On this week’s show we are joined by Matt D’Ancona to talk about his forthcoming book Identity, Ignorance, Innovation.
You can find out more about it here:https://www.hachette.co.uk/titles/matthew-dancona-5/identity-ignorance-innovation/9781529303995/?v2=true
The machine-generated transcript starts here:
Chris: Hello, and welcome to the latest episode. You join us with Matt D’Ancona of Tortoise and various other publications. And of course, me and Mattwere here after a Oh another week of excitement and and drama. In football cricket, which I’m trying not to think about. And and work, I guess, Matt, how are you Mr.
Matt: Well, the kids are back at school, so I was thinking sort of slightly Kelsey about the fact how I felt this joy that I would no longer have my children around me at home all day, every day. And I miss them a bit today as it was quiet around the hat, but not that much let’s be true, you know?
So that was good. I think my first lateral toe, the lateral tote had full flow test, which I, I got to, I haven’t yet, there was, there’s a, it’s a fascinating piece of user interface design though. So you’ve got this little plasticky devices a little bit like a a pregnancy test and there’s a long and convoluted exercise involving long swab everything’s plastic, and this a huge amount of small bits of plastic going into landfill out of this.
But I suppose it’s worth it. You stick this swab up your nose and you stick it in your. Back of your throat and they had to stick it into a little plastic thing, which is like a pipette with some liquid in it that you stick in there. And then you put a couple of drops onto this. The lateral flow presuming the, the movement of the liquid from one end of the piece of blotting paper to the other.
And then there are two stripes and one of them, if it comes on, it means the testers has been correctly administered. The second one is that it means you’ve got Corona virus and therefore are to be thrown away from human civilization for 14 days. But the one that’s the, the the controlled test that the test is working is Mark C.
And the other one is Mark T for T plague or something, but I just, it’s one of those things where you just go, Oh, medical professionals yet again, have completely failed to understand the importance of user interface design, because how many people can see that see, come up with a line against it and go, I’ve got coronavirus.
Chris: Yeah. Well, I that, that reminds me actually, there was a, there was a tear down on Twitter a few weeks ago. Well, maybe I share like a Twitter account called foun, which is where one of those that most follow academies, a good old techie. And he found out about these digital pregnancy tests. So the pregnancy tests that you would normally see in boots and whatever that you pee on, and the line comes across in a similar sort of way, things are digital ones.
So he took one apart and found essentially what they’ve got is a little. A little optical sensor will tell, and the lines are still in the testimony, but all it does is tries to figure out whether there aligns, gone up. And then on the little screen says, yes, you’re pregnant or not. So essentially it’s just a little optical sensor to read the line.
But you know, in many ways that that line sometimes is a bit fine to whatever, at least it gives you a yes or a no, maybe that’s what they need. Maybe that’s what that’s, that’s the, that’s the answer.
Matt: So you want plastic as well as electronics and batteries to go into landfill
Chris: fling together in order to make this more complicated.
Matt: Great movie. Great movie. Anyway Mr. Dan Kona, I think we can ask you one more tonight to be able to distinguish Matt. How are you? How’s your work?
Matt D’Ancona: Well, it’s been you know, occupied by. Sort of political stuff as usual, like the budget and what have you. But yeah, the main discovery I made this week is that the pandemic has to end soon.
I think that’s kind of my, my big, my big kind of insight, which was that the other night I went to, I was doing an event at jet Jewish book Fest. I wasn’t actually doing it on my book. I was doing it. I was interviewing someone else and we were on the stage at King’s place with no audience. And the, so the audience are watching online, completely empty building, completely empty, complete JD Ballarat sort of dystopian scene.
And I found the whole thing. So madly exciting, you know, it was like studio 54 for me being with an author on a stage with absolutely no one in the room. And everyone, you know, coming in with masks, that was to me, sort of so thrilling, I realized we’re now reaching the point where if that’s incredibly thrilling, it really is probably time to wrap this up guys because I badly need to get out.
It’s still a
Chris: joke basically.
Matt D’Ancona: Yeah. I mean, I, you know, I, I, I mean, I’m, I’ve got nothing against sitting in empty auditoriums, but That and, and indeed have a certain amount of experience in that, but but but it never thrilled me. So the share kind of address and rush of sitting in an empty auditorium made me think that probably certainly speaking entirely selfishly it was time to, you know, get the vaccine rollout sorted and things back to something, not if not normal than where I can go for a coffee or, you know, perhaps go to the movies.
I realize it’s not a very profound insight and it may well occur to a few other people around the world. But certainly for me it was, it was a big one.
Chris: We don’t need performs. No, no, no.
Matt D’Ancona: Aye. Aye. Aye. Aye. Aye. Aye. I’m certainly not offering it, but it was, it was, it I’m just as, as said, I looked back on the weakness past, that was kind of the moment, the Eureka moment.
Matt: I think, yeah, I had a similar moment or two similar moments actually this week one was when I went to Sainsbury’s at the weekend and that was just enough to be that way. And then the other was, I woke up after a vivid dream where I had dreamt that I was backstage at a a big public performance by Bruno Brooks and Gary Davis in a shopping center.
And that was the point. I wish I had the code. I need this locked down. So I’ve got something coming into my brain now, other than just the memories of the late eighties and early nineties. Yeah. Tariff
Matt D’Ancona: sort of spike Island. Only not
Matt: so, no, it was, it was, it was like in Westfield and it was, it was very drab and even worse.
I think it wasn’t even in the late eighties, early nineties, it was kind of Gary Davidson, Bruno Brooks today. Yeah.
Chris: Do you need to, you know, instant intervention here? But if I was, if I see what’s happening, I mean, I mean, I didn’t, I didn’t, I didn’t take a pen pandemic for me to find out what it’s like to stand and talk in front of a bunch of empty chairs, frankly.
But that, that kind of experience that would see me off. I think
Matt D’Ancona: it’s very strange.
Matt: How about you, Chris? Has anything happened in. Okay. Anything around your life in the last seven days?
Chris: Yeah, I was looking forward to watching some cricket, but then I wasn’t because that all went horribly wrong and and I’ve been busy at work and been it’s been quite good fun.
Actually it’s been, being, being busy is always good, but when you’ve got interesting things going on, it’s even better. So that’s okay. But no, not really. I wish, I wish I could say that it had been some grand thing that happened, but, but really we, we plot on that way. It was, it was quite cold this week and quite dispiriting because I get, I always get overexcited when the first rays of sunshine start dripping through the trees.
And then and now it got cold again. So that puts me into something to give a Dudgeon. And I’m hoping that next week is, you know, it gets a bit better and I can go outside a bit more.
Matt: Well, thanks for the warning. They’re in a bad mood. This week show Matt, Matt has joined us. Cause he’s going to be talking about the book that he’s got coming out a little later this month.
So I think we should probably get on with that.
Matt: So on the 18th of March, there is a new book coming out called identity, ignorance, innovation. And it’s your book, Matt? It is, we had the pleasure of reading it over the weekend. Start off, just tell us a bit about what those three Is are all about. My you’ve linked them together.
Matt D’Ancona: Well, I guess the Genesis of the book was oddly enough.
It was during the Brexit period. When I, I kind of reached the point where I could hear not a single further debate about immigration and how awful it was. And it seemed to me the whole country got stuck on immigration, almost a proxy for change of any kind. You know, quite liberal was, have been on immigration for all sorts of reasons, but.
Economic and cultural, but in any case, it seemed that everything, all roads led to immigration. And I thought it’d be interesting to, to some other words, we’re going to be the eye and just play around with them. And I came up with three, which were identity, ignorance and innovation which we can maybe go on and talk about.
But the, the interesting thing of course, was that as I started writing the book and researching it and. And then along came the pandemic and, and, and that completely changed the context in which the book was written. But I, I suppose in ways that were pleasant, unsettling and both I found that it enhanced the, the, the themes and, and made me look at them afresh and they seem to be even more relevant.
So it was sort of born in Brexit and delivered in. It was birthed in Brexit and finally came to be properly. And in the age of COVID, which was a strange, a very strange writing experience. I mean, needless to say, I’ve never had anything like it before.
Matt: And the things about the three subjects individually.
So the first one identity, and this is about quite a bit about identity politics, but it’s more than just
Matt D’Ancona: Well, I mean, one of the. Principle purposes of this book, it in a way, I mean, all books, however, whatever they are or books, seven elements of autobiography in them. And that, and this was, you know, I’ve always sort of occupied a kind of center ground and liberal position.
And it seemed to me that lots of people in that position, especially white people were looking at white men, I should say really. We’re, we’re looking at the identity politics movement as various expressed in. Black lives matter, me too. And so on. Extinction rebellion, you name it and being very dismissive of it.
And, and looking at it as a kind of Pat series of pathological emergencies that were wouldn’t last, or if they did last, it would be very bad instead of, instead of saying, well, what’s really going on here and is there anything we can learn from it? And it, and it seemed to me that a lot of what was being said, In identity politics, it was really worth listening to, and, and reflecting upon as a quite justified reproach to the kind of traditional liberal way of thinking and the assumption that the world occupy operates on a fair and meritocratic basis and the systems of justice in the end will always operate reasonably well.
And, and. They, they don’t and they haven’t. And lots of identity politics in this decade coming is about the fact that it’s taken so long for, to basic liberties and equality is to be, to be distributed. And that using the new technologies, I guess being a very part important part of it. People have found it easier and easier to express their politics prime primarily, or at least partly through group identity.
And I think this is in many respects, a positive thing because it’s, it’s brought to light the, the, the big gaps, the big failings. And I know, I know a lot of liberal people disagree profoundly of this and see, I don’t see politics as a mortal threat to liberal institutions, but I think actually, If, if we do this intelligently, there’s, there’s, there’s a lot to be learned from it.
And in it. Now there are also, there’s also some critique of identity politics in that section. It’s also sorts of I, I don’t distill it down to one goal, but but it, but it’s broadly positive. And I, that I already talking to some people about, you know, the book coming up and so on that has surprised people who didn’t, you know, I used to edit.
The spectator magazine. And what are you doing, messing about with identity politics? You know, you’re a 53 year old, straight white veil. Why, you know why you’re doing this. And, and I think part of it is just that journalistic instinct, which is just you, you know, you should remain curious, you should remain open-minded, you should, you should be looking at the new and, and absorbing the best of the news.
So that was, that was very important to me that the first part. And it’s kind of that in a way, it’s the most deliberately, the most combative section of the book I want. I want people of my generation to feel challenged by it, and I hope other generations will read it with interest too, but that there’s definitely a kind of generational dimension to that ignorance was really to do with a kind of realization I had over a number of years that.
Something was changing to the way knowledge was being both acquired or not acquired. And the role that examinations were playing in in that, that the, the, the, you know, I’d seen my own children and other people’s children and read about the situation in the States and the way in which teaching to the test and the kind of manic formatting of of, of the examination.
Treadmill was really kind of now becoming hostile to the acquisition of knowledge. It was all about just being able to regurgitate things in tick box form. And this was not the original objective of standardized testing. You know, standardized testing became came into Vogue for other reasons which were respectable, which was to try and raise standards.
And as so often happens, social policy is born. And it has its time. And I think we are now one of the things that’s very interesting about the pandemic, where in which essentially standardized testing has been put on hold is that I hope it will be a kind of rethink about how we test people. And then it will still always be some elements of national standardized testing.
I’m sure. But I hope that we’ll shift away from the kind of a slightly frenzied obsession. With these end of year examinations, which we, we, we tell our children that everything hangs, you know, it’s one Stripe or you’re out, which is a very, very unhealthy way to acquire knowledge and, and probably not in a way to acquire knowledge at all at precisely the time when we need people to be able to have as broad, a range of knowledge as possible, and to be able to think critically and creatively.
To be able to understand the liberal arts and having helped us the sciences, you know, this great divide we still have in this country between the humanities and STEM subjects, science subjects, and maths, very unhealthy and really bad, the whole relevance to not just the workforce, not just the, the world of work into which kids are going to be going, but the world You know, th th th we were going to be living in a world in which we’re going to be, we are already bombarded with information and we need the skills, the digital literacy to understand it.
We need the attention span to absorb information and knowledge, the space to have curiosity. This is one of my big bugbears, is that children, there’s a terrible word used in. Syllabus is called enrichment, which sort of means, you know, that after you’ve been forced fed like a goose, you know, being prepared for four Gras, you’re allowed 25 minutes to talk about, you know, a play or a book or a pop song, or, you know, Rappler X interests you before you’re sent back to the factory farm.
And I, I think it’s very sad because I think, you know, when you’re young, you, there should be some Slack in the system. It to enable you to roam and explore. And, you know, I, I think that people should have a very broad and eclectic approach to culture. I think it’s great to encourage kids to, you know, watch our house movies, but also when they want to talk about gaming, not to treat them as idiots because gaming is dominant one, possibly one could argue the dominant force in global culture.
Now. And I think, I think we have to be much more imaginative in our approach to knowledge. So ignorance was that, that was sort of the second big theme that I want to take on the innovation was, and it, and innovation became more important in the pandemic, I suppose, which was really how do we live in a world of change?
You know, how do we make ourselves resilient in a world of change? And so I selected a number of. Kinds of change automation, grain, life expectancy, the problem misinformation and so on, and just took each of them as a sort of example of how it might be possible to become more resilient, because these are forces that you gotta be, you know, more and more important in the years to come.
It could have, you know, could have easily just as easily looked at ’em. Pandemic issues, biology and so on. I mean, I only selected a few just as examples, but I just want us to take those three big themes and knit them together as a kind of offering towards a new politics. Because I think as we come out of the pandemic, there’s going to be a huge appetite for new ideas.
And I’ve been writing about politics a while now. And I, to be honest, I can’t remember a moment when the sort of intellectual. Landscape was so average, you know, it’s not fizzing with any great big themes. There are great movements out there. Great sorts of campaigns and so on. But what you don’t have is a sense of, you know, where, where the heat and the energy is going.
Be. Gather in, in, in politics itself. So this is my little contribution to that big debate that I hope will, will we’ll begin. You know, when we, when we’re sort of finally released drummer from our quarantine,
With the, the identity section, some of the things you described there, it, it feels almost the identity.
Politics is just one facet of how. Particularly, I guess social networks are starting to challenge established structures for organizations. So the way in which, for example I find now often that networks exist that exist, that span across organizations, with people, with interest in some sort of common interest communities that span across the can organize and be able to manage themselves.
In a, in a way that they just couldn’t have done even maybe 10 years ago. And now often, actually much more powerful for getting things done and things to happen than those that exist within an organization. And take for example experience of working in digital services within government, whilst government digital service in the UK was a catalyst actually, there’s a whole load of.
You know, Gulf camps and you know, open forums and stuff that sit across government organizations where you’ve got people who are affecting change much more effectively across their discipline or across the thing they want to talk about than they would if they were just stuck in a silo of a particular government department or a particular arm’s-length Balti.
And that I, I don’t think it has limited the public sector at all. I think that, that you can see those kinds of waves happening in all sorts of places. And so there’s something here about how. Our means individually to communicate starting to really challenge the traditional hierarchies of traditional organizations, maybe.
Yeah, no, totally. And I think that there’s a risk sometimes in of loose language. When we talk about social networks, we confuse that with big tech and the arguments about big tech and whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing. And it quickly degenerates into an argument about Facebook and Twitter, but actually as.
Sort of social phenomena, social networks, I think have been, you know, a net good by some margin. And you know, one of the things I look at in the book is the difference between networks and institutions and how people have lost, lost trust in institutions in the last 20, 25 years, the reasons. But also technology has enabled them to, as you say, not in a defined their own.
Peer groups and to be very creative and, and sometimes healthily disruptive in their fields. I always remember Eric, Raymond, the coder, I think back it as far back as 98, started talking about the cathedral versus the bizarre, you know, the idea that the w the old world was a world in which there was a cathedral that everyone worshiped in, which was the sort of the institution of authority and that.
The web as it then was because this was pre social media, pre broadband was going to bring in a world where it was more like big shopping, bizarre of activity and excitement. And he was right. Yeah, absolutely. That is, that is what has happened. And, you know, if you look at politics the most powerful institution now is the WhatsApp group without question.
And this is much criticized by some people, but actually. It’s it’s enabled people, both in campaigns and in parliament to liaise with each other, to interact with each other when they’re not physically near one another in a way that, you know, again, there’s a net positive. And I think that’s good.
And I think, I think it can be good in, in any, in any, yeah, actually to be honest, professional, particularly you know, you can see how creative. Those networks are because they, they’re not built on a deferential model. They’re built on a kind of lateral model of mutual respect and understanding. Now, sometimes they break down of course, like all networks do, but that’s not, that’s not a new phenomenon.
It it’s just the case that sometimes things don’t work out, but actually the opportunity I think is enhanced. And that’s the key is that the opportunities is greater than it was.
Chris: Do you think that’s, I, I would say that in my experience over the years, talking about that cathedral versus bizarre idea, the number of organizations there are still those, that kind of talk kind of ex cathedra, if you know what I mean?
So they, they it’s, this is, this is how it is, and that they’re telling you that what their opinion is, is the opinion. And there are organizations in my industry, you know, that, that do that. But they’re, they’re getting fewer and further between, because it’s, it’s not possible to be quite as prescriptive anymore, but it’s not possible to, to be the, the one source of truth, because there are so many ways you want to be challenged and so many other avenues for people to get valuable and valued information.
Matt D’Ancona: I mean, the, the the upside of that’s huge because it means that. The means of production as it were, have gone out of the very few people’s hands into everyone’s hands. You know, when I, when I started as a journalist in 1991, I was at the times and as a trainee and, and, you know, literally the journalists would flock in to the plant in the morning and in the evening, huge trucks with the sun and the times written on the side, we’d come out with the newspapers on it.
I mean, it was a completely Fordist model. And I mean, that was ex cathedra literally you know, the editorials that were written at the paper, they were the expressions of, I guess you know, it wasn’t even an elite view. It was an establishment view that, that, that really had enormous authority and power.
You compare it to now, everyone. How can do that, you know, at, at vanishingly small costs, zero cost. And I think that’s a good thing. I think I’m, I’m radically in favor of that. The, the, the, the only problem, and it can be a huge problem is, is the other kind of authority, which is not power over people, but the authority that comes from being a trusted source.
And so I think the, the new challenge, which is, has been wrapped as the last book I wrote was about post-truth. And I address misinformation in this one too is, is how do you, how do you kind of ensure that the world in which information is flat that your you’re not exposed to CDOT science, or if you are, that you know, that you are being so exposed and.
You understand that Holocaust denial is rubbish and, and that kind of thing. And this is, it’s an educational challenge. It’s a challenge of kite marking. It’s a huge test for the, the, the tech companies themselves. And I kind of feel we’re only in the foothills of this. People want big bang answers and that’s understandable.
And there is, there’s no doubt that legislation and regulation will play its part in it. But. It’s it w we need to sort of slightly keep, hold on nerve on this one, because it is true that at the moment, you know, things are not there is there, isn’t an answer to that clear and present danger, and it is deeply worrying that America is filled with people who still seem to believe in Q add-on.
And, and conspiracy theories generally. And the hole they have over people is, is, is, is an alarming. By-product of all this, but still in all. I think that the, the new information ecosphere is better than what proceeded it. And we will find ways through human ingenuity of including of improving our, you know, our kind of information nutrition, if you like and, and understanding, you know, what Sears we put into our minds and how to, how to sort that.
But. That’s that’s really what people should be thinking about that again, my, my, my sort of footnote worry is that there are very, very, very few politicians who understand this. I remember when I mentioned it in the book when Carol Cadwalader the, the great campaigning journalists on all this, and I went to testify to the culture media select committee, which was doing review under Damian Collins, who does understand all this.
But not all of his fellow MPS on this turd much about anything. And I, what struck me most about our period of being cross-examined was an NPE shall remain nameless. Cause it was in, it was in private asking me what what an app was. And this was not that long ago. And I, that really weren’t.
I mean, I thought that’s, that’s terrifying. Because it’s not as if that’s a, I mean, that’s not a, that’s not a high-tech question,
Matt: but I think there’s two, there’s two sets of knowledge. And I don’t think it’s just politicians. I think there are lots of senior people in organizations and possibly the population at large.
But in senior ranks, I think this is particularly the case. The one side of it is understanding technology, the kind of engineering and The way it works and how it works and what this stuff is. And it’s, I kind of vacillate between thinking that actually you do need to know some of this stuff to better make sensible decisions.
And actually, I don’t really know roughly above and beyond very little how a car works, but it gets me from 80 cents of do I need to worry about it? I can see pros and cons either way. The other side of it though, for me. And again, this might be because of my own background, having studied both of these areas, but the much derided subject of media studies.
Which was kind of in, certainly when I was going to university in the late eighties, early nineties was seen as a no pun intended Mickey mouse subject. But actually being able to have the cognitive understanding of being able to understand the media. As well as the content within it, so that you can start to be able to make those decisions about what is valuable and what is not.
And if you don’t have either of those, if you understand neither the tech, nor the you know, th th th the mechanisms by which media operates, you’re going to believe anything.
Matt D’Ancona: Well, that, that, that’s, that’s so true. And, and, you know, I think it’s, it’s, it’s very striking to me. W when I go and talk at schools.
And so on that I mean the first thing that strikes me is that the, the old media world is just dead. In the sense that you can, you can be talking to a very bright group of kids and chats and before, and they’re obviously bright as buttons and, you know, really switched on and they, they get talking about the issues that animate them.
So the kind of kickoff question is, well, who’s red. And then I’ll reel off the BBC, the guardian, you know, a few kind of basic mainstream media sources, you know online today and there, if you’re, then we’ll put the hands up, you know, they’re getting their information from social media and YouTube.
Interestingly enough, I was, I’m always fascinated by the power of YouTube or the young as a, as an information provider. That’s very underrated. And what I think. You have now is, is that, that their teachers are over generation that, you know, through no fault of their own. Yeah. I’m not quick to teach them the digital literacy.
They need to understand that they’re being fed by algorithm rather than by, by veracity. I mean, the stuff they get is, is, is based upon their previous likes and their what, what they enjoy. And so that. They’re their confirmation bias is actually into the system. And this is just the start of the process you’re talking about Matt.
And I think it, it kind of, it’s, it’s incredibly important. And the sooner that happens the better, I mean, I I’m very much in favor of throwing money at this actually. And, and yeah, if necessary. You know, I wouldn’t fall tax on big tech or I know a small levy on every handset. Some, some, something like that that would just generate a big pot of cash that could be spent on helping teachers to learn how to do this because it’s, it’s, it’s so important.
It’s kind of, but it’s basic civic empowerment, you know, if you, if you’re not able to distinguish the good from the bad, if you’re not able to. See, what’s what’s real and what isn’t and what’s opinion, and what’s factually based. And, and not able to cross examine and interrogate what you’re fed.
You are going to just end up in a sort of canonized tribalized world, where you’re just huddling around a series of certainties, which may or may not be the case. And that is a problem. But again, you know, I think, I think, you know, we can fix it. I don’t, I don’t think that the problem is, is in any sense, unfixable.
It just requires a bit of energy and a lot of imagination. And so, and one of the themes that that goes through the book is, is it’s a kind of in patients with populist governments, because I think populous governments are very, very good. At complaining about problems and very, very bad at fixing them.
They, they insist that there are there are simple solutions to complex problems, but that wicked elites thought those simple solutions and immigrants and all manner of imagined enemies, including the mainstream media staff and in the way. And what’s really striking about. Poppiness governments is they’re not actually very good at doing stuff.
That if you look at the Trump administration, it didn’t really do very much, which is probably for the best, but it didn’t really accomplish anything. And if you look at the Johnson government it’s first year with the pandemic was, was a series of catastrophes. And one of the reasons that we’re all so blown away by vaccine rollout is that it’s the first time that the thing has worked.
And I, and thank goodness it is, but you know, it is, it is, we’re all sort of blinking and scratching our eyes and thinking, how did that happen? And, and, and hoping that it’s not some terrible. Cosmic mistake. And we’re in a multiverse and we’ll bounce back to the real Johnson universe where vaccine rollout is a complete disaster.
No, everyone’s getting the wrong doses. And you know, it is, it is, but it is rather amazing that people are quite as amazed as they are. And that’s because the populous governments are not, you know, they’re great at campaigning that you have to give it to Boris Johnson and to. To a certain extent, Trump, you know, who, you know, he didn’t, he didn’t lose by that much amazing at campaigning winning referendums, winning elections, that kind of thing.
But when it comes to governing countries, they’re completely terrible. And so that this is not, this is, as they say in white hall, a suboptimal moment, because we’ve got big problems. Some of them very nuanced and technical And we need, we need governments that are ready to take them on, you know, with energy.
Not, not, I don’t mean technocratic governments. I mean, passionate governments. But populism is not passionate about populism is about getting power and, and keeping it using popular support as your glue. So different thing. Hmm.
Matt: Do you think sometimes if you think about that populist ideal of. It’s all just about making a simple answer to things that order I wonder sometimes, actually is the tech industry, an example of that, where the answer will be tech.
And then we don’t have to worry about any of the heartbeat. We don’t have to worry about getting people to change because we just put some tech in. If you think about the early days of the pandemic, for example, it was going to be the app that was going to save us. Now that it’s all going a bit quiet about the app because
Matt D’Ancona: it has, doesn’t it,
Tech can actually fulfill that role of being the populist answer to staff and it doesn’t actually achieve it necessarily. There’s a, there’s a in the innovation agenda stuff. So there’s a real risk there, I think.
Matt D’Ancona: Well, I think it’s a, it’s a, it’s an abusive of, of, of what technology is which is exactly, as you say, to imply that it’s magic.
And you know, you’ve got a problem as. Socially complex is test trace and isolate. And you, you appeal to people’s love of their phones. Basically, you know, the phone is the modern amulet, you know, it’s the superhero amulet, it’s full of magic people. Can’t bear to let go of it. It’s they’re precious, you know?
And so people think, well, how is this test trace and isolate? And the work that sounds complicated. And Matt Hancock says, we’ve got an app. And possibly several and they say, great, we’ll have them all. And, and then none of them work. And, and actually that was a very good example of technology that was kind of like the wizard of Oz, the curtain behind Richard, the wizard of Oz head, but except the wizard of Oz was was sort of temp afterward telesales person who was meant to be tracing people.
And spoke to two people in 10 hours. I mean, it really was it in, in years to come that that, that policy will be studied as how not to do anything ever. It’s an incredible example of how to do things badly, but to your point, the app with a capital a who’s going gonna, it was the magical potion, wasn’t it?
It really was. And that’s, I think part of this is to stop talking about technology as a separate thing. Because I think what, what, what we characterize as the digital revolution is now everything really. Nothing is divorced from it. And so when you hear people saying there are technological solutions to this, I share your kind of suspicion something is up here.
This is a poker players tell. Because there are technological solutions to absolutely everything and the pandemic has illustrated that par excellence. Who really knew what Zoom was? Who wants to use Zoom ever again? It’s kind of been one of the great features of the last year, but speaking about tech as a separate entity, I think just deludes people into thinking that it’s kind of.
Almost like a commodity that they can, they can get hold of or, or tribal magic they can tap into when it’s, it’s no such thing. I mean, it is, it is now the infrastructure of what is to be human.
Chris: Well, you mentioned in your book, you mentioned that I come away where the research came from or whether it’s just a, I don’t know, it’s just a truism, I don’t know.
But this idea that innovation is overestimated in the short term and underestimated in the longterm. And what we’re talking about is that first piece aren’t we we’re talking about people overstating the impact of tech in this case or an app or whatever in the short term. I I’m thinking, you know, in the past we’ve talked to, we’ve talked about reading people like Dominic Cummings is interminable blogs, and he kind of.
You kind of gets us to this, this point where he can fix everything. Cause it’s all worked out when it’s, when it’s, it’s too complex. It’s way more complex than he realizes it. And he and he’s, but he comes up against the limits of his imagination because he sees this guy. He gets to see you get to blinded by the tech or every single time.
And I remember reading a book by a journalist who got into the AI and singularity, the singularity and the rationalist community. And the more I read it, the more frustrated I got with the kind of credulous newness of this, of listening to those bollocks and thinking there was anything in it at all.
Matt D’Ancona: It’s
Chris: I guess it’s, it’s like people are just and ruptured by this stuff.
Matt D’Ancona: Well, that’s a very good word for it. Because it, there is a religiosity to it. I, I don’t, I have a smidgen of sympathy because it is an exciting time to be alive in the sense that you’re watching, you know, I’m sure people in the past have always felt this when they’re going through a technological revolution, that’s really.
Transformative that print I imagine was the same 16th century electricity and so on and so on. And, and this is one that is, it is it is extraordinary and, and thrilling and occasionally scary to, to, to live through. But certainly the, the idea that, that, you know, you, you, you throw tech at a problem because it’s too complicated for civil servants to understand.
How was it damaging? Well, I mean, the interesting thing about Dominic Cummings was that he was, he, he managed to cultivate the image of a kind of scary, very clever bullying character who kind of prowled the corridors of white hall terrifying people and running Britain, wild, Boris Johnson sort of bumbled around actually the real model for, for.
Dominic Cummings is from the thick of it. If you remember Julius Nicholson, the guy who Tucker was always mocking because he was bouncing from department department and Malcolm Tucker would say, you know, he was, what was he doing today? He was designing a department to count the moon and actually that’s exactly what Cummings is doing almost literally that while we’re in the middle of this terrifying pandemic with the thousand people plus dying a day, Cummings was busy.
Doing schematics for his version of mission control in the cabinet office, that was a car that he was going to 10 big rooms in the cabinet office into, into a kind of mission control from which he would presumably run Britain as if it was one of the early Apollo missions. And, and, you know, exciting as that might be, it probably wasn’t the best use of the government of the prime minister’s chief advisor’s time in the middle of a global, a global plague.
But that was the, that’s what he liked to do. You know, he liked to, it always involved a book, usually obscure and it always involved abusing civil servants and it always involved an idea of total obscurity. And, and actually. That the absence of someone who talks rubbish is always to be celebrated.
And that’s really the great thing about coming to have having gone is that, you know, people who are trying to kind of hold the government together no longer have to deal with this in their ear every morning. And I’d need it late at night.
Chris: Yeah. Yeah. Well, you know, it’s like that, but you could see everything you wrote, you believed all this crap.
And it is, it’s easy. It’s so easy to get and right. Yeah. Interrupted or, or to be sucked in by it. I know that what happens is this idea that, that innovation has a longer term effect. We had a, we had a guy on a podcast a few weeks ago, Anthony, until he’s somebody who talks about PropTech and property. And we were talking about the city and he was saying, well, actually, you know, it doesn’t really matter that.
It won’t be that everybody doesn’t get back to work. You only need a certain amount. You know, Amazon, by taking 15% of retail has created tipping points throughout the retail industry, and that’s all you need. And that’s really, I think that that plays into this piece as well about the tech doesn’t have to be revolutionary revolutionary.
It doesn’t have to change everything. In the way that we sometimes think there’s going to go into happen, this, this massive change will happen. It just needs to hit a series of tipping points in different areas to have a long-term effect.
Matt D’Ancona: Yeah, no, absolutely. And, and I think, you know, it’s very important to to maintain human agency in our relationship with tech.
I think it will very Seduced by the idea of the algorithm and, and, you know, big techs, desperation to keep hold of its intellectual property has encouraged the idea that the algorithm is you know, is is is it something very, very, very special and secrets in a black box somewhere in California that no one is allowed to look at except Mark Zuckerberg on a Thursday or whatever.
And, and, and this is a ridiculous approach to, to technology you know, and algorithms. Long pre predated digital technology and know it’s just math, it’s just code. And I think that demystifying, the algorithm is going to be very important in all of this. And I do think every child should have at least a rudimentary understanding of that.
I don’t think every child has to be a coder, but I do think understanding the power of the algorithm, how it, you know, how it’s how it’s going to develop, how. It’s going to teach itself as AI becomes more important. That’s much more important than the kind of Ray Kurzweil, singularity rubbish about, you know, consciousness and kind of a kindness kind of it’s almost like a Timothy Leary, 1960 psychedelia really read with, with a bit of you know, loaded on to a Mac book.
I mean, that’s really all it amounts to but it is very, very. It is amazing how infectious it is and how you see that sort of slightly the, the thousand yard stare in people’s eyes as they start to talk about it, you know? And off they go and it really is. I mean, I I’m by no means a technologists at all, but I can tell, I could tell sort of, not long into Kurzweil’s book on the singularity that it was rubbish.
And, and it was quite alarming how it sort of acquired this mystique because there’s nothing mystical about it at all. But it, you know, it is it’s the, we go back to the old RFC Clark thing about the, the partition between technology and magic, always being, you know, a poorest one in hell. That’s that’s always been the case.
Matt: So to finish up then, if we think about that, there’s ignorance gaps amongst it’s one thing for, for, for kids to be taught in, in a critical thinking and to be able to understand what media channels are about and how algorithms work and not necessarily need to know coding and all of that. What about for people who are actually in power today, though?
What, what, what would help us in terms of being able to get an understanding of senior levels in politics and in and in business. That’s missing at the moment, do you think?
Matt D’Ancona: Well, I think you know, I, I, I do think that as, as longevity and not just life expectancy, not just remaining alive longer, but actually working and living and, you know, enjoying a recreational life much for much, much longer time has transformed everything anyway and means that.
You know, w w we’re all going to be working longer, and we’re all gonna have to think harder about what our roles are, because, you know, people, you know, it’s quite possible that people will want, will want to carry on working in some way, till they’re, if they’re fit until into their eighties. But it’s ridiculous to suggest that they should remain in leadership roles until they’re 85 a minute.
It’ll have to be some sort of renewed intergenerational social contract where. All older people perform different roles. So I think that, you know, that’s, that’s a very interesting and open question, but also the, the old model of living, was it, you, you, you did your learning which involved, you know, either sort of going off and getting a degree or acquiring some sort of technical or vocational skill, and then you did your career and then you retired and then he died.
Very quickly and everything was kind of wrapped up in, you know, 70 years. And that’s just not the model anymore. Add to that, the fact that, that the old fashioned career is, is in pieces anyway, and that the, the pace of technology means that we have to continuously learn new staff. We’re going to have to BR I mean, to, to your question, Matt, about the, you know, older people, older people, you know, and, and I kind of, I I’m, I’ve been thinking about this myself, you know, what, what, you know, what, if I, if I could take six months off and go off and learn something, what would it, what would be really interesting to go off and learn?
You know, what would be useful? And I, cause I thought that when I, when I left, I had a brief period academia, you know, w when I, when I left that, I thought, well, this is it, that’s it I’m done with the world of learning. It was great fun, but now I’m off to do the working bit and then I’ll do the retiring bit and then I’ll die.
And, and it’s, it’s, it’s a bit more complicated than that. So persuading this generation, I’m 53 and my generation, probably the last, I think. Who will be really hard to persuade, to learn, you know, in, in, in middle age. But if it was possible, if companies and employers could find ways maybe through tax breaks and so on to, to enable people to go off and, and dreadful word up-skill or re-skill, but to do it intensively and properly, it would be transformative because someone, by the time they’re in their fifties, you know, it’s pretty good that.
And understanding what they need to learn. I mean, you’re, you’re, you’re better at learning either in a funny way than you were when you are 18, you may have lots of set ideas. That’s, that’s true. But you also, you’ve learned how to husband your time and how to, how to work out what the, what the nature of the problem is.
And so I think it’s thrilling to do that now. And I would, I would welcome a world of work and of a culture in which it wasn’t seen as odd. So, I mean, at the moment, the only thing you can really do, I guess, go off and do an MBA or, you know, some people go off and do a doctorate or something like that.
But just to actually go off from your job for six months and acquire a skill that would enable you to come back and maybe reconfigure that job in, in an exciting way. That’s something that, that, that we’re nowhere near embracing. And I think it would be brilliant. I think it would be, it would make being middle-age much more exciting.
It would, it would, it would enrich the workplace, you know, and it would, it would, it would it would mean that, that, that, that the arc of, of a working life wasn’t quite so predictable, which I think is I like, and I find very. Exciting as a prospect, but it, again, we have to, this has all to do with human agency and making it happen.
There are no predictabilities in this at all. I don’t trust market forces just to make it happen. I think it requires management to think in a way that thus far they haven’t.
Matt: Well, that brings us to the end of another show. We will put a link to Matt’s book on the website at wb40podcast.com, where will be able to no doubt pre-order it. And it’s well worth a read. And thanks for coming on Matt to talk about it. How was the week ahead looking like for you?
Matt D’Ancona: I’ve got, A lot of movies to watch.
Cause one of the things I do for. Tortoise is I write a weekly cultural newsletter, which is actually just an excuse to me to watch lots of films and stream lots of TV and stuff and read books that are interesting. So the next few days I’m going to, I’ve got a huge pile of backlog of stuff. I’ve got to get through, which I’m rather excited about.
And and then I thought at the weekend, I might, you know if I can find an empty auditorium somewhere, I might. Go for the double second on my own. This time it sits. Yeah. It’s living the living, the life, living the dream.
Matt: Fabulous. And Chris, have you got anything other than the usual ahead?
Chris: Oh, no, not at all.
It’s I’ve got a really busy week. I’m a little bit I’m not, not exactly stressed out about it, but I can see, I can almost visualize my outlook calendar and all the things that I need to get done. Which is doesn’t doesn’t put me with a great deal of Of pleasure, except that actually they’re all pretty, they’re all okay.
Things that I, I just know that they’ve got to get done and I don’t like the idea that I’ve got lots of work to do is dice, not very civilized. So I need to, I need to get through that, but it’s going to be a busy week. What about you,
Matt: Matt? I, well, we’re running within the team. We’re running a hack week and not like a, a coding hack week, but I’m trying to be able to apply some principles of.
Service design, but you’re trying to be able to deploy across our organization as a whole within what we do as a technology team within the organization. So we had the first session today and there’s going to be running with kind of an hour and a half each day over the five days. So hopefully I can get my team to be able to experience what it is to start with the needs of yours.
Customers and then design from there. And secondly, hopefully be able to find some things that we can do differently to make the services we deliver to our internal customers better. So that’s kind of a bit of a difference to the week as a result of that. Other than that, chucking through the procurement exercise at the moment and marveling at the irony that the supplier who we are having to make this whole procurement happen.
And because of their late delivery of updates to their software have delayed the entire process by the late delivery of their non-disclosure agreements. So Oh honestly, software companies, but there we go anyway. Wonderful to have you on Matt. Thank you again for joining us very much. And next week we will be joined by the, I think the word is inimitable Marcus, John Henry Brown, who is going to be talking about how to present and to perform during lockdown.
So until then have a great week.