social isolation

New discovery: actually Internet CURES cancer!!!

By Antonio A. Casilli (Centre Edgar-Morin, EHESS, Paris)

After putting online a post that satirized an article claiming that electronic media give cancer recently published by Aric Sigman in The Biologist (2009), I’ve undergone a phase of serious self-criticism. Sure, I was in fierce disagreement with the author. But the general tone of my post was un-academic and rude. Ad hominem attacks really don’t belong in science. Turns out I am a dismissive prick. What do you know? ūüėÄ

So I decided to make it right by you folks, and to hone my argument by providing evidence – hard fact-based scientific evidence. I did it like any other scientist would, by collecting a bunch of data, tinkering with them a little, cherry-picking something, hiding something else, and wrapping everything up in fancy graphics! What did I get at the end of the day? A revolutionary discovery: not only Internet does not give cancer, it actually cures it!

How did I come up with such a sensational breakthrough? First, I took a random data set from the United Nations Statistics Division. Then I arbitrarily decided that Internet access would be an accurate proxy for actual Internet use. So I asked myself the following question: do countries that are more connected (in terms of percentage of people having Internet access) have a higher number of deaths for two common types of cancer – breast for the ladies, prostate for the gents? For the sake of completeness, I focused on 2002 (because data were not available for several countries before that year). I put everything in my statistical blender, and this is what I obtained:

Correlation Internet access and prostate cancer deaths - via Gapminder.org

Correlation bw Internet access and prostate cancer mortality - via Gapminder.org

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Canadian sociologist Barry Wellman's lecture on Networked Individualism

The director of NetLab at the University of Toronto, Barry Wellman has a reputation for being a pragmatic, rigurous, and coherent researcher having studied extensively networked communication and having helped internet research¬†overcome its¬†early-days “Real Life vs. Virtual Reality” divide. Wellman’s intellectual approach is social network analysis and his main contribution boils down to showing that computer networks are actually social networks. He was saying that as early as 2001, several years before Facebook made it obvious. Wellman heralded the idea the online communications are immanent to our lives – i.e. that they are¬† not located¬†on some transcendent¬†digital Great Beyond. According to his results,¬†we tend to reproduce online the same social networks that we have in our family and work life.

In this lecture delivered at the Clinton School of Public Service (University of Arkansas) he explores the dimensions of networked individualism and buries the cyber-pessimist argument linking Internet to social isolation (as discussed also in this post).

wellman

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Use social networking services, get free cancer

By Antonio A. Casilli (Centre Edgar-Morin, EHESS, Paris)

In a recent lecture at the University Paris Descartes I had mentioned an article published in The Biologist by Aric Sigman, Fellow of the English Royal Society for Medicine, claiming that intensive use of social networking is linked to biological changes in humans: genetic alterations, increased morbidity/mortality for cardiovascular disease, and decreasing survival time for cancer patients. It’s the infamous “Facebook gives cancer” argument, that has caused quite a stir in the UK. The article, that you have here in pdf version, provides a clear illustration of what I described elsewhere as “the dialectic between the stethoscope and the mouse” – i.e. the ambivalent relationship between contemporary biomedicine and digital culture (Casilli, 2009).

In his always amazing Bad Science blog, Ben Goldacre has already bashed the article to a pulp from a medical standpoint, showing that the underlying research is far from being scientifially robust – a medical euphemism mainly used to dismiss despicable bullshit.

From the sociological point of view, I am pretty astonished to discover that all of Sigman’s argument is based on one assumption: that the increase in social networking website usage automatically results into a decline of face-to-face contact which in turn equates to social withdrawal – which causes cancer. This graph, featured in the article, pretty much sums it up:

facebookcancer

Source: Aric Sigman 2009

For the non-initiated, that basically reads: “The more you surf on the Web, the more you grow lonely and your friends and family turn their backs on you and in the end you DIE ALONE like a dog”.

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Internet addiction: an unconvincing notion

“I thought I was addicted to Internet chatting. Turns out I was addicted to the person I was chatting with” (I.K., 27, female, loc. unknown)

Internet addiction is a hot topic in the scientific community (if you want evidence, here‘s a database containing a huge amount of articles published on it, between 1996 and 2006).

Internet addiction is a slippery topic, too. Definitions are vague, diagnostic tools are not standardised, negative consequences are questionable – can I really talk about social withdrawal if I spend 18 hours a day exchanging emails and IMing with my friends online? Most of all, Internet addiction has become kind of an unconvincing notion since ubiquitous computing has rendered the Internet just about as pervasive as – say – running water. Of course, my quality of life would decrease dramatically if I had to live without taking showers or washing my dishes. But can I say I am addicted to running water?

An effective way of curing Shower Addiction

An effective way of curing Shower Addiction

The same goes with the Internet. If I, for one, had to give up Google and word-processing, I would give up writing altogether. And that would be a major catastrophe. Can I say, in all sincerity, that I am addicted to Google? Or that I am, more likely, addicted to writing?

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