Is tech­nol­ogy de­stroy­ing THE HUMAN RACE?


Sunday Herald Sun - Stellar - - Q & A -

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.”


CY­BER FILES Dr Mary Aikens (left) is played by Pa­tri­cia Ar­quette (below) in the TV show in­spired by her ca­reer.

HIGH JINKS (below) Rus­sian rooftop­pers, the “Spi­der-men”, atop China’s Shun Hing Square Tower this year. They scaled the 384-me­tre build­ing’s 59-me­tre spire – with­out safety gear.

SKY’S THE LIMIT Newt Hinds pho­to­graphs a fel­low thrill-seek­ing snap­per in New York.

SWEET­NESS AND LIGHT Gi­ulio Calisse’s photo of his ex-girl­friend, taken on a rooftop in Bangkok.

UR­BAN OUT­LAWS Rooftop­pers scale the ver­tigo-in­duc­ing 346-me­tre The Cen­ter build­ing in Hong Kong.

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