This essay is also available at http://www.edge.org.
I live in a bowl-shaped valley on the edge of the Berkshire hills in New England. The prevailing winds come from the southwest. As it happens, a coal-burning electric plant sits in the dip next to the Holyoke Range at the southern edge of the valley, perfectly placed to fill the air with its unsavory mix of particulates – the plant is a dinosaur, one that due to various regulatory loopholes has been able to dodge costly upgrades that would make its emissions less toxic.
Nobody seems to mind. True, the head of pulmonary medicine at the local medical center bemoans the toll of the plant’s particulates on the respiratory tracts of those who live in the valley, particularly its children. But those who operate the Mt. Tom power plant blithely buy carbon-pollution credits that let it avoid the expense of upgrading its scrubbers.
The indifference of those of us whose respiratory systems routinely become inflamed, I’m convinced, is due in large part to a failure in collective awareness. As we join the throngs in the waiting room of the local asthma specialist, we make no connection between our being there and that smokestack, nor between our own use of electricity and the rate at which that smokestack belches its toxins.
I’m optimistic that, one day, the people in my valley will make the connections between the source of our electric power and its role in the inflammations in our lungs – and more especially our children’s lungs. More generally, I believe that inexorably the world of commerce will surface the invisible toll our collective habits of consumption wreak on our environment and our health. My optimism does not hinge on the promise of some new technological fix or scientific breakthrough. Rather my hope stems from the convergence of market forces with off-the-shelf possibilities from an oft-ignored field that has already reshaped our lives: information science.
“Ultimately, everybody will find out everything,” as a saying at the Googleplex has it—Google’s corporate headquarters harboring perhaps the world’s densest aggregate of specialists in data mining and other applications of information science. Information science, the systematic organization and meta-knowing of all we know, has been steadily increasing the sheer quantity of what each of us can find out.
One branch of this science, medical informatics, has transformed medicine by making available in an instant to the physician treating a patient a vast array of background data on his condition, history, prognosis and best treatment.
One of the more hopeful applications of information science would be something we might call “consumer informatics,” which would do something akin to what is being done for medicine, but for the marketplace: make visible the elusive links between what we buy and do and the impacts on our body and on nature of the processes that support these activities.
Take, for example, the hidden costs of a t-shirt. The book Stuff: The Secret Lives of Everday Things deconstructs ordinary products into the chemical impacts their manufacture has had. Chemical by-products of textile dyes include chlorine, chromium and formaldehyde; because cotton resists coloring, about a third of the dyes fail to adhere and so end up in wastewater. There are correlations between high levels of dye run-off in groundwater and rates of leukemia in local children.
For that reason Bennett & Company, a supplier of clothes to companies like Victoria’s Secret and Polo.com, has formed a partnership with the dye works that supplies its plants in China. The partnership allows the clothes manufacturer to ensure that the wastewater from the dyes it uses will go through a series of cleansing pools before returning to the water supply, rather than simply being dumped.
Here’s the challenge for information science: quantify the environmental and health impacts of the standard processes used in manufacturing goods. Then tag a given product on a store shelf with the relative merits of the impacts it has had, so that consumers can weight its virtue into its value. Let us know which t-shirt has what consequences.
Some mechanics of that challenge may be less daunting than they seem at first glance. For one, all large retailers now use an electronic tagging system for inventory control. This lets a store manager know the history of every item on its shelves, including the factory where it was made. One next step would be to document the manufacturing practices at that factory, and so to tag the item with its environmental/public health legacy. This, of course, would require the assist of industry insiders, failing cooperation from the company itself.
The global diamond industry offers a rough model via its Kimberly Process, which requires nations that export diamonds to document that the stones were not “blood diamonds,” mined in a war zone. Imperfect as that system may be in practice, it stands as a demonstration that an industry can tag a specific item from its source as better or worse on a criterion of virtue.
Here market forces may assist, encouraging companies to provide such information in the interests of competitive advantage. Some marketers have long touted product virtues in marketing. For example, Cascade toilet paper claims manufacturing methods that use 80% less water than the industry average and use no chlorine; some energy providers offer an option to purchase electricity from renewable sources like wind power. That’s a bare beginning, one which lets a company select the criterion for the virtue of a given product rather than having it be evaluated more objectively. If companies themselves do not take such steps, there are alternatives. Already anyone can go into a store and, using a Palm Pilot to scan the bar code, be whisked to a website that could reveal information about that product’s level of virtue, say in terms of toxic chemicals unleashed during its manufacture. But for such a website to have both credibility and teeth demands a sustained collaboration between information science and engineers, chemists, physicists, environmental scientists, public health and other medical specialists—to name but a few disciplines—as well as manufacturers. The mass of data potentially would be immense; information science sorts out the signal from the noise, or re-organizes noise into signal.
That task may be daunting. But I feel optimistic that through a sustained effort in consumer informatics, we’re heading to the day we will be able to vote with our wallets every time we go shopping.