Category Archives: Books

Interview with John Lanchester for Little Atoms

Image of John Lanchester from Faber's websiteWhen I joined the team of Little Atoms, I was told by Neil Denny, its head honcho, that the best thing about doing the show is that it’s a great excuse to meet your favourite writers. Well, my favourite writer is John Lanchester. Not because of his ideas, although I like his ideas. Simply because of the way he writes.

Last week Neil and I interviewed John Lanchester at the Resonance studios in London, and the broadcast went out on Friday. You can now download the podcast. In the interview, we talk about the ideas in his most recent book Whoops! Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay. It’s a great book to read if you want to understand the events that led to the credit crunch, not just because it takes you from financial ideas you might have some hope of understanding (like the balance sheet of a company) all the way to the complex PhD level maths that is the stock-in-trade of the modern quant, but also because it places events in a political context – something most commentators have failed so far to do.

They say you should never meet your heroes, but John turned out to be as eloquent a speaker as he is a writer. The interview was a relaxed, if mildly depressing, way to commence a Tuesday morning. Listening back to it I think it is the best one I’ve been involved with for Little Atoms so far. If you want to read more John Lanchester, check out his restaurant reviews for the Guardian, or look through his archive at the LRB, out of which I’d pick this piece on video games as one of my favourites.

Interview with Tim Wu, author of “The Master Switch”, this Friday

Update: The interview is now available for download from the Little Atoms website.


My work for Little Atoms just keeps getting more and more fun. This week’s edition features Neil Denny and I interviewing Tim Wu, the man who coined the term “net neutrality”, about his new book The Master Switch. I loved reading this book. In it, Wu presents the last century-or-so of communications history as a cyclical battle between the opposing forces of disruption and monopoly. The book is rich with detail, with a lightness of narrative touch which makes it a really comfortable read.

Although some reviews of the book have focussed on Wu’s proposals for legislation to enshrine net neutrality in the US, what I found most interesting was his related focus on the business of Hollywood, the development of massive media conglomerates in the eighties and nineties and their effect on artistic output. For Wu it is as important if not more so to look at the way communications markets act on free expression as it is to study law and policy. With a few notable exceptions, the history of communications has been a history of legislators happy to accommodate the business models of incumbent operators. Broadly, this is “entertainment that sells”, meaning entertainment that sells advertising: diversity and pluralism are sacrificed for reach. In this atmosphere, writes Wu, “mediocrity begets mediocrity”.

One of the most compelling sections of the book sheds light on Hollywood’s shift from auteur-centred film to film as vehicle for wider intellectual property promotion across a consolidated media landscape. Wu compares a list of the most expensive films of the 2000s (including Spiderman III, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Superman Returns, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen) with its 1960s equivalent and finds the recent blockbusters heavily skewed towards sequels based around “an easily identifiable property with an existing reputation, appeal and market value”, concluding “a film like Transformers or Iron Man doesn’t just earn box office revenue, it demonstrably drives the sale of the associated toys, comic books and, of course, sequels”. This, writes Wu, “has everything to do with the business’s being part of conglomerate structures”.

Consolidated media: the big six

No wonder Hollywood is so keen to ramp up intellectual property protections. Reading The Master Switch it becomes clearer than ever that the effort the film industry puts in to influencing legislators (the MPAA recently hired former Senator and Presidential candidate Chris Dodd to fill Jack Valenti’s shoes, his salary alone is reportedly $1.2m) is nothing to do with fighting a rear guard action against online “piracy” and everything to do with shoring up its business against the disruptive new technology of the ‘net. It is a replay of the reconsolidation of the US telecommunications industry after Bell was broken up in the 1970s, a repeat of the pincer movement described by Wu with, on the one hand, elaborate and expansive political lobbying and, on the other, aggressive business practice. But whereas James Grimmellman can write of the Google Books settlement, “the Ninth Circle of antitrust hell is reserved for price fixers”, reports that the music and movie business deliberately block access to their back catalogues through punitive licensing arrangements, while steadfastly refusing to cooperate around compulsory licensing policy go pretty much unremarked. In another age, writes Wu, corporations of the size of Viacom and Disney would have attracted the attention of competition regulators.

The most tantalising thing about The Master Switch is that since Wu handed it in to his publishers, he has been hired by the US Federal Trade Commission as a policy advisor. So I asked him, purely theoretically of course, if he could only bring one anti-trust suit, would he pick Google (who he also labels “a monopoly” in the book) or one of the major media conglomerates? If you want to know which one he picked, you can listen to the broadcast, which goes out on Resonance 104.4FM on Friday night at 7pm, and which, if you don’t live in London, you can listen to online here. I’ll put a link to the podcast just as soon as it goes up.

Spotted! Me on Resonance 104.4 FM tonight, interviewing Evgeny Morozov

Image of radio studio Update: The interview is now available for download.


For the next three months, I’ll be filling in for Rebecca Watson, hosting one of my favourite radio shows, Little Atoms on Resonance 104.4FM. This evening at 7pm the first of my co-hosting efforts will be broadcast. You can listen online or download the podcast (I’ll update this post when that goes out, or subscribe via iTunes here) .

Little Atoms rocks. Ever since Neil Denny asked me to fill in for Rebecca at the end of last year, I’ve been really excited about this first show, interviewing author of The Net Delusion Evgeny Morozov. Evgeny is a sharp thinker with a great sense of humour, he writes brilliantly about all the issues I care about, and his accent (Evgeny was born in Belarus) is radio heaven. We pre-recorded the interview on Wednesday this week, ready to go live tonight. But all did not go to plan.

Picture the scene. It’s half an hour before the recording is due to start and I’m standing outside the gates to the Resonance studios. It’s cold. Nobody inside the studios is answering the doorbell. Perhaps, I think, nobody is inside the studios. I get a text from my co-host Padraig Reidy saying he’s running late – very late – thanks to a Tube fail on the Northern line. I may have to do this one on my own. It’s at this moment that Evgeny pulls up in a taxi with his publicist.

Evgeny MorozovIf I sound a little shaken at the beginning of the recording, then that’s my excuse. Of course it all worked out in the end, thanks partly to Annie the producer (thanks, Annie!) and mostly to Evgeny’s patience and kindness.

I’m not sure Evgeny would welcome me outing him as a thoroughly nice chap given his public image as the scourge of cyber-utopians. In the 30 minute interview, we discuss the flawed metaphors, shoddy evidence and general naivety that has contributed to the US State Department’s Internet Freedom agenda, the hypocrisy of that agenda as revealed by Wikileaks, and the danger that agenda poses to citizens of autocratic regimes everywhere. Go listen.

Image credits: Ross Murray@Flickr (radio studio) oso@Flickr (Evgeny)

Stewart Brand

I’ve got a review of Stewart Brand’s new book Whole Earth Discipline in this week’s New Statesman. It doesn’t appear to be on their website yet, so I’ve re-produced it below.

I became interested in Stewart Brand after reading Fred Turner’s excellent (if a little dry) book From Counterculture to Cyberculture last year (see this previous post). Like a secret time-traveller, Brand pops up at various moments that would go on to define the development of personal computing: filming the “mother of all demos” in the 60s; funding the Homebrew Computer Club in the 70s; coining the phrase “information wants to be free” in the 80s. You can hear me interviewing Stewart for my favourite independent radio show, Little Atoms, on Resonance FM next Friday.

Here’s my review (note this is unedited copy, but it doesn’t differ much from what you’ll find on p.54 of today’s Staggers):

Social entrepreneur and technology guru Stewart Brand’s first significant contribution to the environmental movement came to him as he sat on a rooftop in 1966. Tripping on LSD, he looked up at the stars and asked “Why haven’t we seen a picture of the whole earth yet”? Forty years later, Brand has given up the drugs and the mysticism of 1960s San Francisco, but he’s still thinking about the planet. This time, he doesn’t just want a photograph (that happened in 1968, leading to the first Earth Day in the US), he wants “a constant, real-time high-resolution video of the Earth turning in the sunlight” – the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR), abandoned before launch by the Bush administration because it had been Al Gore’s idea. Much more than DSCOVR, though, Brand wants us to break free from our various ideological shackles and begin focussing on the task at hand – saving civilisation.

Whole Earth Discipline: an Ecopragmatist Manifesto is a rich, compelling guide to how old wisdom and new technologies can combine to help civilisation survive manmade climate change. But it should be read as much for its dissection of the way ideologies distort decision-making on science and technology. Why did the anti-state right oppose fluoridisation and the anti-corporate left oppose GM? “A political agenda is… poor at solving problems”, writes Brand. “Accustomed to saving natural systems from civilisation, Greens now have the unfamiliar task of saving civilisation from a natural system”. The ensuing ideological backflip will spread its own kind of chaos – a chaos budding ecopragmatists must learn to sidestep.

The book proposes three ideological heresies about to break on the shores of environmental consciousness: urbanisation; GM; nuclear. Earth’s population became mostly urban in 2007. The dream of going back to the land – an ideal Brand gained his fame by promoting in Whole Earth Catalog, a kind of Sears for hippy communes – is wrong-headed, because cities turn out to be the greener option. Urbanisation slows population growth (as women choose education and opportunity over large families), concentrates resource needs, and gradually empties rural areas of subsistence farmers, allowing planned approaches to agriculture that reduce environmental impact and leave more land surface to be gardened into “natural” ecosystems that will mitigate climate harm.

But urban populations demand grid electricity, and that means re-evaluating the nuclear option. The rejection of nuclear stems from our revulsion of nuclear weapons; the “absolute” nature of our other concerns – on grounds of safety, cost and waste storage – all flow from here. Brand dismisses each objection with a mix of hope and hard science. A trip to the experimental Yucca mountain 10,000-year storage facility leaves him agreeing with James Lovelock that “we need it about as much as we need a facility for imprisoning dangerous extraterrestrials”. We should divert the $28bn set aside to store waste from the nuclear we’ve already used towards research into new micro-reactors and the possibility of substituting uranium with thorium. Brand’s own ideological shift – here and elsewhere – is away from 60s individualism toward 21st century governance. Post-Copenhagen, we might wish that his proposed blend of the internet-inspired engineer/hacker frame with approaches to economic planning that might alarm the folks back home was a little less vague.

Most compelling is the book’s defence of GM agriculture. Here, Brand the trained biologist puts the leaders of Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth in the same dock as the leaders of Exxon Mobil for their crimes against science and humanity. Environmentalists who label GM “unnatural” have confused agriculture with nature, when agriculture itself is one of the world’s worst climate criminals. The work of Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth in demonising GM has left millions of Africans starving to defend a misguided European ideology. The organic and GM movements must converge around the shared goal of soil quality through no-till agriculture – the only thing stopping them from doing so is moral panic. Brand drolly reminds us that Frankenstein was the inventor of a creature that was mistaken by the public for a monster. “Of course, that’s a rhetorical argument, devoid of meaning. But so is the term Frankenfood.”

Urbanisation, nuclear, GM: all will happen whether the environmental movement adopts Brand’s manifesto or not. But if Greens take up his call, if they start working to “Green the Hell” out of the world’s new mega-cities, go “Glow-in-the-Dark” Green and make sure nuclear power adoption is directed in the right way, or encourage GM technology out of the patent portfolios of Monsanto and into the hands of local specialists (“Biotech wants to be free”), all three will happen better. Like adolescents emerging into adulthood, it’s time to put away our inner grudges and get used to the idea that we alone are masters of our own destiny. “We are as gods and have to get good at it”.

Stewart Brands campaigning buttons

Counterculture/Cyberculture

Book JacketI took some time about reading Fred Turner’s From Counterculture to Cyberculture. It appeared on my desk when I was working at openDemocracy, which is at least two and a half years ago, and most likely more. The feeling I got when I received it has never left me: that this book was a secret messaage sent especially to me.

Nonetheless, it took me this long to read it, mostly because it is written densely, in an academic style. Fred Turner is assistant professor in the Department of Commnuication at Stanford University, at least he was at the time this book was published (2006). Perservering with his book has paid off.

The book tracks a period of time between the early 1960s and the late 1990s, focussing on the activities of Stewart Brand and the communities he encountered during his extensive career as a social entrpreneur, from his experience with the Merry Pranksters to his founding of the Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link, an early San Francisco-based BBS. The books is subtitled “Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network and the Rise of Digital Utopianism”. In particular, Turner demonstrates how Brand brought to a popular audience the activities of both the New Communalist, back-to-the-land movement and the experiments in distributed computing of the latter day Cold War military-academic-industrial complex, using the common contact language he established to do so in order to frame an early, influential strand of information politics which extended to liberal economics, workforce reform… and the dotcom crash.

The book celebrates and illuminates key moments in the history of the digital age, including Douglas Engelbert’s “Mother of All Demos” of 1968 (which Brand filmed), a 1972 photo feature, shot by Anne Liebowitz for Rolling Stone magazine, in which Brand describes the oncoming personal computer revolution as “the best news since psychedelics”, the 1990 online encounter between John Perry Barlow and young New York hackers Masters of Deception, and Wired‘s 1997 cover story “The Long Boom”, which is subtitled thus:

“We’re facing 25 years of prosperity, freedom, and a better environment for the whole world. You got a problem with that?”

I’d like to do another blog poast about that shortly. But in the mean time I suggest you swot up here.