Trustworthy AI’s Sense of Place
Aloha ʻĀina was the message in activist and educator Dr. Jamaica Osorio’s reflections on what it means to have a sense of place. The dictionary translation from Hawaiian language is “love for the land,” where “Aloha” means the presence of breath and “‘Āina” means that which nourishes you. (Dr. Jamaica Osorio recently spoke with Mozilla staff at an event in Hawaii.)
The visual representation that immediately came to my mind upon hearing this was what you see above — an image of lungs depicting human bronchus as branches of a tree flowering wildly through its alveoli. The artwork was created by Yan Li during the time of lockdown she experienced almost exactly a year ago in her home country of China. So here I am, a Bulgarian, sitting in a co-op community in the Bay Area, reflecting on what I experienced in Honolulu, Oahu, while listening to Dr. Jamaica Osorio’s inspiring words in conversation with Mozilla’s VP of Global Programs J. Bob Alotta. A conversation that was a synthesis connecting a deep sense of us, a sense of practice, and a sense of place. It is through the technologies that we have today that I’m able to articulate these global relations. Consider this an invitation to think of technology in the most expansive way possible. As I’ll argue in what follows, there’s a need to contextualize technology and algorithmic systems in particular, in the context of socio-technical-ecological systems grounded in a sense of place.
Dr. Jamaica Osorio started her talk with a provocation — how could we understand our power, both individual and collective, in a system maintained by apathy and disconnection? We need to recognize that we live in a world shaped by systems that were built with injustice as the goal. Therefore, where we find injustice and violence, we are seeing the success of a system, not the failure of one individual. But a systemic critique does not forgive our individual shortcomings. We must remember that systems are upheld every day by the inaction or action of everyday people. Put another way, we are the systems we live under. It is our choice to either uphold or abolish them.
What if we could reorient the way we relate to the world by allowing our sense of place to take center stage? What does it mean to live in a world where we have meaningful connection to place and to each other? Indigenous wisdom and practices from all over the world show us that alternative futures are not only possible but have been the norm for thousands of years prior to the invention of capital “C” capitalism.
Every time Dr. Jamaica Osorio talked about impact, she included both communities as well as land: “Any technologies that remove us from a commitment and intimacy with the land and each other or make it more difficult to be in intimacy with land and each other, are inevitably going to facilitate ongoing destruction.”
One approach could be to situate AI products and services within a socio-ecological-technical context. The Socio-Ecological-Technical Systems (SETS) analysis framework has emerged through the works of scholars from the fields of Ecosystem Studies, Environmental Studies, Sustainability Science, Urban Ecology, and others. Helene Arborg et al., provide a comprehensive review of prior literature in these fields, synthesizing four arguments for the development of SETS:
- the need to better understand technological mediation of human–environment relationships,
- the lack of a critical lens on the ambivalence of technology in respect to its impact,
- the need to assess how agency and power are mediated through technology, and
- the complexity of dynamics of change across scales of human impact on environmental ecosystems.
A SETS approach is centered on investigating the couplings between social, ecological, and technical dimensions of a system. Melissa Pineda-Pinto et al. describe these relationships in the diagram below:
Inspired by the SETS framework, how do we start to think about the impact of the use of AI on socio-ecological couplings between people and ecosystems? For example, consider Tega Brain’s work on Solar Protocol, which “reconfigures internet protocols with the logic of the sun,” taking into account the amount of sunshine in the areas where network servers are located. A sense of place and place-based community knowledges are also at the center of Mozilla fellow Lorena Regattieri’s work examining how social media algorithms promote disinformation and corporate greenwashing around the climate crisis in Brazil. In my own work, I am looking to bring improved transparency to the environmental impacts of machine learning models, arguing that there’s a need to collectively articulate and negotiate the social, political, and environmental aspects of friction in the context of algorithmic systems.
In 1895, a Hawaiian revolutionary, Joseph Kahoʻoluhi Nāwahī, had described Aloha ʻĀina as the properties of a magnet - it is the magnet that draws people into love for their land. If you hold one of these magnets close to another, they are bound fully together, they cannot be drawn apart. Aloha ʻĀina teaches us about the interdependence between the communities and the territories we belong to.
In investigating the broader socio-technical and socio-ecological impacts of AI, we feel called to start from a sense of place. Through that reorientation, we create space for new kinds of accountability mechanisms to emerge. As J. Bob Alotta articulated — “form begets function” — the systems that we choose to co-create and participate in are a reflection of the way we choose to show up for ourselves, our communities, and the land we live upon, through the work that we do every single day.
How would the world be different if we articulate the relationship between land and technology? Dr. Jamaica Osorio’s response was that an alternative world would be one where we have a different kind of accountability to each other and the environment. What do you think? What would a place-based approach to building AI look like? How would it change you and your communities?
Learn more about Dr. Jamaica Osorio’s work, read her book Remembering Our Intimacies Moʻolelo, Aloha ʻĀina, and Ea, and join us in exploring this conversation further during MozFest 2023!