Censorship on the internet is rampant with 60+ countries engaging in state censorship. A Cambridge University research project is aiming to uncover the scale of this censorship, and how it affects users and publishers of information
The way in which people communicate online via social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook can be seen as a modern form of madness, according to a sociologist.
Sherry Turkle, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, writes in her new book, Alone Together : A behaviour that has become typical may still express the problems that once caused us to see it as pathological.
Under the illusion of allowing us to communicate better, technology is actually isolating us from real human interactions in a cyber-reality that is a poor imitation of the real world, she suggests.
We have invented inspiring and enhancing technologies, yet we have allowed them to diminish us, she writes.
In Alone Together Sherry Turkle offers a fascinating and highly readable analysis of how increasingly intelligent machines and a highly networked world are impacting us socially and psychologically. The book is
roughly divided into two parts: the first focuses on social robots, or autonomous machines that interact directly with us, while the second part delves into the increasingly networked world and the implications a tethered society in which
many individuals are unable to break away from email, social networking and in some cases prefer online games like Second Life to the real world.
Some of the most fascinating material in the book involves Turkle's investigations of how children perceive these technologies and how their social world view is impacted. Early in the book, Turkle tells how children lined
up at an exhibit that included live (but immobile) turtles felt that it would have been better to replace the live animals with robots -- both because robots would provide a more active display and because the captive animals could then be
returned to their natural environment. This idea of children (and even adults) placing a low premium on authenticity comes up again and again. Robotic pets are seen as having important advantages over the real thing. Elderly patients indicate
that, at least in some areas, they might prefer a robotic caretaker to a human one.
Turkle's conclusion is that our social preferences are evolving to include, and in many cases even prefer, technology over people. As she says, Our relationships with robots are ramping up; our relationships with people
are ramping down. This is obviously something that should perhaps give us pause.
Today's fast-paced media could be making us indifferent to human suffering and should allow time for us to reflect, according to researchers.
They found that emotions linked to moral sense are slow to respond to news and events and have failed to keep up with the modern world. In the time it takes to fully reflect on a story of anguish and suffering, the news bulletin has already moved on or
the next Twitter update is already being read.
As activities such as reading books and meeting friends, where people can define their morals, are taken over by news snippets and fast-moving social networking, the problem could become widespread, researchers warn. Children are said to be particularly
vulnerable because their brains are still developing.
If things are happening too fast, you may not ever fully experience emotions about other people's psychological states and that would have implications for your morality, said Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, from the University of Southern California,
and one of the researchers.
Their work, published next week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Online Early Edition, involved studying the response of volunteers to real-life stories to induce admiration for virtue or skill, or compassion for physical or social
Using brain imaging, they found that humans can sort information very quickly and respond in fractions of a second to signs of physical pain in others, but admiration and compassion - two of the social emotions that define humanity - take much longer.
The volunteers needed six to eight seconds to fully respond to stories of virtue or social pain, but once awakened, the responses lasted far longer than the volunteers' reactions to stories focused on physical pain.
Social network sites risk infantilising the mid-21st century mind, leaving it characterised by short attention spans,
sensationalism, inability to empathise and a shaky sense of identity, according to a leading neuroscientist.
The startling warning from Lady Greenfield, professor of synaptic pharmacology at Lincoln college, Oxford, and director of the Royal Institution, has led members of the government to admit their work on internet regulation has not extended to broader
issues, such as the psychological impact on children.
She told the House of Lords that children's experiences on social networking sites are devoid of cohesive narrative and long-term significance. As a consequence, the mid-21st century mind might almost be infantilised, characterised by short attention
spans, sensationalism, inability to empathise and a shaky sense of identity.
Arguing that social network sites are putting attention span in jeopardy, she said: If the young brain is exposed from the outset to a world of fast action and reaction, of instant new screen images flashing up with the press of a key, such rapid
interchange might accustom the brain to operate over such timescales. Perhaps when in the real world such responses are not immediately forthcoming, we will see such behaviours and call them attention-deficit disorder.
"It might be helpful to investigate whether the near total submersion of our culture in screen technologies over the last decade might in some way be linked to the threefold increase over this period in prescriptions for methylphenidate, the drug
prescribed for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder.
She also warned against "a much more marked preference for the here-and-now, where the immediacy of an experience trumps any regard for the consequences. After all, whenever you play a computer game, you can always just play it again; everything you
do is reversible. The emphasis is on the thrill of the moment, the buzz of rescuing the princess in the game. No care is given for the princess herself, for the content or for any long-term significance, because there is none. This type of activity, a
disregard for consequence, can be compared with the thrill of compulsive gambling or compulsive eating.
Greenfield also warned there was a risk of loss of empathy as children read novels less. She said she found it strange we are enthusiastically embracing the possible erosion of our identity through social networking sites, since those that use
such sites can lose a sense of where they themselves finish and the outside world begins.
The solutions, however, lay less in regulation as in education, culture and society.
The Internet may not be such a dangerous place for children after all.
A task force created by 49 state attorneys general to look into the problem of sexual solicitation of children online has concluded that there really is not a significant problem.
The findings ran counter to popular perceptions of online dangers as reinforced by depictions in the news media.
The panel, the Internet Safety Technical Task Force, was charged with examining the extent of the threats children face on social networks like MySpace and Facebook, amid widespread fears that adults were using these popular Web sites to deceive and prey
on children. But the report concluded that the problem of bullying among children, both online and offline, poses a far more serious challenge than the sexual solicitation of minors by adults.
This shows that social networks are not these horribly bad neighborhoods on the Internet, said John Cardillo, chief executive of Sentinel Tech Holding: Social networks are very much like real-world communities that are comprised mostly of good
people who are there for the right reasons.
The report was the result of a year of meetings between dozens of academics, experts in childhood safety and executives of 30 companies, including Yahoo, AOL, MySpace and Facebook.
The task force, led by the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, looked at scientific data on online sexual predators and found that children and teenagers were unlikely to be propositioned by adults online. In the cases that do
exist, the report said, teenagers are typically willing participants and are already at risk because of poor home environments, substance abuse or other problems.
Not everyone was happy with the conclusions. Richard Blumenthal, the Connecticut attorney general, who has forcefully pursued the issue and helped to create the task force, said he disagreed with the report. Blumenthal said it downplayed the predator
threat, relied on outdated research and failed to provide a specific plan for improving the safety of social networking.
Among the systems the technology board looked at included age verification technologies that try to authenticate the identities and ages of children and prevent adults from contacting them. But the board concluded that such systems do not appear to
offer substantial help in protecting minors from sexual solicitation.
One problem is that it is difficult to verify the ages and identities of children because they do not have driver’s licenses or insurance.