Being Human in a Digital World

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Mar 13, 2019
by Louise Hallman
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Being Human in a Digital World

Participants at Social and Emotional Learning: Time for Action explore SEL and technology Picture by Julián Gentilezza on Unsplash

“How are you feeling?” asked the moderator. As a large digital clock projected onto the wall counted down on the panelists’ opening remarks, the answer was probably “stressed."

Technology thus loomed large in a panel exploring the role it plays in helping to develop SEL and the general role it plays in our everyday lives. Tech is a powerful tool, but unlike pre-digital tools like a hammer, which were completely in the control of humans, today’s tools seem to be in control of us. How do we retake our sense of control and retain our sense of humanity?

Digitalization is just one of several “mega trends” facing the next generation. From globalization and environmental insecurity to the fourth industrial revolution and the ensuing need for lifelong learning and collaboration and co-operation, the world of work and at-large will look very different for today’s students. As a UK study showed, many students have career aspirations that do not align with future workforce projections, greater links need to be forged between the world of study and the world of work.

As the first “phygital” (physical-digital) generation, tech is already playing a huge role in young people’s lives. Fears abound, mostly focused on the quantity rather than quality of young people’s interaction with tech. Excessive screentime has been connected to childhood isolation and obesity. Excessive use of social media can impact self-esteem. Excessive use of tools such as Google Maps can lead to the loss of offline map-reading skills or even spacial awareness. Some even worry that excessive photo-taking is impairing memory retention.

But tech also has the power to enhance our SEL and lives in general. Smartphones can create a closer connection to the wider world, opening up space for dialogue, exchanges and community building never before possible. Virtual reality can help develop students’ empathy, e.g. using it to render familiar environments into war-torn places to help them understand what has caused migrants to flee their homes.

Artificial intelligence (AI) is also increasingly omnipresent, opening up new ethical questions such as “can I be rude to Alexa?” One might be inclined to say no, but as one panelist admitted “I’m happy to shout at Alexa” – alleviating burdens onto virtual assistants can be cathartic.

“Before we ask what is artificial intelligence, we need to ask what is human intelligence,” remarked a panelist. We belittle ourselves when we think that artificial intelligence will replace us. As humans in a digital world, we can still retain control of both our emotions and technological tools.

Read more in Issue 2 of the program newsletter:

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The program Social and Emotional Learning: Time for Action is part of Salzburg Global’s long-running multi-year series Education for Tomorrow’s World. The program is held in partnership with ETS, Microsoft, Porticus, Qatar Foundation International and USAID’s Education in Crisis and Conflict Network.