If there is an elephant in this room, it’s not brain-rot, but the implacable complexity and scale of the information systems in which our lives are increasingly entwined – and from within which, for many people, opting out or pushing back can seem a wishful dream rather than a real possibility. Even here, however, a rigorous focus on human experience should be emancipatory – and should feed into those increasingly important larger debates surrounding the politics and ethics of technology and its regulation.
Above all, it’s vital that we don’t let moral panic prevent us from bringing the best of our past thinking to bear on the present, or cut us off from analysing our online experiences in the light of sensible, humane notions of what it means to be happy, sane and treat each other well. There’s nothing more likely to make us irrational and ineffective in the face of human misery than the notion that we’re facing some kind of existential, mind-warping threat – and nothing more likely to make words of caution and advice fall on deaf ears among those not afflicted by such concerns.
To this end, it seems increasingly important to me that schools and national curricula establish a place in children’s lives from an early age for the discussion of what it means to use digital media and devices well. This isn’t about preaching, fear-mongering or offering by-numbers solutions. Rather, it means acknowledging the uncertainties and fears that accompany many online experiences, and permitting people to share these feelings – and access good quality information and advice – without leaping towards labels like “addiction” or pathological diagnoses.
A few years ago, I wrote about an educational game aimed at helping British teenagers enjoy better and safer online experiences, especially in the fraught environments of social media. Parents’ and teachers’ concerns for these teens largely revolved around headline-grabbing issues like cyber-stalking, sexual assault and addiction. For teens themselves, however, it soon became clear that small discontents, frictions and uncertainties loomed far larger: online bullying and mockery, a lack of expertise around privacy settings that they didn’t feel able to share with anyone, an uneasy sense of being forced to “keep up” and perform social roles without knowing how to switch off.
Having the space to express, share and explore such fears and uncertainties is an important part of any education system hoping to teach digital literacy, alongside the provision of information and community resources to support these enquiries. It’s also likely to provide a saner and more rigorous basis for regulatory policies, digital privacy and criminal laws, and the emerging accoutrements of a notion of decent digital citizenship.
All of which is far from being a panacea for modern ills – but which is certainly a better place to start from than with the kind of scaremongering that denies our capacity to learn and overcome, to share our discontents without labeling them an illness, and to help each other live a little better in the present.