Age of Awareness
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Age of Awareness

Animal ‘Stakeholders’ Could Finally Have a Seat in the Tech Boardroom

Yellow Masked Weaver bird building a nest. Credit: Pixabay/Bluesnap / 2032 images

A burgeoning area of study called sustainable human-computer interaction based on philosophical posthumanism aims to shift the focus of technological design away from the sole concern of human affairs to a broader consideration of how technology impacts other species and the natural world. Researchers at the Penn State College of Information Sciences and Technology wanted to determine how technological development could be approached with a more ecological mindset and embarked on a rather unconventional project searching for answers.

In a way, the timing of this line of inquiry makes sense. Humanity is currently making significant strides in artificial intelligence, big data, simulation, automation and supercomputing in what has been dubbed the Fourth Industrial Revolution. As Moore’s Law describes the doubling of the number of transistors on microchips every two years, it’s unsurprising that, for example, the iPhone 6 is 32,600 times faster than the top Apollo-era computers, and the iPhone 11 is twice as powerful as the iPhone 6. In other words, it appears that technological progress has reached the level where incremental advances are enormous. So naturally, people would want to know how these radical changes might impact the planet.

On the other hand, technology has been a driving force in the world for quite some time and has undoubtedly had an impact, often a negative one, on the natural world, at least since the dawn of the First Industrial Revolution in the 1700s. For reference, consider the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s use of the 1750 baseline as a beginning benchmark for how much the Earth has warmed due to anthropogenic causes. It seems then that sustainable human-computer interaction or some earlier analog to it should have been a parallel field of inquiry since the early days of industry, not merely a fringe investigation at the 11th hour.

Nonetheless, it’s better late than never. To think about technology in a way apart from human needs and desires, which are usually paramount, a Penn State doctoral student, Heidi Biggs, spent four months watching birds, an activity notably distinct from birdwatching. The watching of birds wasn’t done with the typical observational approach, but experientially to understand how the human and birds coexisted relationally, how they influenced each other and shared resources.

Autoethnography is the method Biggs employed and is a type of qualitative research in which self-reflection is an essential component of external inquiries. One of the goals of the project was to imagine different ways of relating to the birds. The hope is that through a deeper understanding of the relationships between humans and non-humans, technology designers can view and appreciate other species as stakeholders of things humans create.

One example of being oblivious to other species in technological design is erecting wind turbines estimated to kill as many as 328,000 birds annually in the U.S., without any forethought or concern about the impact on non-humans. Of course, wind energy is a crucial part of society’s renewable energy infrastructure; however, the point is fostering a shifting of perspective in which humans aren’t the only form of life that’s important. And as it turns out, some measures can be taken to protect birds from being killed by wind turbines, but devising and implementing them requires thought, investment and action. Someone has to care to make it happen.

“The key idea that runs through this paper is the art of noticing differently. And it’s a well-known fact that our conceptual schema underlie the possibility of what it is that we see,” Shaowen Bardzell, professor at the Penn State College of Information Sciences and Technology, told Penn State News regarding the research project. “What we are able to perceive is structured by our cognitive schema, our assumptions. So one of the goals of the art of noticing is to train yourself to notice in ways that transgress ordinary cognitive scheme, thus unlocking our creativity.”

An interesting finding was that the watching of birds spurred feelings of abjection within Biggs. Abjection is an experience of feeling uncomfortable or disgusted by the breakdown in the psychological distinction between “self” and “other.” Notably, there have been reports of individuals who spend long periods in nature isolated from other people, who also feel the loss of distinction between self and other. However, the experience can be pleasant rather than uncomfortable — a oneness with nature feeling.

It isn’t surprising that abjection would arise when one is straddling the fence of being in the anthropocentric world working for a university and trying to commune with nature through a research project. The human-centric schema is powerful, and most people are immersed in it from birth, so it makes sense that threats to that schema would elicit unpleasant feelings. Conversely, if one has managed to break from the schema, then experiencing a kinship with wild birds could feel less alien and not cause disgust, guilt, shame or some other negative emotion.

Silhouette of trees and pollution, landscape.
Credit: Pixabay

“In the paper, we explore the significance of Heidi’s discomfort: she’s tearing apart her own conceptual schema in order to do this work,” said Shaowen. “I do think it’s one of the first images of what a posthuman designer might think and see.”

The research sheds light on a truth about reality: there are no human subjects and natural objects; so-called human observers are always affecting and being affected by the surrounding environment and vice versa. Because of this, a posthumanist perspective, as defined by extending the sphere of concern and subjectivity to encompass all of nature, should be adopted for just about everything that we do.

It’s important to recognize that although the concept of posthumanism emerged in the 20th century, it’s similar to a worldview embraced by humans for millennia, especially by hunter-gatherer societies. Interestingly, the main difference between hunter-gatherer societies and the current dominant global society is the degree of technological sophistication. So while sustainable human-computer interaction studies seek to overcome the damage technology wreaks on ecosystems, it begs the question of whether technology is what spawns the anthropocentric schema in the first place. However, this tentative conclusion need not lead to a Luddite mindset.

Society has derived much benefit from technological progress; if it didn’t, there would be no reason to invent anything. The problem is that the inventions easily become decontextualized from the greater environment. It’s an issue that’s of concern for society even when ignoring ecological considerations. For example, a study warned of potentially catastrophic societal damage caused by algorithm-fueled social media. Given recent events in U.S. politics, it’s safe to say that some damage has already been inflicted.

The goal is not to shun technology but to change the approach with which it’s developed. But this could involve a complete overhaul of the current human cognitive schema — not an easy task. There are not many jobs that pay people to sit in nature and think, and it’s hard to imagine that being part of a job description at any tech company. Furthermore, people’s historically busy lives have become more so with additional time devoted to social media, email, the Internet of Things and learning how to use new technologies. Little if any time is left to be out in nature at all. Meanwhile, accessible natural spaces are dwindling from human development, environmental degradation and increasing natural disasters.

Yet this may be what the world needs to protect what’s left of nature and society. Moreover, the art of noticing differently can be applied to other fields beyond technological development. It would especially be helpful in medicine, social services, psychological sciences and international relations where greater self-awareness on the part of practitioners could yield better outcomes for patients, clients and human stakeholders.

“You’re intentionally learning to undo what you know, and open yourself to thinking and seeing in ways that you haven’t done before,” said Shaowen.

Changing the way we view the world won’t be easy, but it could mark a monumental change for the better, and there’s an argument supporting an urgent responsibility to do so.



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