Millennials present an interesting contradiction that suggests something about our attitudes towards technology. Today’s 30-somethings grew up in the time of Silicon Valley mania of the mid-1990s. It was a time of high hopes and speculation for tech. The future was open, the internet promised limitless potential. Then the dot-com bubble burst. Websites and companies vanished overnight. The hopes built upon tech’s potential ran against the reality of market forces. Historic moments like these helped form a contradictory attitude towards technology — one that eagerly adopts technology for its benefits, yet maintains a deep distrust of its impact.
So, while Millennials may manage their businesses with a bookkeeping app, they may also fear it’s a digital door to their financial information. And even though smart tech can save energy and money, millennials are still wary to adopt it because of privacy concerns. Feeding into Millennial tech anxiety are high profile data breaches like the Equifax breach in 2017, the rise of artificial intelligence, and growing tensions between automation and job loss.
Privacy Worries Around Smart Home Tech
Recently, California legislators introduced a state bill that aimed at stopping tech companies from saving your voice recordings through their smart home speakers. Companies like Amazon, Google, and Apple build virtual assistants smart speakers to help homeowners automate daily tasks like control smart lighting or thermostats via voice command. But as the proposed legislation suggests, there are fear among consumers and consumer watch groups that these devices are doing more than announcing the day’s weather forecast.
In fact, if you use the Google personal assistant (“Okay, Google…”) feature on your Android phone or Google Home speaker, those devices are recording you. Every verbal query you’ve made is placed on the Google voice and audio activity page, both in written form and the audio recording. While recording your voice improves the AI’s voice recognition function, the idea is still unnerving to Millennials who fear their personal data may be used against them. One 2019 customer survey found two-thirds of Americans think their smart devices are recording them. And 75% believe their smart home devices are easily hacked.
The paranoia isn’t unfounded. Amazon employs thousands of people around the world to monitor recordings from their Echo speakers. The employees analyze customer questions, which are recorded, annotated, and fed back into the voice-recognition AI (i.e. Alexa). The intention is to improve the AI’s understanding of human speech patterns. So, while these AI systems continue to learn how to work better with humans, they still need human input to function at the current level. And since these smart speakers are often used as centralized smart hubs for controlling other devices, they represent a primary entry point for cyber thieves or corporations. Control the hub, and you control the network. It’s that potential for abuse of personal information and interconnectivity that drives worries about privacy and smart home tech.
Artificial intelligence is an area where Millennials seem to trust tech, but distrust the institutions that build them. That is, a 30-something probably “trusts” the Netflix algorithm to choose their next movie based on viewing history. But they don’t trust Netflix the company to be responsible with that information. Nowhere is this dichotomy more evident than with artificial intelligence.
In 2016, Weber Shandwick researched generational attitudes towards AI. The findings show that a third of Millennials claimed to know a lot about AI, more than twice that of Gen Xers and five times that of Baby Boomers. But the report also showed that actual knowledge of AI across all groups was limited. When asked what they thought of when they heard the phrase “artificial intelligence”, the majority response was “robots”.
Another question from the study asked participants if they would trust AI to be a babysitter for their child. Millennials by far reported the most trust, with 45% saying they would trust robotic childcare. When it comes to their kids, higher trust levels among Millennials is attributed to having experienced more technology throughout life. Having grown up with tech, Millennials may want their own children to share the same experiences. And limiting AI to “robots” may also account for high trust levels. Conjuring cute images of robots teaching children may promote faith, especially if you omit more ominous notions like “data-tracking algorithms” from your understanding of AI.
But trust levels plummet when you look where Millennials get their information about AI. The study showed the majority (65%) get their impressions about AI from online sources like the internet, social media, or video. But a minority (21%) actually trust social media to present accurate information about AI. So, Millennial confidence in the knowledge of AI is undercut by their distrust in the very source of that information. It’s a contradiction that mirrors the ambivalence towards technology in general and it highlights the difference between trust in tech and skepticism in the humans who create it.
Advertising and Marketing
Millennials distrust smart tech because of its constant deployment by big business for marketing. It’s a generation who’s disdain for advertising is legendary. To get around this aversion, big business, and marketing agencies have changed their approach to delivering “content” instead of traditional ads. Social media feeds are full of “promoted” content and native advertising that sits among the rest, almost indistinguishable. And parsing ads from the real content becomes a big part of being “media savvy”. So, the Millennial disdain for advertising goes beyond mere annoyance. Modern advertising presents a challenge to finding the entertainment, news, and information you want.
No other generation has been targeted by marketing companies and corporations more than Millennials. It’s a generation inundated with digital ads that permeate every aspect of their online lives. So, they’re tech-savvy, but also smart about marketing. They understand geo-targeting campaigns, Facebook ads, and personalized appeals to their consumer needs — all carried out in real-time. Such an understanding makes them skeptical of big business and its power to collect and use personal information.
Industry Automation and Job Security
The anxiety around AI and smart tech really hit Millennials when it comes to the job market. The Weber Shandwick study also showed that 81% of Millennials believe AI has the potential to displace their jobs. And 78% believe AI will ultimately lead to more job losses than created jobs. Having come of age during the Great Recession, their risk-averse and career worries are warranted.
Millennials are facing record levels of debt, an average of $30,000 in student debt alone, and maybe the first generation to feel the real repercussions of job automation. While other generations may see student loan debt as over-investment in one’s career, studies on automation show that degrees are shields against automation. One Brookings Institute study of automation impacts estimated that more than half of the jobs that don’t require a bachelor’s degree will be at risk of automation. That number drops to 25% for jobs that do. So, investing in education is a hedge against automation, but not complete protection.
For Millennials, AI and automation represent real threats whose full implications are still unknown. Economists evangelize the potential for robots and automation to improve working conditions by performing boring, repetitive tasks no one wants to do. But the robotic future is still murky. And planning a career around such a mish-mash of contingencies produces high levels of anxiety towards job-stealing AI and tech in general.