BBC Radio 4: Digital Human (Series 6:2014: Episode 1: Risk) #DigiHuman


Episode 1 Description

Our brains are still running security software designed to protect us against lions, tigers and bears and we haven’t run an update for about 200,000 years. Aleks Krotoski explores how well it works when faced with the risks of the digital world.

According David Ropeik author and risk communication expert at Harvard University the modern technological world presents our risk perception abilities with much more complex and abstract problems than it was ever designed to cope with. For him we feel risk rather calculate it so whether its cyber-terrorism or climate change if the risk doesn’t immediately push our risk buttons we simply don’t know how to react with the risk of getting risk wrong.

And no-where can the risks seem more abstract than in the digital world. Aleks explores how we respond to the dangers that lurk there through a range of stories. We spend time being driven round the Channel island of Jersey in the company of Toni an 18 year old who gives lifts to people she’s only ever met through Facebook, we’ll hear how a professional online poker player uses the minimal information she can glean about other players to know when to bet big and Aleks will also discover how even a walk in the park can put our technology and the private information we keep there in jeopardy.

My Notes:

  • Crossing the road, or downloading a file? What is riskier?
  • We’re still in prehistoric ‘thinking mode’ in relation to risk, running the same ‘programme’ for every risk. How do we update for modern risks?
  • Our brain is a survival machine, whose job is to get safely to bed at night, not particularly to win Nobel Peace Prizes.
  • Hearing about ‘Jersey Lifts’ – posting ‘to the wide world’, but uses brain thinking we have used for years, including young people’s (closed) connection networks (and also the geographical nature of the island, and the importance of ‘trust’ as a risk-perception factor.
  • To measure – we trust someone in common, otherwise we trust on what they say/we have seen them do, based on ‘social capital’.
  • Taking a calculated risk, are the odds in favour or not? Risk = the chance/probability that something ‘bad’ could happen (numbers).
  • It’s not really about numbers at all.. it’s more subjective than that.
  • If we believe the popular press, the ‘spectre’ is not hovering around in the physical shadows now, it’s behind the screen. Anything that affects kids attracts a lot of attention – so risks online get played up (instinctive, excessive, emotional fear) way beyond that.
  • Sonya Livingstone – the internet is not something that ‘does things’ to your children irrespective of who they are. Not using the internet is something like not crossing the road because child might get run over (it happens but it’s incredibly useful). Do we need education or regulation?
  • Why do we think human beings are corrupt? Why is that amplified online? Online we’re having to work it out, and as the spaces changed, we’re having to adjust.
  • Not taking a risk, but taking a gamble? Online gambling – lose all those ‘tells’ that happen offline, trying to work the psychology of interaction/symbolism/previous play.
  • Jersey Lifts – are part of a real-life network with authenticated users.
  • What are the new risks or conceptually different? We need a slower, more intellectual, more abstract response to risk? If a risk “doesn’t happen to me” – it’s less threatening.
  • OCD/CFSyndrome – sees many risks online, so wipes hard-drive 3 x week – those risks are there – but not to the extent seen.
  • We know our privacy is being overlooked, but by whom, and what are the potential results? Drone (nearby) can see into a number of people’s accounts – the risks are to our data, rather than to our physical being (as Jersey Lifts does). – being used for interrogation.
  • If there’s no emotional attachment to the risk, we tend to ignore them. .. do we make risk-perception gaps different (e.g. after 9/11, more died on the roads than in planes).
  • How do we manage risk (rather than whether to engage with it or not)? Sonya Livingstone – if we become too risk averse – lose chance to meet those who share their interests, or to become resilient online. Over the last 100 years we’ve been building regulations, etc. in the outside spaces – but we’ve not been doing that online.
  • Build risk-management policies that build in emotional behaviours.
  • Jersey Lifts – not just random collection – does check out “unknowns” before offering/accepting a lift. Sonya – each child 2-300 friends, and each of those has many more connections = is that risk too high?

Worth seeing – – for some practical advice on children online, as endorsed by Professor Sonya Livingstone.


Dan Gardner: Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear (2008)

risk_thumbDan Gardner, a journalist, thinks that

We are the healthiest, wealthiest, and longest-lived people in history. And we are increasingly afraid. This is one of the great paradoxes of our time.

Identifying 9/11 as an example, he identifies how the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers sent people scurrying for their cars, rather than the planes – causing an extra 1600 people to die on the roads.. but in accidents that were un-mediaworthy. An extract from the book related to parenting in a digital age –  what do you think? Do you agree?

Then there are the kids. There was a time when children were expected to take some knocks and chances. It was part of growing up. But no more. At schools, doors are barred and guarded against maniacs with guns, while children are taught from their first day in the classroom that every stranger is a threat. In playgrounds, climbing equipment is removed and unsupervised games of tag are forbidden lest someone sprain an ankle of bloody a nose. At home, children are forbidden from playing alone outdoors, as all generations did before, because their parents are convinced that every bush hides a pervert – and no mere statistics will convince them otherwise. Childhood is starting to resemble a prison sentence, with children spending almost every moment behind locked doors and alarms, their every movement scheduled, supervised and control. Are they are least safer as a result. Probably not. Obesity, diabetes, and the other health problems caused in part by too much time sitting inside are a lot more dangerous than the spectres haunting parental imaginations. (p13-14)

This is not a risk that comes for free, as we buy into ‘solutions’ for those problems – and it’s particularly in the interest of those selling the ‘solutions’ to keep those fears at the forefront of our minds… though also in many cases simply understanding the risk will enable us to deal with it.

He goes on to discuss the number “50,000 pedophiles” that frequently re-appears, without any source ever being identified – a suspiciously rounded number that is frequently quoted, and changes our practices based upon our perceptions.

Imagine that you are selling software that monitors computer usage. Your main market is employers trying to stop employees from surfing the internet on company time. But then you hear a news story about pedophiles luring kids into chat rooms and you see that this scares the hell out of parents. So you do a quick Google search and you find the biggest, scariest statistic you can find – 50,000 pedophiles on the internet at any given moment – and you put it in your marketing. Naturally, you don’t question the accuracy of the number. That’s not your business. You’re selling software. (p54)

He talks about the ‘Anchoring Rule’, the ‘Rule of Typical Things’ and ‘The Example Rule’ – and how the media uses these in particular to heighten our fears of particular risks.