ACCELERATION. Towards a Terrestrial-Centered Design for AI

Recently, the Co-Founder & Chief Technologist of Databricks, Matei Zaharia shared a research report released by O’Reilly Media on the importance of data platforms and the differences between a Data Warehouse and a Data Lake. The study (Modern Cloud Data Platform. Rise of the Lakehouse) conducted in 2021 consisted of a global survey of 3000 data professionals and aimed to map the state of modern cloud data platform architectures.

The report includes several interesting insights and addresses the multiple challenges that data professionals face, emphasizing the importance of “working together as a team to make the most out of their organization’s data” and underlining the fact that “it’s not enough for data professionals to work autonomously, they have to unite as a community”.

To achieve this communitarian goal the authors recommended that companies, among other things, should treat the data platforms like… a new employee.

”When you onboard a new employee, you set them up for success. They get the right computer, access to the right systems, and so on. Your data platform should be the same — it should be set up to succeed,” the authors of the study argue.

How can someone reconcile a Human-Centered Design approach, prevalent in the AI industry, with such advice that sets up a symmetrical relation with things? This may seem to be, at this point, a piece of very peculiar advice, but let’s take a closer look at the whole process.

The Human-Centered Design from Diffusion to Confusion 

  1. Human-Centered Design is most often defined as a process or approach, commonly used in design and management frameworks that develop solutions by involving the human perspective in all steps of the problem-solving process.

The goal of HCD is to enable the development of products or services that match users’ practices, needs, and preferences. Conversely, in management, it promotes the empowerment of employees by meeting their desires and needs. To achieve this goal, designers or producers are supposed to cooperate with and learn from potential users of the products or services which they are developing.

Whether we speak of local or global NGOs, public or private companies, developmental projects, automation, financial services, AI and machine learning, advertising, project management, organizational change, and so on, HCD can be found everywhere.

From a method, it is transforming into ”a mindset”. In other words – a culture that emphasizes cooperation and empathy with users and stakeholders in the design process, or with the employees if it’s used as a management tool.

”Some organizations, including IBM, have turned to the values ​​of human-centered design as a framework to balance the needs of the organization with the needs of its users, customers, and community,” the company said in a statement. In 2016, IBM also developed a design thinking kit, acknowledging that such a model is ”an ideal utopia”, but stating that it was striving to achieve it.

If we look at how fast HDC has spread in less than two decades, we cannot help but wonder who is responsible for such a celebrated success.

It is clear that HCD may seem a very appealing approach, but this gives rise to a multitude of uses and abuses. I don’t want to be misunderstood, HCD can be an extremely effective model in some cases, and anthropology has played an important role in its development, but when such a model tends to become a kind of philosopher’s stone meant to solve any type of problem, something is wrong.

HCD is a driver towards ”continuous improvement” of products or services, and by that, it’s directly linked to the logic of unlimited growth not only in innovation but also in production, consumption, and profit. In that sense HCD is at its core an accelerator, part of the project that we may call modernity.

Sociologist Rosa Hartmut states that we live in accelerated modernity that is composed of three types of acceleration: one technical, one of social change, and the acceleration of the pace of life.

All three types of acceleration are interconnected, meaning that each acceleration can cause the other to accelerate, as in a circle with cascading effects. For example, technical acceleration tends to increase the pace of social change, which in turn inevitably increases the experience of the pace of life, which introduces a continuous increase in technical acceleration and so on.

The result is a ”spiral” of self-propelled acceleration that has a life of its own, and the cost we pay for this is that we experience a ”world on the run” and a feeling of never having enough time to do all the things that what we want to do. In this ”spiral”, HCD is a good example of a device that sustains what Hartmut calls the “cultural promise of acceleration”. Let me explain in short how this promise works.

The Obsolescence of Human-Centered Design

Modernity has brought humans the increasing withdrawal from religious life coupled with the growing understanding of the fact that nothing awaits us after death. As long as the eternal life promised by religion disappears from the plan, the short time of everyone’s life becomes in itself a project with goals, result indicators, and self-imposed deadlines, a project in which we are drawn more or less consciously, if not automatic.

In this sense, the ”promise of acceleration” comes to fill the void left by ”the secularization of the religious promise of eternal life”, as Hartmut puts it, with the mirage of continuous searching, producing, and inventing new experiences, that can and must be ticked as achievements in the great project of a fulfilled life.

To have a fulfilled life becomes in this way our ultimate project. The role of HCD is very important in generating new experiences that aim to fulfill our life because it is based on the continuous identification of human desires and on creating new ones.

As a result, we are continuously assaulted with new products, new experiences, new services while in the backstage HCD generates a wide range of negative externalities – that is, social and ecological costs that are not taken into account by private decision-makers – ranging from over-production to over-consumption, and from pollution to (more recently) over-reliance on delivery services, to name just a few.

In the end, one direct consequence of this accelerated circle of a continuous search for new experiences is HCD’s unconcealed contribution to climate change. But despite all these negative externalities, HCD is still largely adopted in various domains including new fields like Artificial Intelligence.

My intuition is that HCD’s celebrated success stems from its very name, which comes with moralizing feeling about how things are done in a company. This makes the approach almost an existential condition, especially for the companies that activate in the area of IoT, digitalization, and AI.

The more technology advances, the more that the need to reconnect with humanity is felt, at least at the level of discourse. Not adopting a ”human-centered” model immediately may equate in someone’s mind with being a follower of an ”against-human” model, especially when it comes to AI and the whole baggage of fears and conspiracies it carries.

In other words, any options other than a human-centered model become “morally repulsive”, as Pascal Boyer (2018) puts it. This creates the needed consensus for a coalition to develop. Wrapped in this moralizing tire, HCD becomes an excellent discourse with widespread acceptance but divorced from the way it is used in practice.

For example, some designers even pointed out their inability to make ethical and more human AI products (Ovetta 2021). This is a good thing to do, but products cannot be ethical, – people must be, because AI still depends on the human ability to collect data and especially to put all the relevant data in context, to make sense of it.

Lost in an iterative process that fixes the human beings in the centre of its frame and leaves the rest of the planet outside, HCD is a perfect device for producing the modern subject, one that ”is all but forced to hold the world at a distance”, as social philosopher Chares Taylor once said. Maybe it’s time for a small paradigm shift, from HCD to – we could call it – Terrestrial Centered Design (TCD).

Others have named it ”a more than human centered design”, a model that takes into consideration the entanglement of humanity in multiple ways with the world around, objects, and nature alike. And what better time for a change than now, when we feel more than ever that everything is interconnected.

From sand to silicone and from the Covid-19 crisis to the microchip shortage, the invisible connections between nature and culture are made more and more visible. If our technological society is literally built on sand, then it’s time to bring in discussion this connection and a way to do this is by looking at what Rosa Hartmut calls ”resonance” or what anthropologist Tim Ingold names ”correspondence.”

In this sense, design becomes a way to negotiate the ever-complex relationship between human imagination and the endurance of materials and the world we live in. That means to look not for subjects and objects, humans and things, but for dynamic relationships, networks, to examine the way technology is humanised and humans are technologized.

This is how someone can treat a new platform like an ”employee” as in the story mentioned in the beginning. In this case, the new data infrastructure promises to bind all professionals together and, in this way, to dissolve siloes in an organization (where they exist), because the platform allows them to have access to the same tool and use the same information or data.

The platform becomes “an operator”, as Jane Bennett (2017) puts it. By adopting a unifying platform, the company’s very structure is modified and emerging from their isolated silos, the professionals are changed. In the same way, the platform is a different kind of object, one which becomes entangled in a relationship with the employees.

In other words, a new collective is being shaped, a new network is in place. In this new relational context, it is hard to say which one is the subject (the professionals), and which one is the object (the platform). As technology advances, people, things, and concepts blend more and more and we need a new way of thinking to make sense of the organizations we work in as well as of the world we live in.

But what does it mean to “resonate” and to “co-respond” for a company that offers AI-based solutions, not just at the internal level, but also at the external level? Think just how climate change is increasing the severity of natural disasters, and how this will affect humanity in the years to come.

A TCD approach for a digital company means it should look at this relationship between humans and the world at large and design more positive and balanced solutions.

There are companies that are already doing this type of work. For example, in the insurance domain, an AI-designed solution allows owners to take photos of their home’s damage after a natural disaster took place (hurricane, typhoon, wildfires, floods, etc.), to predict repair costs and to unlock insurance claim pay-outs months faster.

Other companies are directly involved in solutions related to technologies for decarbonising industrial emissions, such as carbon capture in geological formations, a process optimized by Machine Learning (ML). AI can help identify promising sequestration locations as well as monitor these locations to prevent leaks. Other companies are involved in forest management and use ML to track illegal deforestation using imagery or even audio signals.

These examples are types of accelerations that in a way ”resonate” and ”co-respond” with the world and show us how to start using this interconnectivity. As Tim Ingold (2017:4) puts it ”corresponding with people and things – as we used to do in letter-writing – opens paths for lives to carry on, each in its own way but nevertheless with regard for others. This is not a retreat into nostalgia but a plea for sustainability”.

This new relational perspective has important consequences for many data professionals and data-driven businesses because they already swim in uncharted waters.

Of course, this is not all, we cannot solve all the problems just by acknowledging the importance of the materiality that surrounds us. Immateriality is also important. But by doing this, we may discover new entanglements and we may add more layers to the ways we see our place in the world and expand the range of our possibilities.

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