When Adults Abdicate Responsibility: Blame the Tech

I laughed out loud when I read an extract from Rachel Botsman’s new book in The New York Times. The essay describes what unfolds when the author introduces the Amazon Echo to her three year-old daughter and informs her that she can ask Alexa anything. The child proceeds to ask the kinds of mundane questions many of us have probably asked Siri. She inquires about the weather, gets the device to play music, says something rude to it, then engages in the kind of childish innocence I witnessed my own children have with their toys many years ago. Funnily enough, I interpreted the piece as a description of the relationship between a parent and her child, not technology. Then – just as I was yawning, waiting for it – Botsman becomes alarmed: “My small experiment, with my daughter as the guinea pig, drove home to me the profound shift in our relationship with technology.”

One doesn’t need to bother wondering if this “small experiment” wasn’t simply established to illustrate a foregone, pedantic conclusion. Children who are, quite literally, left to their own devices, will make mistakes. We know this intuitively. This is not a seismic shift in society. Children need parents, guidance, and boundaries. They need adults who are firm, consistent, and loving. At the heart of Botsman’s “experiment” lies a powerful, valid question that should concern us all: “How do we teach our children to question not only the security and privacy implications but also the ethical and commercial intentions of a device designed by marketers?” Is this only the work of schools?

The educator in me is irked beyond belief when I read rational aspects of good parenting turned into dystopian concerns about technology. George Couros refers to this  “distorted view of the digital world,” from an analysis of the reality of digital natives as, “a view that reflects the fears of adults rather than the aspirations of youth.” If we are honest with ourselves as adults, as parents, as educators, we know what young people need. Botsman gets this right, but only up to a point:

“Our kids are going to need to know where and when it is appropriate to put their trust in computer code alone. I watched Grace hand over her trust to Alexa quickly. There are few checks and balances to deter children from doing just that, not to mention very few tools to help them make informed decisions about A.I. advice. And isn’t helping Gracie learn how to make decisions about what to wear — and many more even important things in life — my job? I decided to retire Alexa to the closet.”

Yes, of course it is her job to help her child make important decisions in life, but hiding the reality of technology in the closet is not the way to be an effective parent or a responsible adult. Schools do this, too, as Couros notes: “Too often, the fear of mistakes from our students leads us to shut everything down…. We often punish the majority of our students because the fear of what the few might do.” Control is the opposite of empowerment. The implications are significant.

We have an obligation to help our children, our students, to navigate the complex world of today’s technologies and to do so with a critical eye, an awareness of the inherent, potential dangers, and an understanding of how personal data and the dynamics of the attention economy work. We will not achieve this by placing constraints on technology use, but through open dialogue, education, trust, and a willingness to learn from mistakes. We should not legislate for the majority by focussing on what the minority might get wrong. We have an obligation to place the inevitable needs of young people above our own fears and anxieties. We can’t stick our heads in the shifting digital sands. We can lock the technology in the closet if this is our inclination, but we must assume responsibility for the implications of this short-sighted decision if this is the unenlightened path we choose.

Abdicating our responsibility as adults is not an option. “Ignoring the realities of our world is a strategy, just not one that is very effective,” Couros reminds us. Even Alexa knows this.

Botsman, Rachel. Co-Parenting With Alexa.” The New York Times, October 7, 2017.
Couros, George.  “If Schools Don’t Allow Mistakes, Where Are They Supposed to Happen?” The Principal of Change, October 7, 2017.
Wong, Alia. “Digital Natives, Yet Strangers to the Web.” The Atlantic, April 21, 2015.
Image credit @BryanMMathers via Visual Thinkery. Licenced under CC-BY-ND.