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The Cyber Effect - Mary Aiken *****

This is a weird one - it's a book with huge flaws, yet I'm giving it five stars because the content is really important. It's generally considered that the big change in environment moving from forest to savannah had a huge impact on the development of early humans. Similarly the industrial revolution changed lives immensely. Mary Aiken's book describes the way that a much more recent change in environment could have an equally huge effect.

The book is about the impact of the internet and ever-present e-devices on human behaviour. This is not one of those 'screens fry your brains' books we've seen before - it's about the way that living in this very different environment is changing the way we interact with each other and behave generally. And some of it is downright scary. Aiken describes a scene on a train where she watches a mother feeding a baby. Rather than giving the baby eye contact and interaction during the process, the mother is looking at her phone.  Contact and interaction is absolutely fundamental in early child development, yet Aiken shows how time and again - from parents' own obsession with screens, to plonking infants in front of TV and tablets - we are taking away this hugely important environmental contribution.

Similarly, in chapter after chapter (it's quite repetitious), Aiken shows how we are living more and more of our lives in the cyber-environment, where we feel safer than in the physical world, so counterintuitively we put ourselves at risk more. Whether we're talking constantly checking phones and Googling - Aiken points out that searching is a natural human tendency, essential for a hunter-gatherer, and a lot of our obsession could be tied into the build-in rewards we get from a successful search - spending many hours on immersive computer games (to the extent some users have died), cyberbullying, the darknet or other risks to our behavioural norms, there's a lot to take in. Aiken is not saying 'go and live in the woods and never touch tech'. She accepts the benefits - but argues we need to be more aware of the risks and to act accordingly, particularly when it comes to protecting children and teenagers.

So that's the good part. There are, however, three issues with the book. One, which may be the fault of the publisher, is that it is presented in a very show-off fashion - Aiken mentions narcissism as an issue for teen users of the internet, and yet seems unaware of the way it threads through the book from the use of 'Dr' on her name, through the subtitle identifying her as a 'pioneering cyberpsychologist', through a totally irrelevant story about her going on a police raid to repeatedly bringing herself into the picture. 

Although glaringly obvious, that's a relatively minor issue. A bigger worry (although it's fascinating in itself as an exposé of some aspects of psychology) is the unscientific nature of some of her arguments. She is positive about Freud, despite a total lack of scientific basis for his theories. She worries about radiation from tablets. She emphasises correlation is not causality, but then follows it up with 'no smoke without fire' responses, totally undoing the scientific bit. And one sees time and again the way psychological theories and definitions of mental conditions are made up by experts and then clung to, rather than being derived from good, evidence-based science. When she strays outside psychology, the facts can suffer a little too. She calls Tim Berners-Lee the 'father of the Internet' confusing the internet and the web, and calls Stephen Hawking 'the worlds foremost physicist,' something that would have most physicists rolling in the aisles.

Finally, though the book is very strong on the problems of our cyber-culture, it's all rainbows and unicorns when it comes to offering a solution. In a vague final chapter, Aiken suggests that the UN can sort it out, China might have a good idea in censoring web content and we'd be okay if there was a web-in-a-web where children were safe (despite all her previous arguments that children are going to outsmart parents' attempts to control their use). She suggests rightly that those who make lots of money from the internet, and are great at technology, should be devising solutions - but doesn't describe any incentive system for making this work. And then, finally, she seems to suggest that what we really need to do is live in the Irish countryside like she does and go for a walk.

As you might gather, I had real problems with a lot of this book. But I feel that the central information and observation of our changes in behaviour as a result of the internet and e-devices is so powerful, that the rest can be forgiven.
Review by Brian Clegg


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