skip to content

For staff


Whether running Wolfson College’s Press Fellowship Scheme, writing books about the impact of the internet, or blogging about media, technology and politics, Professor John Naughton is an academic and journalist with a passion for public education and...

A dominant communications technology affects what goes into our societies as well as our heads and politics. It shapes not only the way we think but also the structures of our brains.

Professor John Naughton

On his blog, Professor John Naughton describes himself as an academic, author, columnist, optimist, dad, grandad, photographer, blogger and company director.

“I've been an academic and a newspaper journalist all my working life,” he says, a career he describes with a phrase borrowed from fellow countryman and Observer columnist Conor Cruise O'Brien: “I've a foot in both graves.”

As Professor of the Public Understanding of Technology at the Open University and author of the Observer's weekly The Networker column, Naughton is passionate about the internet – but baffled by how ignorant most of us are about such a pervasive and powerful technology.

“In all kinds of areas, our options as citizens and societies are being affected – and maybe compromised – by technological developments about which most people know very little,” he says. “Democracies require that citizens understand things. The price of liberty is eternal vigilance and there’s not much vigilance on the part of the general public at the moment.”

As an example, Naughton points to our collective rush to embrace social networking tools such as Twitter and Facebook. “There’s very little evidence that people who use social networks understand the nature of the implicit bargain they’re making. They don't realise that they’re getting an apparently free service but, on the other hand, they are being turned into a product – that the product of Facebook is you!”

Judgements about new technology

His book From Gutenberg to Zuckerberg: What You Really Need to Know About the Internet is Naughton’s response to this lack of understanding, an attempt to equip the rest of us with the knowledge we need to make informed judgements about this new technology.

Published last year, the book encapsulates key ideas about the internet in nine chapters, a number inspired by Harvard psychologist George Miller. “In 1956, he reviewed all the literature on short-term memory and concluded that humans could handle seven ideas simultaneously, plus or minus two. His paper was called ‘The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two’,” Naughton explains. “So I came up with nine chapters, each dealing with a big idea that if you understand will give you a rounded appreciation of the internet.”

The book’s title is more than merely a handy rhyme. Naughton believes the internet will have as profound an impact on our thinking and communicating – as well as on politics and society – as the printing press.

He offers a thought experiment by way of illustration. “Imagine it’s 1473 and you’re a MORI pollster in Mainz, standing on the bridge over the Rhine, stopping passers-by and asking them on a scale of one to five – where one is certain and five is absolutely uncertain – do you think printing would: one, undermine the authority of the Catholic church; two, power the Reformation; three, enable the rise of modern science; four, create entirely new social classes; and five, change your conception of childhood?

“Nobody in Mainz in 1473 had any idea that what Gutenberg had invented would do all these things and more,” says Naughton. “And why 1473? Because we’re about the same distance into the web. We have no idea where this stuff is leading and what its effect will be on our societies, our politics and indeed on our brains.”

Reading has shaped our brains as well as our modes of discourse and thinking, and so too, Naughton predicts, will the internet. “A dominant or important communications technology affects what goes on in our societies as well as our heads and our politics,” he says. “It shapes not only the way we think, but also the structures of our brains. It also changes our modes of discourse and, at another level, the things we think about.”

Enthusiastic blogger

Not surprisingly, Naughton is an enthusiastic blogger, something he began in 1997 and in time decided to make public. “The genesis of the web was, in a sense, a sort of prosthetic to human memory, and in my case I kept a blog as a sort of lab notebook,” he explains.

Nearly 15 years on, he remains among a small minority of academics who blog, something he has strong opinions about. “I've felt for a long time that serious academics ought also to be serious bloggers about their stuff.”

Of his fellow blogging academics he says: “They’re terrific people doing great stuff, unimpeachable, high-quality academics, but they are also participating in the world and that’s really important. It goes back to the public understanding of things.”

It is this outward-looking gaze or engagement with the wider world that Naughton likes about Wolfson, and wants to foster during his term as Vice-President.

“There are some very distinctive things about the college: it’s very outward-facing, not only because of its cosmopolitanism – we have 800 students from about 70 nationalities – but we also have an amazing number of externally facing activities. We have the Press Fellowship Programme, the Arcadia Fellowship Programme, and every term we have an astonishing number of visiting fellows and scholars,” he says.

“That’s something I’d like to do more of and devote some time and energy to. Educational institutions really cannot be inward looking, especially in the current climate.”

Wolfson’s Press Fellowship Programme, of which he is Director, brings mid-career journalists from across the globe to Cambridge, where they undertake a project of their own choosing under “light but serious” supervision.

Spending ten weeks in Cambridge is a life-changing experience for many of the journalists, who also enrich college life at Wolfson. “Thinking is a very disruptive process,” says Naughton, “and if you take bright people and immerse them in this high ambient IQ environment then good things happen – to them and to the college.”

Outside academia and journalism Naughton is “a keen - nay fanatical – photographer”. Although unsure what drives him to take pictures, he vividly remembers when he became a photographer.

Out walking with his parents around the lakes in Killarney on a sunny but cloudy and showery day, he stopped to sit on a bench. The party was joined by a young English holidaymaker, and when John’s father asked what she liked about the place, she replied “the light”.

“My Dad was a bit baffled and, when he asked what she meant, she said she was a photographer and revealed what she had been holding in her hand – a Leica,” Naughton recalls. “She explained that what she really liked about Kerry were the cloudscapes, and I thought this was really interesting. I became obsessed with photography from then on.”

Years later, he got his hands on a Leica of his own. “I sold my facsimile copy of Newton’s Principia to buy it. There was a book dealer in Cambridge who had a Leica and wanted to get rid of it!”


31 January 2013