At a certain point in my university days in Japan, I was so into reading Complexity: A Guided Tour written by Dr. Melanie Mitchell, Davis Professor at the Santa Fe Institute. I even took their online course (putting the other textbooks needed for the university's exam prep aside).
Why? I wanted to find out how society on the internet evolves. As information technology becomes the norm among early- to late-majorities, the atmosphere on the internet had clearly shifted from digital "nerdy" communication hubs, which I deeply loved, to competitive marketplaces where people seek profit and reputation for practical reasons. I was curious about why/how the transition happened so rapidly, almost like an uncontrollable natural phenomenon. Eventually, I learned such a network structure is known as a complex system and then started working on social network analysis for making sense of the complexity. I've gotten a handful of actionable insights and encountered a larger set of more complicated problems ever since then.
About 10 years later, I recently attended an art class hosted by a local art gallery and artist in Canada. We practiced meditating in the forest, maximizing the sensitivity of our body, and turning perception into expression.
A key takeaway is that our body and nature—air, trees, leaves, soils, fungi—are interconnected, and we all are part of the earth; when we switch a mental model from moving "on the earth" to "as the earth", perception of the surrounding nature changes a lot. That was the beginning of human-nature communication. Sounds spiritual? That spiritual power defines the complexity of our beautiful world, and my original motivation for studying the digital web through the lens of science is in the very sensation.
The earth as a complex system
The reason why I decided to attend the art class was my huge excitement after reading Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest.
The book written by Suzanne Simard, a forestry professor at the University of British Columbia, is a combination of her memoir and research findings in the field of forest science. Throughout the book, Dr. Simard highlighted the beauty of complex human-human, human-nature, and nature-nature relationships that make our world stronger as a whole. It turns out that Finding the Mother Tree is one of the best books I've read in 2022 (so far) for the following reasons.
Most importantly, in the scientific context, her research has shown that forest (ecology, or nature at large) is a type of complex system that consists of nodes and links showing nonlinear chaotic behaviors, just like physical/virtual social networks, neural networks in our brain, composition of small changes in the environment (the butterfly effect), and unpredictability in financial economics. As mentioned at the beginning, I originally came across the field of data mining almost 10 years ago because of my curiosity about complex systems, and the book tells me that beautiful nature shares a lot of similarities with it.
Dr. Simard found out that trees in the forest are interconnected and communicating underground, making what the science journal Nature called "wood-wide web" (WWW!) in 1997. What's fascinating is that the hubs in the inter-tree networks, "Mother Trees", distribute their legacy to surrounding trees, and the mothers give more to their kin (i.e., younger trees in the same species) while helping others to grow/survive at the same time.
Every node counts
That is, cooperation and community building are happening in the forests, and reciprocity plays a critical role among trees.
We see the similarity in online social networks as the follower-followee relationship surfaces who are the hubs in the communication network e.g., big players and influencers. But, are we truly cooperating and shaping better communities out there?
Since the unpredictable nature of complex systems relies on how individuals interacted with each other (without knowing its ultimate consequence), diversity matters a lot so the whole system doesn't stop evolving at local optima. In other words, humans are not special, and each of us, including trees, plants, and animals, is mutually dependent and interconnected both implicitly and explicitly. And components of the whole system communicate with each other through their "language" to propagate information as far as possible. Once it's failed or prevented, a whole system can be easily corrupted, and we'll see extinction.
Whether it's biological or artificial, what makes the entire architecture resilient is a series of (genetically taught) strategic designs for self-reinforcement and cross-entity cooperation. This balance is extremely fragile, and treating it in a zero-sum, competitive manner like today's capitalistic world simply contradicts the wisdom of the ancient forests: competition over cooperation, profit maximization, domination, etc. That's why systems thinking is crucial for sustainability development, for example, and I believe our problems need to be addressed by non-convex optimization and heuristics without over-simplification.
How we approach the complex problems
Additionally, Dr. Simard's way of researching illustrated in Finding the Mother Tree—keeping her own hands dirty on the fields, justifying the hypotheses based on the experiments and data, and fighting against criticizes over papers and public speaking—strongly encourages individuals who study, envision, and act against large-scale problems like climate change. In many cases, a blocker is a human factor, rather than technological advances, and how to influence policy-making people, as well as a fraction of the "ordinary" population, is one of the biggest challenges to resolving problems that are technically solvable.
Although many people can partially do a good job of tackling these big issues, connecting the dots in a truly meaningful way and making a visible impact is still so tough. Thus, Dr. Simard's journey should be inspiring for any kind of scientist, researcher, activist, and entrepreneur. In particular, I see two men, who gave bits of advice to Dr. Simard at an early stage of her career, played a crucial role.
Alan, a silviculture researcher at the Forest Service, interviewed her and pointed out the importance of knowing the right way to gather data and show evidence, which eventually motivated her to study at a Ph.D. program:
"Ever done any research?" … I told him about … how I wanted to understand why the plantations were failing. … "You need to understand experimental design to sort this out" (p. 83)
Don, a research assistant at Oregon State University who later got married to Dr. Simard, encouraged her to show the experimental results in front of the policy-making people to turn the insights into real change:
I was terrified of public speaking. … The only time I'd given a talk cold like that, I'd frozen and almost passed out from embarrassment. "Yeah, that's why I'll always be a technician," he said. "But you can't hide if you want change." (p. 124)
Their messages are strong, and these are a great reminder of why I (must) learn, however I can. If you want to better understand a complex problem, there are proper methodologies you need to learn; with the basic tools, you can go even further. Ultimately, if you want to make a real change based on the findings, public speaking, or storytelling in general, is unavoidable and is actually one of the most powerful things science can do with its evidence.
Looking back, and moving forward
For the reasons I mentioned above, I learned a lot from Finding the Mother Tree and am inspired by Dr. Simard. I deeply admire everything she has accomplished over the decades and what the Mother Tree has taught us over the centuries. When I first started diving deep into the digital web, I didn't expect that I will be amazed by the links between the digital and natural world a decade later. What a journey!
Now, my long-lasting curiosity about how society on the internet evolves has been redefined by the wisdom of the forests and Dr. Simard's research findings; it's about considering complex systems on three abstraction layers:
- Interaction. Conducting fieldwork with physical interactions.
- Visualization. Translating real-life observations into actionable insights for wider audiences.
- Specification. Generalizing the insights in the form of metrics, algorithms, and/or policies.
To the best of my experience, the solutionism among us lets the tech industry focus heavily on the specification layer without taking user-centered and/or community-driven approaches, or with limited diversity tied to their "customers". Here, as a next step, I would challenge myself to better reframe each of these perspectives as a problem statement and explore the possible shapes of ethical information systems.
We are all related. We are one.
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Last updated: 2022-11-03
Author: Takuya Kitazawa
Takuya Kitazawa is a freelance software developer, minimalistic traveler, ultralight hiker & runner, and craft beer enthusiast. With a decade of experiences as a full-stack software developer, machine learning engineer, data scientist, and product manager, I am currently working at the intersection of technological and societal aspects of data-driven applications. You can find what I am doing lately at my "now" page, and your inquiry is always welcome at [email protected], including comments on my blog posts.
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