordination (e.g., board meeting agendas and protocols, plans, budgets, calendars), and creating and distributing documents that inform decision-making. Discussion is motivated by tensions such as dilemmas regarding “building or not building a house in the eco-village”. This decision sends signals about the degree of a member’s commitment. This tension mobilizes discussions about the ultimate meaning and scope of the eco-village project: “Is it an eco-village or a collective summer cottage?” Another tension is the acceptance (or not) of new full members. One of the key questions is: “Do we prefer someone who can permanently live in the eco-village or someone who cannot?” Such questions move members to discuss the type of initiative they are part of, to negotiate a common vision, and define the direction of future actions. Tensions may emerge when a full member leaves. Two have left since the start of the eco-village. One gave up because she perceived that changes at Ekoby took too long, the other because he got married and had difficulties continuing to invest time in Ekoby. Such incidents profoundly challenge community members to think about what type of community they are constructing..

The following table summarizes Ekoby’s key activities that scaffold the development of the collective in relation to the main forms of capital they mobilize.

 

Table 3: Type of activities and events that illustrate the multiple forms of capital transacted in the eco-village.
* Note: These activities mobilize multiple capital at once but we here focus on what we believe is the main capital activitated, mobilized, and/or formed by each one of the specific activities described.
Main activitiesExamples of eventsMain* type of capital activated, mobilized or formed
Production and maintenance

Planting potatoes, carrots, squash, onions, according to permaculture principles.

Installing solar panels on the main house.

Allocating tasks, coordinating efforts, documenting decisions

Natural capital and Human capital

Human-made environmental capital

Technological capital

Reskilling

Attending a seminar on local economy (formal learning) or helping with the construction of closed-loop toilets (informal learning).

Getting to know people.

Sharing links, films, online reports, books, blogs.

Human capital

Social capital

Technological capital

Social activities

Cooking and eating food together based on the sharing of collective resources.

Planning open houses, visits, interviews.

Social capital

Technological capital

Strategic activities

Discussing the acceptance or refusal of a potential community member.

Exchange of formal documents, decision, budgets, surveys.

Moral capital

Technological capital

 

4.3. Communication and information practices

Community members communicate through an array of analog and digital tools. The eco-village owns a PC, a printer, a landline telephone, and a wireless Internet connection that is continuously on. There is no TV, no cable, or other such devices. All community members own a cell phone (some of them smartphones, a few old and cheap “dumb phones”) and all members own or have access to a personal computer. About a year ago the group decided to replace e-mail with Google Groups for daily communication. The main argument was that Google Groups minimizes the possibilities of making mistakes as all full members are addressed all at once. The migration to Google Docs was and still is problematic for some members who otherwise scarcely use these technologies in their everyday lives. For instance, Sanna, who lives more or less permanently at Ekoby, spends much of her time in the fields, helps at the village café on Sundays or at a neighbor’s farm or occasionally working extra at a hospital in Stockholm. She uses the eco-village’s desktop computer and as she does not own a computer of her own. She needs to be updated about community members’ information exchanges and discussions through Google Groups. Not having used ICT on a daily basis, Sanna was concerned about things such as whether she had sent a message to the whole group or did she reply only to the sender via Google Groups? Yngve, a retired teacher, mentioned that when Mira, an architect, used Google Drive to share important information to all members, it was difficult for him to make sense of exactly where the documents were and how to find them at a later point.

Although use of ICTs is, for some members, out of their comfort zone, they have tried to overcome learning difficulties, and today Google Groups is an official channel of communication. Face-to-face conversations, paper lists, message boards, Post-it notes [5], calendars, and the common paper notebook [6] are some of the analog means entangled with digital text messages, e-mail, shared Google documents, Google’s mailing list, the Web-based project management tool (Basecamp), and the ning platform. There is no grand communication strategy. Current practices have evolved organically over time and there is variation in how the technology is used.

When asked about their everyday use of communication technologies, surprisingly, community members seemed to never have considered citing this as problematic. Ekoby consists of a group of people who question and discuss everything — how to become self-sufficient in terms of food, water, and energy, how to organize themselves socially, what the future will bring — and yet they do not question the digital part of their infrastructure. Apparently, questions about conflict minerals [7], rapid technological obsolescence, overuse of electronic gadgets and social media, electronic waste, and so on, have never been raised. When we asked about this omission during a workshop, one community member explained that she relates to digital information tools through a permaculture principle: “It is okay to use technology as a tool to start processes and new activities, but not for driving them”. Several members who were at the workshop commented that it was an interesting question, but the issue has, to the best of our knowledge, never been discussed thereafter.

With the purpose of better understanding purposes for which community members rely on ICTs, we conducted a thematic content analysis of 850 messages that were sent by full members via Google Groups from May 2013 to March 2014. Sixteen out of 18 full members had sent one or more messages to the distribution list. The purpose and general content of the messages are shown in Table 4 with the main thematic categories of members’ digital communication [8] and the type of capital activated:

 

Table 4: Percentage and type of e-mail messages and capital mobilized.
Social capital

Coordination
Examples: “Carpool from Flen before work weekend?”; “October plans, sign up for work this weekend etc.

Confirming fellowship
Examples: “Here is the picture of our first chicken”; “Party”; “Report from the work week-end”; “What a great weekend thanks to all your contributions both practical, cultural, methodological, culinary and intellectual among others”; “The chickens say hi”.

Relations with local community
Examples: “Local development at Skebokvarn”; “Letters to the guardians of public dialogue about the school and the management structure”; “New Sunday’s bus between here and Stockholm”; “Petition: Keep commuter rail services to Gnesta

45%
Natural and human-made environmental capitalInformation on the eco-village’s material resources
Examples: “The chimney sweep was here.”; “Bulky waste”; “renovation of windows on Wednesday”; “The cock is dead!
27%
Moral capitalStrategizing the future
Examples: “Living vision 2013 and ...”; “Protocol of the board meeting on November 19”; “Ten questions to eco-village’s members for permaculture design”.
20%
Human capitalSharing information about courses, articles, blogs, films
Examples: “Tiny house construction course at distance, check their Web site”; “Succeed with sheep and landscape”; “Removing creosote from soil”; “Harvest news”; “Theme night solar energy: own production of electricity and heat from the sun
7%
Technological capitalInformation on ICTs
Examples: “New home site for the eco-village”; “Change of my e-mail address
1%
 Total messages analyzed: 850100%

 

First, the most important use of ICTs for this group is for mobilizing social capital. More specifically, eco-villagers use ICTs primarily for coordinating collective activities among members. Coordinating activities are especially important when organizing work weekends, courses or public events. Hypothetically, the group could coordinate activities without using ICTs, but such an alternative would be more arduous in terms of time and energy. As most of the community members do not live permanently in the eco-village, avoiding ICTs would have an impact on the dynamics of the communication practices, and thus on the pace of the project’s development. The use of ICTs contributes to the creation of a sense of togetherness that is reflected in messages sent for the purpose of reinforcing good will, confirming friendship or just expressing thankfulness to the community. ICTs are also used to spread information about events, petitions, and policies regarding the local village.

Second, ICTs are used for informing members about changes concerning the status of the eco-village’s natural and human-made environmental capital. For instance, a practice emerged in which members send text messages that included photos. Not every member attends every activity at Ekoby so text-based reporting practices contribute to keep members in the loop and assures continuity for a community that is dispersed.

Third, ICTs are used for following-up discussions started off-line, especially for issues related to visioning and strategizing the future of the eco-village. Such discussions mobilize values, beliefs, and meanings within the community. Messages sent through Google Groups often contain attached Microsoft Word documents, Microsoft Excel files with budgets, board meeting protocols, reflections are used to support the discussions on strategic issues during face-to-face formal meetings. In this respect, we might ask what it would be like to discuss strategic issues without using ICTs? One possible response could be that follow-up discussions would have been much more limited or that they might have been private among certain members and thus not public to all.

Fourth, the use of ICTs facilitates an important exchange of information about courses, articles, films, blogs, books, and seminars, contributing to members’ knowledge and reskilling. For instance, the construction of a house for the chickens was in part possible through the exchange of films, sketches, and drawings showing how others had constructed such a house with natural materials.

 

Building a chicken houseBuilding a chicken house
 
Figure 3: Building a chicken house.

 

Fifth, only one percent of the messages analyzed targeted issues pertaining to the use of ICTs in the eco-village. This is probably one of the most interesting findings from the analysis of the messages; a silence on their daily use of ICTs. The impact of the Internet (along with the global infrastructure and the hardware of the digital devices in question) on our ecology is perhaps seen as too complex to be approached (i.e., none of the members knows very much about the inner workings of the Internet)? Do people feel they are not prepared to negotiate or rethink their own digital information and communication practices in the community? Or is it the case that talking about people’s daily use of the Internet is obviated because of its central role in forming, mobilizing and activating multiple forms of capital that are crucial for the development of the community? These questions require further study. Eco-villagers’ silence about their use of ICTs raises questions about the absence of alternative communication and information practices in a community grounded by people constructing alternative ways of life.

 

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5. Discussion

The use of the Internet in the community creates conditions that enable community members to make transactions that translate into incremental changes toward community resilience. Through these transactions, the community activates, mobilizes and forms different forms of capital that we have chosen to denominate the Ekoby’s “sustainable capital”. By sustainable capital, we mean capital that is produced from dynamic transactions among actors, assets and resources exchanged for the sustainability and resilience of the community. The forms of capital generated are local, socially bounded, non-transferable, renewable, re-created exclusively from the community’s collective work, and destined to be part of the community. This capital is thus sustainable because it is not borrowed, is created by and through the community, returns to the community, and exists as long the community continues to create it. It is important to note that the formation of such sustainable capital is in part made possible by the unlimited use of the Internet in Ekoby. This observation raises important questions about how people are actually today inventing a sustainable way of living. Is the Internet an ideological blind spot in these types of communities?

Merrick (2012), investigated the role of two online Web sites — Aussies Living Simply and Earth Garden Path — in promoting sustainability and simple living in Australia. She reports that these sites are “key to the ongoing process of situated learning that is vital to maintaining a sustainable lifestyle”. She also notes “while these sites play a significant role in contributing to people’s motivations or commitment to sustainable living, it is less easy to make a case for them as catalyst or primary influence”. This is an observation that illustrates well what we have observed at Ekoby; community members rely on the Internet as a means to achieve purposes that are deeply rooted in their will to change status quo, going against the grain of society and creating a more sustainable way of living. Their use of the Internet responds to individual and collective needs, as well as goals related to enacting social change. Members’ communication and information practices associated with the Internet do not work as a primary influence for the development of this type of intentional community.

Håkansson and Sengers (2013) report on the ambivalent relationship to ICTs that simple living families have. The authors shed light on contradictions and mixed feelings simple living families experience in relation to digital communication and their “wish to find a balance in line with their values” [9]. For instance, the majority of the families interviewed said that ICTs make “simple living” harder as the technologies offer few limits or support for saying “enough.” ICT use encourages or forces them to constantly raise standards and expectations for how they communicate and work. But these families also mentioned that the “Internet is invaluable because it offers chances to get social support from likeminded communities — both locally and through for instance neighborhood listservs” [10]. The families even spoke of experiencing “the Internet as an irreplaceable resource for information about things related to sustainability” [11].

These observations can also be connected to Housel’s study (2006) on the use of technology [12] in the American homesteading movement. “Even though [homesteaders] question technology’s role in society, their technological practices contradict the pessimistic, technologically determinist discourses of dystopian literature” [13]. For instance, homesteaders’ views on the impact of the Internet on interpersonal relationships reflect a selective use of the technologies. i.e., they choose Internet for maintaining or enhancing relationships across distances.

Inspired by the work of Nardi and O’Day (1999) on information ecologies, Nathan (2012, 2008) critically explored the question about the use of Internet in U.S. eco-villages. Nathan interrogated the world of eco-villages with the following question: “Do individuals living together for the purpose of supporting an explicit set of values related to sustainability develop unique information practices, or in other words, a sustainability-oriented information ecology?” Her answer was that “Eco-villagers did not adapt their information practices in ways significantly different from the rest of modern society” [14]. Her findings resonate with Ekoby members’ communication and information practices as community members’ activities are deeply intertwined with the twenty-first century technological infrastructure. An example from Nathan’s work conveys in a nutshell the paradox Ekoby’s members are living with on an everyday basis.

Nathan (2012) noted:

“One young man spent the 2007–2008 Midwestern winter (temperatures typically below freezing) sleeping in a hammock strung between two trees in a grove close to the village common house. Although there were blue tarps draped over the hammock these served only to keep only the snow off his sleeping bag and blankets. He was concerned that building a more substantial structure to sleep would draw upon too many material resources. Yet, this same individual required a laptop to accomplish his software design work and to fully participate in matters of governance at Springhope (the eco-village) ... not to mention a warm, dry place to store the laptop”.

This example shows the contradictions that are part of Ekoby’s everyday life. On the one hand, community members invest time and other resources in discussions and activities as they strive to find alternative ways to build resilience in terms of food, water, and electricity. On the other hand, they do not discuss community members’ daily use of digital information tools and all the material resources required to support the vast infrastructure of the global Internet (Malmodin, et al., 2010; Raghavan and Ma, 2011; Wäger, et al., 2015). It is thus striking that individuals who are part of an ecological community seem to be unable to come up with alternative “practices for interacting with information tools that are sustainable (ecologically, socially or economically). Instead they felt compelled to follow mainstream practice” [15].

Our interpretation comes the same conclusion that Nathan does above, but by an alternative way of reasoning. Taking social practice theory as a starting point (Certeau, 1984; Shove, et al., 2012), we create, and are at the same time caught in a web that consists of our everyday practices. Since we have limited mental energy (Simon, 1991, 1957), we can and we do focus on a limited number of areas where we make conscious choices that can challenge our own preconceptions and behaviors. But, we also fall back on everyday routines and practices as we cannot change everything all at once. For Ekoby, areas that are challenged in comparison to societal norms are, for example, food provisioning (agriculture), transportation (cars), water (wells), electricity (solar cells), community matters (rules) and intellectual development in regards to issues such as “hard-core” sustainability, a critique of consumer society, self-sufficiency, societal collapse.

Many other topics that potentially could be framed in terms of “sustainability” lie in the shadows. They are not thought about or discussed. ICT is one. We have referred to it as an “ideological blind spot” elsewhere in this text. There are other blind spots that are not problematized or discussed at Ekoby as well, for example how to repair or provision clothes or how to replace agricultural and other tools in case of the collapse of industrial society. Ekoby constructs a normality of its own, where some areas and topics are intensely discussed, while others go unnoticed or are ignored. We have shown that digital technologies play an important role for producing cohesion, coordination and strategizing at Ekoby. ICT technologies and the Internet can be represented as the “pinnacle” of industrial civilization and thus vulnerable to exactly those changes that Ekoby members worry about and prepare for. Despite this, Ekoby members apparently do not notice, or they discount or deny the impact of their communication and information practices on the environment and the implications of their reliance on these tools. As a consequence, alternative ways of using ICTs in the eco-village did not seem to be on the list of changes deemed necessary to construct a more resilient community and a more sustainable way of living.

It is possible to analyze this stance in terms of “oversight” or “denial”. In her book Living in denial, Norgaard (2011) discusses the reactions of residents in a rural Norwegian community after the unusually warm winter of 2000–2001. While residents were highly educated, they perceived the phenomenon of global warning as both undeniable and at the same time unimaginable. Norgaard analyses their behavior in terms of “socially organized denial” — global warming is accepted, but it is still disconnected from residents’ everyday practices and everyday lives, despite having large effects on the local economy. We imagine that Ekoby members either are unaware of the connection between their use of ICT and sustainability, or alternatively, that ICT is so very useful in their everyday lives — including in their roles as Ekoby members — that they consciously or unconsciously have chosen not to think about it and “live in denial”. So, where does all this leave us then?

First, we realize that there are tensions between the values professed by groups of individuals striving to develop and support alternative ways of living and the realities of their communication and information practices enabled by the Internet. These tensions illustrate a paradox that has implications for current understandings of how ecological initiatives develop today. For instance, Ekoby’s members construct alternative ways of living through information and communication practices associated with ICTs. An implication of this is that the Internet has today become one of these resources that people are not ready to negotiate or give up. To the members of Ekoby, Internet is apparently the bottom line.

Second, building sustainable capital through the use of the Internet raise questions about our own assertions of what contemporary sustainability practices should look like. Visions of contemporary sustainability practices as being “pure” are certainly unrealistic. Even communities that are genuinely engaged in enacting social change and contributing to the foundation of ecologically sustainable, resilient communities have their information and communication practices deeply enmeshed, with the use of ICTs. This observation has implications for how we understand sustainability in such ecological communities. We see it as continuous transactional processes in which different forms of capital are mobilized, activated or formed. A corollary of this view on sustainability is that living sustainably is a relational, dynamic construct, a moving target, which evolves over time and is performed from within a logic of transactions that the human-environment system is capable of making (Joshi and Cerratto-Pargman, 2015). This particular view can be related to Tainter (2011) who emphasizes that “sustainability is not the achievement of stasis [...] it is rather a process of continuous adaptation, of perpetually addressing new or ongoing problems and securing resources to do so” [16]. Discourses on sustainable practices thus need to put emphasis on the multiple exchanges and choices people make on a daily basis in their socio-ecological environment. We find that questions such as for instance “what will we give up?” (Nardi, 2013), are central to the study of contemporary sustainable practices and ICTs.

Thirdly, reflecting on the ambivalences, contradictions, and paradoxes underlying practices oriented to transitioning to alternative and sustainable ways of living, contributes to a deeper grasp of the complexity involved when reflecting on the role that the Internet plays in the sustainability and resilience of our environment. These points lead us to briefly conclude that Stokols, et al.’s (2013) notions of transactions and multidimensionality are pivotal to the analysis of contemporary sustainable practices.

 

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6. Conclusion

Ekoby’s struggles and its messy, fuzzy, iterative, contradictory non-linear path toward community sustainability and resilience are easier to grasp with Stokols, et al.’s (2013) understanding of transactions, multiple capital and multidimensionality. The operationalization of these notions in our study makes it possible to characterize the choices the Ekoby community has made through its exchanges with the environment, actors, and resources. It also facilitates understanding the dynamic of these choices operating at different levels of analysis (i.e., individual, community, village, municipality) and touching upon various facets of community activities (i.e., cultural, social, material, financial, political, ecological). In particular, the analysis of Ekoby’s transactions led us to identify the formation of Ekoby’s sustainable capital that is on the one hand, built on social, material and human-made environmental, moral and human capital, produced within the community. On the other hand, this capital is entangled with digital information and communication practices. In particular, these information and communication practices are not a primary influence for the development of the community, but they are of utmost importance in easing and amplifying sustainability and resilience of the community. As such, this study reflects the deep embeddedness of the Internet in eco-village members’ activities and practices. It contributes to redefining contemporary sustainable practices as a transactional process inherently bound to our contemporary communication and information tools. End of article

 

About the authors

Teresa Cerratto-Pargman is an associate professor in Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) at the Department of Computer and Systems Sciences at Stockholm University (SU), Sweden.
E-mail: tessy [at] dsv [dot] su [dot] se

Daniel Pargman is is an assistant professor in Media Technology at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm.
E-mail: pargman [at] kth [dot] se

Bonnie Nardi is Professor in the Donald Bren School of Information & Computer Sciences at the University of California, Irvine.
E-mail: nardi [at] ics [dot] uci [dot] edu

 

Notes

1. Barry and Quilley, 2009, p. 3.

2. Lejano and Stokols, 2013, p. 3.

3. One member, a journalist, for example stayed for an extended period while writing a book.

4. I.e., permanent agriculture is “a system of environmental design which applies sound ecological principles to life in all bio-regions, from the urban to the wild, from the material to the invisible, to benefit life in all its forms” (Mollison, 1988).

5. They are often attached to physical objects with the purpose of reminding members about common rules or temporary decisions.

6. The notebook functions as an external memory to primarily report on and share members’ actions — things that are done, needs to be fixed — as well as various thoughts, drawings, sketches and feelings.

7. Conflict minerals is a term that designates natural resources that are extracted and sold by armed militias and that perpetuates conflicts in war zones.

8. The examples refer to the headings of the Google Groups messages.

9. Håkansson and Sengers, 2013, p. 2,732.

10. Ibid.

11. Ibid.

12. I.e., a continuum of technologies ranging from hand-tools to computers.

13. Housel, 2006, p. 184.

14. Nathan, 2012, p. 2,265.

15. Ibid.

16. Tainter, 2011, p. 33.

 

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Editorial history

Received 8 March 2016; revised 29 April 2016; accepted 30 April 2016.


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“The Internet at the eco-village: Performing sustainability in the twenty-first century” by Teresa Cerratto Pargman, Daniel Pargman, and Bonnie Nardi is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

The Internet at the eco-village: Performing sustainability in the twenty-first century
by Teresa Cerratto-Pargman, Daniel Pargman, and Bonnie Nardi.
First Monday, Volume 21, Number 5 - 2 May 2016
http://www.firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/6637/5515
doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.5210/fm.v21i5.6637





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