Skip to main content

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.


Hardback 

Kindle 
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The AI Delusion - Gary Smith *****

This is a very important little book ('little' isn't derogatory - it's just quite short and in a small format) - it gets to the heart of the problem with applying artificial intelligence techniques to large amounts of data and thinking that somehow this will result in wisdom.

Gary Smith as an economics professor who teaches statistics, understands numbers and, despite being a self-confessed computer addict, is well aware of the limitations of computer algorithms and big data. What he makes clear here is that we forget at our peril that computers do not understand the data that they process, and as a result are very susceptible to GIGO - garbage in, garbage out. Yet we are increasingly dependent on computer-made decisions coming out of black box algorithms which mine vast quantities of data to find correlations and use these to make predictions. What's wrong with this? We don't know how the algorithms are making their predictions - and the algorithms don't kn…

Infinity in the Palm of your Hand - Marcus Chown *****

A new Marcus Chown book is always a treat - and this is like a box of chocolates: a collection of bite-sized delights as Chown presents us with 50 science facts that are strange and wonderful.

The title is a quote from William Blake's Auguries of Innocence: 'To see a World in a Grain of Sand, / And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, / Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand, / And Eternity in an hour.' It would seem particularly appropriate if this book were read on a mobile phone (so it would be literally in the palm), which could well be true for ebook users, as the short essays make excellent reading for a commute, or at bedtime. I found them distinctly moreish - making it difficult to put the book down as I read just one more. And perhaps another. Oh, and that next one looks really interesting...

Each of the 50 pieces has a title and a short introductory heading, which mostly give a feel for the topic. The very first of these, however, briefly baffled me: 'You are a third mus…

How to Invent Everything - Ryan North ****

Occasionally you read a book and think 'I wish I'd thought of that.' This was my immediate reaction to Ryan North's How to Invent Everything. The central conceit manages to be both funny and inspiring as a framework for writing an 'everything you ever wanted to know about everything (and particularly science)' book.

What How to Invent Everything claims to be is a manual for users of a time machine (from some point in the future). Specifically it's a manual for dealing with the situation of the time machine going wrong and stranding the user in the past. At first it appears that it's going to tell you how to fix the broken time machine - but then admits this is impossible. Since you're stuck in the past, you might as well make the best of your surroundings, so the aim of the rest of the book is to give you the knowledge you need to build your own civilisation from scratch.

We start with a fun flow chart for working out just how far back in time you are…