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Julia Hobsbawm’s Diary: How algorithms, like sugar, are making us fat

The author of Fully Connected: Surviving and Thriving in an Age of Overload explains why she practises “Techno Shabbat”.

January always makes me optimistic. The orgiastic fire of Christmas has been consumed, New Year’s Eve has been quietly endured, the shortest day has passed. Everything is only going to get lighter, longer, more filled with natural vitamin D. I am just back from mid-Wales where we go to tune out from the burnout, in a tiny hamlet in Powys with just 13 full-time residents and next to zero phone reception. There is no quiet like the countryside quiet, and who doesn’t come out of the city just to breathe fine air these days?

For reading, I combined crime schlock with lit crit. First Jo Nesbo’s Harry Hole series (I have annoyingly run out of Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch novels). Then a quirky essay on hyphens in Stig Abell’s increasingly hip TLS. But my heart was won by Sybille Bedford’s 1963 marvel, A Favourite of the Gods. I’m not sure in the 21st century they make novelists quite like they did in the mid-20th century. Give me a desert island filled with Iris Murdoch, Margaret Forster and Muriel Spark to read and I would be content. (It is 20 years this year since Bedford appeared on Desert Island Discs, and her luxury was as classy as her writing: a French restaurant in full working order.)

Hen pecked

I only really stepped outside for short walks to see our neighbour Marjorie, who runs a country kitchen outside her front door next to the churchyard. Each day she places fresh eggs and homemade jams, welsh cakes and fresh pies in a cupboard with an honesty box, all covered by chicken wire to keep out the foxes. Marjorie gets plenty of sales from the surrounding villages. Word has spread locally on the fastest network known to man – word of mouth. I note that she is a more successful entrepreneur than I am: her profit margin is close to 50 per cent.

Intelligent life

I definitely needed a break. Last year I extended the reach of our network, Editorial Intelligence, into Europe, with pop-up symposiums in Berlin and Amsterdam.  But I also went to nine cities in as many months on the road with Bloomsbury for my book. I’ve notched up 100 events and interviews: authors today, much like politicians, are on a permanent campaign. Audiences and readers seem very keen to talk about what I call “social health” and why we need to manage modern connectedness as much as we do our physical and mental health.

My book is partly a practical how-to, and partly a memoir of a career spanning Telex to Twitter, but it also covers the politics of the workplace. I’ve been a secret management geek since my twenties, inspired by an early encounter with the late Peter Parker, who once ran the British Railways Board. Management is to “leadership” what vinyl is to the CD: it will outlast the fads.

Roughly translated

I closed the year in Brussels, where the British-run Full Circle club arranged three talks and three interviews in 24 hours. The interviewer from L’Echo asked what my late father, Eric Hobsbawm, would have thought of Jeremy Corbyn. I replied that I was happy to tell them my view instead: that despite my being somewhat politically polygamous, I thought he was the right Labour leader
for these times.

The interviews with L’Echo and other European newspapers are being published now. I get the gist of French, but to read coverage from the Netherlands I needed Google Translate (and an emoji thumbs-up text from a Dutch friend) to realise it came out OK. The translation rights to my book have just been sold to China, so I am looking forward to seeing my work in Mandarin characters. Next time I am asked what I do, I may just reply: “Hoogleraar, ondernemer, auteur en spreker.

Face to face

I spent the entire holiday fortnight not reading social media and emails, and as a result feel like I have had a fast. I have been practising “Techno Shabbat” for a couple of years now, using the traditional Jewish Friday night supper as a moment to disconnect from most electronic devices and turn to family meals and walks, and only pen, paper and talking until Monday morning (telly doesn’t count, nor does the odd sneaky text). Reader, I urge you to try it. With the news that the average active Facebook user spends 50 minutes online per day, it is clear that we’re getting obese not just on sugar but on the dopamine rush delivered by algorithms. The new obesity is infobesity.

Siri, switch off

The power struggle between mere mortals and the limitlessness of tech is dominating my thoughts. Books by my bedside include Noam Cohen’s clever takedown of all those pale, male Silicoevangelists whom he calls “The Know-It-Alls”; Geoff Mulgan’s Big Mind: How Collective Intelligence Can Change Our World; and something a bit less hot off the press: A Barratt Brown’s 1934 The Machine and the Worker, borrowed from the London Library and chock-full of insight into how we tried to make sense of working life post-industrial revolution 1.0.

I’m about to run our second series of “The Human and the Machine” symposiums this year, and start a podcast of the same name. No one can get enough of asking questions about what it all means. My money is not on the driverless car or the Alexa-Siri-Googlebox at home, but something else: you and me. Let’s not outsource ourselves.

Votes for Johnson

Back at work and craving respite already, I shall veg out watching Celebrity Big Brother. It’s a “Big Sister” edition, apparently on account of the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage. Here’s hoping that Rachel Johnson wins. As another “daughter of”, Rachel nevertheless raises her own smart voice above the fray, on her own terms, and gets my vote.

Julia Hobsbawm’s book “Fully Connected: Surviving and Thriving in an Age of Overload” is published by Bloomsbury

This article first appeared in the 04 January 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Young vs Old

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Why do politicians keep making podcasts?

Nick Clegg is the latest to take to the internet airwaves.

“Rage is the opposite of reason. Discuss!”, Nick Clegg declares jauntily at the start of the first episode of his new podcast, Anger Management. The former Lib Dem leader and deputy prime minister can now be heard on the internet airwaves fortnightly, grilling guests about what he calls “the politics of anger”. Since his show is introduced by a montage of angry politicians shouting, it’s guaranteed to raise the listener’s blood pressure before the host even starts talking.

Clegg is just the latest in a long run of politicians to try their hand at podcasting. Perhaps the most notable example in the UK is the former Labour leader Ed Miliband, whose Reasons to be Cheerful show made in partnership with the former Absolute Radio DJ Geoff Lloyd hit number two in the iTunes podcast chart when it debuted in September 2017 and was recently nominated for a 2018 British Podcast Award. Jacob Rees-Mogg, too, has a fortnightly podcast called the Moggcast, which launched in January 2018 and is hosted by Conservative Home. Where once a politician might do a phone-in show on LBC or guest host The Jeremy Vine Show  on BBC Radio 2 to show how in touch and relatable they are (as in Call Clegg, which aired on LBC from 2013 to 2015, or Ed Milibands lunch time death metal scream), they can now go it alone.

In his column in the i newspaper introducing the podcast, Clegg puts his finger on exactly why it is that politicians find podcasting so attractive: it’s all about control. “I have grown to abhor the tired and tested confrontational interview format,” he writes. On his podcast, “there is no wish to pounce on a slip of the tongue or endure a soundbite being hammered home”. There’s a freedom to this kind of on-demand internet audio, which can be delivered directly to an audience without having to get past the traditional gatekeepers of broadcasting. There’s no need to put up with John Humphrys or work with the BBC’s requirement for political balance. The politician, usually on the receiving end of whatever the interviewer wants to throw at them, is in charge.

Given this, it’s unfortunate that in his first episode Nick Clegg falls foul of his own edicts. His first guest is former Ukip leader Nigel Farage (coincidentally also the host of a podcast called Farage Against the Machine). It’s a slightly odd choice of guest to launch the show — made, no doubt, to generate controversy and a higher iTunes chart position — and it doesn’t exactly show Clegg’s broadcasting skills in a good light.

In a recorded disclaimer that plays before the interview, the former Lib Dem leader and vocal Remainer tries to pre-empt criticism that he’s giving a platform to someone with pretty unpalatable views. He explains that the first half of the 47-minute episode is meant to be about Farage’s “life, not really me cross-questioning him”, and that to hear them “locking horns more on the issues of the day” listeners must wait until the latter part of the show.

This approach results in Clegg letting Farage get away with a number of fact-light statements early on, and then later adopting the Humphrys-style tactic of repeatedly interrupting Farage before he can finish a point. As an interview style, it’s the worst of both worlds — neither spacious enough to allow the guest to explain their thinking fully, nor robust enough to provide an effective rebuttal. Hosting a podcast is a deceptively hard thing to do. It would take someone substantially more skilled behind the microphone than Clegg to completely reinvent the one-on-one discussion format in a single episode.

The lure of podcasting for politicians is in the way listeners react to the medium. The entire burgeoning podcast advert market is founded on research that points to a strong sense of intimacy between podcast host and audience — it’s a level of loyalty and engagement that surpasses many other forms of media. In politics, that can be harnessed for electoral gain: for instance, Hillary Clinton had a podcast called With Her that ran during her 2016 presidential campaign.

The trouble is that politicians aren’t necessarily that good at making podcasts. They’re not journalists, and they don’t often have a good nose for what makes a strong show for the listener, or take the advice of those who do. For those still in office (or, like Clegg, still wanting to participate in politics despite losing his seat), there are other pressures that can prevent them being completely honest on air. As Amanda Hess pointed out in the New York Times in 2017, the best episodes of Clinton’s podcast were made after she lost the election, when she moved out of campaign mode and just tried to process what had happened like everyone else.

The rise of the podcasting politician is the result of a few different factors: an increased dominance of personality in politics; the tendency for us all to gravitate towards our own “filter bubbles” of reassuring content; and an ever-more polarised media climate. For my money, the best show to come out of this trend so far is Ed Miliband’s. He leans in to the “geeky” stereotype that haunted him for his entire career and, guided by veteran broadcaster Geoff Lloyd, is seeking to make something that looks beyond the political bubble.

Podcasts are at their best when they serve a particular niche interest group: there’s clearly a community of people who enjoy listening to Jacob Rees-Mogg intoning bleakly about obscure areas of policy, and best of luck to them. Politicians should realise that it is not a form that works when you try to appeal to everyone. Otherwise, like Nick Clegg, they will end up telling Nigel Farage that he’s “very good at the high horse stuff about how the EU is ghastly” in a strained tone of voice.

Caroline Crampton is head of podcasts at the New Statesman. She writes a newsletter about podcasts.