The Digital Age

The celebrated novelist and humorist Mark Twain recounted his experience with a medical book he chanced upon that purported to list all of the known human maladies and their symptoms. After reading the book in steadily mounting anxiety, Twain concluded he had every illness known to man except possibly housemaid's knee.

In a new book, The Cyber Effect, Mary Aiken creates a new term, cyberchondria, to describe the condition of people who go online seeking information about their real and imagined physical symptoms. They invariably encounter an endless litany of dire possibilities to obsess about. In medicine, as in most things, a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.

But that affliction in Aiken's view is the tip of a digital iceberg that is wreaking havoc throughout our society in sinister ways we are only now beginning to recognize. She warns that our real world senses do not protect us adequately in cyberspace. I have commented on this before -- that real communication requires physical contact. Words in e-mails and texts convey a false illusion of communication. If you cannot see the other person's face or decipher the nuances of verbal speech, the chances of miscommunication are greatly increased.

That means people, especially young people with limited life experience, are acutely vulnerable to predators who patrol the Internet seeking victims. They are running an endless array of cons -- pushing drugs, seeking illicit sexual liaisons, promoting unsavory lifestyles and, of course, trying to steal money.

Aiken is especially outspoken about the digital perils to young people who are even more ill-equipped to contend with it than adults are. The Internet, she says, "is clearly, unmistakably, and emphatically an adult environment. It simply wasn't designed for children. So why are they there?" She describes the exposure of children to the endless malice and distortions of the Internet as a "crime against innocence."

I share Aiken's concern about children exposed to the Internet, and would add also that adults are singularly unprepared to contend with it. We are embarked upon a great adventure into the unknown without adequate anticipation of the potential consequences. Digital technology is changing the way we learn, communicate and think, and we are only vaguely aware it is happening. In this case, our long-standing commitment to free speech is working against us. We would not dream of permitting access to schools for the purveyors of smut, but we allow them unfettered access to our children's smart phones and other on-line devices.

It is of some comfort to me to know that I am not alone in my Cassandra-like warnings about the outlaw Internet. "We cannot stand by passively and watch the cyber experiment play out," Aiken warns. "In human terms, to wait is to allow for the worst outcomes." I could not have said it better.

Lt. Gen. Clarence E. "Mac" McKnight, Jr., (USA-Ret) is the author of "From Pigeons to Tweets: A General Who Led Dramatic Change in Military Communications," published by The History Publishing Company.