Naomi Alderman: ‘Whatever happened to talking? We’ve lost the ability to swap ideas’

The internet has caused the biggest crisis in human communication since the arrival of the printing press, the award-winning dystopian author Naomi Alderman has said.

The writer of The Power, a 2016 feminist science fiction novel, said we are living through the “third information crisis”, in which digital communications have eroded in-person communication and entrenched disagreement.

“If you have a person in front of you, you can have a conversation and, ideally, through sharing experience and empathy, you may come to some new position that recognises what you’re both bringing to that conversation,” she said. “This can never happen with a book, TV show, tweet, someone’s ranty YouTube video. Increasingly, I think that leads us to be vulnerable to a kind of fundamentalism, to ‘I’ve got my view and I’m sticking to it’.”

Alderman is exploring the impact of the internet on human communication for a new five-part documentary series for BBC Radio 4, The Third Information Crisis, which begins tomorrow.

Across five essays broadcasting this week, Alderman argues that humanity has not experienced a crisis like it since the rise of the printing press, and before that, society’s move from speech to the written word. These technological advances “change us psychologically, socially and emotionally in profound ways that cannot be reversed”, she argues in the series.

Toni Collette in a scene from the TV version of The Power. Photograph: Katie Yu/Prime Video

She will also address misinformation, conspiracy theories, public disagreements and groupthink. Alderman, who writes video games as well as novels, said she was drawn to the topic after witnessing the rise of “toxic discourse” over the past decade.

She said: “I was a woman working in games in 2014 during Gamergate [an online campaign of harassment against women working in gaming]. “I found myself increasingly almost bored by the type of conversation that occurs on these culture war topics and thinking: this is not how conversation works. This is not how anybody’s minds gets changed. What is going on?”

While talking to historian Tom Holland about the Reformation, Alderman noticed parallels. Then, after the invention of the printing press in the 15th century, people were able to obtain and spend time with information in a way that hadn’t previously been possible, eventually leading to the doctrinal disagreements instigated by Martin Luther. “When you talk about toxic discourse, it doesn’t get much more toxic than people burning each other at the stake,” she said.

“I saw the same pattern: at the point that there’s an enormous increase in the amount of information that is available to us, we all get very anxious. We get very angry. People we thought we knew well have a very different instinct to us on something that seemed incredibly obvious to us,” she said.

“We do not have emotionally good ways to handle that.”

Alderman, whose latest novel, The Future, sees tech companies threaten the existence of humanity, believes lessons can be learned from the previous two information crises. The series asks: “How do we be good citizens during a time of intense social and psychological turmoil?”

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She said: “When we say things like, ‘Young people are less connected to one another than they used to be’, that is exactly how it feels to transition from orality to literacy.

“In the first information crisis, after the invention of writing, crucial facts that were once repeated verbally to keep them in circulation no longer had to be communicated face-to-face, removing human contact and devaluing community elders who were previously the holders of wisdom.” Alderman

Alderman is interested in how we can avoid Reformation levels of violent conflict as our latest information crisis unfolds. “With every single culture war, we’re likely to do the most hurtful things when we go on the attack against the people who believe the opposite thing,” she said.

She said she hoped that, eventually, “our current culture wars will look like arguing about the body and blood of Christ. It’s important to understand what we’re living through right now – and try to figure out how to not burn people at the stake.”

The Guardian

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