*I have received a copy of this book as part of a goodreads giveaway*
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”
– Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
The Cyber Effect is a welcome but broad overview of the consequences the rapid expansion of the internet and its accessibility has had for modern psychology, and by extension society.
Although Dr. Mary Aiken often repeats her mantra that the technology itself is neither good nor bad, barring sections of the Cyber-Romance chapter, occasional proposed solutions and the call to arms in the concluding remarks, the majority of the book focuses on the negative effects. The bias is perhaps understandable as Aiken has advised several investigative bodies on cybercrime, has clearly seen some horrific things and is very good on potential remedies. The sections are illuminating, well-written and easy to comprehend, but I wished it had been balanced a little more by the positive attributes like community, charity and crowdfunding. Though I suppose these have been espoused enough elsewhere, the book does create the impression that we are living in the worst of times when, as Dickens says above, it always appears to be both the best and worst of times and a period of great change.
As a consequence of this, Aiken seems certain that the invention of the internet has changed everything and is an unprecedented social experiment. This is evidenced by the Aiken’s tendency to adapt words to include prefixes like ‘cyber’ or ‘techno’. Obviously her subject is ‘cyber’, but personally I think this is overplayed as I do not think there is much new under the sun. It is the prevalence of the medium that has exacerbated certain psychological traits that have always existed. What is unprecedented is the scale rather than the psychology, which, as many of Aiken’s historical examples show, is very much precedented.
Having recently read Lucy Worsley’s ‘A Very British Murder’, I was struck by the similarities between the introduction of the internet and the urbanisation and mass migration to cities during the industrial revolution.
There were several references in the chapter “Frankenstein and the Little Girl” that reinforced this idea to me. Aiken refers to how industrialisation affected child labour and how laws were eventually implemented to protect them as they need to be with the internet. She quotes John Suler as saying “You wouldn’t take your children and leave them alone in the middle of New York City, and that’s effectively what you’re doing when you allow them to go into cyberspace alone.” But New York City has the NYPD to protect its citizens, while early 19th Century London didn’t even have a Metropolitan police. The escalation in crime eventually led to its formation. Obviously I am not advocating that it is okay to leave a child alone in NYC because of the NYPD but rather that the internet, like the growing urban cities of the past, is generating a level of crime that is going to require the creation of a special group tasked to protect people online. The Metropolitan Police have recently set up such a unit, but it is hardly enough to tackle the scale of the problems. She refers to the Bystander Effect, or Diffusion of Responsibility, which is the idea that the more people who witness a crime or emergency, the less likely anyone is to help or respond. Have you ever seen someone in distress in a public place and walked on by? Policing the internet faces the same issue.
Perhaps nothing solidified this correlation to urbanisation for me as much as the story of the two girls who committed murder in the name of Slender Man. You would think such a story would be incredibly modern. One murder some propose as the first of Jack the Ripper’s took place 2 days after the stage play of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde took place in London, some theorising that he drew inspiration from this. Aiken notes the influence of the film Child’s Play on the murder of Jamie Bolger. You could bring up other examples: the Aurora shooting at a screening of The Dark Knight Rises or the man who was inspired to buy ricin from the Dark Web after watching Breaking Bad. As Oscar Wilde once said, “Life imitates Art more than Art imitates life.”
A recent study has even suggested the media reporting on mass shootings actually increases the amount of mass shootings in the following days through the contagion effect. Behavioural contagion often studies crowds, which became more prevalent during periods of urbanisation. I am reminded of Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Man of the Crowd”, in which a man seems to be constantly part of the crowd. Maybe if Poe were alive today he would have written a story called “The Man of the Internet” about a man who seems to be constantly on the internet. The original story even has an epigraph from 2 centuries earlier, from “The Characters of Man” by Jean de La Bruyère: “This great misfortune, of not being able to be alone.” Perhaps Wordsworth might have begun a poem about the city “I wandered lonely in a crowd.” Sherry Turkle’s TED Talk on being “Connected, but Alone” has the same resonance.
The psychology of the internet is very similar to the concerns people voiced about urbanisation: the proliferation of anonymity where people previously had known the whole community, the disinhibition provoked by this and the accessibility of a wide variety of experiences, not always morally virtuous. Maybe it was because psychology was not yet a discipline when mass urbanisation was happening we do not have the concepts that could be derived from that, but it wouldn’t surprise me that had psychology been an accepted discipline before mass urbanisation that Aiken would have amended the words to begin with ‘urban’ or ‘metropolitan’.
I think some of the psychological effects go back even further. Here’s a quotation put into the mouth of Socrates by Plato in his Phaedrus:
“Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them. You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction and will therefore seem to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant and hard to get along with, since they are not wise, but only appear wise.”
Doesn’t that description sound like somebody describing the malignant misinformation of the Internet nowadays?
As Jorge Luis Borges wrote in “Borges and I”, the written self and the actual self are always different. Such is it with the cyber self and the actual self. The section on “Cyberchondria” notes how the internet can exacerbate health concerns, but there is a precedent for this as well. At the beginning of Jerome K Jerome’s “Three Men in a Boat”, the narrator goes to the British Museum to find out what his ailment is and diagnoses himself with everything except Housemaid’s Knee. It is a clear case of hyperchondria similar to that described in The Cyber Effect, and Aiken mentions Gray’s Anatomy as previously being potentially used for such a purpose, as well as the fictional example of Hungry Joe in Joseph Heller’s Catch 22.
If we are going to refer to the prevalence of the current problem as ‘cyberchondria’, should we not also retroactively refer to the hypochondria influenced by books as ‘bibliochondria’? If we refer to Munchausen by Internet should we not also refer to Don Quixote as suffering from Munchausen by book? If we refer to the ‘technosomatic effect’, should we not also refer to the bibliomatic effect?
One final minor bugbear: Aiken at one point says “All gathered knowledge of human civilisation is available by using search engines” or will be, but this is hyperbole. There are things in printed books that are not on the internet yet and may never be because of disinterest, people who choose not to record things, or some other factor and all the while information is constantly expanding.
The Cyber Effect tackles such a wide range of issues that I think it is invaluable as a source of information about the psychological repercussions of the internet, but it is far from comprehensive and I wished some subjects had been explored in greater detail. However, as you can see from the above, it was incredibly stimulating and thought-provoking, often with explanations that make you feel like you’ve turned toward the light from Plato’s cave. It has whetted my mental appetite and some subjects I will investigate further, so despite the aforementioned personal gripes, I would recommend it to anyone who wants a little insight into where the world with is wide tangled web that has been woven might be heading.
*This review has also been posted on goodreads*