What will our digital heritage be?

Editor's note: Written by James Hagan, this opinion piece was originally published on YO! Mag, the magazine of the European Youth Forum, a platform of European youth organizations. Visit them for insights into the lives of young Europeans.

Cover credit: Yo! Mag

Cover credit: Yo! Mag

In a recent Twitter chat about digital skills hosted by Politico, European youth Forum President Johanna Nyman raised the above point which focuses on the purpose to which such skills are cultivated and utilized. It made me think about the broader context of the digital structures which young people are inheriting, and with which they are expected to continue to reshape the world.

Youth disempowerment

Age-based economic inequality has been increasing globally, with no signs of reversal in the near future, as this Guardian research shows. This means that young people of our generation are finding themselves in difficulty as they embark upon careers, plan for the future and hope to begin saving a portion of the income which, too often, simply hasn't begun to materialize. In this environment, trying to intertwine passion – our interests, creative projects and positive change we’d like to see in the world – with our careers can sometimes seem like a distant and romantic dream.

An innate aptitude for technology, particularly digital, is one of the stereotypes which members of "Generation Y" (those born between 1980 and the mid-90s) often enjoy or are burdened with, depending on your point of view. It is understandable, then, when policy-makers, media commentators and members of the general population identify unprecedented large-scale youth unemployment and Europe's digital skills gap as two problems which should solve each other. Young people are unemployed en masse, and we need workers with digital skill sets -- it makes sense that young people should be trained in digital skills so they can be ready for the contemporary labor market.

Youth's role in tech

Any commitment to applying resources to the development of digital skills in young people should be welcomed. However, I believe that we miss the mark if our efforts are directed solely towards making young people more employable according to the needs established by corporations in producing digital products for the marketplace. I believe it’s important to think critically about what the digital heritage of young people today will be, and what our aspirations for such a heritage is.

Our focus on the digital capabilities of youth should not solely rest on making sure they are employable for large technology firms. Rather, it is important also to focus on young people’s own vision for technology and the kind of future they wish to attempt to create with it. Technology has a transformative power for individuals and for societies. We've seen this transformative power in action throughout history- recently, in the creation of the Internet, which has inarguably revolutionized modern life.

For me, it is crucial to remember that an important aspect of how we use the Internet -the World Wide Web- was developed as a passion project, and enshrined as freely available to use by everyone by its creator, Sir Tim Berners-Lee. He later said of the decision:

HAD THE TECHNOLOGY BEEN PROPRIETARY, AND IN MY TOTAL CONTROL, IT WOULD PROBABLY NOT HAVE TAKEN OFF.
— Sir Tim Berners-Lee

The free and democratic principles which the Web was established upon have allowed it to become central to work and leisure in recent decades. Similar principles underpin the concept of open source, which has helped to create participatory software such as Linux and the programming language Python, which many significant applications, both proprietary and open source themselves, are built on.

Transformative -- but in which way?

As Zadie Smith points out in her analysis of the psychological meaning of Facebook, “software is not neutral”. The applications we use influence the way we live and even the way we think. As digital applications have become increasingly corporatized and consumer-commodity driven, have we drifted from the founding principles of the Web, which made it such a magical experience to begin with? As I said, technology is transformative. Not transformative just in terms of utility- the attributes of the digital experience we inhabit have psychological and, ultimately, philosophical meaning. The technology we build and use has profound implications for the lives we lead. Future tech will continue to be transformative, and for me the central question is this: transformative according to whose vision? The venture capital funds and angel investors who wield huge influence regarding which (inevitably proprietary) technology manages to get past the concept stage?

It’s important that when we consider the interaction of youth and tech, we don’t take the reductive line that youth must simply be proficient in whichever specific skills employers demand at any particular moment. To complement the "skills agenda," let’s also seek for youth to set the digital agenda more broadly. This involves asking questions like: What are our priorities for society, and what do we want to achieve over our lifetimes? Which technologies would help to achieve these priorities, and how do we build them? Let’s match commitments to digital skills with the commitment to empowering young people everywhere to pursue digital passion projects of their own conception. Yes, this will require resources and financial support. But more empowered investment may result in skill sets and technologies which are more revolutionary than we even knew were possible.