Computers, Privacy & the Constitution

Generation Z

-- By AnaCarolinaVarela - 06 Mar 2015

The Profile

(I acknowledge that any generalization about a group this size is naturally going to get some people wrong. The studies cited below are intended for guidance; I allow for the possibility that plenty of Z-ers don't fall into these descriptions at all.)

Generation Z is unlike any other. One study about Z-ers says their teachers describe them as “lack[ing] situational awareness, [being] oblivious to their surroundings and unable to give directions.” Their teachers also believe that their “digital tools make students more likely to ‘write too fast and be careless.’” The study describes the general communication style of Z-ers as imprecise and open to “interpretation”

On the other hand, Z-ers are also highly tech savvy, on average multi-tasking among 5 different screens at a time. This connection to technology has made them more “attuned to NSA surveillance issues,” per the study. But it has also created a generation of people who are extremely reliant on technology and, while sensitive to geo-location services, or Facebook’s privacy violations, likely to have a much harder time putting down the screen for any amount of time. With this dependence comes opportunity for those who would exploit/monetize private information.

The Challenge

Neither the government nor the companies responsible have many incentives to scale back data collection. Individuals are also loathe to give up any of the convenience or psychological rewards that free email and social networking bring (Cory Doctorow has gone so far as to describe Facebook as a Skinner Box that conditions us to give up more information in order to experience validation). Though this generation will be the most inextricably tied to the Net and technology, it will also be in the best position to redirect the course of tech. However, as demonstrated above, there are risks if the current trajectory of technological use continues.

As Emily Nussbaum points out,

Younger people, one could point out, are the only ones for whom it seems to have sunk in that the idea of a truly private life is already an illusion. Every street in New York has a surveillance camera. Each time you swipe your debit card at Duane Reade or use your Metro Card, that transaction is tracked. Your employer owns your e-mails. The NSA owns your phone calls. Your life is being lived in public whether you choose to acknowledge it or not.

It would appear that there is no longer much incentive to work toward privacy – since no one is going to respect your attempts to get it. Teens today are growing up in a world where they are taught not to expect privacy from their parents, teachers, or the government, though they apparently do what they can to mitigate it. At the same time, the abovementioned changes are happening and there is little that can be done to stop it. This generation is also, however, among the most entrepreneurial; they are also very aware of the challenges this post Great Recession world presents.

The Possibilities

Taken all together, then, there is perhaps some opportunity to give this generation the tools to adapt to this new anatomy, instead of merely being absorbed into it. One of the most important tools, of course, is education.

This education must be targeted to develop certain skills. To encourage critical thinking, precise communication, and to parse the millions of bits of information they receive every day, and to do it in a space in which coercion is limited, however, seems like an almost impossible task. However, I posit that it is possible to achieve a number of these goals by creating a Debate requirement for all 13-18 year-olds.

The benefits of debate are documented. Students who debate learn to solve problems, research, and digest & synthesize new information on a greater scale. More importantly for the goals I set forth above, the edict of debaters everywhere is to question power structures. I have no cite for this last benefit, only my own experience “on the circuit” when I was in high school. The process of strategizing made us all rethink our approach to the world around us. Understanding that we didn’t have to “accept” information meant that we could resolve our own questions dynamically.

It also meant that I had to learn to communicate. It was not enough to simply take a position; I had to defend it. I had to look people in the eye, write my argument, and deliver it coherently. It was also an activity in which I could synthesize technological learning, and more traditional forms of communication and learning. For this reason, I think it may provide a solution to “exercising cultural drag” and beginning a process of rethinking the world we are creating.

Finally, it also meant that I was directing the process of learning. With the guidance of my some time mentor, I learned – not just what arguments I could make – but how to learn to build them. Of course, there was probably more external “pressure” than I understood at the time, but this felt like a less coercive form of learning that I had previously experienced. This was likely one of the most important benefits: taking ownership of my education.

For all these reasons, I think that teaching young people to debate, as part of the required curriculum, will help them to create a generation equipped to handle the challenges that lie ahead.

I don't think that teaching people constitutional amendment concepts will be of much use until it is too late. And it's hard for children to learn about privacy because adults don't allow them any.

What is happening is happening. That humanity is changing within two generations into a networked organism of social animals leaving commensally with machine intelligence cannot be reversed. The trajectory can be deflected, to leave technical room for the survival of certain humane values, of which privacy is one, that the most privileged part of the human race has been evolving and enjoying for the last few centuries of humanity's millions of years. Or not. By the time you have taught this condition to one more generation of children, the process will be over one way or the other. I think we can worry less about their children, but we must worry much more about you.


Webs Webs

r4 - 26 Jun 2015 - 19:43:30 - MarkDrake
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