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Confronting the Scope and Complexity of the Cybersphere: A Transdisciplinary View

By: , Posted on: April 19, 2019

Book cover Social Ecology in the Digital AgeIn 1969 scientists at the US Department of Defense’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) successfully sent and received electronic data between two computers, one located at UCLA and the other at Stanford Research Institute in Palo Alto.  Later that year, two additional computers at the University of Utah and UC Santa Barbara joined the DARPA network.   From its humble beginnings in the Sixties, the Internet soon mushroomed into a global “network of computer networks”.  Mobile communication technologies followed with the first commercially available handheld cell phones introduced in 1983.  By early 2019, there were more than 4.5 billion Internet users and 5 billion mobile phone users worldwide [1].

Today’s cybersphere is vast in scope and complexity, encompassing numerous digital information and communication technologies (ICTs) such as computing hardware and software, and the Ethernet and WiFi communication infrastructures that run the Internet and World Wide Web.  Mobile devices that send and receive email, voicemail, text messages, video, and graphical data are also part of the cybersphere, as are the web browsers, search engines, social media, and cell phone “apps” people use to access commercial, recreational (e.g., online gaming, cinema), educational, news, health support, and other “virtual communities”. The cybersphere further includes the app-driven sharing economy, the Internet of Things (in which billions of devices with sensors and IP addresses stream data to each other continuously), GPS navigation, autonomous vehicles and weapons systems, augmented and virtual reality (AR, VR), robotic manufacturing and health care devices, 3-D printing, “smart city” infrastructures, blockchain, cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, the Deep Web (not accessible through standard search engines), and the Dark Net, or digital underworld.  These technologies all require rapid transmission and processing of digital data and they now permeate every facet of people’s interactions with their natural, built, and sociocultural surroundings.  Connections between the cybersphere and these other environmental domains are described in my recent book Social Ecology in the Digital Age [2] and sketched in Figure 1.

Figure 1.  Interconnections between the natural, built, sociocultural,                                                             and cyber dimensions of human environments

The proliferation of cyber technologies since the 1970s has made it difficult to gain a comprehensive view of their scope and impacts on behavior, health, and sustainability.  Researchers in particular fields address topics most closely related to their own disciplines. For instance, computer scientists focus predominantly on the structure and reliability of hardware and software systems; psychologists measure the impacts of digital multi-tasking and information overload on individuals’ cognition, behavior, and well-being; sociologists probe the influence of social media on political polarization and rates of cybercrime; neuroscientists track brain functioning relative to individuals’ immersion in digital communications; and sustainability scientists study the impacts of cyber technologies on electricity consumption, carbon emissions, and climate change.

These different lines of research have deepened our understanding of specific cyber technologies, yet it’s also important to move beyond discipline-based studies toward a more holistic, transdisciplinary view of the cybersphere writ large – the rapidly expanding portion of human environments comprised of multiple interrelated technologies.  We need new concepts and metrics to describe our virtual surroundings.  Viewing the cybersphere as a broad domain of environmental influence suggests several new research questions.  For instance, what are the cumulative impacts of chronic exposure to cyber technologies on psychological and physical well-being over a specified period?  The evidence from behavioral and cognitive research is mixed, suggesting that a person’s exposure to particular technologies (like social media, wearable fitness devices, virtual reality simulations) is linked to both positive and negative outcomes—for instance, using e-Health apps to achieve healthier lifestyles, or suffering identity theft on social media).  How might we assess these varied outcomes of virtual life in relation to people’s encounters with diverse digital technologies over a given period?   To address that question, we need to account for people’s exposure to multiple facets of the cybersphere such as the number and frequency of their digital communications (e.g., via email, text messaging, and participation in virtual communities such as World of Warcraft and Second Life; and the kinds of social media they engage with on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis [3].

New concepts and metrics for assessing individuals’ cumulative exposure to their virtual surroundings are shown in Figure 2.  The near-cybersphere (situated in the inner circle of the diagram) consists of all the connections between a physical place (e.g., a bedroom, classroom, or office) and the various digital transactions that occur there.  The links between physical places, on the one hand, and a person’s digital spaces, on the other, are referred to as real-virtual (R-V) environmental units.  Connections between between real and virtual environments may be mutually complementary, neutral, or conflicted as depicted by the virtual settings in Figure 2 (V1, V2, and V3) that are linked to a real place-based environment (R1).  Complementary R-V units exist when one’s place-based and virtual activities are well-aligned and mutually supportive (e.g., using online resources in a classroom setting to illustrate key points covered in lecture).  In contrast, conflicted R-V units are where the activities in the real and virtual settings interfere with each other (e.g., checking social media or texting while driving a vehicle).  In neutral R-V units, the place-based and virtual activities neither support nor contradict each other.

Figure 2.  Near and distant regions of the cybersphere.

The R-V units shown in Figure 2 are attached to a single place, yet individuals participate in many different environments on a daily or weekly basis.  To arrive at an overall assessment of people’s routine exposures to multiple R-V settings, the frequency and variety of their digital experiences across residential, work, neighborhood and other environments must be considered.  It’s also important to weigh potential impacts of the distant cybersphere on personal or societal well-being. Although people are aware of the R-V cyberspaces they encounter in their daily lives (e.g., Facebook, Instagram, Uber), they are usually not cognizant of the myriad digital transactions that occur in the distant cybersphere.  Examples of remote cyber events are the navigation signals invisibly sent by orbital satellites to GPS-equipped vehicles, or the nefarious acts of cybercriminals in faraway places who commit identity fraud or disrupt local power grids and water distribution systems.  Even though people are oblivious to these hidden cyber events, they can take a profound toll on personal and collective well-being.

A transdisciplinary conception of the cybersphere also is needed to estimate the cumulative impacts of digital technologies on energy consumption, greenhouse gasses, and societal sustainability.  In the late 20th Century, some information scientists insisted that cyber communications were non-material or “weightless” flows of digital data [4, 5].  Today, however, we know that these invisible flows of data have a substantial physical footprint on the ground, as they rely heavily on a vast array of interlinked computers, “cloud” servers, WiFi equipment, smart phones and other devices to create, share, and store digital information [6-8].  These material features of our virtual world consume massive amounts of electrical energy and generate substantial greenhouse gases.  Recent research suggests that the digital currency Bitcoin, alone, now consumes more than one-half percent of the earth’s energy budget and by 2030 digital communications technologies will consume nearly 50% of the world’s power supply [9, 10].  Whereas cyber technologies such as smart city infrastructures help to reduce waste and conserve natural resources, their burgeoning power requirements diminish some of their benefits.  It’s estimated that the Internet of Things will subsume 31 billion interconnected cyber devices by 2020 [1].  Yet, we still lack reliable measures of their future energy demands and the power requirements of many other technologies like autonomous vehicles, 3-D printing, and robotic manufacturing; nor do we have accurate estimates of their potential socioeconomic costs such as growing unemployment caused by workplace automation. A transdisciplinary, holistic view of the cybersphere is crucial for confronting these complex challenges in the coming years.

The book is now available on ScienceDirect. Want your own print copy? Order via the Elsevier store and enter code STC319 at the checkout to save up to 30%.

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