There is a desperate need for teaching children about new technology. But while the school subject’s formal framework is in place, it is still not being practiced in all classrooms
Miquela Sousa (photo collage) is a 19-year-old Brazilian-American girl living in LA. She works as an influencer for brands like Prada, Dior, and Calvin Klein, she recently released a new single, and one time she starred in a music video at an online festival. But she’s more than just a picture-perfect promotional pillar for luxury brands. Her Instagram profile reveals, for example, that she also supports #BlackLivesMatter.
Miquela’s popularity also shows from the number of followers on her social media profiles. A whopping 3 million followers on Instagram and 3,6 millions on TikTok. A recent Instagram post shows a picture of Miquela’s mascara smudging while she calls for a normalization of “ugly crying in public”. The post has nearly 48,200 likes and 503 comments.
Her life may look like a sweet teenage dream, but Miquela is not like other young people. In fact, she’s 100% digital. A so-called digital human. Or, as she somewhat less neutrally puts it: A metaverse sweetie.
Explosive Growth in Digital Humans
Experts say, digital humans, will grow explosively in the coming years. Not just in the West, but also in China, where the government sees so much potential in digital humans that it has launched an action plan to boost investment in the technology. Both in the avatars used in games and on other metaverse platforms, and in commercial influencers like Miquela.
The use of digital humans is spreading rapidly, not just in games and advertising, but also in education, health care, customer service, online sales and much more. Speaking of online sales, the company UneeQ claims that one of its clients tripled its conversion rate when they started using digital humans.
So, digital people like Miquela is a growing part of everyday online life, not least for children and young people who spend much of their time on social media and on virtual game platforms. This makes it important that children and young people understand what digital humans are, why they exist and how they affect their own lives and society as a whole.
A New Strategy – and an Old One in the Drawer
In 2018, under the previous government, the experimental subject of technology comprehension was launched by the Ministry of Education in Denmark. One of the aims was to teach students to relate critically to digital technologies. The present government’s digitalisation strategy states that “because of the constant digital development digital competences must be acquired, developed and updated throughout life” and that children and young people – just as they must learn to read and count – must also “develop digital competences and an understanding of digital technology”. Their ambition is for technology to become part of “folkeskolen” (grades K-9).
“Folkeskolen” is our common school, so all these ideas are good. The school must, as the law states, help prepare students for participation, responsibility, rights, and duties in society. Meeting this objective requires a great deal of understanding of the digitalization of society. But while the intentions are good and right, reality looks less bright. During the past three years, the subject area has been piloted in 48 out of 1,620 K-9 schools and apart from initiatives individual schools are launching independently, the subject is currently at a standstill.
We won’t be criticizing the current government for taking new initiatives, but it seems that what is needed is action rather than more strategies. If the subject is not actually on the school curriculum in compulsory education, understanding the enormous impact of digitalization will be a privilege of the few.
The Next Big Wave of Technology
It is worth mentioning that the debate about technology comprehension on the school syllabus has been going on for no less than 50 years. Meanwhile, technology has taken over large parts of both children and adult life. The next big wave of technology is likely to be heavily AI-driven, and digital humans like Miquela might be a prevailing manifestation. Unfortunately, we find no indications that the wave will have any less impact on our already poor ability to manage our own time and decision making than social media algorithms. If we allow it to continue undisturbed, it is likely to have major consequences for the development of society. Humans are – as elaborated in this article – ill-equipped to deal rationally with our use of humanlike technology.
What Should Be Taught?
It is hard – often impossible – to distinguish between biological and digital people when we see faces online, and it will only become harder as the technology matures. This means, a strategy involving methods to distinguish between digital humans and biological humans will only have short-term effect. If you have a conversation with a digital human today, it is fairly easy. In fact, you can simply just ask the “person” to turn its head 90 degrees or show itself from the back which is yet not supported by most technologies (not yet). But just as NLP-technology is approaching perfection, animated characters are likely to go the same way. And, furthermore, even today the trick only works in face-to-face communication and certainly not on metaverse platforms where human gamers also figure as avatars. The bottom line is that we need an approach that goes deeper than simple tips and tricks. We need education.
By including a subject like technology comprehension in the curriculum for all students in compulsory education, we will have a tool to help keep them up to date. Also on the fact that technology is evolving rapidly and that there may be hidden or obscure motives behind the technology they – and all of us – use.
In Denmark, we already have a good framework. The overall aim of teaching technology comprehension is, among other things, to help students understand the possibilities and consequences of digital technologies, so that they can understand, create and act meaningfully in society, and participate critically and constructively in its development. This includes, for example, learning to understand the intentions and purposes designed and programmed into the digital technologies we are exposed to, including digital humans. One hope could be that the first thing that comes to a child’s mind when meeting Miquela Sousa online isn’t that she is a super-cool girl, but that it is a robot made by marketers with the sole intention of selling products to its followers.