Brave New World?

Screen shot 2010-07-27 at 1.36.54 PM Recently, my husband received an email from a very casual acquaintance and wondered where this person lived. He Googled them, found their address and was presented, by Google Street view, with a picture of their house, and all within the space of 2 minutes. This exercise caused me to comment to him, “it must be really different dating these days” – we've been together 15 years – “it's so much harder for anyone to lie anymore.” I think about the tall tales I was told during my dating years, and that doesn't include the stories I didn't come to realize were exaggerations, at the very least. But now, you can Google someone and find out where they work, their political affiliation, see photos of their house, maybe their wife and kids! And that's before you follow them on Twitter or friend them on Facebook.

It is true that human beings will always manage to adapt their behavior somewhat to the new technological circumstances, and I imagine that this new potential transparency doesn’t mean that men and women no longer lie about aspects of their lives on dates (or at any other time). However, I think it’s also true that the next generation will grow up in a world that is a radically different social experience. Whether its dating, working, college acceptance or friendship, the internet and social media are changing everything. It is now almost a given that part of a job interview process (and in some cases a college interview process) will include a review of an applicant’s digital profile. This raises the issue of digital memory; the web forgets nothing, no matter how much you want it to. The New York Times ran a piece recently about this very issue and nascent attempts to address this using, amongst other tools, an expiration date for certain digital content. Even if some of these methods are implemented, there is no doubt that our children are growing up in a world where it is increasingly difficult to run from a checkered past and remake a less than desirable reputation.

Will our children understand loneliness in the sense that previous generations did? In the world of texting, Facebook, Foursquare, etc., continuous connectivity to many other people is now the norm, however superficial these relationships may or may not be. If this kind of connectivity isn’t sufficient, there are various services, both paid and free, that are connecting people with new potential “friends”, or at least acquaintances:, a relatively new service, allows users to do just that, rent a friend for an hour or so. Craigslist, long a means for people to connect for casual hookups, or to advertise a yard sale, also has a section called Strictly Platonic, which enables users to find someone to connect with for everything from phone chats regarding, “jobs, men, losing weight, goals we hope to accomplish”, to finding someone to go to the theater with.

Screen shot 2010-07-27 at 1.38.39 PM I don’t want to debate the pros and cons of this new digitally facilitated connectivity. Apart from anything else, it just is what it is. This is the future that children are growing up in, and if anything, it is almost certainly only the tip of the iceberg. Rather, the debate needs to be structured around what new life skills need to be taught in anticipation of this digital social revolution. I've written before about the importance of teaching children how to use social media safely and about maintaining their digital reputations. Perhaps, such a class should be part of every school’s curriculum, just as sex education should be. Children, even ones younger than teens, need to understand that it is likely that what they put out on the web today will follow them for many years, through college applications, job applications and dating.

We’re already seeing schools having to expand and refine their concepts of bullying to encompass and deal with digital bullying and this will only become more prevalent as the venues for social interaction grow in number and technological sophistication. Teaching children about plagiarism becomes a far murkier prospect when the web itself does not always have well-defined, or at least well respected, rules and protocols for attribution. If nothing else, the universe of available texts to copy and paste from is now so enormous that it is impossible for teachers to effectively police plagiarism in the way it was when it was pretty obvious that something had been lifted from one of the few standard textbooks. It is often not even clear what the original attribution of a text or graphic should be.

However, it’s not all doom and gloom and children need to understand the possibilities that are open to them; they can benefit from virtual college instruction; they never need to lose touch with a friend from high school (or anywhere); they can vet potential schools and employers just as they themselves can expected to be vetted, and of course so much more. They can be educated consumers, students, employees, charitable donators, homeowners. There really is nothing that can be bought today, at least in the Western world, that can’t be researched prior to purchase. Most restaurants have entries on sites such as Yelp, where other patrons can weigh in on their positive and negative experiences. Of course, all these opinions have to be taken with a grain of salt, but that’s really my point, children need to be taught how to do this.

There is so much information available on the Internet, that what children need to be taught, more than anything, is how to question information sources; how to critique the information presented to them. I’m not sure that this is something that most schools have ever done well. I know that my children are being taught to bring an extremely critical eye to any information presented them; to question motivations and biases. But a public school curriculum, increasingly focused on “teaching to the test”, is necessarily devoting less time to this kind of critical thinking, not more. As we have had all too ample proof of very recently in the case of Shirley Sherrod and the NAACP video, on the Internet, it is particularly easy to see and read things out of context and draw incorrect conclusions. As they move into the digital arena at increasingly younger ages, it is more important than ever that children are taught to be critical, discriminating consumers of content and information.

As the digital world around them changes, at an almost dizzying pace, children and teens need to be equipped to manage their place in this world, whether it’s maintaining the integrity of their digital reputation or learning how to filter and critique the deluge of information available to them. Given how technophobic, or at the very least, techno-ignorant, so many adults are, I don’t think that parents alone can be entrusted with this task; it has to be front and center in a elementary through high school education. This is really the only way to properly equip our children to deal with this Brave New World.