Is technology destroying THE HUMAN RACE?
CYBERPSYCHOLOGISTS BELIEVE ONLINE CULTURE HAS CREATED THE GREATEST UNREGULATED SOCIAL EXPERIMENT IN HUMAN HISTORY, WRITES
It only takes an hour with forensic cyberpsychologist Dr Mary Aiken for despair about the future of humanity to set in. She has been discussing everything from child exploitation and human trafficking to addiction, loss of empathy and the rapid decline of civilisation – each an example of how our reliance on technology is changing human behaviours and creating a terrifying new world (dis)order. The next day’s sunlight brings peace – until an email from Aiken arrives, featuring a photo montage of serial killer Ted Bundy’s victims.
“It was great talking!” she writes from her native Ireland, where she is the director of the Cyberpsychology Research Centre in Dublin, the world’s first unit dedicated to exploring virtual criminality. “As discussed, note the similarity of the victims,” she continues. “In one CSI: Cyber episode, we feature a similar predator kidnapping victims to type, and my character said photos posted on unsecured social-media sites are ‘a form of online-shopping catalogue for serial killers’. All the best, Mary.”
Aiken’s name may be unfamiliar, but her work is less so, thanks to US drama CSI: Cyber, which is based on her career. The series follows a team of FBI agents led by Avery Ryan (Patricia Arquette), who solve crimes that are committed online, yet play out in the real world. In reality, Aiken advises agencies including London’s Metropolitan Police Service, the LAPD and Interpol. She investigates online behaviour, from hacking and cyberstalking to exploring solutions to “big data” problems such as tech-facilitated human trafficking and child exploitation.
As a producer of CSI: Cyber, Aiken is involved with each episode. “I go over the script and add accuracy to the stories,” she says. The pilot episode was about criminals who hack into baby monitors
and then kidnap the infants to sell via online auctions. The episode, based loosely on real-life cases, shocked viewers. “It was a metaphor for people who are vulnerable in cyberspace,” she says. “The show explains the dangers of technology. In this episode I was given a voice to say, ‘If you put a device in your baby’s room that can be activated remotely, anyone can see it.’”
Despite being highly skilled in all its negatives, Aiken is “pro-technology” and admits she was destined for a career in this field. “Even as a child, I wanted to be a scientist,” she says, detailing her rise from psychologist working in consumer behaviour, to forensic psychology, then cyberpsychology. “Human behaviour intrigues me. And I was one of the first in my field.”
It’s no surprise then that TV, with its love of crime shows, soon came knocking. “The calls to meet with someone called Nina – who I thought
was an intern – became persistent, but I didn’t think anyone would be interested in the subject. Eventually I said, ‘I have a 10am free and that’s it,’” she laughs. “They couldn’t believe my attitude. Nina was actually Nina Tassler, the [then] head of CBS Entertainment!”
When the day of the meeting arrived, Aiken became involved in an undercover operation that was running late. “An LAPD squad car got me there on time, with sirens blazing,” she says. “I should write a book called How To Get Ahead In Hollywood By Doing Everything Wrong.”
Instead, she wrote The Cyber Effect: A Pioneering Cyberpsychologist Explains How Human Behaviour Changes Online. In it, she explores how technology changes our behaviour, from internet addiction to criminal activity on the dark web (the internet’s encrypted underbelly, requiring special software to view). Aiken says we’re living through the online animation, entertainment and sports, so why should they bother with love and sex and everything that comes with it – the possibility of pain?” If current trends continue, it’s predicted Japan’s population will have shrunk by more than 30 per cent by 2060.
But the biggest impact on human behaviour is the fact we’re no longer restricted by chance or proximity. Twenty years ago, two child sex offenders who lived far apart had little chance of meeting and facilitating their behaviours, but now it’s as easy as getting out your phone. The results? A decade ago the US National Center for Missing and Exploited Children was receiving thousands of disturbing images. Now they have 139 million and counting – and this is just one agency.
What plays out online often spills out into the real world – and vice versa. “I hope I’m wrong, but the concern with this cyber effect is that it could result in a surge of deviant criminal behaviour,” says Aiken. While she can’t discuss the details of any of her cases, Aiken says that crimes facilitated by the internet range from the crass and callous – a woman in New York took a smiling selfie in front of a suicidal man hanging from the Brooklyn Bridge – to the horrific: Aiken cites the case of Alexandra Tobias, a 22-year-old mother who was addicted to the Facebook game Farmville and lost her temper when her three-month-old son’s crying distracted her from the game. She shook him until he lost consciousness and he later died.
Frighteningly, this behaviour is only what we can see on the “garden variety” surface internet, a place where search engines roam freely. The deep web (the parts of the internet not accessible to search engines) accounts for around 96 per cent of what is actually available, and within that lies the dark web.
“The difference between the dark web and the regular internet is that dark content, which isn’t indexed and therefore isn’t searchable, can be shared without identity or location disclosure and without your computer’s IP address or other tracers,” says Aiken, who refers to its entry point as “the gates of hell [because of] what you might encounter”. Almost any service can be ordered on the dark web – child-abuse victims, extortion, murder – often from sites offering shoppers discounts and “surprisingly great customer service”, says Aiken. “One site is delighted to tell shoppers, ‘I always do my best to make it look like an accident or suicide.’”
But has technology changed human behaviour, or does it merely hold a mirror to desires we’ve always had, yet never been able to explore? Aiken believes the latter. “Using the internet is the modern-day equivalent of that superhero power of invisibility, which fuels online disinhibition, making us all behave as though we’re drunk,” she explains. “But it could be that we’ve had thousands of years of suppressing negative behaviour, and now societal expectations are changing, the internet is shining a light on who we really are and what we’re capable of.”
Physicist Stephen Hawking recently claimed it’s a “near certainty” technology will threaten humanity within the next 1000 to 10,000 years, but Aiken disagrees. “Societies aren’t set in stone; they’re malleable and always evolving,” she says. “Yes, technology breeds negative behaviours, but this is our chance to recognise there are issues with the way we’re living and do something about it.”
Her tip? Educate yourself, your children and, above all, remain positive. “Every day I see the absolute worst of human behaviour,” she says, “and if I can remain optimistic about the future, so can you.” Dr Mary Aiken’s book The Cyber Effect (Hachette Australia, $35) is out now.
Newt Hinds laughs when asked if he is afraid of heights. The 17-year-old New Yorker began shooting photographs from rooftops three years ago, and has since taken it to extreme heights. “It started with checking out local spots for fun, then I couldn’t contain my interest in exploring,” he explains.
By “exploring”, Hinds means making his way to the summit undetected, where he then takes pictures and posts them to social media. The highest building he has climbed is 191 metres, or 60 storeys. This photo (left) was taken on a “mellow and easy-flowin’ spring day” in NYC. He describes balancing precariously on the edge of a high rise as “an enticing feeling”.
Despite Hinds’s nonchalance, the dangers of rooftopping are real. Last
year two deaths were linked to the craze: a 24-year-old slipped from the top of the Four Seasons Hotel in Manhattan and a 17-year-old fell off a building in Russia.
In Australia, arrests for rooftopping have been on the rise. Melbourne’s Bryce Wilson, 25, is one of our best-known daredevils. He stars in the first episode of Red Bull TV’S new documentary series Urbex (slang for “urban exploration”), where he’s filmed scaling the Coop’s Shot Tower without a harness.
Unlike Hinds and Wilson, Giulio Cosmo Calisse, 31, does feel fear. The Toronto-based photographer got into urbex four years ago, before the #rooftop hashtag reached 3.8 million posts on Instagram. “I used to be afraid of heights, but I think exposing myself to it made me get used to it,” he says.
Calisse’s highest building climb is 350 metres (106 storeys). For him, it’s about perspective: “Looking down from that point of view gives the viewer a feeling of freefalling. When you add someone sitting on the edge, it evokes vertigo.”
The photo above was taken in Bangkok, and is of his then-girlfriend, Audrey. “We spotted this really cool building and decided to go in,” he recalls. “It was a residential building, so we took a taxi, drove up to the entrance and walked in. Because we seemed like average Western tourists, they let us right in. We took the elevator up and climbed the stairs to the very top.”
It’s that easy, says Calisse: “It’s just a matter of finding a fire escape, going up the stairs and opening the door.” Oh, and not getting caught. “I actually did get arrested this year,” he admits. “I trespassed and hopped the fence of a construction site with some friends. We were handcuffed and put in police cars, and [we] spent a couple of hours in some cells at the station.”
Not surprisingly, Calisse has since stopped rooftopping – much to his mum’s relief. He says his family feels “terrible” when they see his photos. Hinds’s parents, too, are “shaky” about his endeavours. But both photographers say they’ve never had a close call. “I’m pretty careful. I’ve seen people literally walk on the edge, less than an inch from the void. I can’t do that,” says Calisse.
But nothing will stop Hinds; he finds real joy in rooftopping: “I explore with the pure intent of my own happiness.”
“I’VE SEEN PEOPLE LITERALLY WALK ON THE EDGE, LESS THAN AN INCH FROM THE VOID. I CAN’T DO THAT”