Early in 2001 I was a freelance journalist, writer and speaker, doing my best to help people understand the internet and how it was transforming the world, and arguing that it should be reshaped to be supportive, humane and regulated to serve public rather than purely private interests. I was writing for The Guardian, The Register and The Times, editing supplements for The New Statesman, and speaking at events around the world. I published pamphlets for the Cooperative Party, advised think tanks and governments on tech policy, and tried to ensure that the people whose lives were most affected by technology both understood it and had a way to influence its development.
I had been appearing regularly on The Big Byte, a radio show on the BBC’s news and sport network Radio 5, where I reported the week’s technology news. The team of presenters and producers included Gareth Jones, Jem Stone, Violet Berlin, Quentin Cooper, producer Neil George, and a young producer called Gareth Mitchell. They were all great to work with and we had an excellent time going out live from a basement studio in Broadcasting House every Sunday lunchtime.
As well as the Big Byte I was regularly invited to be the ‘person who understands tech’ on other shows, like Outlook and You and Yours, and as the net became more important there were more opportunities to sit down with presenters like Sean Rafferty or Jeremy Vine and explain what was going on, or to be a calming voice for one of Rory Cellan-Jones’ packages on the six o’clock news.
So it wasn’t surprising when I was asked if I’d help out with a planned new show for the BBC World Service that was going to focus on technology and its impact on people’s lives rather than breathless reports about the latest shiny toy available in the shops.
[this is an attempt to capture a half-formed line of thinking before it goes.. be gentle with my inconsistencies]
There continues to be enormous interest in the development of the next generation of image generating tools. My Twitter feed is full of people’s experiments with image synthesis tools like DALL-E, Stable Diffusion, and Midjourney, while even TikTok is getting into the game with its own built in ‘AI Greenscreeen’.
Meanwhile there’s an ongoing conversation about which of the LLMs (large language models) will replace novelists or become sentient, as GPT-3, OPT-175B and LaMDA continue to demonstrate an astonishing ability to reduce the critical capacity of journalists to zero and cause them to generate ever more hyperbolic copy.
At the centre of these new tools there is a serious debate to be had about the implications of training a neural network in the entire corpus of human-generated text and imagery, without licensing anything that remains in copyright, or considering the moral rights of any of the artists involved, and then using the tool to ‘create’ similar work.
That’s not my main concern at the moment, so instead I want to reflect on what I believe will become the primary use case for software that can take text and an optional image and generate an unlimited collection of fairly coherent words and still images (soon to do the same for video). Because I think these are the tools we will come to rely on to populate our metaverses with the virtual locations and interactive non-player characters (NPCs) we will need to meet demand.
We are going to need them because after a mere thirty years of serious experimentation with augmented and virtual reality we seem to have the hardware, processing power, and funding from wildly optimistic multi-billionares that we need to make the metaverse a viable mass medium.
What we probably don’t have is the human cognitive resource needed to create the number of virtual environments or NPCs we will need if this takes off.
It’s May 11 2022 and at some point today I’ll walk down Strand to Aldwych and stand outside a set of very exclusive apartments just next door to the ME London hotel. The Marconi Wing, with its very nice entrance, is on the site of Marconi House where, on this day in 1922, a 100W radio transmitter with the callsign 2LO started regular broadcasts on 350 metres (857 kHz)
It wasn’t the first radio station in the UK, nor even the first to broadcast a regular schedule – that was 2MT, which began on February 14 from some huts next to the Marconi laboratories at Writtle, near Chelmsford, but 2LO was special because unlike 2MT – which closed in January 1923 – 2LO became part of the new British Broadcasting Company when it was formed in November 1922 and so is a direct ancestor of everything from the Light Programme to 6Music to BBC Sounds.
It’s so important I named my internal podcast after it – and you can listen to an episode of 2LO rebooted from the 95th anniversary here on Soundcloud.
It’s so important that the remaining bits of it are in the Science Museum’s Information Age gallery as a symbol of the engineering achievements that made broadcasting the dominant medium of the 20th Century.
And it’s so important that David Hendy, in his wonderful book The BBC: A People’s History, spends a lot of time talking about the astonishing creativity of the early BBC staff who were a vital part of the generation that created the medium of radio from the raw material of ‘sound at a distance’ and infused it with the public service principles that carry the BBC forward today, people like Lance Sieveking and Olive Shapley who broke down so many barriers
The BBC is rather important to me, not just as a broadcaster myself on Digital Planet, but because I’ve been inside the machine for almost thirteen years, since Tony Ageh and Roly Keating offered me the chance to join the archive development team and develop partnerships between the BBC and cultural institutions that would make better use of the BBC archive than just making old TV and radio programmes available.
I still believe that watching an old programme is probably the least interesting thing you can do with it, when it’s there to be mined for data about language, production methods, fashion, buildings, cars and social attitudes. If you want to know about spectacle frames in the 1980’s where else are you going to find hundreds of thousands of examples? Or shoes? Or car colours? Or racist language in everyday use?
But I’m no longer directly involved with the archive – after six years I moved, to the Make it Digital project where we made the BBC micro:bit a reality, and for the last five years in BBC Research & Development, which has given me a space to explore the boundaries of technology and look for new ways to put the medium of the network to good use, just as the radio pioneers of the 1920’s did for the tools their technology gave them.
And just as those creative programme makers stretched the limits of what microphones and mixing desks and studios and recording devices could do, with Olive Shapley interviewing working class people in their homes in Manchester or Sieveking dedicating all the studios in the BBC’s Savoy Place HQ to his seventy minute audio adventure Kaleidoscope, we’re pushing at the limits of what the BBC can do to deliver public value on the net, and trying to change the net to support our vision.
That’s the goal of our work on Public Service Internet, which, like 2LO, combines engineering endeavour, creative storytelling and a dedication to public service. I hope that Marconi himself, and the BBC’s first employees – Arthur Burrows, Cecil Lewis, and John Reith – would approve of what we’re doing with their inheritance
More to read and watch
You can find out about the PSI here on R&D Explains on YouTube
or a report of an event at Mozfest written up by Laura James
This essay is based on a talk given at the first meeting of the Shared Digital European Public Space group, which took place online on 9 July 2021. It is published in Building a European Digital Public Space: Strategies for taking back control from Big Tech platforms, edited by Alexander Baratsits.
This paper questions: how public democratic discourse can be established in an increasingly digitized world; how European values such as openness, transparency, data sovereignty and collaboration, as well as fundamental rights, diversity, pluralism, quality and freedom of expression, can be represented online; which policies would be necessary to build an independent European infrastructure; and how the digital public sphere can be subjected to democratic control.
The Public Sphere
The idea of a public sphere was first clearly formulated by Jurgen Habermas in his 1962 book “The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An inquiry into a category of bourgeois society (Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit. Untersuchungen zu einer Kategorie der bürgerlichen Gesellschaft)”, translated into English in 1989 (Habermas 1962; Habermas 1989). The public sphere is best understood as a zone of engagement for members of a society where discussion and debate can take place, where the shape of the society is determined, and where political actions may be initiated or regulated. Now that the network has emerged as the defining characteristic of this latest stage of extractive capitalism, it seems reasonable that the framing of the public sphere should extend to cover the new affordances of digital technologies.
Just as we talk about digital markets and their characteristics in places like the Cluetrain Manifesto (Levine et al. 2009), so too can we ask how having access to the connectivity and tools available online affect society, and try to understand the digital public sphere. Extensive research – or rather a quick online search – reveals that the term itself is not new: the first reference Google Scholar can find is in 1994, in Gunnar Liestøl’s essay “Hypermedia Communication and Academic Discourse: Some speculations on a future genre published” in “The Computer As Medium” (Andersen et al. 1993).
1994 feels about right. At the time I was working for the UK’s first commercial ISP, PIPEX, as the network was becoming a place for social action. In May 1994 I ran one of the first web-based online events at the launch of the book “Imagologies”, examining the impact of the network on teaching practices. And in September that year I ran the FringeWeb, part of the Edinburgh Fringe, putting material from The Guardian newspaper online (The Guardian 2017) and hosted a cybercafe in Edinburgh where people could post digital photos and reviews (Wilkie 2009; The Guardian 2019). The following year I joined The Guardian as Head of the New Media Lab and we launched the newspaper’s website.