Over the last week I read a couple of very interesting books. One was Dr Julia Shaw’s The Memory Illusion. Dr. Shaw describes herself as a “memory hacker” and has a You Tube presence where she explains a number of the issues that arise in her book.
The other book was The Cyber Effect by Dr Mary Aiken who reminds us on a number of occasions in every chapter that she is a trained cyberpsychologist and cyberbehavioural specialist and who was a consultant for CSI-Cyber which, having watched a few episodes, I abandoned. Regrettably I don’t see that qualification as a recommendation, but that is a subjective view and I put it to one side.
Both books were fascinating. Julia Shaw’s book in my view should be required reading for lawyers and judges. We place a considerable amount of emphasis upon memory assisted by the way in which a witness presents him or herself -what we call demeanour. Demeanour has been well and truly discredited by Robert Fisher QC in an article entitled “The Demeanour Fallacy”  NZ Law Review 575. The issue has also been covered by Chris Gallavin in a piece entitled “Demeanour Evidence as the backbone of the adversarial process” Lawtalk Issue 834 14 March 2014 http://www.lawsociety.org.nz/lawtalk/issue-837/demeanour-evidence-as-the-backbone-of-the-adversarial-process
A careful reading of The Memory Illusion is rewarding although worrisome. The chapter on false memories, evidence and the way in which investigators may conclude that “where there is smoke there is fire” along with suggestive interviewing techniques is quite disturbing and horrifying at times.
But the book is more than that, although the chapter on false memories, particularly the discussions about memory retrieval techniques, was very interesting. The book examines the nature of memory and how memories develop and shift over time, often in a deceptive way. The book also emphasises how the power of suggestion can influence memory. What does this mean – that everyone is a liar to some degree? Of course not. A liar is a person who tells a falsehood knowing it to be false. Slippery memory, as Sir Edward Coke described it, means that what we are saying we believe to be true even although, objectively, it is not.
A skilful cross-examiner knows how to work on memory and highlight its fallibility. If the lawyer can get the witness in a criminal trial to acknowledge that he or she cannot be sure, the battle is pretty well won. But even the most skilful cross-examiner will benefit from a reading of The Memory Illusion. It will add a number of additional arrows to the forensic armoury. For me the book emphasises the risks of determining criminal liability on memory or recalled facts alone. A healthy amount of scepticism and a reluctance to take an account simply and uncritically at face value is a lesson I draw from the book.
The Cyber Effect is about how technology is changing human behaviour. Although Dr Aiken starts out by stating the advantages of the Internet and new communications technologies, I fear that within a few pages the problems start with the suggestion that cyberspace is an actual place. Although Dr Aiken answers unequivocally in the affirmative it clearly is not. I am not sure that it would be helpful to try and define cyberspace – it is many things to many people. The term was coined by William Gibson in his astonishingly insightful Neuromancer and in subsequent books Gibson imagines the network (I use the term generically) as a place. But it isn’t. The Internet is no more and no less than a transport system to which a number of platforms and applications have been bolted. Its purpose – Communication. But it is communication plus interactivity and it is that upon which Aiken relies to support her argument. If that gives rise to a “place” then may I congratulate her imagination. The printing press – a form of mechanised writing that revolutionised intellectual activity in Early-modern Europe – didn’t create a new “place”. It enabled alternative means of communication. The Printing Press was the first Information Technology. And it was roundly criticised as well.
Although the book purports to explain how new technologies influence human behaviour it doesn’t really offer a convincing argument. I have often quoted the phrase attributed to McLuhan – we shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us – and I was hoping for a rational expansion of that theory. It was not to be. Instead it was a collection of horror stories about how people and technology have had problems. And so we get stories of kids with technology, the problems of cyberbullying, the issues of on-line relationships, the misnamed Deep Web when she really means the Dark Web – all the familiar tales attributing all sorts of bizarre behaviours to technology – which is correct – and suggesting that this could become the norm.
What Dr Aiken fails to see is that by the time we recognise the problems with the technology it is too late. I assume that Dr Aiken is a Digital Immigrant, and she certainly espouses the cause that our established values are slipping away in the face of an unrelenting onslaught of cyber-bad stuff. But as I say, the changes have already taken place. By the end of the book she makes her position clear (although she misquotes the comments Robert Bolt attributed to Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons which the historical More would never have said). She is pro-social order in cyberspace, even if that means governance or regulation and she makes no apology for that.
Dr Aiken is free to hold her position and to advocate it and she argues her case well in her book. But it is all a bit unrelenting, all a bit tiresome these tales of Internet woe. It is clear that if Dr Aiken had her way the very qualities that distinguish the Digital Paradigm from what has gone before, including continuous disruptive and transformative change and permissionless innovation, will be hobbled and restricted in a Nanny Net.