Thursday, December 6, 2018

Disrupting Gen Z

Earlier this week one of my students said something that stopped me in my tracks. He remarked:

"I want to be able to learn how to drive myself someday."

It was more a lament than a remark.

My daughter learning to drive stick.
Yes, we drive old-school in our house!
Let me put his lament in context. In his class, Digital Literacy, we have been doing a lot of design thinking work focused on solving the problems of social media (discussed in three parts starting here). As we await feedback on our prototypes, we engaged in an Applied Digital Skills exercise from Google focused on the role of technology in current events. This student chose to focus his study on self-driving cars and the impact they will have on teenage drivers.

He examined issues of driving safety including distracted and impaired driving as well as the implications of self-driving cars on the insurance industry. Then he stopped what he was doing when, out loud, he wondered: "Will we even need to get our license anymore?" And after a pause, came his lament; something he has aspired to do, a suburban teenage rite of passage, may someday (someday soon?) become a thing of the past, no longer something to which he and his peers will aspire. The class was a little sad at that prospect. And I was a little giddy.

Why? Because there it was, the perfect example of technological innovation as a disruptive force and it was an example that resonated deeply with my students. And, as a disruption that hasn't yet occurred but is one they can anticipate, they feel the tug of resentment over how technology will change their lives. For that moment, we understood each other across the gap of a generation.

This student's epiphany prompted a very interesting and organic dialogue. We talked about the difference between the manual transmission cars that I learned to drive -- and still drive today -- and automatic transmissions. About why a driver might prefer one or the other. About how an automatic was a luxury when I was learning to drive. And designers have continued to improve on the automatic design with the development of the continuously variable transmission. Only the student who is a fan of race car driving even knew what a manual transmission is. Some students shared the self-driving features of their parents cars like warnings when drifting out of lane, alarms that indicate another car in the driver's blind spot, auto parallel parking features, etc. And talked about whether they trust that technology and how it feels when it is operating.

As excited as they got talking about the coolness factor of these features that are becoming standard on new cars, my self-driving car researcher said again: "I still really want to get my license." And they all got quiet again.

Today he presented his research, and having come to the realization that the self-driving car will not be ubiquitous before he is of driving age, his mind was put at ease and the discussion he facilitated for the class focused more on how the auto insurance industry and legislation will have to respond to this automotive innovation. His presentation was followed by another student whose research focused on robotic disruption in the labor force. Given their brief engagement with the potential loss of licensing privileges, the class embarked on a discussion during that presentation that had more potency than it might have otherwise. It was definitely an unanticipated way in which a student found the personal relevance of his learning and it helped the class develop empathy with people that they otherwise might not have considered as carefully.