Date of Award

Spring 1-1-2019

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

First Advisor

Leysia Palen

Second Advisor

Joe Bryan

Third Advisor

Jed Brubaker

Fourth Advisor

Lilly Irani

Fifth Advisor

Clayton Lewis

Abstract

The information technologies that experts use to make sense of environmental challenges like disasters and climate change increasingly determine how we plan and execute responses. Alongside the rise of computing over the past half century, we have also witnessed the development of tools like satellite imagery, GPS, and environmental modeling. These tools now intervene in our understanding the world and our place in it with a depth and influence that was previously unimaginable. We might be forgiven for expecting that such changes would lead to a radically new relationship with the environment and an ability to finally and permanently vanquish disasters. Unfortunately disasters persist and our environmental problems are more challenging than ever.

In this dissertation I show that the technologies deployed to understand and enact responses to environmental challenges frequently serve to reinforce or exacerbate the factors that create these problems. I use qualitative and design research across three field sites and engage with literature in human-centered computing and science and technology studies to account for this situation and illustrate some of the specific mechanisms by which this occurs. Against arguments that would blame this situation on characteristics essential to either technology or human nature, I instead identify a series of recurring configurations of information technology and social life that systematically produce troublesome understandings of nature-society relations.

I argue that attending to the ways technology shapes our relationship to the environment is, in the language of feminist scholars of techno-science, an act of care. Practices of care are necessary to navigate the current upheaval along the nature/culture divide and provide a departure from past approaches to dealing with disasters characterized by relations of domination, exclusionary notions of expertise, and reductive epistemological stances. By surfacing the ways that our information systems that sustain problematic approaches and identifying tactics within the toolbox of design research and practice to resist them, I raise the opportunity for alternative approaches to developing environmental information systems. In doing so, I provide the theoretical and conceptual foundations, as well as practical suggestions, for a crisis informatics that can achieve safety, justice, and sustainability in the Anthropocene.

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