Navigating the Digital World – Guidelines for Parents, Students and Families

Content shared by Mr. Grant Hillebrand, International School of Cape Town

I have had the privilege of watching the digital world grow up.

I saw – and fell in love with – my first computer in 1979. An ICL mainframe that had been donated to a school, programmed with punch cards. My school subsequently bought an Apple IIe, the computer that unseated IBM from their position of King of Computers. I wrote my third year Computer Science project on an original IBM XT computer, running at 4.7MHz, with a cutting edge add-on – a floating point maths processor (the 8087). I was using email when one had to dial in to the USA to retrieve it. I used the internet when Lycos was a hot search engine, before Larry & Sergei misspelled googol. I heard colleagues wonder why Google was hiring every Geographic Information System (GIS) expert on the planet, 2 years before Google Maps launched. 

I built a 4 terabyte customer database, and realized just how much one could infer from correctly storing every click a user makes on a cell phone. Rightly, you needed a police clearance to access that data. And I watched the growth in the trade of data about people. I have watched the harrowing revelation of how Facebook and Google targeted adverts at voters at the behest of political parties with deep pockets. When “The Great Hack” came out, I knew the story, because I watched it happen. Carole Cadwalladr’s TED Talk crystallised all the pieces.

All through this, there have been viruses, hackers and data thieves. Computers have been used for amazing good, and terrifying, soulless evil, often on the same platform, and using the same tools. Computers have increased the speed at which things happen, and have allowed disruptions to industry and society which have again been good and bad. The ability to buy access to almost any book I want, instantly, at an affordable cost is amazing. The associated decimation of book stores across the world, and the second-hand book market is heartbreaking.

How do we navigate this world?

I would suggest, ultimately and fundamentally, no differently to how we should navigate the rest of the world. Computers are just a tool, like a bulldozer or a front-end loader is just a tool. Which can be used to build roads and hospitals, or knock down homes of people we don’t like, and dig their graves. Computers do what we tell them, and to a certain extent, what we let them.

Be willing to learn.

In my forty plus years of working with computers, I have learned a new computer language or system every year, and it is not getting any slower. Machine Learning, crypto and quantum are all growing at speed.  Navigating the digital world means continually learning, reading and tracking. For me, these are still the tools of my trade, so I like to at least know where the sharp edge is. But for all of us, a willingness to embrace new tools and skills is a matter of survival. Covid brought that into sharp focus. A willingness to try, to fail, to learn, to try again, is critical. So much so that “The 3 F’s of Failure” are built into some corporate’s DNA – Fail Fast, Forward and Frequently. Try quick things, learn from them and repeat. 

If we don’t learn enough to be “tech savvy”, we will simply be used over and again as “product”, our wallets and emotions manipulated by those who do learn faster.

Realise things are speeding up.

This can be a hard lesson. Where legal and social systems had years and decades to adjust in the past, they need to be a lot more agile now. Teenagers now are growing up in a different world to their siblings 10 years their senior. Tiktok achieved in 18 months what YouTube took multiple years to do.

Know where the money is.

Nothing is free. The internet costs money to build and run. “Free” services are largely funded by advertising, which is often of global reach, which makes legal frameworks difficult to define. There are some significant genuinely free tools out there, but they are the minority, and come with their own quirks. If you are not paying money for a service, you are either watching adverts or giving away data that people who sell adverts will pay for. There are very few other financial models out there. R45 per month will buy you email that is not read and indexed for advertising world wide. 

Value real relationships.

It is easy to get sucked into the quick dopamine hits that social media and online games provide. Their authors hire psychologists to optimise these things – it’s a feature, not a bug. The antidote? Set boundaries, and build real relationships. In the real world, and using digital tools. Building relationships that have dialogue and discussion, and real trust. The number one antidote to cyber bullying is having someone else to talk to, debrief, to validate that it’s OK to feel bad about what happened, and to drain the toxin. Whether that’s a parent, a counsellor, or a friend, this is the best antidote to toxic behaviour – online or IRL (In Real Life).

Have a solid, grounded set of values.

Ultimately, computers are just another tool. Fast moving, powerful, and working with information, rather than the physical world. But like all tools, they reflect the values of those who wield them. We need to work to instill values beyond maximising profit at all costs into those who work with these tools. We need to look at our own usage – do we, in our small ways, maximise profit before ethics? Like not paying for the movies we watch, or music we listen to. Or paying as little as possible, rather than paying creatives a fair share? Using Spotify vs Bandcamp, or buying CD’s.

Responding to messages with likes, comments or forwarding – do we apply the same rules we would if we were telling someone in person? We now have this amazing amplifier via social media, but what are we shouting down the tubes? We know what is right, but all too often we revel in some sort of online anonymity that lets us do things we know are not right.

How to navigate the digital world?

Pretty much the way we navigate the world – keep your eyes open, think about what’s happening, and “love your neighbour as yourself”.