The switch to digital

Digi-geeks and stubborn luddites


Today, BBC Two is switched off in transmissions in the London area, thus marking the beginning of the end for analogue television in the UK. The switchover has been a long time coming – it was originally planned to be complete in 2010, but was delayed by two years to enable discussions to take place about what to do with the spectrum after it is freed-up. But now, it is finally upon us. By September this year, all anologue transmissions in Great Britain will have been ended. A month later, Northern Ireland will follow suit.

The point of the switchover isn't just to ensure that stubborn luddites upgrade their TVs and freeview tuners, nor is it a devious plan to deprive the rural parts of the country of their basic human right to four quality TV channels and Richard Desmond's Five (although it will have both of those effects). It's also crucial to keeping Britain vaguely near the cutting edge of communications technology – and to letting early adopters use their new iPads.

A minor science lesson: Pretty much everything that communicates without wires does so using the radio spectrum. That includes radios, of course, but also TVs, mobile phones, computers using wi-fi or bluetooth, controllers for your Wii, and certain hi-tech pacemakers. The only real exceptions are remote controls, which largely use infra-red (still an electromagnetic wave, mind you). Each of these devices uses a different part of the radio spectrum. Some, like wi-fi, use one that doesn't travel very far, but can carry a lot of information; others, like radio, especially longwave radio, can't carry much at all, but can picked up hundreds or even thousands of miles away from the transmitter.

In a sweet spot in the middle of this is the part of the spectrum used to carry analogue TV signal. It's clear enough to carry video signals, even using 1960s technology, but it is still long range enough that all of London can be served from one aerial in Crystal Palace. Which is why its a bit of a waste that it's being used to deliver Jeremy Kyle and Doctors to the few houses that haven't yet upgraded.

When the signal is switched off nationwide, Ofcom will get to the business of auctioning off that space on the spectrum to interested parties. They will be hoping to hit payola; the last time there was a major auction for bandwidth was the tail-end of the dot-com boom, when the 3G spectrum was sold for £22.5bn by Gordon Brown.

For a number of reasons, the new auction is unlikely to raise that much. The telecommunications companies have learned their lesson, for one, and now have a more realistic appraisal of the importance of the technological cutting edge when it comes to generating revenue. In addition, the way that auction was run (it was held as a limited licence sealed bid auction, which means that the bidders don't know what the others are bidding, and there are fewer slots than bidders) was specifically designed to raise as much revenue as possible, and is seen as partially responsible for the loss of up to 30,000 jobs as the buyers struggled to recoup the money they had spent.

Even so, the phone networks are still eager to get hold of some of the bandwidth – specifically, the 800Mhz spectrum, which is earmarked for LTE networking, also known as 4G. This was one of the headline features of the new iPad, but due to the sloth with which Britain has freed up the space, we won't be able to turn it on until mid to late 2013, after such digital luminaries as Armenia and Uzbekistan.

Forget pensions, tuition fees and EMA. The real war of the generations is that we haven't booted the elderly off their analogue tellies quick enough to get nationwide 4G before the iPhone 5 gets released.


How to upgrade, Getty images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

The Science & Society Picture Library
Show Hide image

This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.