Dr Mary Aiken is a pioneer and go-to expert of cyberpsychology, an emerging field which delves into the effects of technology on human behaviour. As our lives become ever more dependent on the technology we use, it also becomes increasingly important to ask how all of this may impact the way we think and behave.
Aiken’s new book The Cyber Effect explores life online and the many ways, both positive and negative, in which the cyber world has transformed our society, from revolutionising politics, to opening up new possibilities for criminals, and exposing children to all kinds of dangers.
What are some of the most worrying ways in which the cyber world is affecting us?
The impact of technology starts at birth and finishes at end of life. We are all familiar with the positives of technology, as there is an army of tech marketing experts out there telling us that “its all good”. I do cover a lot of negative aspects of technology in my book, from the impact of screentime on the developing infant, to cyberchondria in adults. If I seem to focus on many of the negative aspects of technology, it is in order to bring the debate back to the balanced center rather than have one driven by utopian idealism or commercialism. As a cyberpsychologist my job is to provide the best wisdom possible, based on what we know about human beings and how their cognitive, behavioral, physiological, social, developmental, affective, and motivational capabilities have been exploited or compromised or changed by the design of technology products. It is however important to remember that technology is not good or bad in its own right. It is neutral and simply mediates behavior— which means it can be used well or poorly by humankind.
Are we really living through the largest unregulated social experiment of all time?
That is a quote from the clinical psychologist Michael Seto. I am very concerned about children being exposed to legal but age inappropriate content online, for example adult pornography, extreme violence and self harm content. The Internet is an adult environment – there is no shallow end of the swimming pool online – the question is what will happen to this generation over time? What is the developmental impact in terms of exposure to the harsher and damaging aspects of the Internet?
You initially trained in psychology. So what was it that drew you to this area of cyberpsychology?
In the late 90’s A colleague of mine, Rollo Carpenter, was designing computer programs to stimulate intelligent conversation. His creation, Jabberwacky, was a super-smart artificial intelligence— a chatbot. Chatbots aim to simulate natural human conversation in an interesting and entertaining manner. Jabberwacky was different, It was a learning algorithm, a technology that you can communicate with and, more important, that can learn from you. I was fascinated by this creation and began to think of all of the productive applications, countering social isolation, helping kids with learning difficulties, and then I thought – or maybe not? The point was that nothing in my training in psychology at that point in time equipped me to evaluate the impact of this type of new technology on humans. I became curious about what was happening at a cognitive, emotional, and, most important, developmental level, and I became desperately curious about one thing: the psychology of all things cyber. That curiosity led me straight back to college, which in turn led to my entering a groundbreaking new field; Cyberpsychology.
We all know that the internet is dangerous, with cyber-crime, cyber-bullying, addictions to online gambling and porn, often reported on in the news. But enforcing laws as you have suggested – “In TV there are mechanisms of control such as watersheds and broadcasting guidelines. We need the same in cyberspace” – Is often seen as a violation of human rights. So how can governments protect at the same time as allowing people their freedom?
The protection versus preservation of human rights issue is a critical and complex issue in cyber contexts. As it stands now, a number of aims are in apparent conflict—the pursuit of individual privacy, the pursuit of collective security, and the pursuit of technologically facilitated global business vitality. There needs to be a better balance between these aims. Bottom line is that none of these aims can have absolute primacy over the others.
The 2016 Apple encryption case is a good example of this fine balance between technology and democracy, along with the right to privacy (delivered by end- to- end encryption) and the will of law enforcement (frustrated by encryption). But this case is not just about privacy. It’s not even about encryption. It is about a bigger societal issue, not just about a back door to technology. It is about a front door being opened when necessary— with due cause and appropriate legal process. Can we have a safe, just, and secure cyber-society if we have tech developments or practices that are effectively “beyond the law”? These thought- leadership conundrums require careful cyber-ethical debate.
CSI Cyber, for which you act as a consultant, features a whole array of cyber-crimes that many of us wouldn’t have ever conceived i.e criminals hacking into baby monitors. How much of these seemingly outlandish crimes are based on real life?
Many of the CSI:Cyber episodes were inspired by actual cyber crimes or emerging trends. The hacking of baby monitors episode was actually a creative mixture of a very old criminal case the Lindberg Baby kidnapping (1930’s), an actual case whereby a baby’s monitor was hacked by a deviant offender, and by emerging trends in terms of organised cyber criminal behaviour. The episode was not really about kidnapping infants – the underlying theme was that cyber security starts at home. If you use a wifi-enabled device to monitor your infant remotely, and if that platform is not robust and secure – then the logic is that anyone can compromise your privacy, and security.
You’ve said that we need to start thinking of the online world as a physical place. How do we go about doing this? And how will it help?
Cyberpsychologists conceptualise cyberspace as an environment – a psychologically immersive and compelling environment. Behaviour can mutate or change in cyber contexts – for example the Online Disinhibition Effect dictates that people will do things online that they will not do in the so-called real world. Its important to recognise that behaviour can change online, and to remember that what happens online can impact the real world and vice versa.
Much of the book focuses on the dangerous effects of digital technology on children and young adults. Why do you think these demographics are particularly at risk? Or is it condescending to think that young people are more susceptible or more likely to be taken advantage of?
Its certainly not condescending to conceptualise young people, and children in particular as being vulnerable online, its common sense. The focus on cyber-forensics in my work with law enforcement means that I witness both the best and the worst aspects of human behavior manifested online. I like to say that technology was designed to be rewarding, engaging, and seductive for so-called normal populations. But did anyone really think about how it would impact abnormal, deviant, criminal, and vulnerable populations? and children are particularly vulnerable online.