Technological change: The net effect

by Mark Broatch / 12 April, 2013
What is the internet doing to us? Not as much as we fear, social psychologist Aleks Krotoski tells Mark Broatch.
Aleks Krotoski/Photo Kevin Meredith

Serendipity. Those pleasant surprises that show up when you’re not quite looking. You’re mooching in a bookshop and spot a history of food spices you didn’t realise you desperately wanted. Or you’re stuck next to someone annoying at a dinner party and suddenly decide you want to spend the rest of your life with them.

In life, moments of true serendipity are rare but always memorable. So the word, which came into English via a tangled etymological trail, has been gratefully borrowed wholesale into a range of languages. In science, serendipity has led to penicillin, Vaseline, Velcro, Post-it notes.

But serendipitous moments are less common on the internet. Amazon tries to recreate them with its Customers Who Bought … also bought this, Google has its I’m Feeling Lucky option, and music- and video-streaming sites recommend other artists based on keywords, feedback and the behaviour of millions of headphoned music enthusiasts.

But to approximate that delight of blind luck, software is always furiously working in the background, effectively trying to predict your likes from previous likes and leaving out what it considers irrelevant. True serendipity demands more than brute randomness; it requires a glancing collision of elements such as open-mindedness, pleasingly vague connections and unconscious intention.

Dr. Aleks Krotoski, a US-raised writer, broadcaster and academic, says real serendipity in online searches or online dating, for instance, requires an aspect of “wrongness”. “I’d be fascinated if, when you hit on Google I’m Feeling Lucky, instead of delivering exactly the results that the machine thinks you want, it delivers things that are kind of wrong, and you as a human being would go, actually, that’s taken me off in a completely different direction.” Sometimes you want exact searches, she says, but sometimes you want stuff that’s a little bit different from what you are looking for.”

She likens it to the dérive, or structured wandering, of French theorist Guy Debord. “The dérive, the wander, is a wonderful thing, and in order to dérive and wander through the web, you’re getting all kinds of interesting information. But it’s information that’s curated … in many ways what I’m seeing is it’s actually reducing the wandering, or rather, as we used to say in the computer game industry, it’s wandering on rails.”


Krotoski, who covers the online world for the likes of the Guardian, says dating sites, for example, take a seriously reductionist approach. “It’s all ticking boxes and algorithms you don’t know anything about. You go, ‘That’s amazing, person x is just like me, exactly what I’m looking for.’'

Dating sites are always advertising matchmaking successes and marriages, she says. “The interesting thing about that is all the people that it sloughs off. It wouldn’t necessarily connect you with someone that you would get on with, because it would say that this thing that might not necessarily be an issue in the long term is an issue now when you are looking for person x.

“Therefore we’re going to take that ‘cereal box’ away – we’re not going to deliver it to your door. We’re going to deliver all these other ‘cereal boxes’ that are exactly what it is that you want. As opposed to here’s something that maybe you kind of might want – give it a go.”

And what applies to “the love market” also applies to search. Google is increasingly tailoring results to the country, city, even the person.

Sure, digital companies will one day replicate serendipity, or a facsimile of it, says Krotoski, who is coming to Auckland in May for the Writers and Readers Festival to talk about what the internet is doing to us, but before then, we must figure out what we want from the internet and when we need to push back on the technology.


So, what is the internet doing to us? Mostly, she argues strongly to the Listener and in her forthcoming book, Untangling the Web, the answer is: very little.


“The technology is a McGuffin; it’s the place where people can dump their fears about the social change that’s happening anyway. The technology is simply a reflection of who we are at the start of the 21st century.”

For any problems you may have, including concerns we might be becoming less informed or even more stupid, don’t blame the internet but society, she says. “Our notions of community, of friendship, of sex, of trust, of right and wrong in terms of politics, of how we interact with one another vis-à-vis hate and all of these other manifestations are reflected in the technology.

“And rather than having a discussion around those elements of change that are naturally happening because of the whole gamut of how we’re interacting, whether it’s via mass media or via the internet, we’re pointing the finger at a technology and saying it is doing something to us. The technology doesn’t do anything to us; it allows us, neutrally, to do to ourselves and others what we would do – even if it is unpleasant behaviour.”

The revolution, she says, is not because of the virtual environment. “The revolution is because we are ready and the technological tools are there in order to help facilitate that evolution into whatever it is that we become post-web, once it becomes an invisible technology.”

What about the internet’s breakneck speed of communication? The telegraph sped up communication, then the telephone sped it up further. We became less socially isolated long ago thanks to trains and cars and planes. The internet has changed aspects of our lives: business, crime, the consumption of culture and journalism, and local legal frameworks from copyright to defamation to censorship. But the real revolution outside dating, Krotoski says, lies in identity.

It’s primarily because of that online archive, she says. Teenagers have always experimented with ideas of who they were and how they wanted to be perceived.

“Before the web, you were able to try on and take off those things, and if something didn’t work, you could leave it behind and hope that people forgot. Even if you lived in a small community and you did something really bad, you could forget or it would be forgotten. Or people would say, ‘You know what, that was part of growing up.’ Now, if you do something wrong, or even if you do something right, your identity is in aspic.”

One potential side effect is cyber-bullying, since teenagers’ identities are so closely aligned with their online presence, and Justice Minister Judith Collins has introduced tough new proposals to combat it in this country.

“[Identity] has nothing really to do with privacy but more with being able to reinvent yourself, to preserve that anonymity, which is increasingly going away because of megaliths of the web, that are seeking to create single identities that they can then sell to the highest bidder for marketing or advertising or data. We need to come up with our boundaries for them where we say, ‘Stop, okay, we’re interested in changing.’”

There is no doubt the internet has enormous upsides, she says. Compare the printing press, which democratised access. “It meant that no longer was information to be distributed only by the state or only by the church.” That changed the regulation and flow of information. Then the telegraph arrived. “A lot of the things that we ascribe to the web age, like romance, or community, or secret codes, all of those interesting communication nuances, were actually observed during the telegraph time as well, because it was such a fast technology.” The internet allowed everyone a printing press in their own home, and cheap storage allowed the creation of archives of all this information. Also, the internet allowed it to be linked together – by anyone.

The downside, of course, is the same: everyone has a printing press at home, everyone can link, everyone can archive. Because everyone has a voice, everyone’s misguided notions and conspiracies get an airing.

“But that’s always been the case. That’s why scientific rigour is really important in the 21st century. Because you want to be critical of the stuff you look at online: where did it come from, when was it published, who wrote it.”

She says we need to ask: who is Google, and how does it have all this information about us? And how is it mediating between what I want to find and what I am delivered by this technology? “Or do I want Facebook Inc – and I use all of these technologies – to be telling me how to do relationships online? It has to be public and open – because of the ideologies of the people who built them.

Google founders Larry Page (R) and Sergey Brin (L). Photo/Michael Nagle/Getty Images.

“As people become more and more au fait with how to use the mechanics of the technology, they’re going to start thinking, ‘Hold on a second, this isn’t just a default truth machine.’ People treat Google like an oracle – it’s not an oracle, it’s an artefact that’s created by certain people at a certain time with certain material and certain knowledge at their fingertips.”

The question brings up that ever-present philosophical conundrum, she says: what is truth? A lot of the things we have held to be self-evident – “notions of who has the right to do what, and what is or is not true, are always, and have always been, a social construction”.

The online world has meant the revelation of talented unknowns – brilliant bloggers, leaders on Twitter (@aleksk has 22,000 followers) but change is always coming. “How long will they be around for? It depends on whether they can maximise their identity, as it were, their publicness in other media, for them to survive after Twitter goes the way of the dodo.”

Yes, the internet means we can communicate with anyone, says Krotoski. But we aren’t necessarily communicating with anyone.

“Rather than benefiting from the potential access to everyone, we are using our natural desires to home in on people who are like us, whom we want to talk to.” It becomes about community, about common interests.

“We’re seeing people coagulate, coalesce around not only a single search engine or a single bookshop or marketplace or social network; we’re actually seeing people coalesce around nationalities, around ideologies, often even local customs.”

Krotoski makes an active effort to step away from the internet. “A friend of mine and I are working quite hard because we’re living here in LA, we’re trying to take control of email and say, ‘I will respond to you at 4pm Pacific time. Don’t worry, you will get a response, but it may not be immediately.’

“I have taken Twitter holidays. It’s one of those push-backs that we as a society need to recognise – in the same way as identity and search. These are the boundaries where we need to say, ‘Hold on, we’re in charge of the machines.’”

Aleks Krotoski appears at Auckland Writers & Readers Festival in several sessions. Untangling the Web: What the Internet Is Doing To You (Guardian Books) is out in e-book and paperback later this year.


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