Humans and Technology

Editor’s letter: How the next generation is using technology to mask, reveal, and form identity

An introduction to our special issue on youth

Dec 27, 2019

"To grow up with technology, as my generation has, is to constantly question the self, to split into multi­plicities, to try to contain our own contradictions.” That sentence from Taylor Fang, the winner of our youth essay contest, neatly sums up the experience of juggling one’s identities on Facebook, Snapchat, TikTok, Instagram, and other platforms, each with its own unwritten norms of sharing and self-expression. But I think it also captures the struggle of adults trying to understand the role of technology in their children’s lives. How do ubiquitous digital devices influence the way young people learn, make friends, understand the world, and understand themselves? These are the questions we tackle in this issue, and the answers, too, contain many contradictions.

There’s growing evidence that the trend of outfitting schools with laptops and tablets hasn’t helped kids learn and may even hinder the most vulnerable ones, writes Natalie Wexler. In China, one company claims huge success in using artificial intelligence to deliver personalized learning, Karen Hao reports—but is it just turning children into machines for passing standardized tests?

A few universities have already installed voice assistants in every dorm room, and more are following suit. As Kathryn Miles explains, these devices are gleaning data about students’ first experiments with adulthood, and there’s no knowing how that data will be used in the future. Philosophy professor Ron Srigley’s students were shocked to discover just how much their studies and social lives improved when they surrendered their cell phones for two weeks, yet most couldn’t imagine giving them up for good. And when young adults finally enter the workforce, argues Malcolm Harris, they face a grim future of climate change, precarious career prospects, and economic and political unrest.

What about the common fears that technology is depriving kids of real human contact or warping their self-image under the pressure of social-media popularity contests? Here the answers are more mixed.

Amelia Tait talked to wannabe child YouTube stars who never made it big. For the most part, she found that they’ve learned from their failures rather than being crushed by them. Cecilia Aragon describes how online fan-fiction communities have become both emotional lifelines and great writing schools for millions of sometimes socially awkward young people. From Korea, Max Kim reports on why, after more than four decades of moral panic about video-game addiction, it’s still not clear that it’s real. Andy Wright interviews some teens who, unlike Srigley’s students, aren’t married to their phones. And Anya Kamenetz reports on how an Indian court case offers hope for defending children’s digital rights.

Fang explains in her essay why, for all the worries about privacy and social anxiety, creating and remixing online identities is fundamental to how her generation makes sense of itself. However, Kate Eichhorn warns that obsessively documenting and posting one’s life online means people will forever be haunted by their youthful indiscretions. That, she argues, is bad for society as a whole, because it makes it harder for anyone to change their mind about things.

In a lighter vein, children can learn the fundamentals of artificial intelligence by playing Karen Hao’s AI bingo game, adapted from research done at MIT. And in this issue’s short story, Fonda Lee imagines what happens when a young man acquires an AI girlfriend to keep his parents off his back, but quickly gets out of his depth.

Did we miss any important questions? And—especially if you’re a young person—did we get anything wrong? Write and let me know at