Nuke the Internet From Orbit?

Review: Mary Aiken, 'The Cyber Effect: A Pioneering Cyberpsychologist Explains How Human Behavior Changes Online'

A computer gamer in Osnabrueck, Germany. / Getty Images
• March 26, 2017 4:50 am


What if the Internet shut down?

The Internet is so enmeshed in modern life that such a question seems unthinkable, an apocalyptic disaster of the sort reserved for fiction, such as E.M. Forster's startlingly prescient 1909 short story "The Machine Stops." But at the end of February, huge swaths of the Internet went dark due to problems with Amazon's servers. (The cause was a typo.) A similar outage occurred last October. That time, though, it wasn't accidental. The culprit was a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack on key aspects of the Internet's infrastructure. The attack flooded vital websites and services with requests, amplifying itself through loosely secured, Internet-connected devices. Such devices, including household fixtures like wireless printers and DVD players, are known collectively as the "Internet of things."

Mary Aiken's The Cyber Effect: A Pioneering Cyberpsychologist Explains How Human Behavior Changes Online deals only tangentially with such threats to the Internet. But, after reading it, one is tempted to hope that an attack succeeds in bringing the whole thing down.

Aiken didn't set out to make the case for nuking the Internet from orbit. Her goal was rather to dissent from typical tech reporting, which breathlessly focuses on the relentless pace of change or submits paeans to Silicon Valley. Instead, she observes dispassionately how the Internet, smartphones, and related items affect us. As Aiken somewhat clumsily notes, "[w]e are living through a unique period of human history, an intense period of flux, change, and disruption that may never be repeated." At the same time, she submits another awkward, obvious, but important message: "What is new is not always good—and technology does not always mean progress."

Aiken struggles through parts of the book to convey her thesis. Virtually every page bears a trite phrase (beginning with the JFK-quoting epigraph "Children are the world's most valuable resource and its best hope for the future"), some meaningless filler (the first words of the book proper are "I am sitting on a cold, hard bench"), or a pointless rhetorical question (my favorite was "where am I going with this?"). Aiken could have used a better editor.

Moreover, the author has a curious habit of explaining or discovering the obvious. Is it really that surprising to learn that "people behave differently when they are interacting with technology than they do in the face-to-face real world"? Is anyone shocked to find that "the more you mention something, the more you normalize it"? Did she really need to define "content analysis" and "logic" for readers?

Yet the importance of Aiken's message inclines me to forgive these faults. The meat of the book is data and anecdotes about technology's effects, and she is at her best simply conveying these. Aiken rightly notes that "[t]he impact of technology on human behavior begins at birth and ends at death," and provides plenty of striking examples to show how technology may be deforming human behavior.

There's what Aiken calls "online syndication," or the way the Internet has allowed all sorts of warped individuals to organize around their fetishes and festering ideas. There are the video game addicts who have literally played themselves to death, and the ever-growing cohort of mostly young males who may not be literally dying but who are increasingly checking out of the real world for the more reliable stimulants of video games and pornography. Aiken cites psychologist Philip Zimbardo's claim that the average boy watches 50 pornographic videos a week, and will have played ten thousand hours of video games by age 21.

And then there are today's infants and children, the first generation raised entirely in a digitally saturated world. As Aiken notes, we will not know how staring at screens for hours from birth will affect the neurological development of today's children, or how social media will affect the self-image of today's teenagers who have spent their entire lives cultivating themselves for it, until it's too late. Don't forget the children harassed in online game worlds or lured into prostitution; horror stories of this kind may convince you of the need for a separate Internet just for kids, an idea Aiken endorses. These and countless other examples, drawn from headlines and psychological literature, enliven the book, and nearly suffice as expiation for other faults.

The Cyber Effect may not be the world's best-written book, but Aiken has performed an invaluable service by producing it. We desperately need pushback against the tech-addled mores of our time, which encroach on us seemingly from every direction, at every stage of our lives. The Internet has given us many great things, and it would probably be a bad thing on the whole if one of these cyber attacks does take it out. Nevertheless, we still must pay attention to the work of Aiken and others, consider the questions they raise, and try our best to resist the Internet.

Published under: Book reviews, Internet