In The Beginning
One day in summer 1994, Gareth came round to mine to hang out for the day. We were both working exclusively as TV presenters at the time, therefore we regularly had days that were just ‘hanging out’.
He told me how he’d just got a job on BBC Radio 5, a technology programme, and told me that they only had male contributors and that they wanted to find more women to work on it. He asked me if I was into technology at all. I told him that I had had a ZX81 when I was a kid and had, since the late 80s, used electronic organisers and had a mobile phone for a few years, but wasn’t *really* into technology that much. He told me that he wanted me to write a piece about technology and he’d bring it to the producer and if the producer liked it, maybe I’d get to work on the programme. I told him again that I didn’t know much about technology and I couldn’t think of what I’d write about.
He asked, ‘Well, if there was one bit of technology you could have, anything at all, what would it be?’
I thought. ‘A full sized Pac Man arcade game.’
‘Write about it.’
So I wrote a piece about how much I loved Pac Man growing up and how I thought the reason Pac Man was so popular with girls was that you were able to eat and eat without getting fat. It was the ultimate, virtual eating disorder.
Gareth brought the article into the producer who thought it was great and so I was hired as the ‘Computer Culture Correspondent’ on Radio 5’s ‘The Big Byte’.
I immediately went online and started devouring everything I could about the web. I rode 2 hours roundtrip on my bike just to get to White City in order to spend time online (the Big Byte was the only place in the BBC with a modem), I bought Wired magazine every month, found a couple copies of Mondo 2000, started reading stuff done by or about Stewart Brand and Danny Hillis, Kevin Kelly’s Out of Control and Douglas Rushkoff’s ‘Media Virus’ rewired my brain. I soaked it all up and combined it with all the hippiness I grew up with. I became a West Coast CyberUtopian despite the fact that I was living in South London.
In all of the years since then, I’ve never met anyone else in the geek-laden world I inhabit in the UK who had the same introduction to the ‘net. In the early days, the men tend to be much more hardware focussed, the women tended to be into games, no one was into, for example, the Gaia Theory-based idea that the ‘net was the Earth’s brain or that the ‘net was New Heaven where our ‘souls’ existed or a clock that ticked once a century and bonged once a millenium.
Once blogging and social networks came along, a whole new group of people came along who had never even heard of the Long Now Foundation, WELL or TED. Their view of the internet and where it had come from and what it could do was fairly different from mine – many of them went online post-advertising, so hadn’t ever seen the pristine web. There was still the hint of subversion there, but far, far less of the hippiness (except for Euan Semple, the big hippy ;). It was all Cluetrain this, Cluetrain that. All about business and marketing and making money. And, of course, conversations.
For, perhaps, a brief moment in early 2004 there was a hint that blogging/social media/Web 2.0 was about big, world-changing ideas. But it very quickly became all about spewing out as much crap as you can. Quantity over quality. Fact checking? Who cares! Opinions are all that matter! Construct a beautiful photograph? No way! Point and shoot and dump it ALL on Flickr. Friends. Friends. I need more and more friends. Interviewing skills? That’s so old media! I don’t care about that! Look! I can stream video from my phone! I’m streaming live right now!!! Come chat!!! It’s about praising every piece of rubbish an online friend of yours does like it’s all ‘genius’. It’s about believing that just cos you’ve got a fricken blog or podcast, the world should owe you something and treat you with reverence and respect. There’s no taste or style. There’s no big ideas. There’s no quality. It’s 99% crap.
For me, going to TED was an incredibly big deal. Everything that has shaped me since 1994 came out of TED. I was very excited and was expecting it to be brilliant. It far exceeded that. It made me remember what it’s all about and made me realise that there are still people out there who believe in the same things I do.
The afternoon after Brian’s talk, he was grabbed by some people to go be interviewed for Pangea Day. I saw the name tag of the woman with him and it said, ‘Pati Hillis’. My first thought was, ‘I wonder if she’s Danny Hillis’s wife?!’ Then just thought I was being a silly fangirl and forgot about it (I did the same thing when I saw someone named Laura Druyan and my first thought was, ‘I wonder if she’s related to Ann?! Oh, don’t be silly’ Turns out Laura’s her niece).
A few minutes later, Pati said something like, ‘I wish Danny could have been here to see your talk. He would have loved it.’ And I squeed, ‘Danny Hillis?! He’s your husband??!’ She looked at me and said, ‘You’ve heard of him?’ Brian said, ‘Gia’s a big fan of his!’ I said, ‘He’s one of my inspirations! Oh my god! Oh my god! I mean, the Long Now Foundation!’ And I just totally dorked out on the moment.
After that, it was an insane 24 hour whirlwind during which Pati introduced us to the most mindblowingly interesting people. I couldn’t even begin to write any of it down in a way that could convey the amazingness of it all.
In a few days, I’m heading back to the bullshit. Where people complain that TED is ‘elitist’. Where they think that podcasting deserves the same respect as Radio 4. Where TV executives get all excited and say that they think blogging might be the next big thing (OK that was 6 months ago, it mightn’t be as sad now). Where no one cares about big ideas.
I’m so happy that TED re-opened that place in my heart where the big ideas live. I’m going to get them out.