By Judith Karunanayake
In the same way that the Renaissance period is recalled as a moment of artistic endeavour, our current era will be remembered for the many incredible advances that are being made in the sphere of technology. We are living in a time where things once purely thought, are becoming a reality: the driverless car, civilian trips to space, talking digital assistants, the list goes on. But have we paused to consider the dangers that lie in wait with these impressive advancements, especially towards the most vulnerable and impressionable members of society?
Our children are growing up in a time in which the internet has always existed, in which social media has been the chief modus operandi of conducting friendships and connecting with the world. Beyond the concerns of too much screen time on the brain development of our children, there also needs to be more serious consideration for the manner in which these technologies can impact the way our children behave, what they consider acceptable and how they interact with each other.
A seemingly innocuous example is our digital assistants. Not only are we on a “first name” basis with Alexa, Siri, Cortana, our kids are imitating the adults they hear barking orders to “play Taylor Swift”, “find a recipe for stuffed peppers” or “set a reminder for noon”. Has it caused us any consternation that all these assistants are female? What does this say about how tech views women, and what does this teach our kids about how women should be addressed (how often do we ever really say “please” or “thank you”)? Even if we were to set these concerns aside, we need to consider the desirability of a reality in which our children grow up in a world where robots infused with artificial intelligence become their “friends” - with perhaps competing interests or intertwining rights.
With tech companies investing more into the world of virtual reality, we have the ability to totally immerse ourselves in whatever reality we choose. On the one hand, this allows us to put on a headset and be transported to outer space, the depths of the ocean floor, or to the other side of the world. It also allows our children to delve into a world of pure fantasy, and thereby form an addiction to the unreal - much in the same way as pornography. How do our children learn to embrace the ordinary, every-dayness of life when at a moment’s notice they can escape the “mundane” of the real world and enter into the fantastical? It’s the stuff of futuristic novels and movies - it just happens to be taking place as we speak.
We also need to consider some of the effects social media has on our children - especially on many of our girls who seek affirmation of their self-worth through these mediums. We are a generation so taken with ourselves that we post every detail of our life onto social media. Indeed, you would be hard pressed on a night out not to come across a group of teenage girls feverishly taking selfies in various poses, at differing angles, in a variety of lighting, followed by the careful selection of which filter to apply. It’s quite the process. But then must come the adulation - the likes, the flattering comments, the heart eyes emojis…These inevitably follow provided the posts conform with a certain notion of singularity: that only one type of aesthetic is acceptable, and that we must all look and behave a set way to be worthy of praise. It is one of the many ways in which our young women are being told by society that their worth derives from their outer beauty - a lie that fattens the pockets of cosmetics and fashion companies, whilst stripping our girls of their self-worth.
But bemoaning the pitfalls of technology will not resolve the issues that arise from its advancement. We must lead by example, confronting ourselves with inconvenient questions, such as: how much are we consumed by technology? Are we so glued to our phones that it normalises the practice of placing a device above those around us (how many of us put our phones on the table when we go out to dinner with friends/family?). Do we make an effort to help our children connect with the beauty that exists in the tangible world around them? How often do we opt for the non-technological option of reading a paper newspaper or novel, or calling a friend, instead of texting?
We also have to be ready to engage in direct and honest discussions with our young people about their place in the world and in particular, the importance of critical thinking. We must encourage younger generations to constantly question what is being served to them by advances in technology: is it really a good thing that we develop AI to more fully replicate humans? Whether virtual reality really benefits us? Whether it is worthwhile embarking on achieving Instagram-worthy looks? But that is where we should also stop. If we pose and then answer these questions ourselves, we prevent our children from searching for the answer. Without the journey of the search, any such answer will fail to equip our kids for the long-term goal of being able to distinguish truth from deceit, between what's proper behaviour and not.
Judith Karunanayake specialises in intellectual property law. She has a Master of Laws from the University of Melbourne and a conjoint Bachelor degree in Law and Arts from the University of Auckland. She is currently living with her family in San Jose.