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Who are the the cyber-nannies coming for?

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November 8, 2018   3 mins

There is nothing less fashionable than abundance. As soon as a product becomes too cheap to be a luxury, the rich and powerful, who once scrambled to be the first to have it, reject it – indeed they make a positional good out of not having it.

That’s an argument I made back in June, unpacking a piece by Jamie Bartlett on Simon Cowell’s non-use of his smart phone.

Writing for the New York Times, Nellie Bowles is in similar territory – noting that the children of the poor spend more time glued to screens than the children of the rich:

“Lower-income teenagers spend an average of eight hours and seven minutes a day using screens for entertainment, while higher income peers spend five hours and 42 minutes, according to research by Common Sense Media, a nonprofit media watchdog… Two studies that look at race have found that white children are exposed to screens significantly less than African-American and Hispanic children.”

The old concern that the under-privileged would be excluded from cyberspace now looks entirely misplaced:

“It could happen that the children of poorer and middle-class parents will be raised by screens, while the children of Silicon Valley’s elite will be going back to wooden toys and the luxury of human interaction.”

Bowles describes how groups of parents are banding together to detach their children from addictive technology:

“…they needed strength in numbers. First, because no one wants their kid to be the lone weird one without a phone. And second, because taking the phone away from a middle schooler is actually very, very tough.”

She writes that “parents say there is a growing technological divide between public and private schools” – where it is schools for poorer kids putting screens in class rooms, while the exclusive institutions keep it out. In another article for the NYT, she reveals that nannies employed by Silicon Valley professionals are instructed to “keep phones, tablets, computers and TVs off and hidden at all times”.

Apart from the stinking hypocrisy of it all, the obvious concern is one of inequality. It’s not just that most parents can’t afford a nanny, but technology often serves as a substitute for childcare and parental attention – especially in those households where those resources are at their most stretched.

The irony is that it could be technology that comes to the rescue. As digital assistants become more sophisticated, they will serve as ‘shepherds’ for all the electronic devices in our homes – for instance turning them on and off as required. They could also become ‘cyber-nannies’, controlling the way that children in the household access technology – if nothing else, by automatically enforcing strict limits on screen time. Indeed, digital assistants (once bolstered by advances in artificial intelligence) could act as our agents in cyberspace – taking the time-sucking complexity out of our digital interactions. Instead of us depending on ‘platforms’ (such as Facebook and Uber) that ultimately serve their owners’ purposes not ours, our super smart digital assistants would do our bidding and serve our priorities.

But who is going to develop these artificially intelligent factotums? Looking at the digital assistants already in our homes and on our phones, it is the usual line-up of tech giants. And as long Silicon Valley business models are based on commanding our attention and controlling our information, we can’t rely on them to make non-addictive (or, better still, anti-addictive) products.

In time, the kings of the distraction economy may find more subtle means to colonise our minds than the blatant manipulations of the present, but I still wouldn’t trust them.

Other business models are possible. It’s interesting to see Apple placing such an emphasis on data privacy. Perhaps we’ll see companies developing digital assistants that really do make us masters of our technological destiny – for instance, by fully cooperating with parents who wanted to raise their children free of damaging technological distractions.

The risk is that these would be premium products – with poorer parents relying on ‘free’ cyber-nannies that sell their children’s attention and information to the highest bidder.

If this is how personal tech develops in the years ahead, then there is a case for government intervention. In the future, universal access to high-quality, non-treacherous AI may be the best guarantor of equality.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.


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