“You can’t understand social ecology and environmental sustainability without taking into account how people relate to the cybersphere. These connections are pervasive, though many of them are invisible,” says Chancellor’s Professor Emeritus Daniel Stokols, founding dean of UCI’s School of Social Ecology. Patricia DeVoe / UCI

Cybersphere of influence

Social ecologists probe positive, negative effects of digital technology

By 2030, the cybersphere could account for half of the world’s total energy usage and 23 percent of emitted greenhouse gases, according to some estimates. The cybersphere encompasses not just the endless flow of digital information across the internet, but also the hardware that transmits, receives and interacts with that information.

Since the 1980s, the cybersphere has expanded rapidly as digital technology has become an increasingly integral part of daily life. The energy and attention demands of the billions of cellphones, computers, cloud servers, routers and other devices used continuously around the globe are making a tangible impact on the physical world and on human society, from raising the temperature of the planet to affecting how people’s minds function.

Studying those impacts and correlations will be crucial in the coming decades, predicts Daniel Stokols, founding dean of the University of California, Irvine’s School of Social Ecology and author of Social Ecology in the Digital Age, published in October.

“You can’t understand social ecology and environmental sustainability without taking into account how people relate to the cybersphere. These connections are pervasive, though many of them are invisible,” says Stokols, Chancellor’s Professor Emeritus of psychology & social behavior and urban planning & public policy.

Ecological science first emerged in the field of biology about a century and a half ago with Charles Darwin’s observations of plant and animal species’ adaptations to their environments. During the early 20th century, ecologists began to focus more broadly on human communities and people’s adaptations to their surroundings. Until now, the cybersphere has largely been omitted as an environmental domain, but charting the relationships between it and the natural, built and sociocultural dimensions of the ecosystem is the next frontier of ecological science.

“Social ecology is an evolving field because our surroundings are ever-changing. The internet has accelerated globalization and forged stronger links between different regions of the world. It’s important to study the cybersphere as a major influencer of biological and human systems,” Stokols says.

Digital technologies hold enormous promise. Devices connected to each other over the internet can operate with greater efficiency. Smart urban water and energy networks with built-in sensors can reduce waste. Autonomous cars linked by the internet to each other and to “smart highways” may reduce traffic congestion and increase road safety, though there are many technical and ethical issues that must be resolved before these new technologies are adopted widely.

Information workers are a major part of the economy, and scientific collaboration is now accomplished largely over the web by teams whose members are based in different countries, cultures and time zones. Stock trading has become increasingly computerized, with transactions carried out autonomously according to predetermined algorithms.

People can now instantaneously access health information on the web with the touch of a button. Soon they’ll be able to self-diagnose with greater accuracy as at-home digital health kits proliferate. They can find mental and physical health support groups online and access various therapies.

But digital technologies are also causing strain in human interactions, with little-understood effects on human psychology, social behavior and health. Today, “friendships” no longer signify close, lifelong confidantes; people can have hundreds or even thousands of “friends” they’ve “met” only through Facebook. Teens often compare their lifestyles to those idealized on social media, raising anxiety levels.

Young people who multitask and engage in fewer face-to-face interactions are less able to read facial expressions, studies have shown. Indeed, the mere visible presence of a cellphone during a face-to-face conversation decreases feelings of intimacy and satisfaction, according to a study conducted by social ecology Ph.D. alumna Shalini Misra.

“We might be losing our capacity for wisdom because attention is now so fragmented,” Stokols says. “We’re under so much information overload that we don’t even realize it. Our capacity for deep thinking, reflection and solitude is dwindling in the face of continual cyber interruptions and distractions. People often don’t recognize the effects of cyber technologies on kids, but focused studies are helping to unveil these impacts.”

This transformed and fast-changing world requires rigorous scholarship. And social ecologists are uniquely positioned to tease out the connections among digital and physical spaces, internet interactions and individual minds – and help us understand the influence of the cybersphere on society.