Malta’s head of the state marks each year with a ‘State of the Nation‘ event which fuses qualitative research with academic debate on a number of key societal issues. In the 2023 edition I covered the topics of AI and education, ethics, technology and thinking, as well as the changing cultural trends ushered in by digital triggers.
Life long learning to support increasing complexity
In our fast-paced, technology-driven world, striking a balance between a typical fixed syllabus and adaptive learning is paramount. A fixed syllabus offers a structured learning environment, ensuring all students grasp key concepts, especially in foundational subjects like maths and science. On the other hand, adaptive learning cultivates critical skills such as creativity, adaptability, and personalised education, enabling students to thrive in a constantly evolving technological landscape. This approach to learning also calls for the integration of technology in education, serving as a bridge between structured and adaptive learning. It delivers syllabus content in a more interactive way, supports individualised feedback, and exposes students to a plethora of resources. Equipping students with digital literacy, data literacy, and problem-solving skills is no longer a luxury but a necessity, akin to sending soldiers to a battlefield without proper preparation. With a continual learning approach, students can remain resilient, adaptable, and prepared for the ever-evolving digital world. In essence, the focus is shifting from what one already knows to one’s ability to adapt and learn.
Digital age, identity and vulnerability
Our growing interaction with screens raises compelling questions about ethics and vulnerability. At the core of human connection lies vulnerability. While digital communication devices have undoubtedly enhanced our ability to connect, they may also serve as barriers that shield our authentic selves, limiting the depth and authenticity of our relationships.
Screen time exposes us to the pitfalls of social comparison and the ensuing body image issues. Research, including studies conducted by Facebook, indicates that the more time we spend comparing our appearance to idealised images on platforms like Instagram, the more likely we are to experience feelings of inadequacy and depression, leading to a spiraling cycle of grief.
Another byproduct of our screen-infused lives is the numerical quantification of popularity – gauged by likes and followers – fostering a sense of perpetual insufficiency. Cyberbullying is yet another grim reality facilitated by our digital interfaces, leading individuals down distressing paths.
In this age of ubiquitous screens, it’s essential to understand the ethical implications and the impact on our collective psyche, urging us to seek a healthier, more authentic balance in our digital interactions.
Technology & Thinking
The interplay between technology and thinking is multifaceted. Technology’s impact on our thinking hinges significantly on how we use it. If used as a tool to augment human abilities and enrich understanding, it can fuel critical and profound thinking. However, if we lean on technology passively or substitute it for intellectual engagement, it could hinder our cognitive abilities.
We must realise that the act of ‘thinking’ is not merely a biological process confined to our brains; it extends to the tools and objects we interact with, making them integral components of our cognitive self. The merger of humankind and machine has changed our epistemological self-perception, with digital users often conflating their knowledge with the information accessible through their tools. As search engines like Google become increasingly predictive, the formulation of our own questions diminishes. This suggests an echo of Henry David Thoreau’s foresightful statement from 1854, positing that man has become the ‘tool of his tool.’ The influx of information from countless digital sources can lead to cognitive overload, making it challenging for us to distance ourselves from this barrage and contemplate it to convert into meaningful knowledge. Nonetheless, for those disciplined in smart tool usage, these are invaluable resources, granting us access to enormous data volumes, fostering new avenues for knowledge and discourse.
Following & followers
In our technology-dominated culture, it’s easy to question whether we truly think independently or blindly follow the paths laid out by algorithms. While we possess the capacity for critical thinking, realising it in the digital age necessitates an active, mindful approach towards consuming and interpreting online information. It’s not technology that causes us to follow passively, but our approach to engaging with it.
Coined by social scientist Shoshana Zuboff in 2014, ‘surveillance capitalism’ represents a concerning evolution of capitalism, where the internet becomes a platform for largely uncontested power dynamics. This scenario sees personal data being harvested without explicit consent, and our behavioural patterns converted into ‘prediction products.’ These products, which anticipate user needs, become tradable assets on a future marketplace. In this environment shaped by surveillance capitalism, our behaviors are manipulated by algorithms beyond our control, limiting our independent decision-making ability. Here, technology transcends its role as a neutral tool and instead actively influences our preferences and decisions. However, we must remember that technology’s potential to limit critical thinking isn’t inevitable. Through increased awareness, regulatory action, and changes in our individual behaviors, we can challenge these power dynamics.
Reversing negative effects. The role of education and regulation
Addressing the challenges posed by surveillance capitalism calls for increased awareness and stringent regulations aimed at safeguarding individual autonomy and privacy. In our current landscape, there is a clear dichotomy between the physical world, where independence is limited, and the digital world, where young individuals enjoy expansive freedom. This is primarily due to the difficulty of supervising and restricting digital activities for younger children over long durations.
Raising the minimum age for social media use from 13 to 16 and implementing strict age verification could effectively remove social media from middle schools, a developmentally difficult phase where social media can exacerbate challenges.
Culture & the digital generation’s mindset
Today’s youth, or the ‘digital generation,’ are primarily defined by their access to and engagement with technologies, rather than just cultural events. Among these, smartphones and social media have profoundly reshaped their lives, especially their time outside of school. Although inherently social, these platforms have ironically led to reduced face-to-face interactions among teenagers. The centrality of relationships to mental health underscores the significance of this shift.
Another issue of concern is time displacement, notably impacting sleep patterns. Adequate sleep is crucial for mental health, with sleep deprivation being a substantial risk factor for depression and suicidal thoughts. Regrettably, sleep deprivation among teenagers has been on the rise since around 2012, mirroring patterns seen with mental health issues. It’s clear that while technology offers vast possibilities, it’s critical to address its potential downsides to safeguard our youth’s well-being.
AI has undeniably emerged as a game-changer in the digital era. Its algorithmic computational intelligence is pushing the boundaries of what machines can do. However, the notion that AI can attain human-like consciousness remains unfounded, primarily because consciousness is not inherently computational like computer programs.
The human mind is characterised by intrinsic features such as subjectivity, intentionality, and teleology, which computers can only simulate but not genuinely possess. Computers cannot access the metaphysical nature of reality. They might be able to mirror reasoning, but it’s crucial to remember that this is not the same as actual reasoning, and far from equating to consciousness.
The largest challenge ahead is ‘work’
AI’s rapid advancement has ushered in a new era of automated labor that doesn’t demand wages and is available at a marginal cost of zero. With the potential to automate up to 45% of existing jobs, this paradigm shift calls for a radical re-evaluation of economic policies, wealth distribution, and our concept of employability. This is particularly significant for the public sector, the country’s largest employer.
However, this upheaval also presents an opportunity for re-humanisation. Many jobs, even those requiring higher education like law, involve repetitive, rule-based tasks. AI’s capabilities could automate such tasks, freeing humans to focus on more meaningful work. This could be a chance to revisit the essence of work itself. As we navigate this transformative era, our challenge is to harness AI to enhance human potential and dignity.
Read: 2021 Edition Content