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.

Comments
12 Responses to “In The Beginning”
  1. regularjen says:

    F*ucking fantastic post. You’ve hit a whole box of nails on the head.

    And also, I’ve enjoyed your TED tweets. :)

  2. John Pedant. says:

    What’s the big idea suggesting that people take podcasts seriously ;O) I liked your tweets too.

  3. mitchell porter says:

    I can relate to the bicycle commute at the dawn of time. For me it was a bus, and a computer lab at a university where I wasn’t enrolled; and the spectrum of inspirations might have been a little different. But it was that same early-90s cyber-zeitgeist.

  4. Great stuff spot on and yes podcasts!=Radio4 ever. Too much churn and burn and whilst im keen on encouraging friends I have to say I keep having to turn down the .. ohh you should do a tech podcast conversations that people have. We need ideas to inspire people to change not nagging rehashes of old ideas.

    Thanks Gia I was going to bed. now im fizzing with ideas again ! grrrr

  5. giagia says:

    Oh. I’m so glad you guys liked it. I went out with Brian – wandering around Haight Ashbury and taking photos of the Golden Gate Bridge… and all the while I was thinking, ‘Oh god, people will get pissed off.’

    The main thing that makes TED work isn’t *just* the interesting people, it’s the interestED people. People who are into *everything* that’s interesting – science, art, music, mushrooms, the intelligence of crows. :)

    Brian always says I’m really socially awkward. Mainly, I find it virtually impossible to talk small talk. I have to work very, very hard at it. If I’m tired or not in the right mood, I’m incapable of socialising like a normal person.

    At TED I had no time for awkwardness. There *was* no small talk. It was like the best dinner party ever, for four days straight.

  6. julie70 says:

    Hi Gia, it is a very interesting note,

    I am probably just one of those 99% on blogs and flickr too, you talk about. my blog in french is called Il y a de la vie après 70 ans, and yes, I am very active on flickr, my groupe Afterclass discusses a new photographic theme every month.

    Just opened my latest blog, http://julie70inlondon.blogspot.com/
    Life in London after 70

    but I am not yet living there, just contemplating to arrive soon, as my son, ergonomist will move with his familly, probably in Clapham.

    Wired was a very good magazine, way back, when it was not yet hidden in all those advertisements. If I wrote “at the beging” note, I’d write about assisting to meeting where the pioniers of micro revolution spoke, assisted, Jobs, Wozniac, Atkinson, at the time they were my heroes.

    Perhaps you have time to show some of the town around you or speak about it to an old lady from Paris? I’ll be in London from 7th for 6 days.

  7. giagia says:

    Julie,

    There is a difference between someone who is just doing a blog for fun and someone who is in a position of ‘influence’ within the online world. So people who, for example, run a blogging or podcasting association who don’t care about fact checking or accountability and claim that opinions are as valid as fact; people who have tens of thousands of ‘followers’ who have no writing skills whatsoever; people who think that quantity is far, far more important than quality; people who are new media consultants who lie to all of their clients and tell them that the web will work magic for them.

    I could go on.

    So, it’s not about the 15 year old on LiveJournal or the 70 year old in Paris ;), it’s about the people in positions of power and influence online who bring the whole thing down because ultimately they lack style and, in many cases, talent.

    Yet they think the world owes them everything… without ever having given the world anything of value themselves.

  8. Jonathan says:

    Nice summary. “Ask not what Web2.0 can do for you, but rather what you contribute to Web2.0″.

    Great post, right on the nose; as ever, what matters is passion and talent and practice and perspective. But mostly passion, I think.

  9. Ciaran says:

    “It’s about praising every piece of rubbish an online friend of yours does like it’s all ‘genius’.”

    Great post… no wait… terrible post.. no.. errr :p

    You make a very important point. Perhaps the issue with the majority of the stuff on the net is that a large number of content producers are not self critical. If they were in the academic, or publishing world (to an extent), they have to account for the accuracy/quality of the work. Online no such limits are in force, not even the thought of ridiculing themselves provides a barrier for the dross that spills out.

    The Internet is a great medium, where professionals and talented amateurs can gain an audience for their work, and even nowadays provide a route into old media. But it also affords the same platform to every lunatic with a computer, and there are increasing numbers of them also showing up as “experts” in print, radio and on tv, based solely on the reason that they are very popular online.

    And you’ll need to give us more on the Danny Hillis meet. I was at the science museum looking at the Clock of the Long Now a couple of weeks back. It proved a perfect vehicle to get my son interested in the back catalogue of Brian Eno. Who of course is a famously self critical producer. :)

  10. giagia says:

    “Perhaps the issue with the majority of the stuff on the net is that a large number of content producers are not self critical.”

    Well, I’m self-critical to the point of self-loathing, ;) so perhaps I take it to an extreme… but I agree 100%.

    There’s been a bit of TED jealousy in the blogosphere the past week, where certain people were basically saying they were peeved at other people for being invited to TED. *They* should have been invited to TED, damnit, cos they’re such a great and popular blogger.

    Now, the fact that they think ‘blog popularity equals interestingness’ really tells me they’ve totally drunk the Kool-Aid. Really? Do you *really* think that in all of human experience having a blog is important?

    If they believe that having a blog is the pinnacle of themselves as a person, then they most definitely *shouldn’t* ever be allowed to go to TED. Fucking hell, even Bob Fucking Geldof said he felt ‘inadequate’.

    Seriously.

    I was lucky that I got to go to TED – my husband is amazing, so they invited him along, I was ‘a spouse’. If I ever do anything in my life that is worthy of being invited to TED, I will have lived my life well. Writing a blog- no matter how popular or well-written – is not it.

  11. danny bloom says:

    gia gia, you simply must get back to me on this screening versus reading idea and please do. I am not at TED. I am on Taiwan Island. In a cave. See my blog and email me back at danbloom gmail dot com, thanks. Loved your blog post about and the Pati Hillis part. Great. Did you know she just coined jabberwalking? Guess what it means? Ask her. — DANNY in Taiwan

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