The Confluencia of YA and Ethics in the Digital
Amy Piotrowski, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor, Utah State University
Twitter: @piotrowskiamy Website: amypiotrowski.com
NCTE’s Definition of Literacy in a Digital Age (2019) calls on
teachers to have students:
● “Participate effectively and critically in a networked world”
● “Examine the rights, responsibilities, and ethical
implications of the use and creation of information”
“Books that provide ﬁctional representations of a future that
involves technological advancement play a unique role in
introducing children to issues that are relevant to scientiﬁc
and technological progress, as in the moral and ethical
implications of such developments” (Flanagan, Tech and
Identity in YAL, 2014, p. 6)
“Literature possess the power to imagine a future and, in so
doing, engage readers in questions of ethics in otherwise
unthought-of scenarios. Through reading and critical
discussion, English teachers offer students emotional and
social questions, enabling them - we hope - to face their
future dilemmas with intelligence, empathy, and autonomy”
(Lindblom, Rivera, & Radice, 2020)
Posthumanism examines technology’s impact on humanity
and society, from Haraway (1985) and Hayles (1999), in
which the boundaries between the human and the
technological are blurred, to recent work examining
depictions of technology in YAL (Flannagan, 2014; Hervey
What does it mean to be human in a world of the Internet,
artificial intelligence, virtual reality, social media, smart
devices, and data collection many places we go offline and
Flanagan discusses how in posthumanism agency is
“collective and networked instead of being based purely on
individualism” (2014, p. 5). So, how do we act ethically when
agency is “collective and networked” online?
YA science fiction provides readers with a look at the ethics
of Internet technologies, online spaces, and artificial
intelligence. These texts demonstrate how technology may
fail to solve human problems that need human solutions.
Titus and friends have the connective capabilities of the Feed, but the way the
Feed works is designed to distract them. (Flanagan points out how the first person
narration brings the reader into Titus’s “fragmented” and interrupted lived
experience.) The technology that connects them also separates them. Example:
as Violet slips away, all Titus can do to cope is order pants and more pants
“Maybe, Violet if we check out some of the great bargains available to you through
the feednet over the next six months, we might be able to create a consumer
portrait of you that would interest our investment team.” - Nina from Feed Tech
“[T]he main tension is whether achieving a sense of self is even possible when
being connected, both biologically and virtually, to so many outside stimuli mean
being constantly influenced and having our choices made for us” (Hervey, 2018, p.
“Anderson actually refuses to cordon youth off as the ‘dumbest generation’; both
Titus and his father are intellectually stunted by the feed, and all culture is
presented as both hyperstimulated and vapid” (Bell, 2020).
Warcross (2017) and Wildcard (2018)
Everyone uses NeuroLink glasses, which provides virtual reality and
augmented reality. Emika is a bounty hunter and hacker who ends up in
the big Warcross tournament. The game’s creator, Hideo, hires Emika to
go after someone planning to disrupt the tournament. Turns out someone
seeks to use the NeuroLink to control people so they cannot commit a
“You’re taking away something that makes us fundamentally human!” -
Scythe Trilogy (2016, 2018, 2019)
The Thunderhead, the AI that runs the world, is a benevolent presence. The
scythedom, which is run entirely by humans without Thunderhead intervention,
has corruption problems.
Scythe’s power to kill: “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts
absolutely.” - Lord John Dalberg-Acton
“However, the sycthedom is not bound by my laws, or my sense of ethical
propriety. Which means that I must endure any abomination that it inflicts upon
the world.” - the Thunderhead
Scythe Trilogy (2016, 2018, 2019)
The Thunderhead manages to find loopholes around the laws governing its
behavior in order to influence events that it cannot directly intervene in.
Many seem to follow the Thunderhead’s guidance without question or accept what
the Thunderhead says and does is what is for the best. How do humans make
choices and act on their own agency, and how does AI shape human behavior?
Prudence Wu is a prep school student in what was Washington, D.C., one of the
few oasis of democracy in a continent taken over by a heartless corporate
conglomerate. She unexpectedly finds herself the chosen pilot of a cybernetic
dragon powered by sentient AI that can win the war against the corporate
conglomerate. A story about the power of connection over brutality.
“Wars are nothing more than a means to sell a product. And I sold.” - weapons
● Examine issues of privacy online, especially data collected to run the
AI that targets advertising to us.
● What data do the websites and apps we use collect? How is that data
through the entire document. Get your data from Google, Facebook,
or Twitter. See what they have and how they can use it.
● How will AI affect how we buy things, our health care, our jobs?
● PBS’s Frontline documentary “In the Age of AI” (November 5, 2019)
● Discuss use of AI in schools:
○ “Schools Are Deploying Massive Digital Surveillance Systems.
The Results Are Alarming” - Education Week, May 30, 2019
○ “District's Plan to Use Facial Recognition Tech for Safety Raises
Big Privacy Concerns” - Education Week, May 30, 2019