World Wise Web: the radio show that unleashes teenage interviewers on tech pioneers

It might sound like a gimmick, but this is a powerfully valid approach to conversations about technology.

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A new 12-part series unleashes teenaged interviewers on tech pioneers. “I’m 17 and that makes me younger than a lot of the technology we’ll be talking about,” says host Anna Zanelli; the series pitch in a nutshell.

This kind of thing can go badly wrong. Who can forget when cricketer Ian Botham went on Open to Question in 1986, to speak to teenagers about, you know, life – which he clearly thought would be a doddle – only to find himself immediately horrified by a studio of 16-year-old girls, solemn under turrets of lacquered hair, who were basically much better at speaking English than he was and proceeded to tie him up in knots about his hypocrisies, memorably his reluctance to change nappies. Botham writhed in his chair. (“I think you’re missing the whole context, love. I HAVE NO PROBLEM CHANGING NAPPIES.”) The torture just wouldn’t stop. You could hardly have a better description of the fault lines of modern British society.

I can’t even think about it without gibbering and giggling, so I listened to part one of World Wise Web (18 Jan, 6:50pm) holding a sock to stuff in my mouth – only to be completely charmed and to learn a thing or two. It turned out to be a powerfully valid approach to conversations about technology: get creators to explain their invention to someone for whom it is entirely quotidian.  Speaking to Tony Fadell, the 50 year-old creator of the iPod, in episode one, Zanelli may well do teenagerish things like breathing “wow” when he declares “we didn’t have email back then”, but in just eight super-cogent minutes she gets him talking about the lulling feel of the iPod’s wheel under the human finger, and the maddening heaviness of boxes of records when he was a DJ – hence wanting to fit them in his pocket. “So the inspiration was from your own problem,” Zanelli concludes.

There is something heartbreaking about her evident worries. When Fadell (sincere, open) speaks about begging for (and landing, via curious twists and turns) jobs in Silicon Valley, Anna marvels, “That’s so cool. You always hear about these things, and I always think – how did you get the opportunities?” In her voice is awe, and fear, of the inexplicability of luck. 

World Wise Web
BBC World Service

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She presents The Film Programme on BBC Radio 4. She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 24 January 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Power to the people