Category Archives: Events

Tonight! Pick one: utopia/dystopia

Update!: The recording of this event is now available for download.


I’ve already mentioned that I’ll be at the Free Word Centre tonight, chairing the “Which way to techno-utopia?” event. There are still a few tickets going and if you’re in the area, you should come.

That starts at 6:30pm, so I imagine we’ll wind up in time for you to whizz home to catch the first of Adam Curtis’s new three-part documentary on the perils of digital utopianism and the fallacy of the liberating network “All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace“, which airs on BBC2 at 9pm.

Together with Neil Denny, I interviewed Mr Curtis last Friday for Little Atoms. If you didn’t catch the broadcast, the podcast will be up soon. Adam Curtis is someone whose work has shaped mine and whose approach I admire deeply, and it’s been a wrenching experience watching him dismantle the ideology I’ve spent a good part of my life not only believing but promoting. I confronted him about this on Friday, and he was very nice about it, while firmly standing his ground.

Episode two airs next week, and touches on many of the themes I explore in Chapter 3 of Barefoot Into Cyberspace, which regular readers will know is available for free download.

Here’s the trail for tonight’s broadcast:

Which way to techno-utopia? Event at the Free Word Centre next week

picture of signpostBe it nostalgia, futurology, or just the desire to escape our home and seek our fortunes in foreign lands, human beings have a tendency to see happiness anywhere but where they are. But which way is techno-utopia: backwards, forwards, or sidewards? The trash culture of globalised mass-production may make us hamper for an age when the gadgets beginning to invade our home were made (in Britain) to last a lifetime, or it may make us hungry for a virtual world devoid of material detritus. What is certain is that a society’s approach to technology will be driven by the ideologies of the moment.

Next Monday I’m chairing an event where I hope to explore visions of techno-utopia from three distinct angles. On stage will be Gia Milinovich, Angela Saini and Ken Hollings.

Gia is a presenter, writer and blogger, specializing mainly in new media and film. She has worked in a technical capacity on major blockbusters including The X-Files, Indiana Jones and 28 Weeks Later, and she advised on and appeared in the 2009 BBC programme Electric Dreams. I’m hoping that what she’ll bring to the discussion is insight into the modern fetishisation of vintage technology and, more generally, technology’s depiction on the big screen.

Ken is known to this blog, and talks very engagingly about the visions of technology, its power and potential, that pervaded the 20th century during the Cold War. I’m looking forward to seeing him again after our radio show together last year.

Angela is an old acquaintance from my openDemocracy days, and has her first book out this year, Geek Nation (subtitle “How Indian Science is Taking Over the World”). I’m hoping to get some insight from her about the founding myths that inform the Indian tech scene.

If you’d like to come, tickets cost £5 and you can buy them from the Free Word Centre website. The Free Word Centre itself is on Farringdon Road in London, opposite the building that used to house the Guardian newspaper. The event is being put on by Little Atoms. I look forward to seeing you there!

Photo credits: Peter Nijenhuis@Flickr

ORG is 5!

ORG is 5 logo

Happy birthday to the Open Rights Group, which turns five today.

It’s hard for me to imagine a world without ORG, and not just because I had the pleasure of running it for two years. In the five years since it was founded by 1,000 concerned citizens, ORG has been a crucial voice in debates as far-ranging as whether we should trust computers to tabulate and count votes for us in elections (we shouldn’t) to whether we should let internet service providers snoop on our browsing activity in order to sell us advertising (we shouldn’t do that either). And of course, ORG has played centre stage in national, European and global campaigns to make the intellectual property framework work for citizens and consumers. I’ve been an ORG supporter for five years and I know better than anyone how crucial my monthly £5 is to ORG’s continued success.

It’s more than just the money. Having a predictable future income helps ORG plan campaigns in the long term – vital if they are to match the considerable lobbying clout of the incumbent rightsholders and new internet giants that flood Westminster and Brussels with legislative and regulatory proposals that are not always in the public interest. Having a sustainable core financial base is a great selling point to grant funders who tend only to want to make project-based grants. And being able to tell legislators that the reason you are here in front of them is because over 1,500 citizens have decided you need to be and put their hands in their pockets to make it happen is a very powerful message indeed. If you haven’t joined the Open Rights Group yet, there are three good reasons to do so today. Go on. Do it.

And now for something a little more whimsical. Here’s the piece I wrote for openDemocracy five years ago to celebrate the founding of ORG. Enjoy:

Tonight, I am following in the footsteps of a Grateful Dead lyricist, Sun Microsystems’ fifth employee and the inventor of the spreadsheet. Like John Perry Barlow, John Gilmore and Mitch Kapor, who together founded the United States-based organisation the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) in 1990, I am starting my own campaigning group for online rights. Well, I can’t take all the credit. Together with over 1,000 other people I have pledged that I will pay £5 (approximately $8) each month for the sake of a voice in an arena where our future online civil rights are at this very moment being put to paper.

It’s an innovative way to start a campaigning organisation. Not until a critical mass of 1,000 people had been reached (with a last-minute call from cult blog BoingBoing for the final thirty-three signatories) could the Open Rights Group (Org) come into being. Using Pledgebank.com, a site designed by British civic participation hackers MySociety, the co-founder of British netzine Need to Know Danny O’Brien (himself an EFF émigré) started the process off. He pledged that if 1,000 people would join him, he would commit to funding a modest advocacy group that would give a voice to young technologists in the press and at the drafting table to the tune of £60 a year.

This bottom-up approach is testament to the organisation and the values it represents. But the thrill of being involved has not allowed the Org project to pass by without criticism – in fact, the openness of the group has exposed it to heartfelt involvement from many sides. But the project has already met with its first success. In speaking out against content owners’ desire to be treated as equal to security services in terms of access to electronic personal data – a piece of draft law currently being fast tracked through the European Union – Org has finally added the crucial alternative voice in the modern dialogue of online rights.

Campaigning for digital rights is a very wide mandate. Not only is access to the internet increasingly, and rightly, being seen as a basic right, but the traditional concerns of civil rights are magnified in the virtual world. With more personal data swimming around in the ether than ever before, and with security services more enthusiastic than ever to get their hands on it, privacy is top of the agenda, and hopelessly skewed. Likewise freedom of speech. The recent sentencing of Chinese journalist Shi Tao on the strength of evidence provided by a third party global corporate entity should prove that the impossibility of global governance of the net also has its downsides.

Spotted! Me at Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge

I will be appearing on a panel after a screening of RIP: A Remix Manifesto at Cambridge Arts Picturehouse this Saturday. The screening starts at 3pm. Why not buy a ticket and come along?

RIP artwork

Here’s what the Arts Picturehouse website has to say about the film:

Biomedical engineer turned live-performance sensation Girl Talk, has received immense commercial and critical success for his mind-blowing sample-based music. Utilizing technical expertise and a ferocious creative streak, Girl Talk repositions popular music to create a wild and edgy dialogue between artists from all genres and eras. But are his practices legal? Do his methods of frenetic appropriation embrace collaboration in its purest sense? Or are they infractions of creative integrity and violations of copyright?

I watched it a while back on the small screen, and I have yet to see a film that betters it at explaining the nuances of the copyright debate.

With me on the panel will be John Naughton, Jussi Parikka and Geoff Gamlen, all chaired by the wonderful Bill Thompson.

My aim will be to use the term “semiotic democracy” at least once. If you’re coming, and you hear me succeed, holler out.

Tomorrow! ORGCon: Reclaim the net

The Open Rights Group are holding the UK’s first national conference on digital rights tomorrow at City University in London. I’m down to chair two sessions (one on ACTA with Jeremie Zimmerman, Eric Josefsson, Michelle Childs and Andres Guadamuz, the other on the dismantling of the database state, with representatives from No2ID, ARCH, Big Brother Watch and FIPR), which will leave me with lots of time to enjoy their packed programme and hopefully spot a few friendly faces. There are still a few tickets remaining, and entry is free if you sign up to join the Open Rights Group.
ORGCon logo

Tonight! Hacks and Hacking

Tonight’s Online News Association event on data-driven journalism entitled “Hacks and Hacking” has sold out, so if you were lucky enough to get a ticket, I’ll see you there.

My slides for the night can be downloaded here.