Don’t Mind Digital: talking at #digiconf14

This morning I spoke at the Publishing for Digital Minds conference which precedes the London Book Fair. These are my speaking notes.

Don’t Mind Digital


I want to start by pointing out something that we all know but too often choose to deny:

Words in a particular order are very powerful.

They remain the primary machine we have for moving ideas around.

The things we do with them are astonishing.

We have constructed industries, ideologies, religions, careers and scientific theories on the back of them.

Once, the words were simply spoken, but their power was enormously enhanced when we found ways to capture them.

Writing is the most significant invention since fire, and the transformative power of the alphabet cannot be underestimated.

Writing matters so much that we deliberately reshape the brain function of every child in order to make them literate, because unlike language, reading and writing are not hard-coded into the neural organisation of our species.

Words matter.


So far, so good.

Continue reading “Don’t Mind Digital: talking at #digiconf14”


I spent most of today in the company of a group of fascinating people who work at the NHK Broadcasting Culture Research Institute, my hosts while I’m here in Tokyo.  They had organised a half-day symposium on the future of broadcast archives, and especially on what we do with the written material that complements and explains the television and radio programmes that organisations like the BBC and NHK spend most of their effort making and broadcasting.

The Broadcasting Culture Research Institute was demonstrating the first version of a new archive search tool built in collaboration with the National Institute of Informatics and based on the same technology as the much- respected IMAGINE Booksearch

I had a sneak preview yesterday, and Jun Ibuki told me that the system was based around associative search rather than dumb keyword matching or a pre-defined data model. When he did so I thought of an old teacher of mine, Karen Sparck-Jones who was one of the foremost experts in natural language processing. Karen sadly died in 2007, but I remember her and her husband Roger Needham fondly, as I did the Diploma in Computer Science at Cambridge and was taught by both of them.

Today at the symposium I had a chance to talk to Professor Akihiko Takano from NII, who developed the system, and we discussed the technology behind Webcat Plus and the NHK system, and I thought the same thing.

And then, this evening over supper, I mentioned that my first degree was in philosophy and Jun and Akihiko and I started a complicated conversation about Wittgenstein, language games, search tools and the nature of programming (you had to be there), and at some point I mentioned Roger and Akihiko said that he had known him too, and that Karen’s work was behind his approach to search and that some years ago he had worked for Hitachi Labs, and that Roger and Karen had visited him in Tokyo.

At which point I felt a circle close, and another of the threads of my life became weft, trapped in the warp of my tapestry.  And I paused to remember old friends, now gone, and the times that had brought me to this place, and this life.

My pledge: I will not speak on/moderate all-male panels at conferences.

A couple of days ago tech writer Rebecca Rosen published an article in The Atlantic in which she made a modest proposal that could begin to address the enormous gender imbalance she’d observed at technology conferences.

Rebecca – @beccarosen on Twitter – suggested that men who care about this sort of thing might like to make a public pronouncement to the effect that they would (politely) refuse to speak on or moderate all-male panels at tech/science conferences.

The Atlantic article was prompted in part by an earlier post from Matt Andrews, a web developer at The Guardian, who was surprised and unhappy that the organisers of the Edge Conference on “advanced web technologies for developers and browser vendors” couldn’t find a woman to appear among the twenty-two speakers listed on their website (as of 3 Jan).

He’s not alone in being concerned, and there are many other focal points for this particular debate, including the cancellation of the BritRuby conference after arguments about the all-male lineup

In fact, I’d already been thinking the same as Rebecca Rosen, but only in that relaxed privileged liberal middle-class white male way that allows me to feel good about myself without actually going to the trouble of doing anything unless I happened to remember that I’d decided that I was really principled.

That means I’d look at invitations – and I get a lot of them – and sometimes I’d ask about the gender balance, but mostly I’d forget. I did usually manage to recommend only women as substitutes when I couldn’t do something, but that wasn’t exactly onerous.

So I decided to put my 140 characters to good use and tweeted:

(and of course I extend that to cover *all* the conferences I speak at – including arts, education and whatever else)

I did this not because I think it will make a difference overnight, or because I think that the male-female balance on panels is the most important issue facing the tech community (or any community), or because I want to show off my feminist principles, but because I think the current unbalanced representation of women at conferences does us all a disservice and I’d like to do something about it.

I’m asked to speak at a lot of events and by agreeing to raise the issue I can do something to make it more significant to conference organisers, where the real power to change this lies.

Now I’ll have to think more carefully, and actually ask the organisers what they are doing about making panels and conferences more balanced.

Because I’m working in the BBC’s archive development team there may occasionally be events I speak at where I don’t have the freedom to say ‘no’ – but where I do have a choice (and that’s the vast majority of my speaking engagements) I will now be checking before I appear, and I’ll honour existing agreements to speak.

If I’m giving a keynote then I’ll look at the balance of the whole event and if I’m on a panel or speaking in a session with other people then I won’t take part if it’s all male, though I will give organisers an opportunity to correct this if they choose to.

And if I can’t do a conference then I will always try to recommend a woman speaker who is as good as I would have been as a replacement.

It’s not much to do, it will cost me remarkably little, but at least it’s the right thing to do.



Looking to 2013

It’s been an interesting year, both personally and professionally, as they like to say, and although I slightly resent the fact that my day job has been so exhausting, I’m enjoying the space between Christmas and New Year in a different way from that I experienced during my fifteen years as a freelance hack and pundit. This year, I need the rest.

Of course that didn’t stop me getting up at 0730 on Boxing Day and sneaking downstairs while the house slept, to feed the cats, make a cup of tea, and start puzzling over the cashflow for Working for an MP in preparation for submitting our tax return; nor did it stop me changing the template for this website (I was going to say ‘redesigning’ it but pressing the button in WordPress to activate a new template, cropping an image to upload and changing the widgets isn’t ‘design’ in anyone’s vocabulary); and I will be reading my BBC email this afternoon, just to stay in the loop and see if I’ve been asked to travel to any more exciting places.

Next year

In 2012 I married Katie, we bought a cottage in the Yorkshire Dales, my son went off to university, my daughter continued to live and work in Cambridge, and I kept a lot of plates spinning, some of them not receiving the attention they deserved.  I only ever make one resolution for the New Year, but I have decided to focus more on bigger things next year, and not let so much small stuff get in my way, both in the day job at the BBC and elsewhere in my work.  I will also try to write more here than I have, and not just post my Instagram pix.  Let’s see how that goes.


Writing again

Since I joined the Archive Development team at the BBC two years ago, initially part-time but now pretty full-on, I’ve done less and less writing here. I dropped my regular BBC column and though I’m still writing for Focus magazine and doing Click/Digital Planet on the World Service most of what’s ended up here has been photos and tweet-length apercus.

I’ve decided I need to get my groove back on, so I’m going to make the effort over Christmas to post something daily, and then keep up a more regular posting schedule in 2012 – my model will be the gifted John Naughton over at Memex 1.1 who manages to collect interesting stuff, his own writing and references to things he’s published elsewhere.

Find me over on Posterous

I’m currently working four days a week within the BBC Archive development team on the top floor of TV Centre, and as a result finding time to blog, write columns and keep up to date on my RSS feeds is proving increasingly tricky.

I’ve started using Posterous to repost material as it’s easier to send them an email than it is to add and edit a post here. I’ve added an autopost feature from Posterous to this blog, too,  but it may be worth looking at if you want to keep track of me for the next few months.

Been a long time..

It’s been a hectic few weeks so little bloggage – and I’m in Melbourne for a week so in an unusual timezone. I’ll post some stuff now, though..

Turn and Face the Strain

I left my job as head of The Guardian’s New Media Lab in 1996 to work as a freelance writer and consultant, and also to look after my two young children. After a few years of freelance life I started to describe myself as ‘unemployable’, and to tell anyone who would listen that not only would I never want to go back to office life but that I doubted anyone with any sense would take me on. 

When I did take on a role as interim publisher at openDemocracy during one of its crises I expressed astonishment that people could schedule meetings for me without actually asking me in advance, and swore never to subject myself to such humiliation in future (or something like that – I may have been drinking at the time).

So it was with some surprise that I found myself seduced by Tony Ageh, the man who brought me on board at The Guardian all those many years ago and who now rejoices in the title of Controller, Archive Development at the BBC, into taking on what many might describe as a ‘proper job’ at the BBC, as opposed to my casual appearances on websites, radio programmes and the odd TV news bulletin. 

For the next six months I will be working part-time as Head of Partnership Development for the BBC Archive Project, working with Tony and the team under Director Roly Keating to build relationships between the BBC and other cultural institutions based around a shared interest in digitisation, standards and practical applications of the enormous archives that form Britain’s cultural history.

I get a desk and a computer on the seventh floor of TV Centre, access to the staff canteen and a chance to bump into Director-General Mark Thompson in the corridor early in the morning as I stagger in to the office, clutching my coffee.  And I get to have some influence on what I believe is the most important project the BBC is currently working on, finding a way to take the vast amount of material that the Corporation has accumulated over the decades and put it to work in our digital world.

This isn’t an editorial role, and I’m not working as a BBC journalist in the way Rory Cellan-Jones does, so I won’t stop working as a freelance and general hack, though the things I write for the BBC will now have to follow editorial guidelines.  I’ll still be giving talks and presentations as an independent commentator, since very little of what I normally talk about overlaps with the work I will be doing on the Archive and I won’t have any public profile in my work for the Archive Project.  I’ll have less time for such things of course, but no less interest in the whole range of issues that have motivated me over the years.

I think it’s important that anyone who seeks a public voice, as I do, is open and transparent about their interests, activities and sources of income, so now you all know what’s going on. I probably won’t be able to write much about what I’m actually up to at the BBC, as most of it is about getting projects and relationships to the point where they can be talked about by other people.  However I’ve set up a new Twitter profile, ‘bbcbillt’, where I’ll tweet about what I’m up to so that I keep it out of my main timeline.

And we’ll see how it goes – I’ll watch the ripples change their size, and perhaps leave the stream of warm impermanence.  Changes, indeed.

The 10 Cultures Problem

It’s fifty years since CP Snow gave his famous lecture on The Two Cultures at the Senate House in Cambridge. Tomorrow I make my contribution to the University’s 800th anniversary celebration with a lecture on ‘The 10 Cultures Problem’ at the Computer Laboratory.

And it’s featured on the University home page. No pressure then…

University of Cambridge home page
University of Cambridge home page