Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

Nick Stringer: Technology’s best friend: Education, Education, Education

By Nick Stringer, a global technology, public policy, and regulatory affairs adviser. His extensive experience includes serving as the former Director of Regulatory Affairs at the UK Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB UK).

“Education is the most powerful weapon that we can use to change the world,” Nelson Mandela.

Commencing an article with a nod to the educational exhortations of former UK Prime Minister, Tony Blair, and the timeless wisdom of Nelson Mandela is a bold move. However, the importance of education in every part of life cannot be overstated.

It stands (or should stand) at the heart of our society: facilitating engagement, boosting learning, informing decision-making, and increasing opportunity and employment. Despite this we overlook the importance of educating society on the nuances of technology – both pros and cons. In doing so, we’re creating problems for the tech industry itself. The more technology infiltrates our lives, the more policymakers worldwide will be watching closely to ensure it’s being used safely and ethically.

In this latest edition of the ‘ByteWise Insights’ series, we continue to explore technology’s influence on our existence, probing potential remedies through public policy. The first of this series explored the broader digital landscape, advocating for a unified global strategy.

Subsequent instalments called for the need for electoral advertising regulation to safeguard the sanctity of our democratic processes and also recommending the digital advertising industry help support quality journalism. This latest piece tackles the crucial issue of boosting technological knowledge across society. By empowering people with knowledge, we might avoid poorly designed regulations that, while well-meaning, can be overly restrictive and reactive.

Ever get that ‘Buzzword Bingo’ feeling at adtech conference? 

You’re not alone. We’ve all heard the buzzwords: 5G, AI, Big Data, Blockchain… the list goes on. Just wait till I get to quantum computing and augmented reality!

The truth is that every industry with cutting-edge technology loves to flaunt shiny new terms. This often creates two groups in society: the early adopters eager to jump on the bandwagon, and those left feeling confused and overwhelmed. The problem? We lack widespread education about new technology. Marketing bombards us with these buzzwords, making us feel like we need the latest gadget. Artificial Intelligence (AI) is the current hot topic. AI has been around for a while powering many of the services we use every day.

For example, the voice assistant in our mobile devices and smart speakers or the recommendations we receive on a streaming platform. ChatGPT (other chatbot services are available!) thrust AI into the mainstream spotlight and advancements in AI (such as Generative AI or GenAI) will certainly revolutionise things across almost every industry, including notable areas like healthcare, sales and marketing, finance, and customer service.

But what does it mean for our lives? Do we even know yet? The truth is that understanding what these words mean – even if we don’t know yet what the practical everyday impact is – is key to getting to grips with the ever-evolving tech world.

Buzzwords are a double-edged sword. They generate excitement in the market, spark discussions among industry and companies, and attract investors. And no question, they also entice early adopters. Whether we like this or not, it is not going to change.

However, there’s an important, often overlooked issue and perhaps unintended consequence: it can lead some policymakers worldwide to overreact, introducing legislation to address potential risks before they’ve even materialised. This may stifle innovation and hinder technology’s potential to benefit society.

Building on a previous article, AI’s role in spreading misinformation and disinformation is a looming concern for the 2024 elections, impacting voters globally. It will be interesting to see how policymakers address this challenge.

Digital fluency is more than digital literacy

Many countries around the world – such as Taiwan and Finland – are building digital literacy into school curriculums. There are also some brilliant teaching resources. For example, the UK advertising and media industry’s Media Smart programme which helps young people, teachers and parents understand and critically evaluate a world of commercial messaging; as well as initiatives helping sectors of society that may feel left behind. For example, the government of Australia has devised a campaign to improve digital literacy for older citizens.

While mastering digital tools is crucial for traversing the online world, education about technology goes beyond this. Sure, proficiency in using technology is essential today, but a balanced and critical perspective is equally important. The tech industry, however, often prioritises rapid development over user education. The ‘move fast and break things’ mentality rarely extends to helping people understand the impact of new technologies or building safeguards. Catchy slogans aren’t a substitute for responsible innovation.

Case Study: The digital advertising value exchange

For nearly a decade, I was deeply involved in digital advertising public policy at the UK Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB UK). In hindsight, we failed to educate people about the ‘value exchange’: the concept that data-driven advertising funds the content and service that people enjoy online for free or at little cost. The failure to make this case, coupled with a lack of transparency and weak data protection, understandably led to stricter regulations, such as the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

At a recent advertising industry event, a leading publisher echoed this sentiment, calling for more education about this value exchange. They’re right but it comes a decade too late. Today we live in a ‘privacy-first’ digital world and this is forcing business models to adapt. Those safeguarding people’s personal data will likely thrive.

Though, perhaps with better education the online regulatory landscape for digital advertising wouldn’t be so dependent on rigid consent laws. We’re now realising that demanding consent for the likes of ad frequency capping, measurement and for tackling advertising fraud (where there is no tracking of people’s online activity) might have gone too far. Ironically, the privacy-first approach also empowers Big Tech, taking away ad revenue that previously funded valuable content like news. Again, the subject of another post.

The case for a global education campaign about technology

Given technology’s ubiquitous impact, a global campaignbacked by industry is warranted. We’ve seen successful government initiatives before, promoting voter participation or raising public awareness (think COVID-19 campaigns). Some countries are pioneering digital literacy efforts, acknowledging technology’s societal importance. However, these efforts need to be scaled up and broadened to equip people with the critical thinking skills necessary to negotiate the digital world effectively.

Imagine a world where everyone, regardless of age, feels comfortable using technology. This isn’t just about closing the gap between generations. Maybe it’s not realistic because of the significant demands on the public purse, but a comprehensive digital fluency campaign could equip people to understand how technology works, its influence on society, and the latest innovations.

A triple win: investing in digital fluency for all

This would create a ripple effect. People would be more aware of the potential of technology, while policymakers – with a deeper grasp of the digital landscape – could craft rules and regulations that benefit everyone. Ultimately, investing in digital fluency is a win-win-win for governments, businesses, and society as a whole.