Youths Are Plugged Into Complex
Nidhal Guessoum :
Last week, I attended a research and innovation summit in Jordan, which was organised by the youth-led PHI Science Institute with support from a number of Jordanian and international institutions.
More than 1,000 students - most of them from Jordan, a few dozen from Palestine and Iraq, and some from other countries - and almost 100 scientists from around the world took part. More than 100 talks were given in plenary and parallel sessions and panels, in addition to a research and innovation competition for teams of young people from across the Arab world.
But the most fascinating session was a debate between two teams of three students on an intriguing topic: should we ban social-media companies, such as Facebook, from using users' data to develop behavioural-influence techniques?
One might think that the answer to this question is an obvious "yes, we should." After all, user data is often personal and should remain private and confidential. Also, "behavioural influence techniques" sounds a little too much like brainwashing - and who could possibly advocate allowing social-media companies to perform any such thing?
In international-format debates, the audience is asked to vote twice: before the teams present their arguments and rebut each other, and again afterwards. The winning team is the one that improves its support most.
Before the debate, the vote on the proposition produced the following result: 55 were in favour of a ban and 45 percent opposed it. I would have expected more people to support it, but even greater surprises were to come. As I hinted above, I was strongly in favour of the proposition, so I was very curious about the arguments that the opposing team would present.
The team members' arguments revolved around four main ideas. Firstly, whether or not we have read all the terms and conditions, when we set up an account on a social-media platform, such as Facebook, we give the company the right to use our data; or at least whatever data is generated by our activity on the platform, such as "liking" posts.
Secondly, banning social-media companies from using data about users prevents society from developing influence methods, because they are the only businesses with access to the massive quantity data required for such research. This would be a move against knowledge, regardless of how such influence methods might potentially be used.
The team also argued that behavioural influence has been around for decades, most obviously in the form of advertising - just not in such a personalised form as can now be implemented by digital tools.
Finally, they pointed out, behavioural influence can be a good thing; for example when we want to challenge the negative characteristics of some people, such as addiction, racism or criminality.
The other team countered this by arguing that just because social-media companies have access to our data does not mean they should be allowed to use it for "research" purposes we were not initially informed of.
They also said it is naive to think that such research will always have humanity's best interests at heart - and in fact it will mostly be carried out for financial profit. Thirdly, there are a number of risks associated with the use of our data, in particular political uses.
The team said that at least some limitations and constraints should be placed on the use of our data, as well as on the methods of behavioural influence that it can be used to develop and refine.
The debate was fascinating, as the members of each team took turns to present their arguments and rebut the ideas voiced by their opponents. The young woman and men were highly articulate, fast-reacting, often witty and entertaining.
It was all the more amazing because the topic was selected from three options by an audience vote, and the team members only had two hours to prepare. We were told that several members of the teams had won an international debate competition a few months ago, so no wonder they were so good.
After the debating ended the audience voted again and, after some suspense, the results were announced: the team that had argued, quite eloquently, against the ban, won. This indicated two important things to me (and, I assume, to many in the audience): Firstly, the students of today, at least the better ones, are quite sophisticated in their consideration of such complicated issues and arguments and do not necessarily automatically opt for the "obvious" view. Secondly, when new ideas and counterarguments are presented to them, young people are happy to readily change their minds - perhaps a little too quickly, but that is another discussion.
It was a wonderful hour well spent; informative, enlightening, entertaining and exciting. I look forward to next year.
(Nidhal Guessoum, professor of Physics and astronomy, American University of Sharjah, UA; Twitter: @NidhalGuessoum)