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Mary Aiken and The Cyber Effect
Photo: maryaiken.com

Reflecting on Mary Aiken’s ‘The Cyber Effect’

In one of the chapters, cyberpsychologist Mary Aiken quotes clinical psychologist Michael Seto. “We are living through the largest unregulated social experiment of all time — a generation of youth who have been exposed to extreme content online.” This quote is powerful, deep and makes us think of the kind of disruption that’s happening in our lives.

And, in the course of many chapters, she keeps asking us questions, that make us pause and reflect on them. Like, Is cyberspace an actual place? The concept of absolute freedom is central to the ideology of the Internet. But can this freedom corrupt? And can absolute freedom corrupt absolutely

Dr. Aiken fiercely defends the notion that cyberspace is an actual, distinct space which has a profound effect on our ‘real lives’. And, she tries to explain the some very important concepts in the process — time-distortion effect, online disinhibtion effect and online escalation.

Most of us know the first two. However, I found it interesting that she brought the third one — online escalation — in the domain of cyberpsychology. And, by relating to it from the viewpoint of eastern philosophy, I enjoyed it even more.

Internet, a magnifier

Internet is a tool. A tool, much like a microscope or a wrench — an extension of our ourselves that is aimed at solving things. Most importantly, things that are beyond the reach of our physical capabilities. We wouldn’t be using most of our tools if we had the time, physical strength. So we invented them and they helped us magnify our capabilities.

A microscope helps the eye see details which under normal circumstances it wouldn’t be able to. Likewise, Internet is a tool that magnifies human experience. One that allows psychologist see the depths of the human mind.

The emergence of selfies, phenomenon of cyberchondria, trolling, sexting and other Internet-related issues have given us a glimpse of the potential of human mind. The studies shed light on how we react — with our minds that are conditioned to the variables of the so-called real world — when notions like morality, ethics, etiquette get blurred in the cyber world.

She says,

I’ve seen this demonstrated time and again: Whenever technology comes in contact with an underlying predisposition, or tendency for a certain behavior, it can result in behavioral amplification or escalation.

And, many of it manifest in ugly ways on Internet.

Architects need to be more responsible

Another part of the book that I liked was the effort she put in to tell the techno-social effect.

She argues that architects of the Internet, products and apps know enough about the human psyche. There’s no doubt there’s tonnes of money to be made my manipulating the mind, especially in a medium that magnifies every impulse. Bigger the impulse, more money to be made.

Over a period of time, it institutionalizes many things — of what is acceptable or appropriate, taking into consideration only a part of a population. The effect, which she calls the techno-social effect, of it will seriously undermine many of the social institutions put in place in the ‘real-world’.

And, at some point, they will merge and only time will tell as to how we will cope that! We’re already seeing that most of our Internet-related problems are a result of that.

There’s hope though.

This paragraph, from one of the final chapters of the book, I think, sums up the idea:

Societies are not set in stone. Society is malleable, always evolving and growing. It responds to movements and measures. We’ve seen how cyberspace breeds a uniformity of negative behaviors. But there is just as much of a chance to have a uniformity of positive ones.

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