Technology: devil in disguise or Generation-Z’s force for good?

Posted on: 02 Jan 2018

Charlotte Avery, headmistress of St Mary’s School in Cambridge, considers the arguments surrounding the power and presence of technology in today's society.

Our Lay Chaplain Mrs Kay Dodsworth shared a number of articles with me recently in which some of Silicon Valley’s ‘in the know’ expressed concerns about the monsters they have created. For instance, the way social-media sites are designed to be addictive and consume as much of our time as possible, giving us a “dopamine hit” through “likes” and comments, and moulding people’s personalities and reactions. Or consider the pace of change that leaves legislators trying to keep up with new personal and financial abuses, including on an international scale, or the ability to influence democratic processes. The warning is that “we are lucky we are dealing with the very crude [platforms] that exist today… That’s really nothing compared to what is coming… A combination of something like what Facebook is today with where virtual reality might go in the future could be so destructive of a sense of truth, a sense of free will.”

It is straight forward enough to imagine a world where Virtual Reality (VR) and Artificial Intelligence (AI) become more prevalent. TV series like West World and movies like Ex Machina or I, Robot provide chilling examples of how everyday people may quickly find their behaviours, interests and interactions changed as a result of living alongside life-like robots – where a sense of what is real, who should be trusted, and what people’s motives are could become increasingly unclear. It may feel, in some respects, as though we are still as far away as ever from these realities, and yet it was reported recently that Sophia, the robot granted citizenship in Saudi Arabia, apparently now wants to have a child of her own. Her creator confirms she doesn’t have consciousness, but claims that she could do within a few years.

In addition to the advances being made in VR and AI, technology is now disrupting what many of us have for some time perceived to be a largely safe online community of friends. Facebook’s algorithm means that, without necessarily being aware of it, users will find that the less they engage or agree with their own Facebook friends, or pages they follow, the less content Facebook will show them from these individuals and pages. Therefore, anyone who spends any length of time interacting with others on Facebook, or who uses Facebook as their main source of news, will find that an awareness of opposing views is not necessarily as easy to come by as it once was. Facebook decides what you will and won’t see based not on a concern for delivering to you a well-balanced view, but based on its own goal of keeping you glued to the platform for as many hours as possible each day. Essentially then, “if you aren’t a member of the community being served [a particular inflammatory or even ‘fake news’ story], you’re quite likely never to know that they are in circulation”.

Google behaves similarly in how it serves tailored search results or shopping results based on the information it holds on individuals, and both Google and Facebook make their money from advertisers. Their interests lie in proving to their customers (advertisers) how well they can put their message in front of exactly the right ‘type’ of user. The data they both hold about their users is their USP and has allowed them to have an advertising monopoly between them. So we shouldn’t be surprised if Facebook or Google seems disinterested in ‘cleaning up’ what we see, in terms of ensuring we see a balanced view or are not served ‘fake news’ in our Facebook feeds or Google search results. In fact, we should expect that even the prices we see attached to the adverts on both platforms are tailored according to the data they hold about us, as well as the data credit companies such as Experian hold on us – they all work together to set prices to suit our perceived ability to afford something.

This level of refinement in targeting, which is available to those who would sell to us (or influence us in other ways), coupled with the VR and AI capabilities that are on the horizon, is quite a sobering thought. I do not want to appear to be scaremongering! It’s very possible that none of these factors seems quite urgent enough to warrant any of us being seriously concerned – especially my own or older generations. But I do wonder whether we are doing everything we can, as educators and parents, to prepare our young people for what is likely to be an unpredictable future, even based on the potential for disruption of current capabilities, let alone what innovations may come next.

Generation-Z is “the first cohort to come of age in the context of social media”, and half of all pre-school children now use the Internet to watch videos and play games, spending an average of eight hours a week online. Our young people are already living in environments, then, that are unrecognisable to those of our childhood for anyone over the age of 20! Our Junior School pupils don’t remember a time before smartphones and Wi-Fi: in a recent History lesson, Year 6 pupils were perplexed at the sight of a cassette tape. There is less childhood now and more adolescence; children today are different and the disruptive nature of technology is undoubtedly part of the reason. Ofcom found recently that more teenagers recognise the YouTube brand than ITV, BBC or Netflix, highlighting the influence of these tech giants, and how they have encroached on our personal lives in ways that few could have anticipated.

Yet our ‘screenagers’ are fearless in the face of digital bombardment and it is to some extent futile to debate whether to ban or supervise their use of smart phones. It’s been said before, and it will need to be said again and again, no doubt, in the years to come, that we need to remember the disconnect between what is portrayed on social media and what reality is like: “no one posts the photo of them arguing with their boyfriend, or cleaning the loo, or crying at a party, or sitting alone in their room wondering why everyone else seems to have a social life. No one does that.” We need to give our young adults the tools to manage what was designed specifically to be addictive, and what some warn may come to have the potential for destruction to individuals on a par with gambling or alcohol or drug dependency.

A joint Commons report, ‘Children and young people’s mental health — the role of education’, published in May, recommended that as part of its commitment to make personal, social, health and economic education (PSHE) compulsory in schools, the government should include social media education in the PSHE curriculum, to help students and their parents understand and manage the risks of internet use and make more informed choices. This seems obvious to me.

The technology is here and we need to encourage proper, informed and creative use. Our youngest Senior School students (Year 7) have no access to their phones during the school day – we are trying to teach them to use technology responsibly, and to recognise the need to avoid being overly distracted by the constant connectivity on offer. Year 8 students, similarly, have no access to their phones during the mornings, but have them returned to them after afternoon registration. Across the school students are encouraged to put phones into their lockers during the day. I think most adults can relate to, at times, becoming aware of quite how regularly we check our emails or phone apps – even just before bed or first thing in the morning – and many of us may also wish to implement strategies to detox every now and again!

But by no means is it all bad news! There is evidence that teenagers are already responding positively to some of the more negative aspects of technological disruption. It has thankfully been reported that teenagers are already growing tired of obsessing over social media, with two thirds saying they would not mind if it had never been invented. Not only that, but they are becoming wiser to “fake news” on social media too – an Ofcom report finding that “most teenagers took practical steps to assess whether social media news stories were accurate… These steps included establishing whether the story appeared elsewhere, checking to see whether the publisher was trusted, and reading comments”.

It goes without saying that new technologies make our societies more widely connected, more affluent, and better informed! Evidence from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development data, the NSPCC and other independent studies into the effects of technology on young people, has shown that the use of social media can actually help children to develop social skills, collaborate better with peers, and access help and emotional support more easily. For instance, teenagers with mental health problems are more likely to make contact with charities like Childline through online portals.

For Generation-Z to be able to take a lead in proper, considered and ethical management of tech in the future, we need to instil in them both the capabilities and ethics to guide their path. It is worth us taking the time to consider the best ways to engage, and how best to navigate the challenges that come alongside the opportunities. One way to highlight the potential for tech to be a force for good is to share examples of how the latest technology or new innovations are used to bring about positive action.

One such example is new App Beam, which is being launched in partnership with 10 homelessness charities including St Mungo’s, Centrepoint and Thames Reach. The App enables members of the public to donate, through crowdfunding, to support homeless people in gaining employment training to get them back into work. VR is being used increasingly in training, enabling trainee surgeons to experience procedures before first attempting them on a real person and, in recruitment, such as in simulations to assess applicants’ suitability for a career in the Army.

So what’s clear to me is that there is no definitive answer – is technology the devil in disguise or an unrivalled opportunity as a force for good for the next generation? It depends on how the giants of Generation-Z choose to use it, and so, as educators and parents we must play our part in supporting ethical and wise discernment through person to person, as well as online, interaction with our young people.

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About Charlotte Avery

Charlotte Avery is Headmistress at St Mary’s School, Cambridge and GSA President