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Aleks Krotoski: “The post-modern ideas of identity and community have a home now”

Aleks Krotoski is a social psychologist and a science journalist. For many years, she has been studying and communicating how the web is changing us and our society. She publishes knowledge from the scientific ivory tower in understandable layman’s terms. Sie presented the BBC 2 TV series The Virtual Revolution, the BBC radio series Digital Human, und she hosts the Guardian podcast Untangling the Web. In Juli 2013, she published her book, based on this series. In this interview Aleks Krotoski explains how the internet is changing communication, publishing und storytelling.

 What do you see as the greatest transformative influences of the web in general? 

I could talk here about revolutions, democratisation of information access and production or flattened hierarchies, but instead I’m going to say that the web’s greatest transformative influence is that it allows us to see ourselves writ large. Not only does it present a mirror to us individually – in how it allows extraordinary self-expression and identity development – but it also shows us the previously unspoken social processes that we operate within – our communities, our social identities, the ways we respond to one another. It’s a no-holds-barred, unedited representation of ourselves, and that can create discomfort if it exposes things we’re not happy to see.

How has it changed communication and how will it continue to do so?

Like the printing press before it, the web has placed the interpretation of knowledge in the hands of the many: anyone can create websites, status updates, blogposts, videos, photographs, essays. Anyone can tell stories through information that’s already there. And with more information comes more interpretation. We must take care to be critical about the content online – and the systems that are used to produce it – in order to retain control over our personal, political and social agency.

In your “Untangling the Web” column and book and in your BBC 4 series talk about the effects of digitalisation on how we receive, store, evaluate and pass on information. How  did the show and your publications evolve out of what you studied?  

I’ve always walked a fine line between journalist and researcher – and the language I use in each context has occasionally come into conflict! But I have always been passionate about expressing the insights of what’s inside the Ivory Tower. If we as academics with our privileged access to the shoulders of giants can’t communicate, then we are in danger of becoming an elite. Besides, what good is knowledge if it’s only inside my head? We have an opportunity to change the world with insight!

But specifically, the work that I have always done in the media has been a collaboration between myself and the various editors and producers I have worked with, and I have been astoundingly lucky that I have had the platforms (The Guardian, The Observer, the BBC) on which to do it to the widest audience possible.

What kind of reactions are you getting from the public?

Overwhelmingly, the response to this has been positive. People are living in a world where they feel that things are changing rapidly, and overwhelmingly so. There is so much polemic argument at either pole describing how the new digital technologies will save/destroy us; people want a calm voice to guide them through the changes, to tackle to problems and the positives with steadiness, rather than hysteria.

More apparently, the BBC programmes I’ve been involved with – the BBC2 TV series The Virtual Revolution and the BBC Radio 4 series The Digital Human - have both won awards. We received an Emmy and a Bafta for the TV show and a Royal Society Science Writing award for the radio series. It’s an honour to be recognised not only in public for good work done, but by peers.

How would you explain how the web is changing everything to someone who has spent the last 20 years stranded on an isolated island and has never even heard of the web?

It may seem that everything is changing, but in fact, we can understand what’s happened over the last two decades by looking at the innovations that have come before: the printing press gave everyone a mouthpiece, and allowed us as individuals and public an insight into who we are as we evolve. The telegraph continued this but added one important element: the speed of communication at great distance. Immediacy changed how we performed government, business and justice. Even how we did community, friendship and love! Now, the web has brought libraries to our fingertips, and even everyone a publishing contract. We can connect directly with our audience to create knowledge and meaning that works for us. The post-modern ideas of identity and community have a home now, and they are online.

Is book publishing with all its advantages and restrictions coming to an an end now that everybody can publish on the web without needing a publisher? 

I believe in the power of the organised publisher because the support you receive from the people who join the team to produce a book is invaluable. But I do think that it is important for authors and their readers to recognise that what is put onto dead tree is one step in the evolution of thinking, and like we have seen online, knowledge continues to move forwards as we and others add to it. I own a 1974 copy of Encyclopaedia Britannica, and it is one of my prized possessions because it tells me what the state of thought was at the time. But I also use Wikipedia to understand evolutions of understanding. Neither is better or worse; but they both are valuable in their own ways.

The publishing industry has been too slow to take up the interactive options (bar a few notable excellent examples), and providing a digital home with all the bells and whistles and updates is an important part of the long tail of delivery to an audience who doesn’t want to stop engaging with a publication once it’s out.

Has the web with its open publishing tools enabled us to return to the original form of human storytelling with stories being changed as they are passed on instead of being transfixed for all times in print?

The superfan community is an engaging and exciting feature of our existing communities that have been exposed by the web. There were already fan clubs and writing groups who continued storytelling from an author’s starting point, but now there’s a global group of like minds who come together to continue the tale. The online space is a continuation of the collaborative storytelling experience, but with a networked edge that both connects people from elsewhere, quickly, and then produces artefacts for the next generation of people to continue to engage with, long after the original article’s author(s) have moved on. The story has always been a social construct, released by an author (or authors) to the community. This is just making it visible.

Some scholars say that the web is changing the human brain by damaging our attention span for long form information like books. How can this be since the linked web resembles the human brain with its millionfold synapses more than linear publications? What is your stance on this theory?

It is foolish to say categorically that the human brain is changing, as there is no scientific evidence for this whatsoever. I’d love to see some that supports or rejects this theory – but I’ve yet to see any!

photograph of Aleks Krotoski: Kevin Meredith / Flickr




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