Category Archives: Little Atoms

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:

Little Atoms interview with Adam Curtis

If I sound a bit amused as I introduce the current episode of Little Atoms, an interview with Adam Curtis about his upcoming documentary All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, that’s because I’ve just fluffed my cue live on air. Neil Denny kindly edited that out of the podcast of the interview, which is now available for download.

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

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.

Interview with Johann Hari for Little Atoms

Last Friday, while I was on my way to New York for a two day meeting at the Open Society Foundations’ US headquarters, my second spot on Little Atoms went out on Resonance. Its an interview with Independent columnist Johann Hari, and we end up talking a lot about the recent UK Uncut protests against our nation’s tax delinquents. You can listen to the show here.

Picture of UK Uncut Protester outside Vodafone

I’ve been delighted to watch this protest movement emerge, and it’s great talking to someone who has been in close proximity to it. I was also thrilled to see Open Rights Group and Open Knowledge Foundation stickers on the back of the laptop of one protester in the photo accompanying this excellent feature on the movement entitled “No drugs. No sex. And no leaders.” by Laurie Penny in last week’s New Statesman.

Image from New Satesman feature on UK Uncut

(Ok, so you can make them out a little better in the print version, which is a double-page spread.)

Johann was a joy to interview, partly because I’ve known him since our first day as undergraduates at Kings College, Cambridge and it was good to catch up on gossip off-mic, but mostly because he talks sense, in complete paragraphs.

Image credits: copwatcher@flickr; Philip Sinden for New Statesman

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)