How It Works

Aleks Krotoski interview

How It Works: The work you do has been described in a number of ways – technology journalist, academic, television presenter, blogger, writer – which best describes you and your work?

Aleks Krotoski: That’s really difficult, and it’s why I have so many different titles. I’d like to be seen as a journalist and a researcher. I find doing research incredibly important, which is why I ended up back in academia. Staying at the bleeding edge of technology is extremely important to me, and being able to communicate the research. I’m a psychologist so I’m interested in the effects of technology on us, so if I can somehow manage to combine the two and be, I don’t know, an ‘academiologist’ something like that, it would be good.

HIW: You returned to academia later on in your career, how did you end up going back to study?

AK: In fact I presented television series’ as early as 1999 and finished in 2001, but I was frustrated with that medium because I felt that it wasn’t rich enough, it wasn’t deep enough, I wasn’t able to get as involved with the subject matter as I wanted to get. Having an academic background – both my parents are doctors with PhDs, extremely clever people – it was a natural fit for me to end up back in academia, and with the research-type background it felt quite natural. I knew that I’d be able to get into the subject. And the fascinating human phenomena that I found in this very clinical digital environment enabled me to further explore some of the humanity behind the machines.

HIW: You’ve been studying the rise of social networking – always a hot topic. If you could give one example of the positive effects of this new way of interacting, what would it be?

AK: The positive side is very easy. It’s not even just social networking. It’s about the opportunities that technology offers. I can communicate with my family: my mother is currently in India, my father is currently in Louisiana, my grandmother is in Southern California, my aunt is in New York. I am able to communicate with them in real-time, connect with them and maintain relationships that are experience-based and truly the same kinds of relationships that we would have if we were face to face [laughs] and probably better in some ways because we’re not all in each other’s faces all the time.

HIW: And one example of any negative effects as a result of the rise of social networking sites?

AK: In terms of the negatives, I would say that one of the thing that concerns me the most is that because these interactions are facilitated and mediated by computers – and therefore we’re in control of them – they don’t provide as much serendipity as I would hope human beings would experience. By that I mean chance encounters, accidentally stumbling across something. When it comes to, say, searching the web, you’re often very directed. Of course we can search by going down rabbit holes, but often it’s based upon suggestions from friends and family and it’s based on the types of things they’re interested in. It doesn’t expand your horizons nearly as much as I think that the opportunities we have face-to-face in everyday real-world encounters offer. So I think that’s one of the negatives of social networking.

HIW: With access to the web literally at our fingertips – with smartphones, tablets, 3G, and so on – are you concerned that the way we use the internet could damage the way people learn? For example, could it spell the end for the good old pub quiz?

AK: Oh God no. I think that’s too determinist an approach. I don’t think in any way that human interaction is going to be replaced by computers. In fact I think that people are going to become more specialist and more interested in recalling information, rather than relying upon the ‘great Google brain’ to tell us what we think. We do not exclusively use the web; we also interact with each other face-to-face in a medium that has taste, touch, sound and smell. It’s called the real world. We go into the internet, we traverse the world wide web when we need it – whether for social reasons or for information – and I think it will extend learning and create new avenues and opportunities for learning, but I certainly don’t think it will replace or change learning negatively.

HIW: We’re sure you get asked this all the time, but what’s your favourite gadget at the moment?

AK: This is actually a really difficult one because it changes all the time. Two weeks ago I would have said my iPhone because it does everything; it’s my connection to life, my connection to the world, it keeps me on top of things. However, I spent a week without it and realised I could actually live without it. For work it’s my laptop, my good old computer is my favourite device because I can’t write from a smartphone, I can’t create content from a smartphone. I think that my iPhone is a wonderful portal, but a limited portal in terms of being able to create and contribute, it has to be the good-old laptop.

My real favourite gadget is actually my Canon EOS 7D. I bought myself that for my PhD and in order to justify the cost, so it didn’t end up covered in dust six months later, I set myself the task of learning how the camera works by taking a photograph a day.

HIW: What’s the silliest gadget that you ever came across throughout your time on The Gadget Show?

AK: Oh yeah, there have been some ridiculous things. My favourite was a fishing rod controller for the Dreamcast. My favourite thing about it was that it was originally intended for a very specific bass fishing simulation game but you could also use it for all kinds of things [tennis, racing, golf]. I still think that’s awesome, it’s brilliant the things that you can do with controllers like that. It helps to immerse you in a particular concept but it can also be repackaged and repurposed.

HIW: And is there an app that you’re particularly fond of right now?

AK: Again, a fortnight ago it would have been Twitter on my iPhone, but I’ve been trying to wean myself off Twitter. Also, I run and so I use a GPS tracking/running app a lot. Skype is really great for keeping in touch with my mum and dad. The Flickr app is useful. Oh and of course Hipstamatic. I’m a massive, massive, massive photographer and I take as many photographs as I possibly can, in any context, in any way – on anything from crazy-ass high-tech cameras all the way down to my cameraphone. And on my cameraphone I use the Hipstamatic app, which simply creates… I suppose a layer, a filter that makes it look like it was taken with an old-school instamatic film camera. I just love the effect: super-saturated, super-high contrast, with gorgeously scratchy and yummy effects. It just makes everything either look great or completely freaky. I love it.

HIW: And finally, what’s next, any new tech-based projects coming up?

AK: So many. I’m writing a book called The Cult Of Me, looking at how social relationships have been transformed by the web. I’m currently at the British Library working on an exhibition all about how digital technologies are transforming how researchers like myself do research and how we will do research in future – it’s called Growing Knowledge and that launches in the middle of October. I am working with The Guardian and The Observer on a massive project that should be starting at the beginning of October. It’s a series of articles and regular columns about how the web is affecting various important aspects of our lives. So it’s all very web based. I’m also doing lots of research about things like online influence with academic institutions and research institutions and I’ll be doing various lectures around the country at universities. So my dance card is full.

You can keep up with Aleks and her many technology-based projects via her website at www.alekskrotoski.com and via Aleksk on Twitter.