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Thinking About Information Avoidance

At AC4D, we’re constantly being challenged to push ourselves. In Quarter 1, we started honing our presentation skills. In Quarter 2, our Ethics in Design class challenged us to facilitate. As designers, it’s a vital skill to be able to engage team members (both fellow designers and non-designers alike) in discussions about the ethical implications of our design decisions. We need to be able to spark a thought-provoking conversation that opens minds and allows for nuanced introspection while also staying focused and action-oriented. 

Privacy & Consent in Practice

In this section, we are discussing privacy and identity — two quickly evolving issues that will undoubtedly affect us as working designers. From more top-of-mind issues like the Cambridge Analytica scandal to more niche discussions around using blockchain to decentralize identity, we got a whirlwind view of the biggest issues affecting the privacy sector today. 

For my facilitation week, we specifically looked at privacy and consent in practice. Do we really know how our data is being used? When we consent to privacy agreements, is that forever? What are we signing over?

To me, the most striking reading from this section was Dan Svirsky’s study: “Why are privacy preferences inconsistent?”. 

There is a widespread intuition that people are inconsistent about protecting their privacy. People are angry about corporations collecting their data but often do not change simple default settings in their apps.” – Svirsky

But why? Svirsky suggested participants were behaving inconsistently in part because of “information avoidance” and that when it comes to privacy, “some people might be willing to spend some money to avoid thinking about it in the first place.”

With this in mind, I wanted to dive deeper into information avoidance, our relationship with privacy, and the consequences of information avoidance for my 30-minute facilitation. 

The Challenge

We started with a simple prompt: what information are you currently avoiding? I asked my classmates to silently write one item per post-it, then present their topics to the group and we collectively grouped them. Immediately, trends emerged around finances (401k, savings), health (insurance, longevity), global inequalities, and even our cars (maintenance, what?). 

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This free flow of ideas we avoid helped set the stage for the next exercise — a quiz that asked you to consider “how much would you pay to avoid knowing certain information?”. When researching information avoidance, this prompt came up as an exercise to help identify if you are “ostriching” — or sticking your head in the sand to regularly avoid information.  

While there was no unanimous agreement on everything, we all generally agreed we like to avoid information about our health, finances, and future state — especially if they are outside of our control. (Like the day we die, the balance of our 401k after a market crash.) From that prompt, we talked about trends in our information avoidance and tried to recognize patterns within ourselves.

Now that we had a thoughtful grasp on information avoidance, I asked everyone if there was a time when they had transitioned away from information avoidance. Are there things you use to avoid that you now can handle? What changed for you? How did you make that switch?

I tried to follow that thread and see if there were any ways that we could apply those previous learnings to how we relate to privacy. Are there universal coping mechanisms or tricks we could apply to bring privacy to the forefront? 

Ultimately, we all agreed that information that was out of our control or that could not be changed were things we were more likely to avoid. Information like how much money we’ve spent on alcohol in our lifetimes or how many animals we’ve eaten were things I thought folks might want to avoid, but there was some interest in knowing because that information could help shape future behavior. 

With control and agency being a key component in not practicing information avoidance, how can we better integrate this into how we talk about privacy? What control do we have currently? 

Ultimately, we did not come to one singular conclusion, but there was more space to follow a thread of information avoidance and start to see patterns in ourselves. 

Reflections

This was a great learning experience for me, as I’ve never facilitated a group discussion like this before. 

What went well? It was helpful to start the group with a solo thinking exercise and then transition to a group discussion to allow for individual ideas. Getting folks out of their seats always helps with energy, and having a balance of limited activities allowed for deeper discussion. 

What would I modify? If I were to recreate the information avoidance worksheet, I would have made a sliding scale of 0-10 (0 being information you’d want to know, 10 being information you’d never want to find out) because applying a monetary number was abstract and differed greatly from person to person. 

Most importantly, I would set a very clear agenda from the start with a clear goal. There were times when I was trying to lead a conversation and I would have liked to have been able to point to a whiteboard or presentation and remind folks of the goals of the conversation.