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In conversation with BBC tech correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones

Posted on 24 September 2021

Legal Director Nina O'Sullivan recently spoke with BBC technology expert Rory Cellan-Jones about his latest book, 'Always On: Hope and Fear in the Social Smartphone Era', as well as his time as a high-profile journalist at the BBC.

As part of the discussion, Rory explored:

  • His 40-year journey at the BBC
  • The dotcom bubble of the late 1990's to the rise of the Google and Facebook, from the Psion organiser to the iPad
  • His first-hand experience of big gadgets and business stories
  • The dramatic impact of hyperconnectivity, smartphone and social media era
  • His personal experience with the technology and medicine since the COVID-19 outbreak

Nina O’Sullivan

Hello everybody and welcome to this Mishcon Academy Session.  A series of events webinars and podcasts looking at the key issues affecting businesses and individuals today.  My name is Nina O'Sullivan and I'm hosting this hybrid session this afternoon.  I am delighted to welcome people online and also here at our offices in Mishcon.  Okay so I'm delighted to welcome our guest this afternoon, Rory Cellan-Jones. Rory is the Technology Editor at the BBC and during his some 40 years he has covered some of the most exciting, important, interesting technology and business stories of a generation and along the way has met some of the tech's biggest personalities.  We're here this afternoon to talk about Rory's book ‘Always On: Hope and Fear in the Social Smartphone Era’ through which Rory charts at our journey, our love affair and our fear in relation to, to smartphones and given his ringside seat I think he's the perfect witness to those particular conflicting emotions, So Rory welcome.

Rory Cellan-Jones

Thank you very much very excited to be here.

Nina O’Sullivan

Good.  So the book is called book ‘Always On: Hope and Fear in the Social Smartphone Era’ and in the book you deal with a number of themes; so the first of those is the hope theme where you talk about the revolutionary era and then you then move on to, to talk about fear, I think you say when things fall apart before bringing things back to the present day and obviously the situation that we find ourselves in now and, and the conflicting emotions that perhaps we feel about our smartphones but before we delve into those themes I wanted to ask you about the ‘Always On’ part of the title of your book.  Journalists have to be always on it's part of the role of being a journalist but you strike me as someone that has particularly embraced social media, yes you've got your phone out you're going to start tweeting immediately aren't you?  I'm one of your 190,000 followers on, on Twitter and I enjoy reading about or seeing cabbage the dog on their daily walk and…

Rory Cellan-Jones

She's still just about going.

Nina O’Sullivan

Still just about going and seeing your latest baking efforts and of course learning about the technology developments that you're reporting on but, but why have you embraced it so much?  Has it brought you personal benefits as well as for your journalistic career?

Rory Cellan-Jones

Well if you write about technology, if you want to understand technology you've got to immerse yourself in it and I've taken it - perhaps too far according to some members of my family - but yeah I, I, I my name is Rory Cellan-Jones and I'm a Twitter-holic.  I pick up my phone first thing in the morning and check my social networks, my email, my everything and I put it down last thing at night.  You, you can't be standoffish about technology if, if you want to understand the standard and write about it and I think overall it's been positive for me.  I mean social… the book really is about this extraordinary combination of these brilliant computing devices and these very powerful and dangerous social networks and how they've transformed our lives and for me I like to accentuate the positive, I mean I've met all sorts of brilliant people through my smartphone and my social media networks and they've delivered to me a whole new way of working.

Nina O’Sullivan

Yeah and perhaps, perhaps when we get on to the fear section of the book we can talk about some of these sort of concerns about the addictive nature of phones in particular on our younger generation for example.  But, but should we start with hope, let's start with some hope.  So, so just last week actually Apple obviously launched the, the latest iteration of the, the iPhone, the iPhone 13 but you were there back in 2007 at the first Apple iPhone launch and for you was that just another product launch or did you realize this was some revolutionary thrilling exciting thing that you were witnessing?

Rory Cellan-Jones

Well it was an incredibly important time for me. I had, I'd been covering technology for the BBC off and on for a while.  I was a business correspondent who was much more interested in the technology stories than in to be frank you know , Marks & Spencer’s results but I was only given the full-time title of Technology Correspondent in January 2007 and the first big event we were sent to and I led a sort of big BBC team in this kind of statement of intent by the BBC was CES, the annual magic massive gadget show in Las Vegas and I said to the BBC, ‘I know we're spending a lot of money going there’ and you know the BBC is careful with its money, ‘but I think we should spend a little bit more and duck out for one day because Apple is having its own event called Macworld and there are rumours that this is going to be big’ and they said, ‘fine if you must’.  It's difficult to remember now but if you had, as I had you know, a Nokia N95 which was a great phone or it had a Blackberry or whatever, if you'd had one of the cutting edge devices they looked nothing like this, this looked the touchscreen device of an iPhone with those glowing icons.  It wasn't the first smartphone there were you know, Nokia as I said, had been incredibly innovative up until then, other companies have made very clever but very clunky devices but it was the one that captured people's imagination, told people that phones could be about more than phoning and texting and unleash that revolution.

Nina O’Sullivan

And I mentioned in the intro that you've met so many personalities, individuals, they're involved in in this revolutionary time.  Which of those meetings really sort of stand out for you?

Rory Cellan-Jones

I met Steve Jobs a couple of times but they were nothing interviews; they were kind of come here, stand there, ask him two questions and get out and let the next person through.  Tim Berners-Lee is the most amazing person and obviously you know a great a hero of mine really.  I remember telling him when we first met that my kids had a room at school named after him, the Tim Berners-Lee room.  He is a, a very difficult man to interview because his mind goes off in all sorts of directions, he's a bit like the world wide web, he jumps from one thing to another

Nina O’Sullivan

I mean Twitter is a case in point isn't it, we spoke at the beginning about how you're an active user it's opened up so much in terms of citizen journalism and people being able to keep abreast of what's going on across the world but that means the bad guys also get to use it so…

Rory Cellan-Jones

Yeah we have had these concerns, these panics about every form of new technology and we have usually come to terms with them and what we are doing now at least is ignoring the message that the, the giant tech companies used to send and the, the tech utopians who used to say that the internet was ungovernable and you are stupid to try and lots of Governments including our own.

Nina O’Sullivan

We have things like the Online Safety Bill for example.

Rory Cellan-Jones

Yeah, yeah which is going to be tricky and has got a huge problem at the whole heart of it which is that it's trying to deal with things which are legal but harmful and your, your…

Nina O’Sullivan

And how to assess what that means yeah.

Rory Cellan-Jones

The lawyers in the audience will, will know better than me that that is, that is going to be very difficult but you know the conversation has really got very serious and at least the monopoly power of these tech giants is now being well, looked at, yeah.

Nina O’Sullivan

Looked at yeah.  You know I have a teenager, I'm concerned about his attachment to his phone but, but I sense from reading the book that you thought some of this you know, the zombie generation was perhaps a little bit of moral panic is that right?

Rory Cellan-Jones

Yeah I think they're, maybe I'm sort of biased towards optimism on this, there is a chapter called Always On where I kind of look at that and there are semi academics who claim that there's clear evidence of damage to mental health of teenagers and you know there was a story last week about Facebook's own research showing there is some, some damage but I also spoke to, in the book, somebody who really impressed me who was the first sort of person I’d spoken to who was both an academic, a real expert, she is a Cambridge University academic psychologist called, Dr Amy Orban but she was also one of the few people in, in that category who was part of the smartphone generation.  When I, when I asked her what she thought when the iPhone came along she revealed that she'd been I think 12 so she was too young to have one so she had really grown up with it and she was very rigorous about whether the data supported this level of panic and pointed out that you know in some ways these devices you had to concentrate on the, the positives as well as the negatives.  For instance, she pointed to you know, young, young gay people in isolated places who managed… would be able to, to connect with other similar people which they wouldn't have years ago the sense of sort of real communities that build online as well as the obsessiveness and, and the abuse and she said there just wasn't enough data yet to really rule that these things were massively dangerous.

Nina O’Sullivan

As you say in the book in many ways thank goodness the pandemic didn't hit in 2005 because the world would have been very different then from a sort of technology perspective and back in 2020 we were as we've seen for various reasons kind of falling out of love with tech but we've now been given this opportunity to, to re-evaluate and, and you know, look at the amazing technology that we're using today in order to run this event and that's meant people can connect and stay connected and but the big technology story of course was the or has been the Covid Test and Trace App which has been beset by issues but I again I sense that you feel that the criticism about it was unfair?

Rory Cellan-Jones

Well it's interesting, the way books work is that I had to deliver the first draft of this book by the beginning of September last year at which, and there's a whole chapter about the App because I was very intimately connected to that, somebody got in touch with me very early on seeming to think that I could be involved in helping develop it and I had to stress I'm a journalist but anyway I then got very good access to what was going on.  I always thought the people actually working on the App got a bad rep because the people I was talking to were doing really brilliant work there was much too much expectation from the politicians and that partly was because at the beginning of the pandemic we had no effective old-fashioned test and trace operation and so this seemed to be like the silver bullet ‘oh we'll use smartphones’ without realizing that that was really cutting edge technology, untested, using Bluetooth is very, very flaky and you're relying on people's trust and so on which is quite difficult.  So it was always going to be difficult.  I thought the technology people did a good job, the politicians not such a good job.  When the App did finally arrive and then the a few months ago was incredibly successful…

Nina O’Sullivan

Yes.

Rory Cellan-Jones

…that's when everybody turned against it and they turned against it because it was doing its job. It was telling people that they might have been in danger; they might have been close to someone infected with Covid 19.  The other thing that really annoyed me was really striking was that I and a couple of colleagues in the BBC and a couple of journalists at other organizations found ourselves answering the public's questions in a way that the Department of Health never would.  I found myself almost as interpreter of the App to the public because it was, there were lots of things that people didn't understand and it wasn't, I mean for instance, people said ‘oh it's going to have lots of false positives’.  Well that's absolutely true that is the nature of contact tracing. Contact tracing is a bit like a slightly more targeted lockdown.  You were, you were bound to haul in and send into isolation lots of people who will never actually get Covid 19 but it's only by doing that, by sweeping in everybody who might become infected that you have any chance of cutting the infection rate and, and that applies to manual test and trace as well as this automated version and people didn't really understand that so I thought in the end the App did a reasonable job.

Nina O’Sullivan

Yes it did what it was meant to do I guess.

Rory Cellan-Jones

Yeah.

Nina O’Sullivan

I mean I wonder if now is a good time as well to, to talk about your own sort of… when, when technology became personal for you so you were diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in the last couple of years and there's a very powerful and an affecting part of the book where you talk about your diagnosis and, and how you communicated that news.  Can you tell us a bit more about that and how technology is playing a role in your treatment and your research?

Rory Cellan-Jones

Yeah, so I was diagnosed at the beginning of 2019 and told a few friends at work a month or so later and then by the end of May not many people knew but I, I did this story about the launch of the first 5g network in the UK.  Anyway we did the broadcast, I came off air and then I went off to do some more filming in Birmingham and the producer I was working with, a great producer, said to me quietly as we got on the train, ‘Rory have you thought of going public about your Parkinson’s?’  She knew about it and I said, ‘yeah I have been thinking about it’ and she was kind of pushing at an open door and on the train just as we were getting into Birmingham I sent out tweets explaining I've had this diagnosis but you know I'm getting good treatment onwards and upwards and the reaction was instant and heart-warming…

Nina O’Sullivan

Unexpected reaction?

Rory Cellan-Jones

Yeah, yeah, yeah, I got thousands of supportive messages and only one saying oh you've been standing too close to 5g masts which is you know…

Nina O’Sullivan

Kind of at that point really.

Rory Cellan-Jones

Yeah which is kind of what you expect so that for me was a positive side of the technology and that it enabled that kind of open communication and that kind of support to come through.

Nina O’Sullivan

And technology is playing a role in in your treatment as well?

Rory Cellan-Jones

Yeah I've, I've been, I mean Parkinson's is a, it's a pain in the ass and is a very various and quite difficult to monitor disease.  There are so many different symptoms and I've really immersed myself trying to find out more about and try to get involved in any trials and I’m involved in a trial run by Charing Cross Hospital and Imperial College which involves trying to develop probably a smart watch in the end that will measure your symptoms and they're trying to effectively to develop an AI Neurologist,  a system that will learn what a neurologist knows and say ah you're at that stage on the, the spectrum of Parkinson's and that.  I see you know, I see my consultant every four to six months.  Every time they, they adjust the medication, they say how are you and it's very difficult to, to grade it so the idea is that if you can observe it more closely you will be able to grade the treatment much better.

Nina O’Sullivan

And it's hearing stories like that that explains I think why you are optimistic about the future for, for this technology generally?

Rory Cellan-Jones

Yeah.

Nina O’Sullivan

The fear bit is there but there is optimism?

Rory Cellan-Jones

Yes the big hope with AI is that it will speed up the process of drug discovery which is a long and complex and incredibly costly business so I am optimistic about that and as I’ve said before, every new wave of technology comes with all sorts of downsides but we, we learn how to deal with them and we move on and we, we take the best of them.

Nina O’Sullivan

You've recently announced that that you're leaving the BBC - that's next month I think so…

Rory Cellan-Jones

Yeah, yeah.

Nina O’Sullivan

…so, so  what's next?

Rory Cellan-Jones

Well my wife says I'm not allowed to clutter up the house so I'm not retiring I'm going to be doing a bit of writing, a bit of broadcasting.  I've got another completely different book project which I won't talk about now but yeah…

Nina O’Sullivan

We look forward to hearing.

Rory Cellan-Jones

…touch wood, touch wood that'll happen.  So I'm hoping to keep busy,  hope to keep writing and broadcasting and podcasting.

Nina O’Sullivan

Lots of walks with cabbage as well.

Rory Cellan-Jones

Lots of walks with a dog and a bit of baking.

Nina O’Sullivan

Baking, excellent.  Okay I'd really like to thank Rory today for taking us through this, this journey and sharing his, his thoughts on, on the hope and fear in, in in the social smartphone era.  Thank you to those of you that have joined us online and thank you those in the room as well.  Thanks Rory.

Rory Cellan-Jones

Thank you it’s been great fun.


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