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Being Human and Working Towards Justice in the
Digital Age Through the Study and Teaching of
Young Adult Literature
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”
One way to think about ethics and responsibilities is through
science fiction, a genre that is “a literature of possibilities and
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
“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
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 technologies
aren’t neutral, reflect the biases of the people who make
them, and come with ethical issues.
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).
Lifelike Trilogy (2018, 2019, 2020)
In the aftermath of a devastating war, Eve Carpenter lives with her grandfather in what is left of
California, a place known as Dregs. Two corporations vie for control: one specializes in cybernetic
and robotic technologies, the other specializes in genetic engineering. Eve pilots machina in
WarDome fights that pit machines against each other. During one fight, she takes down a logika
by just looking at it. As she flees from a cult that sees this ability as deviant, she sees a plane
crash and discovers that the pilot is not a human, but a lifelike - an A.I. being made to be just like a
human, except faster and stronger. Lifelikes were banned years ago after they led an uprising that
killed their creator and his family. What is this lifelike doing in Dregs?
Lifelike Trilogy (2018, 2019, 2020)
Kristoff’s series asks what might happen if artificial intelligence designed to be better than humans
rebels against their makers. The lifelikes are supposed to be bound by Asimov’s Three Laws of
Robotics, but when they are not bound by the Three Laws, they turn to Milton’s Paradise Lost to
justify their uprising. The lifelikes see themselves as the next stage of human evolution.
Scythe Trilogy (2016, 2018, 2019)
The Thunderhead, the A.I. 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 A.I. shape human behavior?
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!” -
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 A.I. 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
Girl of Flesh and Metal Trilogy (2020, 2021)
Lena Hayes is the daughter of the leaders of CyberCorp. When Lena loses her
arm in a car accident, she gets a cybernetic arm from CyberCorp. She hates the
idea of the new arm and its artificial intelligence. She hates it even more when the
children of CyberCorp employees start turning up dead. Lena knows that she was
sleepwalking at the time of the murders. Did she commit these horrible killings?
This series is a hybrid of science fiction and mystery. Lena is skeptical of
technology, yet finds herself with a cybernetic arm. She has serious doubts about
the new androids her parents’ company is about to sell, and those doubts may be
Hard Wired (2020)
Quinn is a fifteen year old boy who mourns the loss of his father. Then Quinn is
told that he isn’t a boy, but rather an artificial intelligence. The man he believed
was his father is really a university professor running the experiment that is Quinn.
Quinn sets out to determine if he can run his own life, without his father.
Quinn wonders who he is and how he can connect with others. He tries to make
friends with other computers as well as humans. He sues his father for the
chance to make his own decisions. Vlahos’s novel asks if A.I. robots should have
● Examine issues of privacy online, especially data collected to run A.I.
that targets advertising to us. Example: Apple latest iOS update lets
users turn off the ability of apps to track them, much to Facebook’s
● 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)
● W. Kamau Bell’s United Shades of America episode “Black to the
Future” (May 9, 2021) which discusses techno-racism
● 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