Aleks Krotoski: What the Internet is Doing to You

by Guy Somerset / 20 May, 2013
'Kids know online creepiness when they see it.'
Aleks Krotoski
Aleks Krotoski


Aleks Krotoski admits the subtitle of her new book, What the Internet is Doing to You, is a reductive way of looking at the subject and that her answer is: not very much.

Nevertheless, she boxed on with the highlights of her research, despite being shellacked by jet lag, with deft steerage from Toby Manhire at the Aotea Centre on Sunday afternoon.

She expanded on her chat with the Listener, talking about technological fundamentalism – having too much faith in the machine – and the Google effect – looking for technology to solve our social problems.

Krotoski, who began life as a net utopian but is now further down the continuum towards cyberrealist, says we mostly behave online as we do offline, although the internet does let social psychologists like her observe behaviour in ways impossible before.

Online is mostly a “lean” medium, she says, in that it strips away “sights and sounds and smells”, but we adapt to that leanness. Despite that, some things are perceptible – we trust people more, for example, if people type quickly and spell correctly. Stalkers, take note. But she is optimistic, saying kids know online creepiness when they see it – there are “certain little tells”. And when they do, they tell their friends and parents, she reckons.

The idea that the internet is rewiring our brain after only 20 years is hubris, she says: there is no evidence for it. None. We do need to renegotiate our relationship with it, though, just like we did with the telephone and telegraph. We should question those who curate our information, such as Google and Facebook, and cultivate what some call “digital stillness”, such as changing the brightness of our screen at night and setting usage limits. Krotoski downloaded the Self Control application to curb her own compulsion.

Manhire moved her on to serendipity, which the internet is limiting, she says, because of computer algorithms that predict our shallowest desires. Despite Google's “creepy” attempt to predict our questions before we had even thought of them, computers can't do the “messy” bits – although they see confluences far better than our “puny” brains. Serendipity requires 1) an encounter, 2) insight that there is an interesting connection, and 3) an attributed value – so again the notion of fortune, and something computers are less good at.

So search has changed and dating has changed. It's changed what we will put up with, she says. Most people will do a search for people they are interested in. “You lose an element of the reveal.” She doesn't look her friends up online. Has our idea of privacy changed, asked Manhire. She slips past the question, saying privacy is taking information from one context to another so it's not where it's expected to be.

Krotoski has been testing Google Now, its attempt at a serendipity engine, in Auckland. It told her to go to The Depot restaurant, where she met a couple who saw that she had been reading a travel book about Florence. They got married there, they said. They asked if she knew another technology writer, who turned out to be her really good friend. Fine, but do we not want to ask people for recommendations, she asks. (For the record, the Listener advised her before her visit to go to the restaurant, making us at least as good as Google.)

If people don't know, of course, they will tell you they don't know, Manhire said. Google will never tell you that.

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