- Aleks Krotoski takes an expert look at the online world
[Aleks Krotoski and Andrew Hiskens are seated on either side of a small table, holding microphones. On the table is an iPad, a jug of water and two glasses.]
Andrew Hiskens, State Library of Victoria: So one of the things I wanted to start with, Alex, was just to talk about your motivation in doing this. You’ve got a doctorate in psychology. We were talking before about that kind of interest in the ‘humanness’ and, in fact, talking with Sue before about that issue that often people who write about technology or who have a strong interest in technology are really only interested in the technology whereas you are interested in, very strongly in, that interface between the technology and the human.
Aleks Krotoski: I’m actually more interested in the human than the technology and it goes back to, and we’re going to go back in time here. A long time ago I presented a television show about computer games for British television, I describe it as my albatross, but it actually inspired all kinds of interesting avenues that I went down because during the series I discovered massively multiplayer online games. I discovered the people who played them and I discovered that one of my co-presenters was tasked with going on and reviewing an online game. She came back a week later and after we’d had the opportunity to play our games and think about them, what she talked about completely surprised me. She talked about the reaction that other people inside the game had to her and her reaction to other people, so she was actually talking about the human relationships that were happening inside that game. At the time I was already feeling a bit dismayed about television and was searching around for other things to do and I thought to myself, I’ve always been interested in psychology – let’s see what’s going on here. As I started to dig a little bit further I discovered that things that were happening online, these extraordinary human interactions that were happening online, seemed to be replicating what was happening offline and it didn’t need to be thus. This was the thing that really surprised me. Emily was wearing a dwarf costume and she was wandering around with swords and she was slapping …
Andrew: That was replicating the real world?
Aleks: Yeah exactly, well in some ways yes but that’s a whole other story, and slapping rats in underground dungeons and yet she was having these incredibly rich social interactions. She was developing a reputation that was being passed around amongst community members and not only that, there were also hierarchies and there was governance and there was policing. And things just looked to my eyes very very similar online and so I thought, well this is interesting. I’m interested in human behaviour. The technology is laying this wide open for me to explore and so that’s why I ended up going back and studying what it was that I studied, which was human behaviour, expressions of human identity and influence by our online social networks. It just so happens that it was in technology that I was pursuing this, and partially because we do so much behaviour online that as a psychologist I was really excited because you very rarely get such natural behaviour in a laboratory setting. So that’s the journey that I took to get here.
Andrew: And your PhD thesis was about Second Life.
Aleks: It was in Second Life.
Andrew: You weren’t actually writing it but one of the things, taking up on that point, was you could test whether the behaviour's mapped against theories of how people behave and you could survey for that, but equally you had access to Linden Lab servers so you could actually see how that mapped against what the data on the servers were saying in terms of were people saying the truth.
Aleks: That was really interesting and I have to say that Linden were very open about that. It was an incredibly fascinating period because I’d initially wanted to do what’s called a social network analysis, which is to take people and then map their social relationships. We’ve seen this a lot more since the dawn and the rise and rise of things like Facebook, where you’ve got say dots and then you’ve got lines between dots and that represents the interactions, the social interactions, between people. And I had intended in 2003 to map all of the social relationships of Second Life. At the time there were about 3000 people inside of Second Life. By the time I had finished my PhD there were 15 million people in Second Life so I had to go to Linden and say, please can I access your data stores. They were incredibly kind about that and they opened them up to me for the purposes of that research. So what I was able to do was to get the raw data, as it were, from what was going on behind the scenes and then, with the help of surveys and qualitative work, extract some of the meanings of relationships and see how relationships represented online mapped to relationships represented offline.
Andrew: And then that expanded beyond that, clearly in terms of your work on radio and on television. Do you want to tell us something about that part of the journey, because you’ve talked about the albatross and now what was the next, what was the seagull, the next stage, the phoenix?
Aleks: The phoenix rising from the flames. Well, that was actually quite an amusing story. So I’d decided in 2001 that I would leave TV, I was never going to do it again and my friend Effie, who is a producer, had said to me, ‘Ah Alex it’s good you’re going back and you’re studying and you’re becoming an expert in something because, mark my words, in ten years’ time you will do a serious documentary series about the internet.’ I was like, ‘Effie, don’t be ridiculous, I’m leaving TV behind, I’ll never do this.’ And lo and behold, just as I was about to submit my thesis ten years later I get a phone call from the BBC saying ‘Do you want to do a serious documentary series about the internet?’.
Andrew: That was good timing wasn’t it. Just as that –
Aleks: Very good timing. The nice thing about that was that it bookended the academic work and then it allowed me the opportunity and the platform through which to start to explore some of the larger questions that I had in my head and explore them in an avenue that allowed me to communicate with a broader public than simply with the academic community, although I continue to do that as well. I’ve been able to pursue journalism throughout my PhD work.
By exploring a lot of the themes that I was finding, not only in that, but also that come out in the book and thereafter the TV series I was able, with the platform that I’d accidentally developed by saying yes to that opportunity, to get a column in the Observer. I worked with my editor to identify about 26 or 28 different topics that people basically say the internet is doing; it is doing x to y; it is affecting stuff; what is the internet doing to you? And I was like okay, hold on a second, I’m a little bit tired of these polemic arguments unless you know you hooked me in when I first saw the internet, but I’m not as cynical as I will become, as I now know. Let’s look at these different avenues that people are saying: the internet is causing cancer; the internet is destroying our family lives; the internet is causing revolution. Let’s actually have a look and see psychologically and sociologically whether the processes and the motivations behind why it is that we form groups and why it is that we have relationships, how we communicate with one another and hierachies and structures, whether those have actually been revolutionised and transformed by the web.
And so I like to think of it as a kind of continuum. We’ve got point A and point Z and in the middle is internet. By looking at the research from point A and looking at the research from point Z we can actually trying to figure out if there has been a change. The spoiler is that no, not really. There are only a couple of areas that really seem to be under negotiation. Most of the other elements are simply adaptations. This is totally giving the whole game away! Basically they’re adaptations of existing processes and systems online. They have just been transferred online. The internet is actually not doing anything to us. It’s a technology. If anything, we are doing to one another by the fact that we are communicating via this technology, so it’s a mirror. So there you go, thesis, tick. [Laughs]
Andrew: Done, yes. Because, I mean, that aspect of thinking it can do bad things – one of the things I think is –
Aleks: – and good things, people say it can do amazing things as well.
Andrew: They do, but most, but a lot of the media coverage you get about these things obviously, in fact about pretty much anything in life, is often about the bad aspects of it because that’s the story. I think one of the things, and it comes through in the book and it comes through in your writing and the other things that you do, is just that way in which you go back to research. And that’s really helpful because that really says, ‘Well you might have this opinion but this is what the research is saying,’ and that’s a really important thing in a contested zone like this.
Aleks: Yeah and that was really, really what I wanted to do – there’s so much of incredible research that’s out there but unfortunately, in many situations, it’s firewalled or it’s hidden within the ivory tower, or it’s just not communicated very well. And so what I wanted to do, I wanted to try and see if I could create a kind of baseline and say let’s take away, let’s take away the polemic, let’s take away the kind of, the fear or, you know, the kind of utopian aspects and let’s look at some of the basic processes.
For example, why do we form communities? Well we form communities to belong, we form communities to express ourselves and to be supported in those expressions. We did that before and we do that now, it just so happens that it’s articulated in different environments, it’s articulated – notions of group-belonging outside of physical proximity, outside of being in a geographical location.
People have been describing this since before Goffman was describing this in the 1960s, but for some reason, because it’s now being performed online and you can kind of see it, which is an interesting thing because yes, you can see it for the first time, you can see these kind of conceptual communities, people think something new is happening, but in fact the online community is still there for the individual to express his- or herself, or perform his or her identity, to belong and to be supported in that kind of environment. It just happens to be online.
Aleks: That’s just an example of one of the things.
Andrew: And one of the other things, just thinking about Goffman, is that aspect of co-presence as well and it’s one of those things – I can’t remember where I read this but I, it was a really interesting concept that …
[Aleks pours water from a jug into two glasses at a small table between her and Andrew.]
Andrew: Oh, thanks.
Aleks: I’m going to try not to pour this on your iPad.
Andrew: That’s okay.
Aleks: I’ve got really shaky jetlag.
Andrew: Was that discussion about, say, teens texting, you know, and there’s nothing in the message. But one other way of thinking about it is that it’s not about the message, it’s actually about the ‘I’m here’. It’s the nudge and it’s the elbowing on the bus or something like that. It’s an example of co-presence and if you think about it in those human terms then something that you might actually condemn as, you know, ‘Where’s the world going? These teens, you know what are they doing? These things are meaningless.’
Aleks: I tweet about my breakfast, right? Or I have tweeted about my breakfast in the past and that’s a great example. And there’s a researcher in Oxord called Danica Rad– oh lord, I can never do this, I know how to type it – Danica Radovanovic, and she describes things like status updates, those kind of ephemeral nonsense things that people say – ‘ah, people are just tweeting about their breakfast, therefore it’s completely useless’. She describes those as ‘phatic communications’ which is basically a kind of saying, ‘Hi, I’m out here, I’m here, is anybody ready to socialise, does anybody want to chat, does anybody want to do …?’
And these phatic communications were actually described in 1934 by anthropologists who were looking at exactly these types of things, like walking past somebody and saying ‘hey, how are you’ or whatever. You’re not actually asking how you are, you’re just saying ‘hi, I’m ready for interactions’. And so status updates is that kind of writ large, it’s an articulation of exactly that same process which, as you say, is the co-presence notion, it has the same service as the nudging on the bus, as saying ‘how are you’, it creates a kind of, it creates an underlying fabric.
It doesn’t even have to be as significant as say, you know, what people are describing as ‘the water cooler has moved online’. The water cooler that you get, you know, in a public space, where people gather around and they share important news of the day – it doesn’t even need to be that significant, it can be ‘oh I had porridge for breakfast’. It’s out there, man. Who wants to say ‘hey, I had porridge again too!’ You know? ‘Oh I had mine with salt, did you have …’ I’ve had this conversation.
Andrew: The MacArthur Foundation-funded report ‘Hanging out, messing around and geeking out’, Mimi Ito …
Aleks: … danah boyd …
Andrew: … danah boyd and others – in a sense this is partially the hanging-out stage, this is the teens in the shopping centre or something like that, it’s the ‘being together’ aspect.
Aleks: Yes, that’s exactly right.
Andrew: And that’s one of the ways in which you form community and identity as well.
Aleks: Absolutely, yeah, because when you sort of identify – especially online because it’s such a lean medium, you know? There’s so many, it’s amazing when you start to tune into it, there are so many identity markers, so many identity markers, it doesn’t even have to be like the colour of your virtual hair, it can be how you say things or how you write things and all of these things, it’s all about identity markers. You know, these are basically, anything you do online is a bit like a teenager’s bedroom, you’re kind of putting up giant posters of The Beatles and Kirk Cameron, I can’t believe I just said that out loud.
Aleks: But things like that on your wall and just saying ‘this is who I am’ and it’s, you’re leaving those markers in a really interesting way, for other people to pick up and say ‘oh yeah, Kirk Cameron, I totally thought he was cool in the ‘80s too, let’s hang out!’ And then through that you do develop these interesting group identities, these social identities, that we have just naturally as we’re walking through life. And then those have the same, the equivalent influence, to people who interact in the spaces online as well as offline. So yeah, it’s just the same. In some ways it’s quite disappointing because you do kind of want this thing to come up and go ‘yes, let’s dance!’
Andrew: You thought it was Through the looking glass, it was going to be somehow different in that kind of way …
Aleks: … it’s like ‘Come on, let’s just throw it all to the wind and reinvent!’ And then there’s people who are like … these hierarchies! It’s just, it’s like, ‘Oh man! Really? We don’t have to.’ But we have. So there’s an interesting aspect of psychology there.
Andrew: Yeah, and you structure the book, it’s sort of ‘me’ and then it’s ‘us’, then it’s society and the future. So there’s a sense of, certainly that continuum between the individual and the social …
Aleks: Social psychology, right there.
Andrew: … which is absolutely fundamental to so many of our understandings, because in a sense, another way of doing the piece of work that you did on your thesis would have been to do it as an ethnographic study and look at it from that kind of perspective. There are … it’s … so the internet as laboratory, and we were talking about that before. The book covers a whole range of different examples of things, I mean there’s love, there’s sex, there’s death – they’re all the big ones, religion …
Aleks: All the big ones.
Andrew: All the big ones, all the big ones are there. What was your favourite going through? What was the one that surprised you when you came to write it?
Aleks: I really like death. Oh, it was so interesting. But then again I have a long-running, as a former goth, I have a long-running interest in death. Actually my favourite experience writing it [laughs], I could not have planned this better, I ended up visiting, staying in a remote Scottish college, in a remote Scottish town, way out – I even saw the northern lights, it was so cool. It was a friend of mine’s cottage and they loaned it to me for a writing week because I wasn’t getting, I wasn’t banging anything out where I live in London and they said, ‘Go, get ye hence to a tiny little Scottish village.’ And I chose, over the course of that weekend, to write about, I think I did sex, hate and death in that one weekend. I came back sort of shellshocked. ‘What have I just done? Hello, other people!’
Andrew: In what order was that?
Aleks: It was sex, hate and death.
Andrew: Okay, fair enough.
Aleks: It was kind of exactly that. I really, I really enjoyed those three chapters and not just because of the context I was writing them in, which felt deeply appropriate at the time. Sex is so interesting for so many reasons and that’s online as well as off. Really, really interesting. It’s just … the sex chapter is more about intimacy as opposed to things like teledildonics, which is a different entity, or haptic technologies or any of those kinds of, those intimate technologies that are networked, connected to the internet and … you know where I’m going with this, we don’t need to go any further [laughs], but notions of intimacy in terms of relational intimacy and the maintenance of relationships at a distance even. Fascinating as well because of the emergence of the sex-positive movement that has got a lot of grounding over the last, say, five or six years with articulations of sex as not a bad thing. Now I want to emphasise that I was not looking at the deeply exploitative aspects of sexuality, of which there are many online, but looking at the kind of phenomenon, or the cultural reflection, on the intimate act and how that, both before and after the web, has been expressed. So that was really, really interesting and it really challenged a lot of my own assumptions about intimacy and about what was actually happening online.
And hate was fascinating because hate was actually the most psychological one. When people think about hate, they often think about radicalisation, they think about terrorism, they think about cyberbullying. Primarily they think about anonymity and the terrible effect it has on people. And specifically, that is the thing that people talk about the most when it comes to the web, is that is anonymity makes us act in antisocial ways. And that was a really interesting one because there’s so much psychological research out there about anonymity and how in fact anonymity is one aspect – and one of the recent Digital human programs dealt with this as well. Anonymity is one aspect certainly, but anonymity as a single aspect that drives people towards hate historically has not always been the case. So you have to look more at the context in which an individual is anonymous. One can be anonymous and perform great acts of love, but one can be anonymous and perform great acts of hate as well, it’s very much about the context. You can look at Philip Zimbardo’s work from the 1960s all the way up through some of the work that’s been carried on more recently to recognise that it’s not just the anonymity that generates this kind of potential radicalisation or this potential hate.
With regards to radicalisation as well, and this is another really interesting factor, is that online radicalisation … people talk about that specifically when it comes to things like terrorism and comes to – there was quite impassioned and dramatic examples, but in all the research that I’ve read, it’s always dealing with people who are already vulnerable and we do not know what contributes to people who are vulnerable online or off, right, so it’s not like you go online and suddenly you’re vulnerable. And the second aspect is when looking at areas of radicalisation, there’s always always, always an element of face-to-face interaction. It’s not just an online phenomenon. So hate was really interesting for me from that point of view, because that challenged a lot of my expectations.
And death was really interesting because death is such a fascinating marker in one’s identity, frankly [laughs]. Not just ‘I’m alive, I’m dead’ but the questions of what it is that you’re leaving behind – not just the stuff that you’re now leaving behind online, which are basically giant posters of Kirk Cameron [laughs] and are other identity markers across the internet, but also what you wish to leave behind in terms of your digital assets. You know, do you wish to leave your … who do you leave your banking log in details to? That kind of thing. And also what about the photographs that you’ve stuck up online? Who then owns those? And so it’s very much about a continuum of identity, going from an authored, autobiographical identity to very much a kind social identity, a socially constructed identity. As well as, you know, the rituals that happen both online and offline and have happened for, you know, millennia, it’s just simply how those are translated.
So those three I thought were really interesting and I got to see the northern lights when I was writing them, so bonus.
Andrew: That must have been some weekend I guess.
Aleks: [Laughs] It was.
Andrew: And you were probably reasonably anonymous in that little Scottish town as well, locked away.
Aleks: Yeah, it was nice.
Andrew: There’s another aspect to anonymity that you talk about in the book, and that’s … early web enabled anonymity reasonably easily but there’s been a shift in that and that sort of requirement to actually, you know, be yourself online through certain social networks and so on – it allows less chance to experiment with … You talk about how it allows less chance to experiment with identity and that that was one of the markers of the early web. Do you think it’s still possible to be playful in that way now, or is it the case that we’re being forced into a position where, really, the web simply replicates the world?
Aleks: I had a fascinating email just a couple of weeks ago and I can’t remember if it was somebody from here or somebody in Sydney – it’s been a crazy few weeks. But it’s somebody who’s studying anonymity on the web. Of course my assumption has been from recently and just the trends that have been going on with places like Facebook or Google specifically, because they’re the ones who have, you know, they’re the kind of beacons that people point at a lot. I don’t have anything against either of those services but they’re just interesting case studies – but they’re very much focused on creating a single identity, and primarily an identity that’s linked to your offline identity, or certain demographic aspects of your offline self, which is then useful for them in order to sell to advertisers – not your specific identity necessarily, but your demographics, sort of collating your demographics and creating this single identity for everything you do online. Whereas in the past, certainly the early web, a lot of people were playing with notions of self, they were playing around with anonymity, you know, they were creating avatars, they were creating different aspects, different shards of themselves and seeing how they fit, whether they fit into their offline selves and it was an interesting period in the mid-‘90s for this specifically. And Sherry Turkle writes a lot about this, Sherry Turkle from MIT, she’s a kind of leader in that particular area.
Anyway, this email I received from this researcher, she wanted to talk about identity and about the new and the rise of sites like Tumblr, which is interesting given today’s news that Yahoo has just announced that they are trying to acquire Tumblr – because Tumblr is another blogging platform that allows people to just literally create different shards of themselves. I’ve got about six or eight different Tumblrs, I can’t even remember how many Tumblrs I have, but they’re different projects that aren’t necessarily associated with my face or with my name or whatever, but they’re places where I can be anonymous, where I can express myself and I can throw things out there and develop a following and do that whole anonymity thing.
So I don’t necessarily think that there are places … that anonymity is no longer possible online. I think that in fact it’s thriving and it wasn’t until this person sent me this email that it occurred to me and I thought ‘Of course. You can. It is still possible.’ You don’t have to go into the dark web or the depths of, you know, of places like 4chan which is an online message board that has no login and is completely ephemeral because everything just disappears as soon as you write it, effectively, or within a certain period of time. You don’t have to go to spaces like that, there are places like Tumblr and various other online services where you can still be perfectly anonymous and play around with different senses of self. It’s awesome, I’m thrilled, hooray!
[Aleks and Andrew look off-camera at a projected slide]
Andrew: One of things I probably … I’ve just seen … I was going to explain why we have this slide up here …
Aleks: It’s not about the sex.
Andrew: No, it wasn’t the sex chapter, in fact, no not at all. I mean snakes, for God’s sake. So Laocoön, he was Trojan priest of Poseidon whose rules he had defied either by marrying or having sons or by having committed an impiety by making love with his wife in the presence of a cult image, in the sanctuary. The mind boggles, really. But he also had a minor part in the Trojan War and it was he who was the big doubter about that giant horse that they chose to wheel in and I thought that that was, not only was it an interesting image in terms of what it feels like to be tangled potentially, entangled to your death in terms of the untangling part, but also that fear that exists about, you know, what are the Trojan horses in the web?
I mean, some of the stuff, and you talk about it here in terms of Nicholas Carr, writing in The shallows and some – there was a great article I remember by Stephen Johnson in the New York Times in response to Nicholas Carr where he concluded by saying, of the way in which we get distracted, ‘We are marginally less focused and exponentially more connected,’ which I thought was a really nice, you know, it marks the trade-off. What is the story about distraction, how do we manage it? What do we have to do now?
Aleks: So this is an area that I think is a really interesting next phase. There are a couple of next phases that I see of the web. If you’re looking kind of historically where we’ve come from, the first phase of the web … and this is totally a topology that I have in my head. Please feel free to argue with me. Absolutely, that’s how we progress. The first phase was very much an elite of people who knew how to create content and for this you needed to know HTML and you know, later you needed to know Java and you needed to actually have the skills to upload content.
The second phase was what is colloquially described as Web 2.0, primarily systems that made it easier for people who didn’t have computing skills to upload and to create content – ‘to participate in the conversations’ as they say it in the buzz. ‘In the buzz.’
And I think that we’re reaching a really interesting third phase in which people have, you know, they’ve developed content, they’ve created content, they may have uploaded things to YouTube, they may have got a Facebook account, even if it’s just to watch what their kids are doing on Facebook, just to kind of keep track. But at least they’re starting to participate and the fear element has reduced a bit and I think that now that the fear element has reduced and people are all like ‘Okay, this thing isn’t, you know, it’s not eating my brain, but I’m not really sure what it’s doing, but it’s okay.’
We’re kind of getting into this really interesting third phase which is where we’re starting to be more critical, which I don’t mean like critical as in ‘this is a bad thing’ but more like ‘okay, so what is this thing?’ And critiquing it more than being critical, I think. And there are two elements to that. The first element I think is people are ready to start questioning where the stuff that they’re getting from the internet, to use a sort of great term, but where the stuff they’re getting from the internet comes from. And whether that’s Google searches, or whether it’s you know who you are recommended to connect with on Twitter or on Facebook or whatever, people are starting to think ‘Okay, where … what’s behind this? Why are these the top three search results?’ So that’s something that’s something that we can talk about in a second.
But I think another element of this third phase is realigning our relationship with the technology. Part of the reason is because increasingly we’re hearing people saying that they’re distracted and yes, while I was writing this book I did download a piece of software called SelfControl – love the fact that I had to download self-control off the internet, but I did and I admit it openly. Others are available, but I like SelfControl, which basically meant that it turned my laptop into a system that I defined which sites I could not access. For my purpose it was Facebook and Twitter and Amazon and eBay and possibly my Yahoo Mail and a few other things that I wasn’t allowed to access. It also didn’t let me … it allowed me to send emails but not to receive emails, so basically it kind of reduced the input and the potential distraction of the 75 tabs that I had open. I could still, say for example, look at Google Scholar or I could log into the LSE’s Athens account and find all my stuff, but I wasn’t able to tweet or look at Twitter, just, you know, for whatever reason. And that’s for a particular period of time that I set and even if you [laughing] uninstall SelfControl it won’t let you access, and even if you turn your computer off and on again, you can’t access any, none of the …
Andrew: You need to go and buy another computer at that stage.
Aleks: You have to wait, exactly, until the damn time is up until you can access these things. Even if it’s a tweet that you need because you’re referencing the tweet in the thing that you’re writing, it doesn’t matter. There’s no reasoning with this machine. And then there are other people … recently in the ‘Detox’ program that we did for Digital human, Evgeny Morozov is another author who writes about the web and Evgeny describes the extremes that he goes to when he needs to concentrate, which is he only has a computer that’s connected via ethernet, he takes the ethernet cable out of the wall and he puts it in a safe. He puts his phone in the safe, he puts all of the screwdrivers in his house in the safe because that is the only way he can open the safe until the timer is done. So that stops him – he has about five or six screwdrivers now – that stops him from going to the safe and unscrewing the safe and taking out, you know, his crack pipe of a telephone. Which I approve of and I appreciate.
So people are starting to kind of reassert their relationships with technology when they do have to do things like focus and concentrate. I think that’s hilarious but you know, it’s something that we’re starting to recognise, that systems are starting to be built for this kind of thing, whether it is downloading SelfControl or actually [laughs] giving over, this is, giving over control of what you can access to somebody who’s remote. Part of the reason people do that, and there are services like that, part of the reason is because if you email somebody and say ‘Right, I want to start now, please don’t let me access Twitter for the next five days,’ and then you go ‘Oh, I really need to access Twitter,’ that sort of embarrassment of sending an email five minutes later saying ‘Can I access Twitter, please?’ is something that’s supposed to distract you or deter you from accessing it.
So I mean those are … they’re sort of amusing colloquial examples but there are systems that are starting to allow us to develop better relationships with our machines. Now, having said that, Douglas Rushkoff made a very important comment in which he said ‘Standing up to your BlackBerry is not standing up to your device, it’s standing up to your boss,’ and I think that’s a negotiation that we’re making now. So rather than be sort of behoven to a technology, we have to recognise that again, it’s a communication system. We are placing the boundaries on the time that we spend at the coffee machine or the water cooler or whatever, it just so happens that that has moved into this, into Twitter and Facebook and my phone and safes and things like that.
Andrew: Because of course we’re sitting in the Library at the moment and one of the things that people traditionally do in libraries is, you know, they’re bounded, different rules apply in libraries and they are places – you walk out at any time and walk through a reading room and there are people coming here because it’s a place they can be focused, broadly speaking. It’s also a place to flirt and do all other sorts of things and it’s amazing the behaviours that you see …
Aleks: Good old libraries.
Andrew: … in a library, it’s fabulous. All of human stuff. But that aspect of how libraries can help people with focus I think is interesting because when we were talking earlier today about the kinds of issues that may inform this institution’s thinking about what its digital strategy might be going forward, and one of the interesting things is, there are certain things we can do in terms of access to our staff and we can make that accessible, but how can we translate that experience of focus into something that’s online or do we simply say ‘it’s okay, just go and use SelfControl’?
Aleks: I actually, it was at the British Library where I downloaded SelfControl because I was actually … really, I was kind of annoyed that I was at the library and I could still access the web. It’s one of the reasons why I ended up going out to Findochty and then to Croyde and to wherever else I went – and in fact recently I wrote a book proposal on a boat between New York and Southampton because I couldn’t access the web and it was fantastic. It was an opportunity for me to place this and I didn’t speak with anybody either. So it wasn’t as if I was on the phone, it was literally an opportunity for me to kind of shut myself off and actually focus. Though again it’s less about–
Andrew: Or planes as well, you have that experience on planes sometimes.
Aleks: Yeah, absolutely.
Andrew: It’s not a bad place to write if the flight’s long enough.
Aleks: Yeah, when I stop flying, my email inbox just started going sky … ‘Sky high’. Oh look at that. I did not mean that by the way, but it works. But you know, my inbox started filling up again because I hadn’t the time to actually get through without the distraction, of the expectation and this is something that I think is again, part of the negotiations that we’re having with the technology is the expectations. So on my email I’ve kind of adopted what a friend of mine does, I have an ‘out of office’ always that says ‘Expectation management. I look at my emails twice a day, depending on the time zone I’m in. It will be 5pm local time when I will respond to your email, which means that you might not get it until tomorrow. Soz, but that’s how it is.’ And actually what I’ve – well I don’t say ‘soz’ but you know, a bit more professional – but anyway, so the response that I’ve had back actually has been really interesting and I’ve heard this from other people who use this technique as well, rather than people being irritated by that, saying ‘I need it now!’ Because you also stick on the expectation management, you know ‘If you do really need to get in touch with me, send a text, here’s my number’ or ‘contact me on iMessage’ or whatever. So you still open that option. Not only do I get fewer texts and that type of thing in that kind of scenario but I’ve also had responses back where people have said ‘Oh thank goodness, that’s kind of alleviated my expectation because I didn’t really want to send that email because it’s kind of close to the end of the day and I thought, oh man, if you respond to that, then that means I’m going to have to stay later – I’m going to send that email now and know that tomorrow morning I’m going to come back and I’m going to be fresh and I’m going to get the email because you’re not going to respond to it until later.’ And so the expectations are being managed in an interesting way, where people are starting to recognise that they don’t have to be constantly on call.
Andrew: So it’s almost like making a asynchronicity the feature, not the bug.
Aleks: Yeah, nice. Can I use that? That’s good.
Andrew: You can, you can.
[The logos for the State Library of Victoria and the State Government of Victoria appear in white on a black screen.]
'You very rarely get such natural behaviour in a laboratory setting.'
- Aleks Krotoski
About this video
Is the internet a good or a bad thing?
In promoting her book Untangling the web: what the virtual revolution is doing to you, journalist Aleks Krotoski looks at the psychological research behind the web and sorts out the pros and cons of going online.
More people than ever are using the internet, but we’re now more critical of technology and its inescapable presence.
Join the conversation with Aleks as she applauds the fact that, increasingly, people are taking time out from email and Facebook, aware that it's a distraction and not the real world. Do you agree?
Aleks Krotoski is a Polish-American broadcaster and journalist, currently based in the UK, who writes about technology and interactivity.
Aleks was raised in America, emigrated to Scotland to finish her degree in Psychology and then become a TV presenter/reporter. She presents The Guardian podcast Tech Weekly and contributes to guardian.co.uk. She formerly wrote a print column for The Guardian's now defunct Technology section.
Aleks is interviewed by Andrew Hiskens, Manager Learning Services at State Library Victoria.