COMPUTING RESEARCHERS AND practitioners are often
seen as inventing the future. As such, we are implicitly
also in the business of predicting the future. We plot
trajectories for the future in the problems we select,
the assumptions we make about technology and
societal trends, and the ways we evaluate research.
However, a great deal of computing research focuses
on one particular type of future, one very much like
the present, only more so. This vision of the future
assumes that current trajectories of ever-increasing
production and consumption will continue. This focus
is perhaps not surprising, since computing machinery
as we know it has existed for only 80 years, in a period
of remarkable industrial and technological expansion.
But humanity is rapidly approaching, or has already
exceeded, a variety of planet-scale limits related to the
global climate system, fossil fuels, raw materials, and
biocapacity. 28, 32, 38
It is understandable that in computing we would not
focus on limits. While planetary limits are obvious in
areas such as extractive capacity in mining or fishing,
or the amount of pollution an ecosystem can bear, limits are less obvious in
computing. Many believe the only limit
worth considering is human ingenuity, and that we can surpass any and all
other limits if we, as a global community, pool our creative resources. But we
collectively face new global conditions
that warrant our attention.
In this article we explore the relationship between these potential futures
and computing research. What hidden
assumptions about the future are embedded in most computing research?
What possible or even probable futures
are we ignoring? What work should we
be doing to respond to fundamental
planetary limits, and to the ecological
and energy constraints that global society faces over the coming years and decades? Confronting such limits is likely
to present challenges that we—
humanity—have never before faced.
Given that computing underlies virtually all the infrastructure of global society—in commerce, communication,
transportation, agriculture, manufacturing, education, science, healthcare,
and governance—computing has an
enormous role to play in responding to
global limits and in shaping a society
that meaningfully adapts to them. We
contend that the root of much of computing research has been driven predominantly by growth-oriented visions
The future of computing research
relies on addressing an array
of limitations on a planetary scale.
BY BONNIE NARDI, BILL TOMLINSON,
DONALD J. PATTERSON, JAY CHEN, DANIEL PARGMAN,
BARATH RAGHAVAN, AND BIRGIT PENZENSTADLER
˽ Most computing work is premised on
industrial civilization’s default worldview
in which ongoing economic growth is
both achievable and desirable.
˽ This growth-focused worldview, however,
is at odds with findings from many other
scientific fields, which see growth as
deeply problematic for ecological and
˽ We proposed that the computing field
transition toward “computing within
limits,” exploring ways that new forms
of computing supported well-being while
enabling human civilizations to live within
global ecological and material limits.
˽ Computing underlies virtually all the
infrastructure of global society, and will
therefore be critical in shaping a society
that meaningfully adapts to global limits.