Kate Russell is a computer and technology journalist. As well as writing for a variety of sites, Kate is a presenter on the BBC technology show ‘Click’. She has recently written a book about using the internet to further business entitled ‘Working the Cloud’.
There’s no way that inside this box on the table there’s this infinite universe.
On becoming interested in technology
Well for me really it was technology, computers; I grew up in the…I went to school – senior school – in the mid-80s at a time when it was all about big hair and, you know, sort of really bad fashion, but also to an extent we were still living in quite a misogynistic kind of era. You know, I went to an all-girls school – it was recently converted from a grammar school, still with a very grammar school mentality – in Hertfordshire, you know, sort of middle England. And so, um, my options for lessons were home economics and needlework, whereas my brother who went to a mixed comprehensive up the road was doing technical drawing and, um, computer studies, computer science. Now I was kind of a card-carrying tomboy and I wasn’t interested in learning to make a swiss roll or iron a man’s shirt, which genuinely was one of the lessons they had. But my brother would come home and talk about coding and my mum and dad got him a BBC Micro which at the time was…again it was quite unusual, we were lucky to afford one of the first home computers in the mid-80s.
And he got a game called Elite on it; I don’t know if you’ve heard of it but it was really the first sandbox game which is…if you look at games today, probably Grand Theft Auto would be a recognisable game from that genre where you’ve got this ranging sort of play area with no real particular path you have to take through it, you can do little missions or just explore. And so this game was the first of those, it was a line-drawn 3D universe, a space trading game, and the play environment itself was procedurally generated, which means that it was actually being created just beyond your…the horizon of your peripheral vision which gave you this infinite play area, which in the mid-80s as a 15 year old child sort of bucking against everything that was thrown at me in the education system, this fascinated me: it was like, ‘How does this do that?’
I actually remember one day spending four hours with my finger on the Forward button to try and find the edge of it: it was like, ‘There’s no way that inside this box on the table there’s this infinite universe’. So I sort of flew in one direction and never found the edge of it, and that…really I think for me that was a moment at which I kind of thought, ‘There’s something special about this’; plus it was engaging, it was a game, there was combat, there was “piu piu piu”, but also there was trading, it was all about, um, picking up produce in one star system and trading it in another star system. You could go the diplomatic route and try and make friends around or you could go the combat route and sort of, you know, stash up all your weaponry and put big cannons on the front of your ship, um, and you could choose certain career paths as well, you could be a pirate or a smuggler.
So there were all of these sort of cultural and economic sort of triggers and choices that really were the things that I should’ve been learning in school at the age of 15 and 16 but I’d flatly kind of rejected any kind of rote learning standard education. So, for me, that was really where it all started and not really just technology but also being interested in life and being interested in more than just my own sort of hormonic misery at being a teenager. And, um, I just wanted to know how they worked so I would spend my evenings pulling them apart, you know, in my mid-20s I was building my own computers and ended up working in a CD manufacturing plant selling games to games companies.
I’d left school at 16 so had no education, thought there’s no way I’ll have a career in actual sort of writing, which was my passion. And then, yeah, just because I was in the right place at the right time a sort of job fell into my lap which put me in, in sort of games and games journalism and I’ve never looked back from there, and that was mid 90s, I went into journalism and games journalism in the mid 90s, just when the internet was becoming, you know, sort of a viable thing for everyone to have in their homes as well so I’ve now been reporting on the internet since ’95, you know, I’m older than Facebook and Twitter professionally.
And I’ve seen just ridiculous amounts of change over the last sort of 20 years or so and it never ceases to amaze me and fascinate me and there’s never an end to what you can learn and I think that’s really what life is about, it’s just…it’s a journey of discovery. It sounds really arsey?? to say say that doesn’t it, but it is, I mean, we’re sponges, we suck up knowledge and the internet is the ideal medium for that.
On the progress of technology
Well, I think one of the biggest steps was actually something that we celebrated an anniversary for fairly recently which was making the source of the world wide web open source, and this was something that the World Wide Web Foundation decided they were going to do and it was like, ‘OK, we are going to make this an open, free thing that anyone can participate in’ and I think that was the obviously fundamental thing that made it the success and made it grow to the point it is today and become just…you couldn’t have predicted 20 years ago where the internet would be today. You know, if you’d said to people, we were going to be coming together to liberate countries from oppressive dictators just through the power of 140 words, 140 characters printed out on a computer screen, people would’ve laughed you out of the computer science lab, or maybe they wouldn’t, probably, Sir Tim Berners Lee was one of the few people who could actually see that and that was why…why we’ve got to where we’ve got. The biggest failing has to be, you know, I mean…really, case in point where we’re at at the moment with just this week, all of the revelations about the NSA’s Prism scheme which is that we have really, we kind of…as the human race is sleepwalking into a sort of surveillance society where…and it’s not 1984, 1984 was about a police society, it was about law enforcement, gathering data and surveilling us, but what we’re in today is a situation where a democratically elected government and a private organisation, a private enterprise, are gathering not sensitive data, but just regular data: emails to your mother, status updates about how well little Johnny’s doing at his potty training, just random stuff that we’re not trying to keep secret from anybody.
And that’s being collected and stored in perpetuity to be pored over and analysed by computer algorithms which are not looking for context or the nuance of human humour; we saw it with the Twitter joke trial a few years ago with Paul Chambers, who spent two years in legal hell because he made a joke about blowing up an airport on Twitter. And that’s the problem with computers and where we’re at today is we’ve walked into this and now everybody’s up in arms about it but, of course, it’s way too late to do anything about it; there are far too many people who will wave their…Hague did it just last week, you know, waved the ‘If you’ve got nothing to worry about…if you’re not a criminal or a terrorist then you’ve got nothing to worry about’. That’s not the point. For every 2,000 people that we stop from committing a heinous crime or an act of terrorism, if one Paul Chambers happens and somebody’s life is ruined because of an ill-advised joke made in a public forum – which was obvious to anybody looking at it with a pair of human eyes that it was a joke – if that’s OK, if we’ve got to a point in society where that’s OK, that’s the tradeoff against 2,000 terrorists being stopped, I think we need to seriously question the direction that our morals as a society are going. And that might sound, sort of, very…standing on the high ground but it terrifies me that we’re happy to trade off, you know, our liberty and our privacy for the sake of single step sign-ins and the convenience of one-click checkouts and that’s what we’re doing and that’s a shame and I’m not sure what to do about it and it hurts my head when I think about it too much.
On how the internet has changed us
Well it’s…I actually got into a debate on the radio last week with John Carr, the government adviser on child internet safety and he stood up after the whole April Jones thing, he stood up and said, ‘Google need to be made to strip people’s ability to search hardcore porn because that’s the starting point for men who murder five year old girls and sexually abuse them’. Huge leap of understanding there, but OK, even assuming that that’s the case, the problem is if someone like him stands up in a public arena on the back of the rawness of the whole court case and it being discovered that the murderer of April Jones had searched the internet for explicit images of five year old girls, suddenly the public – the vast majority of whom do not understand the internet and don’t have a close relationship with it and still probably fear it to some extent – the vast majority of them are going to stand up and say, ‘Yes, we’ve got something we can focus our aggression on now, we can say this is a problem and this is how we can fix it, we need affirmative action’.
But the problem is, it’s not going to fix it and if you drive…people are bad and do bad things and I think the problem with…the thing about the internet is it’s made us en masse realise how bad some people are because we all feel it. We feel it: every single murder and every single headline that gets picked up and goes viral and gets shared on the social web, everybody feels it as if it’s happening in the street next door to them whereas 25 years ago you wouldn’t feel that unless it was happening in the street next door to you.
And the odd thing about the perception that we’ve got now and the way that the politicians and those that would seek to gain social standing and position through basically, you know, standing up and trying to fight someone’s corner, the problem is that they completely distort it ‘cause actually if you…there’s a report due out from Southampton University, two professors have just put the research together, it’s about to be released so I haven’t checked it myself yet but their statement was – in an article I read in The Independent last weekend, their statement was – that actually they’ve done research that shows that in the UK we are living at a time when there are fewest risks to children in terms of sexual abuse and violence: there are fewer recorded instances of children suffering child abuse and violence than at any time in recorded history, right here today. And yet the people on the radio station, they were phoning in, ‘Oh, the internet’s evil, we didn’t used to have all this, you know, the terrorists will be able to speak together’, and, yes, there are ways that bad people will use technology but news headlines are news headlines because they’re unusual and it’s the usual things, the good things, the wonderful things that we see on the internet that we don’t see: things like the riot clean up wombles who came together through social media and put the streets right after the riot.
Things like Karen whatever-her-name-is: in the back end of last year there was a 68 year old bus monitor in America who was bullied and a video of it was put on YouTube with the idea of ridiculing her and somebody started a crowdfunder campaign to send her on holiday and it turned out…it closed at $700,000 , which is just, you know, these are the things that I think are the good things about the internet and what they bring out in human nature; unfortunately they get eclipsed by people for political positioning, trying to really manipulate people’s opinions and use fear because we, we’re afraid of the unknown, we all know this about human nature and the internet’s a really easy target for most people, ‘cause most people – including the people who are advising against it, I would say – don’t have a clue about how it works.
On embracing the internet
Do you know, it’s funny because I was…it was actually just a couple of weeks ago, I do talks where I sort of try to help people, or talk about various different tools in a particular field that may be useful for your business or for your sort of use of the internet personally and somebody put their hand up at the back at the end of the session and said, ‘How can we keep up with all of the technology as it spirals out of control?’ I mean, if you look at the statistics today, I think it’s 170,000 new domains are registered every single day; there are 17 billion index pages on the web; Apple last week announced they’ve got 900,000 apps in their App Store and Android were at 800,000 back in January so there’s just, like, a ridiculous amount of stuff out there already and more happening every day beyond the capability of one person to keep up with it, believe me, I know, I’m trying, swimming against the tide in a massive way.
But the thing is, I don’t think you need to be strapped to the bleeding edge of technology and I think we need to get rid of the compulsion to feel like we have to be at the front of the race, you know, sometimes the best place to run a marathon from is actually about two thirds of the way back, right, where everyone’s sort of, like, still quite jolly, it’s not too hard core, you can stop every now and again and have a chat and see how other people are getting on, so I think if you think of it like that, it’s not a sprint, using the internet and using technology, and very often actually most pieces of software will be released with bugs in them. I mean, when you’re developing an app, for example an Android app, you have to make it for countless iterations of hardware configuration, hardware and software configuration and what other apps may be running in the background and what have you, and the only way for pieces of technology to be tested is to send them out into the wild and let us the great unwashed public test them.
So all the new spangly technologies that are sort of like at the forefront of development, most of them are waiting for you to come and clean them out of bugs before they’re actually gonna be pleasant to use so, um, I think I would say to most people, unless you want to sort of experience the ride of being…and it is quite a ride, there’s some amazing stuff happening at this forefront of technology development, but it’s certainly not the best place to be, it’s not the most productive place to be, it’s not the smoothest ride, it’s a pretty bumpy ride at times and there is plenty of stuff…I mean a lot of stuff I can recommend on my business website is actually two or three years old.
‘Cause if you take a service which has been going for two or three years there are a couple of things you know about it: first of all, all of their bugs for the most part will have been ironed out, the initial launch bugs, secondly, if they’ve got a community of users who they’re listening to then they will have made improvements based on the requests of their user base and thirdly, if they survive two or three years in this sort of disposable age of internet businesses, then they’ve got a sustainable business model, and the one thing you want is, if you’re gonna trust your data with – or a part of your business with – a company is you want them to survive, you want them to be here next week, um, and for that, you need to be prepared somewhere along the way I think to pay something. Either pay for add-ons or a premium is one of the things where you get a basic service free and then if you want to extend it to more users or more volume or add on extras then you’ll pay little bits in that way.
The other way that people do it as well is, um, subscriptions, if you want to pay a subscription for a service, but also just advertising on your eyes, advertising on your eyeballs, is another way that you pay, so…you know I mean a friend of mine was complaining, ‘Oh, bloody Facebook now and the mobile phone, you know, every third message is an advert’, well what do you think, they’re gonna… you’re using a mobile phone to look at what was before you were looking at a desktop thing which had the adverts running down the side. Fine, advertising market served, money made, revenue in the coffers, investors happy, you have your data feed of all your friends’ status updates and whatnot.