Treating non-humans as stakeholders key to sustainable technologies

With many innovations in technology focused on meeting humans’ wants and needs, often times at an ecological cost, there lies a field of research focused on designing systems to influence users to live more sustainably.

Researchers studying the area known as sustainable human-computer action (SHCI) aim to decenter the human in a shift toward posthuman design — a theoretical approach which challenges the assumption that only humans are stakeholders of technology as it increasingly shapes the future.

“HCI researchers increasingly are asking how technologies contribute to the Anthropocene, referring to the geological era in which human activities significantly shape the Earth’s ecosystems. As a response, posthumanism as an approach to environmental sustainability is gaining a lot of traction,” said Shaowen Bardzell, professor at the Penn State College of Information Sciences and Technology. “But how to actually operationalize posthuman concepts such as ‘natureculture,’ ‘companion species,’ or ‘noticing differently’ into practice for HCI is still challenging.”

Bardzell and her research team made a methodological contribution toward a potential answer to that question through a project in which first-year doctoral student Heidi Biggs spent four months observing birds to reimagine her relationship to the natural world as a designer of technologies.

The project was not about bird-watching in the scientific sense, as in classifying birds’ appearances or calls. Rather, Biggs attempted to experience ways that she and the birds cohabit their living environments — how humans and birds influenced each other, and how they shared spaces and resources. In doing so, Biggs envisioned what it would mean to design technologies from a more-than-human perspective, the researchers said.

“As a field, we are interested in the idea of posthuman design, and that entails that there must be something like posthuman designers,” said Jeffrey Bardzell, professor and associate dean of undergraduate and graduate studies at the College of IST. “But we don’t have a model for that. Part of what this paper was meant to contribute was a glimpse of what that might look and feel like.”

In her observations Biggs used a method known as autoethnography, a form of qualitative research in which the researcher is both informant and investigator. It draws on personal experience and self-reflection through writing and connects her immediate experiences, posthuman theoretical perspectives, and research and design agendas within human-computer interaction. Biggs watched and recorded birds in 30 separate multi-hour sessions, reporting the date, time of day, weather conditions and general observations of the birds she saw. As time went on, Biggs went from trying to identify and classify birds to creatively imagining new ways of relating to them.

“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,” said Shaowen. “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.”

Further, the researchers note how bird-watching caused Biggs to have feelings of abjection.

“Abjection is the idea that an object of something that was once part of your body, that’s no longer part of your body, causes a lot of discomfort and even feelings of disgust,” said Jeff. “We just felt like that was a fascinating way to account for the relationship that Heidi started to have with nonhumans where she felt like they were a part of her and also not a part of her.”

From a design perspective, those shifting relationships helped Biggs to overcome ways that birds are simultaneously familiar and also alien. Experiencing an odd kinship with the birds helped Biggs as a designer to understand how birds and other non-humans are stakeholders of human invention.

Added Shaowen, “We wanted to communicate some of the humility. You’re intentionally learning to undo what you know, and open yourself to thinking and seeing in ways that you haven’t done before.”

The researchers note that Biggs’ efforts to notice birds differently by decentering herself — and the feelings of abjection she experienced — could have potential for the efforts translate abstract theoretical concepts such as “natureculture” into everyday design methods.

“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 team presented their work at the ACM CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, CHI2021, the premier international flagship conference on human-computer interaction, held virtually May 8-13. The work is supported by the National Science Foundation.

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