What is the future of children, technology, and privacy? Are we choosing to put our children in a situation of voluntary surveillance and data submission? What can we do as parents, and what can the technology companies building the apps and platforms our kids use do?
Here we have the full transcription of Nikolas’ presentation at Google at the 3Questions Summit and his highly-regarded keynote “The Kids are Alright”. It has been (very slightly) edited for clarity and flow.
Are the kids OK?
This presentation is called The Kids Are Alright. Are the kids okay? In my role as a futurist, I like to ask the big questions. I’m curious about how the world’s changing. Funnily enough, I actually worked for a company that was spun out of SGI in Silicon Valley 20 plus years ago called E.piphany, the dot was super important back in the early 2000s when you worked in San Mateo.
I worked in a lot of big data systems and then eventually worked in agencies and doing social media and data analytics and a number of different things, and it’s interesting the way that the world has changed over the last few years. So, I’m gonna start off by just saying, you know, taking a look at how the world’s changed. And really I’m gonna start off by looking at capitalism and influence.
The age of influence
Now, since the early days of the 19th century, we’ve seen a huge amount of influence coming into our lives, capitalism was pretty much born. And I’ve got these four images here. So, top left. That’s the Torches of Freedom. Edward Bernays, who’s Freud’s nephew, basically invented the whole world of public relations and publicity and helped to boost capitalism in the early days.
Bernays persuaded the suffragettes to smoke cigarettes in the Easter Day Parade in 1914. And walk along holding those cigarettes above their heads as Torches of Freedom. And he actually drove about 4% penetration of smoking in women in the U.S. up to about 33% in about 15 years. And just next to that, who remembers pretending to smoke cigarettes using candy cigarettes?
It’s insane to think that we did that. INSANE!
it was fine, you know. That was from the 50s. They’re actually branded, like Marlboro had its own brand of candy cigarettes and Lucky had its own brand of candy cigarettes and it was like, I can be just like dad.
Yeah, that’s not so good. I’ll bet they weren’t saying that about 40 years later when dad was lying in the hospital, unfortunately.
Then look at TV dinners. How do you plug people into advertising more? Well, you remove them from a family dynamic, which is the family dinner table, and you put these convenient family dinners in their laps, and then you all sit there watching the TV, Mary Tyler Moore show or whatever.
Then look at the 70s and 80s. The Happy Meals. You have to collect them all, you have to come back. You have to consume the media that people like McDonald’s and fast food, and other people, then MTV, and then all these other people.
Capitalism has been a cavalcade; it’s been running away with itself. And, we’ve been willing participants.
In fact, this presentation is about being a willing participant. It’s also about becoming a very careful and considerate person that gets involved with these kinds of things.
From the beginning of personal computing to 6 billion mobile users
Let’s go back to the internet. The early version of the internet was the ARPANET. It was very much about resiliency in light of nuclear war.
If you knocked out an ARPANET node because a particular area in Utah got taken out, then you can still get from East to West when those communications, being military or whatever, could actually be maintained.
And then here, down in the Valley, at Stanford, Douglas Engelbart gave a presentation in 1968, so 50 years ago. He gave a presentation on the world’s first personal computer. He got the mouse and the trackpad. He had hyperlinking and documentation. He had desktop publishing. It was a two day presentation to about 1,000 people. It’s called ‘The Mother of All Demos’.
It’s fascinating. There were a lot of people that were saying, oh, we’re never gonna have people having computers in their homes: ‘I think that’s ridiculous.’ Now we’ve got a situation where everyone’s got computers in their pockets.
Six billion people have actually got access to mobile technology today. Six billion people! That’s more people than have got access to clean, running water in the world. Let’s think about that; what’s more important?
That’ll be six billion people by 2020 that’ve got smartphones in their pockets. That means that they can do anything, from watching entertainment to running businesses, to completely revolutionizing every part of the world. Whilst we don’t have everyone on the internet right now, in the future, the proliferation of this mobile technology will be able to connect everyone, everywhere, and all sorts of connectivity’s gonna come to the world with satellite meshes and Loon and whatever hitting more remote places in the world. It’s an exciting time.
The start of the public Internet – 1993
Back in 1993, there really wasn’t that many websites. And the Internet was just starting.
In 1993, when I got onto the Internet for the first time, I did applied psychology and computing at university to look at human computer interaction, artificial intelligence, linguistics. I thought it was super interesting. I didn’t realize that 25 years later I’d still be talking about it.
I’m glad that I am.
I first went onto the Internet in 1993. And I sat down in front of a big, green screen, on a Sun Microsystems computer. I dialed into a Norwegian university, and I browsed their library catalog. Wasn’t that sexy?
Within two years, three years, you had bands like Massive Attack and Radiohead doing amazing things, you had all these websites, and all the tech companies were putting together, you know the GIF-based websites? Remember those? I used to build them back in the day.
I used to build websites using GeoCities. Do you remember GeoCities? It’s a bit of a walk down memory lane.
We Live in Public
I’m gonna talk about this guy. Does anyone know who this is? This is Josh Harris. Josh Harris was one of the first innovators around internet analysis and looking at what’s happening in the world, and also about media. And Josh Harris is a man that sort of really pushed the limits about thinking about what the Internet will be. And a filmmaker called Ondi Timoner made a movie called ‘We Live in Public’. Here’s the trailer from that movie.
The ideals of Internet and mobile life
1994/95. The early ideas around always-on video content. You know, the idea of flogging, the idea of surveillance, in a way, the idea of uploading content that you own to make money from that. It’s really interesting. Go watch that movie, ‘We Live in Public’.
This is what the Internet is today. It’s a bunch of cables underneath the ocean and then running across continents. We sometimes forget that the Internet is actually pipework. It’s pretty simple: about six companies actually own the rights to run those cables under the sea and operate this infrastructure.
This is what’s binding the world together.
And, the next evolution of it is to actually take it into a satellite-based, mesh networks, and whatever, and I think it’s a very exciting time to connect the world. Why do we connect the world? Well, there’s been some really interesting phenomena since the beginning of the internet.
Freedom and democracy
This is what I like to call what true freedom and democracy looks like today. True freedom and democracy, it looks like cats. We’ve got some of the most powerful devices we’ve ever had in our pockets, and these things are what we spend most of our time on.
Do you remember the story about Justin Bieber going to Central Park in New York City? And he was walking around, and the kids just left him alone. Didn’t even notice he was there because they were all playing Pokemon Go. Heads down.
Smombies: this is actually a real word. Smartphone-zombies.
We know this. A lot of people are gonna say, it’s the kids. It’s not the kids, it’s everyone. And I’m as guilty as anyone else. Then there’s smombie safety. In the Netherlands they’ve actually had to build these sidewalks. What they were finding was that kids were trying to cross the roads and they weren’t picking their heads up. And they were getting run over. They were either getting injured or killed. So what they decided to do was actually put the traffic lights into the pavement. See that at the bottom? Green and red and whatever. That’s pretty fascinating as a phenomenon.
Then Kylie Jenner knocked a few billion dollars worth of value off of Snap a few weeks ago. A tweet from an influencer affects the stock market. And then everyone said, we hate the new Snapchat. And then over 1.2 million people went and rallied against it. We’ve never had this kind of weird activism in our lives. The Internet’s kind of given people a power. An anonymous power that they’re sort of flexing. Unfortunately, that anonymous power extends its way into news.
We know that there’s a huge problem with the idea of fake news or mis-truths that are actually spread virally through the internet. And this graph, literally from ‘Don’t Read This’ to ‘Just No, Seriously, Don’t Read This’ to the people that I personally trust like The Atlantic and The Wall Street Journal and The Hill, Vox, whoever.
This has all been exasperated by how the internet’s working and also how social media is working as well. And I’ve been a big proponent for social media for a long, long time. I think I’ve still got about four Myspace pages for different music projects around. I think Justin Timberlake still owns that.
The medium is the message
Well, I think it’s really interesting to start with a quote from Father John Culkin, who actually worked with Marshall McLuhan in Toronto on a lot of communications theory. Remember “The medium is the message?” Father John worked with him. And he was in the clergy: “We shape our tools and therefore our tools shape us.”
When we build the Internet, it influences culture. We build social media, it influences culture. And we’re willing participants. So, I looked around for a bunch of different studies. How long do we really spend in our lifetime on the Internet and on social media? So, five years, over five years of our lives will be spent in social media. That’s more than we spend eating. More than we spend socializing, actually face-to-face by a huge number. Nearly three times the amount.
And, I’m not too sad about laundry only taking 6 months out of my life. I’d like to remove that down to almost no time out of my life. However, I still have to do that.
We’re kind of in this culture where it’s like, platforms are great. They’re offering all of this value to us, and we’re kind of like, well, let’s not complain, let’s not see the bad things. And if we do see the bad things, let’s not talk about it. Let’s not listen to the detractors. Let’s not even take advice from each other. Let’s just jump in. And this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
This presentation isn’t about not participating and stepping away. It’s about being a lot more aware. And this is driving a lot of the behavior. I’m worried that I’m going to miss out. I was having a conversation with someone earlier, and I switched off my Instagram account the other day because it wasn’t driving me any business; that’s my focus.
I’ve still got a Facebook account. I’ve got a thousand friends. I don’t follow a single friend. I don’t hardly post anything at all to there. And it’s really interesting, once you actually take the power away from the machine that needs to be fed, then it’s kind of a useful platform for like, events and messaging and whatever. And I’m aware about that.
Let’s talk about Facebook and Cambridge Analytica
So, let’s talk about Facebook. We know recently there’s been a lot of challenges from the senate. About what Facebook can be. And it’s quite interesting how it’s evolved. It went from like, the poke, poking. You remember poking? I don’t think it even exists anymore. Poking to the like button. And then from the like button to this representation of modern life. So, if you look at this, and not many people realize this, if you read this from left to right this is like a relationship with a loved one. You like them, you love them, you laugh with them, wow, you did what?
I’m really sad, and now I’m super angry. And then you leave that relationship, and then you find someone new. Oh, I like you, I love you, ha ha. When someone pointed this out to me it’s like, this is purposefully designed to mimic life.
That’s what a lot of these networks are trying to do. We know the Cambridge Analytica study. We know the, if you can know 300 likes of a certain individual on Facebook, you know them about as well as their spouse. This is a worry. I’m not really gonna talk about what Cambridge Analytica did. This is from the University of Cambridge. Cambridge Analytica obviously then used this kind of knowledge to take us further.
There’s about 100 different versions of analysis that you can take in Facebook, and it’s getting bigger and bigger because as you get data, and it’s growing, and you’ve got lots of different perspectives on what someone likes and posts and talks about, then you have infinite value.
Data is the new oil
Now, data is the new oil is like, what a lot of futurists walk around saying, and we’re actually growing from a point where data’s growing from 4.4 zettabytes a year today to about 163 zettabytes a year by 2025.
Our systems grow out as we use data more. Self-driving vehicles hit the roads, more cameras hit the roads, the Internet of things. We’re gonna be in a world that’s not only surrounded by data; we will be the data within that system.
This is kind of, I was watching F8 this week, this kind of brought me back to this study. ‘Facebook Tinkers With Users’ Emotions’ in the news feed experiment. Oh, there’s outcry on the streets, and people are really upset, and this is back in 2014. And then they really tinker with people emotions with Facebook data.
They wiped five billion dollars off of the market value of the company that owns Match.com. In an hour. The power of that company. It makes me wonder what’s going on in life. You know, what are we doing? What are we choosing to put into the system? What level of participation are we choosing to have? How are we letting our kids and our loved ones get involved in this? And, once they’re involved, how do we interact with them?
I truly think the revolutions are happening in China.
Does anyone use WeChat in the room? If this was China, everyone would be using WeChat. So, what’s really interesting, a billion monthly users. So sure, it’s not as powerful as Facebook, and look at the potential of China.
800 million use WeChat Pay across 13 currencies in 25 countries. You can even pay with crypto in there as well. So this power base is actually growing out in the app ecosystem. In fact, this is what’s bundled into WeChat, and it’s getting bigger everyday. Messaging, social connections, mini-programs and applications and games, wallets and payments, personal wealth funds in what’s ostensibly a social network. E-Commerce, credit scores. This is all the stuff that Facebook’s kind of failed to make stick in the West. In China, everyone’s on-board. Because it jumped over legacy systems that were there in place.
Thinking about our children (consider what is shared here very carefully)
So, that brings me back to think about families. If you’ve got children, this is probably gonna be one of the most harrowing five minutes of your day. I do apologize for that. I’d like you to really revel in feeling uncomfortable about this stuff because I think it’s important to feel uncomfortable.
So, I’ve already talked about the rise of the smartphone.
How many people in the room have got kids? How many people? Keep your hands up. How many people in the room, put your hands down if you don’t give your kids devices. It’s almost 100% penetration.
You’ve got kids, give them devices, it can be quite useful. It can. There’s a worry. It’s even more worrying that you can get your baby ‘Baby’s First Smartphone’. This is a real product. It’s shocking. And it shocks me even more when you see babies with real smartphones as well. Really, really worrying to me.
So, around about the age of 10, children get their first smartphones. In fact, some kids are getting their first smartphones around the age of seven. Unfortunately, we’re in a world where pornography consumption begins at 8 years old and addiction begins at 11. Yeah, what? It’s true. Sexting begins in the fifth grade. Most of the traffic, certainly in North America, is actually from pornography websites.
Unfortunately, there’s very few checks and balances on what kids can access. And sure, you can go into your devices, and there’s always ways around. Hands up, who was sort of an ingenious kid when they were growing up. We’re all smart people. You can always break in, steal your mother’s cigarettes, go for a cigarette out the back at the age of 12. Did anyone else do that? Sorry, mum. It gets really worrying.
The frontal cortex doesn’t stop developing until your early 20s. So don’t be surprised, if you’re one of the people with kids or you’ve got people in your family that’ve got kids and you see them struggling with compliance to requests from parents or going to bed early or whatever or they’ve got bags under their eyes and they’ve got a lack of impulse control, it means that their frontal cortex is being affected by the screens that they’re looking at and the mechanisms for driving dopamine hits through social media networks, videos, and the such like. That impulse control is a real problem.
In South Korea, they’ve actually had to build centers because South Korean kids use more devices and more screens than anyone else. And they’ve actually got a form of digital dementia.
Kids the age of 18 and 19 are some of the worst users, they’re having to go through therapy to recondition those kids.
What’s happening with kids as well is really worrying. So when they’re really young, and they turn up at school, they’re actually finding, this is a study from the U.K., that kids are turning up at school and can’t actually hold pencils. They’re used to swiping left and right and touching. They haven’t developed any level of wanting to draw with crayons or anything like that. “Patrick was given therapy sessions because he was gripping his pencil like a caveman held sticks instead of the correct tripod grip.” And this is from the National Health Service, one of the chief pediatric sort of therapists. And these kids are having to go into therapy to recondition their muscles so they can even begin to pick up a pencil to start their education. It’s worrying.
Let’s slap VR on kids’ faces. It seems like the classroom has become sort of this new bastion of new technology. It’s like, this is great for education. And sure, some of it is. I think VR is an amazing thing, immersion. This just gets kids more screen time.
Then you’ve got kids in Japan, some of the shyest kids are being helped by Pepper, the robot from SoftBank. Non-human interactions and then a dependency, potentially, of people that need to have friends that are robots. And in Australia, they’re using avatars for teachers that are just as effective as teachers, and artificial intelligence is going into online forums, and being just as effective, and people can’t tell them apart from normal, human teachers.
Where are we going with actually indoctrinating our kids into this new world? We’re creating a new normal for them, and that new normal is something that they want to subscribe to and spend most of their time on it.
It’s like, hey mom, it’s fine. I’m learning. There’s a real worry.
We also know that people are scared of robots, and kids might actually, there’s actually some stories, some of these robots go into classrooms, and the kids like, you know, obviously there are some kids, they go and they push the robot over, they draw on them, they kick them. So some researchers have built this robot; it’s called Shelley. It’s a little turtle. And if you hit it, its head disappears in, just like a real turtle. If you love it and you stroke it, it shines with bright colors and makes purring sounds like a kitten. We’re trying to teach kids to love robotics and robots. Because they’re gonna be everywhere in this world.
I love you robot
That kid’s about, what, 18 months old? That’s not a robot.
Even at an early age, these kids are starting realize that, oh, you know, I for one welcome our robot overlords. What did you just say? Where’s my iPad?
Then I like to think about what I call kid economics.
It’s never been easy to persuade kids to do things like mowing the lawn, taking out the trash, doing their homework. I mean, this is kind of my biography. I was a terrible kid. Now we’ve got platforms.
ChoreMonster can reward your kids for doing the chores that you need them to do, and parents can look at what’s happening, and we can track the goodness of our family through digital.
Does anyone use Sweatcoin? Someone came up to me in Toronto after an event that I ran there (Dark Futures), and they said, oh, have you seen this? My kids will use this at lunch times and at break times, they run around the playground as fast as they can so they can earn Sweatcoin. This isn’t like a cryptocurrency. This is actually, it just creates tokens, and they can buy things online. What’s happening with that data?
In New Zealand they have Magical Park. Kids run around parks and you create this wonderland. And kids are finding that they’re running for about 30 minutes with these augmented reality apps. Wait a minute, you don’t look around and enjoy time with your friends, you’re running around with an iPad, and it’s kind of a cool idea.
Identifiers and imported code (in apps)
Unfortunately, we’ve got a situation of identifiers and imported code. So, hardware devices have got addresses. Cloud services have got locations. They may change often. And then you’ve got applications which have got terms and conditions and ways of storing data. Those identifiers could carry on and carry on, and people can know where your kids run.
The imported code is generally not checked, it was found in a number of different studies by the FTC, and by the Washington Post, that people don’t check the imported code that advertisers give to app developers. And they say, oh yeah, we’ll just copy and paste it in, it’ll be fine. And we just write the terms and conditions, hey, you know, we might advertise to your kids.
Unfortunately, out of 5,000 apps, there was under half of the apps with very clear terms and conditions. Those terms and conditions, and the lack thereof, has meant that we’ve been lulled into a false sense of security that our kids are safe. It’s not. Everyone’s selling data to everyone: a message for parents and teachers.
You have to teach and encourage boundaries of fair usage, responsible use of devices and social media. And there’s a hierarchy of compliance.
Cloud services, hardware devices, platforms.
Then I think we’re walking through a really strange world. Clarity of vision. Do you remember when baby monitors were hacked and put on the internet a few years ago by a Russian guy? That was worrying.
From Google Glass to Snap to Augmented Reality
A few years ago Google released the Google Glass and people were fighting against people that were wearing them, and just a few years later people were jumping out in front of people that were wearing Snap Glasses saying, hey, upload my images. It’s a change; it’s a mindset change. It’s a cultural shift.
Who’s got an iPhone X? iPhone 10? Anyone got an iPhone 10? Kinda cool with the facial recognition. They’re building a huge database right now of those.
I’ve got a great friend who designs the Meta 2 headset, and the applications from within that and the user experience. This augmented reality world is gonna come to us, and it’s gonna remove the screens that we look at, and we’ll be having a reality in the room that we know doesn’t really exist, and it feels viscerally real.
From Hyper Reality to Amazon’s Alexa to self-driving cars
That’s a short excerpt from a video by Keiichi Matsuda. It’s called Hyperreality. It’s about 12 minutes long; you should go and watch that. It’s like a vision of the future. It was filmed down in Medellin in Colombia. It was a crowdsourced campaign, raised over a million dollars.
They created this incredible vision of the future. Slightly dystopian as well.
Hands up, who’s got an Alexa device at home? Yeah? Well, your kids have got a new big sister, and they don’t need the parents anymore to answer any questions at all. Mattel have just actually started a project called Aristotle cause it was too creepy to give their kids voice control to assist in their home.
Amazon pretty much within a month, actually, launched the Echo Dot for kids, where it teaches your kids manners. You know, the parents are being removed out of the way. Let’s start kids early so when they get their first credit card at the age of 18, they’ve become those really true, loyal customers with us.
Then we’ve got self-driving vehicles, they’re gonna be driving around, and they’re gonna be scanning the world. Google’s mapping cars aren’t going to exist in the future. Every single car that’s got cameras on board will be sharing that data, and there’ll be brokered, licensed agreement that we’ll probably sign away when we actually sign into our vehicle when we get in to be driven around, ’cause it’ll be self-driving. So, we’re kind of walking into surveillance capitalism, one cool service at a time. Something new comes along, oh yeah, I’m an early adopter, let’s go for it. This is about responsibilities and who we are.
Facebook vs. the U.S. Senate
I think Mark Zuckerberg going in front of the senate was truly just the tip of the spear. I think that he took the brunt of anger and confusion about the modern world for the entire tech industry. I think it’s the tip of the spear because it’s the beginning of the conversation. Sure, regulation. Regulation needs to be far and wide-spreading.
We know that if we try and apply that to the thousands of companies that do store data that inertia happens almost immediately. So we have to have a new way of looking at this. We’ve signed away control
Unfortunately, our family is the product, and we’ve signed away control.
This makes me feel incredibly uncomfortable when I have these kinds of conversations with tens of thousands of people every year. I speak at conferences and this is a cool message of what I talk about about responsibility.
I think we need to stop and realize that we can maintain some control of our own lives. We’re humans, not algorithms. We’ve actually got systems and applications and platforms and advertising that’s trying to get us to react to them in algorithmic ways. We can actually maintain new ways of thinking where we actually become more human again.
That humanity is incredibly important. We want certainty and variety, significance and love. We want growth and contribution. We’ve been like this for thousands of years, we’re gonna want to be like this for a thousand more years. I actually think that we’re in a future where we need to step up.
The future is family. The future is female.
Design, as a whole, of these applications and infrastructures needs to come from people that are experienced in family units. I also think that there should be more women designers involved in all of this, where a deeper level of empathy is apparent in the design. I think the terms and conditions should be simple.
I don’t think we should sell any data related to any of our children’s activities. And, that should go from the cloud to the hardware to the application level. I think we’ve become lazy as application developers, and just, yeah, we’ll just copy and paste, we’ll get our lawyers to go through the terms and conditions, it’s standard for everyone in the industry. Maybe we can make a new decision about what privacy means in the modern age.
Are the kids alright?
The question I come back to is – are the kids alright?
I think the kids are alright if we actually help them to think differently about the world. That they’ve got a choice, and that we’ve got a choice to use the platforms for what we need to use them for and not what they want us to use them for. Thank you.
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Nikolas is a world-leading Futurist Speaker that drives leaders to take action in creating a better world for humanity. He promotes exponential thinking along with a critical, honest, and optimistic view that empowers you with knowledge to plan for today, tomorrow, and for the future.