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How Information Flows: From Field Studies to Risk Mitigation

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  This article is part of the series: Ethical Product Developer

*****:  If you leave me free, I naturally flow Point A to Point B, but it is not always unidirectional; under a certain condition, I could go in the reverse direction or circulate in a surrounding environment. Ultimately, the movement depends very much on the other's behavior. We are mutually connected as part of larger systems, and our mission is to carry out something important for everyone to survive. Be careful—When you make me upset, I take your action seriously and do not hesitate to threaten your life. Who am I? Well, people call me information.


INFORMATION:  I am fluid, a substance that has no fixed shape and yields easily to external pressure.

——This is how I perceive the concept of "information." It flows everywhere around the world, both digitally and physically. The volume is often overwhelming for us to digest (flooding; information overload), while it doesn't always stream equally to the branches (drought; digital divide). In extreme situations, these events can even be life-threatening.

Simply put, information is a physical substance that embodies and carries one's knowledge in complex networks1. It streams, concentrates, overflows, dilutes, or evaporates, depending on the local climate. By materializing the concept of data/knowledge in such a literal sense, we can better understand this information-rich world.

Most importantly, we need a sort of field research and risk mitigation strategies when it comes to working on information. Consider what we do for water systems in nature, such as monitoring water quality and building dams/levees. We don't let them flow as-is, and humans rather try to understand the underlying mechanism through on-site AND lab work so that we can strategize and plan for quality symbiotic relationships.

gaikaku * The world's largest underground flood water diversion facility in Japan, which is a great example of risk-mitigating applications driven by the years of observations of flooding. We'd need something like this in the context of information management.

Risks in the dynamics of information

What's concerning the most is that the substance, information, plays a similar social role to the other kinds of fluidic natural resources like water, oil, and gas: exploitation by capitalists, competition over cooperation, and inequality among the population. Crucially, the consequences of these phenomena spread so rapidly when the information is digitized.

When I first interacted with information technology, I had a strong sense that the tool enriches and strengthens our real life on this beautiful planet. It was fun, enjoyable, insightful, and eye-opening. Ever since then, my mission is to push the boundaries of people's perceptions of their world through the use of information. However, in reality, I've encountered many negative situations where my close friends, relatives, mentees, or even myself suffered from psychological or financial issues caused by an unbalanced information diet2.

Hence, I feel our life has been used by the tool and become weaker and weaker in contrast to the bright future I originally envisioned. Some of my work surely pushed the boundaries "customers" had faced and might contribute to million-dollar businesses as a bonus. That said, I doubt that the deliverables made a handful of people around me happier.

Now, sadness and disappointment—are the very sensation that has grown inside of me for a decade.

To me, a root cause is clear: solutionism. The "mining" industry—and we developers, inherently—have a strong tendency to build one-size-fits-all solutions for the greater majority. But, since each of our lives is in a different environment and has different experiences, there is no such thing in practice. Consequently, the contrast between capitalists vs. laborers becomes more vivid, making the latter invisible. And indeed, most of us are on the latter side.

Start with field studies

Yet I don't want to give up seizing the original vision that everyone lives to the fullest with information. Remember, we are social creature that communicates with each other, and information is an essential substance we carry. That is, it is humans who are dealing with information poorly, yet the flow of information is not an unmanageable force.

How can we intervene, then?

To give a motivating example, imagine humans' greatest effort in clear-cutting and deforestation for land development in nature. Here, forestry researcher Suzanne Simard discovered the flow of information in the forest, which has been propagated among trees and fungi from generation to generation3. Trees in the forest do communicate with each other through their roots and make reciprocal relationships to cooperate and survive in the local environment. What's communicated among trees is in fact physical substances, and the researchers conducted extensive field studies to reveal the secret. Ultimately, the fieldwork enabled them to create a model that explains nature-nature communications, and the outcomes demonstrated the harm of clear-cutting, yielding more sustainable forestry practices for risk mitigation.

Fieldwork, modeling, and risk mitigation—are the steps we need to undergo when working on physical substances. We should first study a local environment in a hands-on manner, and then we turn the insights into risk-mitigating applications.

What do all these mean for tech?

On the other hand, today's information technology focuses too much on modeling because field studies are time-consuming and do need patience. Solutionism encourages practitioners to take a shortcut for efficiency, resulting in over-simplification/generalization. This is simply ignorance of real-world complexity.

Let us slow down.

Takeaway #1—There is invisible labor in our society. To scale their solutions, tech companies' dependency on the un(der)paid laborers are getting more common these days, as social networks and AI technologies grow4. Users can also be seen as a labor force as the information generated/viewed by them naturally makes service providers wealthier. Seeing this trend as a form of exploitation and questioning the relationship between shareholders and stakeholders would unlock an important discussion for the future.

Takeaway #2—The invisibility is a systemic issue, and we should intentionally make it visible. The invisible laborers are those who are disempowered, discriminated against, and harmed by the technologies. In fact, these are the systemic issues embodied in the societal structure we live in today; technologies are developed and used by national organizations and capitalist corporations for their benefit, and hence resulting systems simply work as an amplifier of their belief5. Therefore, assessing these by-design functions from lived experiences, which are field studies, would be a key first step to making a change6.

Takeaway #3—Imagine the worst-case scenario, and focus on mitigating the risk. Since we are not living in a perfect world, we should never overestimate our ability to cope with the flood of information; we cannot (and must not attempt to) fully control the flow and manipulate people. It is simply infeasible. Rather, think about potential problems that you must avoid at all costs and design applications that mitigate the risk most effectively7.

It means that, although my mission and vision remain the same as I mentioned above, I'd do that only little by little, within the reach of my hands.

1. Physicist César A. Hidalgo illustrated this understanding as "product is a crystallized form of information," but I'd rather employ the word "fluid" instead of "crystal" to emphasize its dynamics.
2. The lack of information is a big problem in my surrounding environments. Even though it is okay for everyone to have a different view of the world, what's considered as "ground truth" is based on Western capitalists, and hence the further you are from them, the greater risk of being disempowered in society. I see these challenges both in my home country, Japan, and where my mentees on ADPList live.
3. The story is in Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest. Suzanne 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.
4. In Invisibility by Design, anthropologist Gabriella Lukács explored Japanese women's underpaid work in the 1990s-2000s rising digital economy. The study surfaces the gap between capitalists and laborers, and we can easily see the same imbalance today at a global scale.
5. This is a statement found in Kate Crawford's Atlas AI: Power, Politics, and the Planetary Costs of Artificial Intelligence. The book reveals hidden aspects of AI technology, such as labor-intensive data work, military use of technology, and biases embedded in its classification systems. These perspectives are crucial to consider the use of information.
6. The idea can be summarized as "Data Feminism." It's not only about gender but also about human biases in data. To reduce the risks and challenge the power, the concept is accompanied by seven principles: Examine the power, challenge power, elevate emotion and embodiment, rethink binaries and hierarchies, embrace pluralism, consider context, and make labor visible.
7. Ethicist Reid Blackman suggests a similar approach when he teaches AI ethics in business. What's important is not about "AI for good," and what business truly needs is "AI for not bad" with an actionable AI ethics risk mitigation program.
  This article is part of the series: Ethical Product Developer



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  See also

Three Perspectives on Large Language Models and Their Emerging Applications
Data Are Created, Collected, and Processed by People
Connecting the Dots in Complexity


Last updated: 2023-03-30

  Author: Takuya Kitazawa

Takuya Kitazawa is a freelance software developer, previously working at a Big Tech and Silicon Valley-based start-up company where he wore multiple hats as a full-stack software developer, machine learning engineer, data scientist, and product manager. At the intersection of technological and social aspects of data-driven applications, he is passionate about promoting the ethical use of information technologies through his mentoring, business consultation, and public engagement activities. See CV for more information, or contact at [email protected].

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