I've been writing about the intersection of technology, media and culture for 15 years, most recently as head of technology at the Guardian where I led the technology reporting teams in London and San Francisco.
I refocused the Guardian's coverage on the human side of technology - the ethical, societal implications but also the impact on us as individuals. I managed a brilliant and sparky team of staff reporters and commissioned a fleet of freelancers, from specialists in philosophy and law to arts writers, always trying to explore the latest technology phenomenon in more depth, for a broader audience and in a way that made it accessible to everyone.
I've hosted, chaired and interviewed high-level technologists and entrepreneurs at more than 50 conferences and festivals across the UK and US, and joined judging panels for several awards, including digital arts prizes at the Tate and Artangel. Playing is fun, whether carpooling with Robert Llewellyn, putting questions to Steven Spielberg and Harrison Ford on Seismic, or making newspapers out of long-form web stories with Newspaper Club and the brilliant Dan Catt.
Beyond writing and storytelling, my best work is collaborative, inventive and challenges established ways of doing things. Current preoccupations include: the ethics of big technology, and its societal and psychological impact on individuals; storytelling, the psychology of immersion and the creative process behind virtual reality; and digital fine art, and the exploration of digital technologies both as a medium and its impact on our lives. But what keeps me awake at night is climate change, which is the story of our age.
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My childhood was filled with art, and both my parents taught art and lectured in art history. Our house was always creative and industrious and political, and I spent my time creating my own newspapers, fiddling with our ZX Spectrum and building obstacle courses in the garden. At school, I once made Margaret Thatcher’s face in clay with a giant missile resting on her tongue. The missile blew up in the kiln.
My four years at art school illuminated the importance of the arts in helping us develop critical thinking, and a language with which we can reflect and examine ourselves and our place in time. It demands that we combine our intellect with our imagination, always questioning and nurturing our own interpretation. The mainstream is saturated with adverts, films and TV with narratives that condition us into passivity; the plot unfolds, the characters do the work for us and rarely are we asked to question what we see. But the most rewarding art should challenge us, make us uncomfortable and encourage us to make our own new connections. It should be truly creating the new.
It was this appetite for exploration and critical thinking, combined with a deep commitment to doing something that mattered, that led me to journalism. I have met many smart, ambitious and tenacious people, and their creativity and inventiveness has drawn me deeper into the tech industry. But as a journalist you are always an outsider, and my perspective and experience allows me to ask difficult questions about the human impact of these technologies. The ethical implications of these new businesses are complex, nuanced and unprecedented, and founders and investors are often too close to ask those questions themselves. Yet if you’re trying changing the world, what could be more important than what you’re changing it to?
by Anna Catherin Loll
Allegations of sexual assault are extremely hard to navigate. We needed to be extremely sensitive to the women concerned, triple check every source and allegation, and fairly present both sides of what was a very political story about a high profile tech figure. Anna was forensic in her reporting, and I was rigorous reworking the structure, rewriting her German and working with the Guardian's legal team until the piece felt right.
by Sam Thielman
This was our fiftieth piece in two weeks on what was a huge story for us - the perfect post-Snowden story as Apple clashed with the US government over encryption. We published fast news, accessible explainers and some powerful comment (including why, philosophically, our subconscious views smartphones as part of ourselves). This liveblog of a gruelling and complex five-hour congressional hearing needed editing for clarity, accuracy and trying to pick the most important issues in the story.
by Julia Powles & Enrique Chaparro
A lawyer and academic, Julia has a voracious energy for ideas and observations and writes beautifully. My role was to help her structure the piece, focus on the most important elements and keep cutting down, which is hard for an academic. The result was just what we'd intended - a very accessible but detailed and human-centric read on the right to be forgotten.
Pichai is not the archetypal Silicon Valley CEO - archetypes he says are damaging. His journey has given him a privileged insight into the transformational power of technology, right at the time when Google is facing more pressure than ever to make complex and unprecedented decisions about its businesses and their impact on the world. "We have to hold ourselves to a much higher bar than everyone else."
See also: 2009 interview with Sergey Brin.
Sandberg was promoting her book, Lean In, when I interviewed her for the Guardian's Women In Leadership series. She was polished, personable and energetic, yet admitted that even she suffers from three things that hold women back: feeling a fraud, needing to be liked and feeling guilty. "All of those... I feel really guilty I'm here today because my kid is sick at home.' I feel that all the time. I don't say it a lot." Oh, and she's not interested in running for office. Yet.
Against the context of government surveillance and the rise of private web spaces, Berners-Lee wanted to use the 25 year anniversary of his invention to call for a bill of rights for the web, enshrining openness and non-commercialism. "Unless we have an open, neutral internet we can rely on without worrying about what's happening at the back door, we can't have open government, good democracy, good healthcare, connected communities and diversity of culture."
Schmidt is fun to interview - hugely opinionated and not afraid of causing controversy. In this interview he criticised politicians for poor leadership and said they should be penalised, as in business, for poor performance. Google, on the other hand: "This is winning. We're making a difference, achieving things, so people will attack us, partly because people are afraid of change. Our job is to invent things, to drive innovation, and there will be losers out of that. But as long as you are on the users' side, as long as there is a human benefit, you will eventually win."
In his last few days as Twitter CEO, Costolo flew to a small town in Spain that had adopted Twitter for many of its communications with citizens. A former stand-up comedian, Costolo was given the royal treatment in Jun and was candid about Twitter's challenging future. “You always want to keep focused on the long-term vision, yet when you go public you’re on a 90-day cadence and there’s a very public voting machine of the stock price that accelerates that short-term thinking.”
Instagram's story is a classic Silicon Valley tale of modestly good idea turned billion dollar company, as this interview in Instagram's Menlo Park HQ explains. Systrom was most interesting when his imagination switched on. “Imagine a world where virtual reality exists and is ubiquitous, and we have whatever device we need to experience it. How cool would it be if you were at a concert in the countryside and I could be there with you – hearing, smelling, seeing it, too? That’s what Instagram is now, in a very low-fidelity way.”
A witness to the high-profile 1993 murder of a black teenager, Alexandra-Marie had suffered twenty years of PTSD as she struggled to come to terms with what she had seen. These interviews in France over two days produced a deeply affecting and profoundly sad story which needed great sensitivity and care to write, as well as incredibly close attention to the details of the night of the murder.
I took great pains to tell this story in an accessible and lively way - a hard thing to do with a piece about internet governance. Google came to me proposing a debate about the topic, presumably hoping I'd say they should absolutely go ahead and digitally colonise the developing world. Instead I found activists and executives from far less powerful organisations in Africa, who rightly said they wanted a chance to create their own Googles.
I took my family to a quiet, tech-free glamping spot on a farm in Kent, handing our gadgets in at the gate. The piece was based on observations of my relationship with my phone and the impact it was having on my family, and how we'd cope without them for a weekend. These devices are embedded in our lives, to the extent that when we heard buzzing in the field that afternoon we thought it was a phone. But we didn't have our phones on us - it was actually a bee.
At an elite UK tech event the absence of female talent was an embarrassment; 68 men speaking, 4 women. I called out the organiser, who happened to be a Guardian board member. "Perhaps the event doesn’t have to care about diversity; it is unapologetically pro-power and pro-money, and that hierarchy of power and money belongs to men. This is how real power still operates in the UK: deliberate decisions that actively make women feel second-rate, the power of the old-school boys’ club."
Tech companies have repeatedly faltered when facing complex ethical challenges of our time. When the scale and influence of these businesses is unprecedented, who should be asking these questions? I argue that whether discussions between terrorists, ownership of our personal data or the influence on the self-esteem of our young people, we need a dedicated new ethics body. "Where is the organisation intellectually and financially equipped to protect the interests of citizens and sites that exploit and commercialise personal data?"
I try to encourage scrutiny instead of scepticism in looking at new technologies. "Picasso reportedly said computers were useless because they could give only answers. It's a beautiful idea that without human inspiration, without knowing the questions we need to solve, we can't create anything really powerful. But he also told his lover and fellow artist Françoise Gilot he saw painting "as a form of magic, designed as mediator between this strange hostile world and us". Perhaps that's the best way to see technology, and with the limitless possibilities of an open mind."
For a time, London's best startup was said to be the Government Digital Service, an unusually innovative and prolific group of engineers and designers who came together to redesign the UK government's online services. This six-minute magazine piece showcases their work.
Twenty-two video interviews over one year profiling rising talent from London's startup scene, including Alice Taylor, Kathryn Parsons and Ed Cooke, as well as local MP Meg Hillier. These were all shot at Guardian coffee, an experimental coffee shop sponsored by EE in the heart of the east London tech scene.
I contributed to topical discussions, event reports and interviews for eight years. A favourite was a in-depth audio report on the BBC Archives - an undervalued and priceless national cultural record, as well as our UK & Ireland podcast tour that made sure we weren't too London-centric in our reporting.
I wanted to cover SXSWi 2011 with a team of journalists and developers working together. I secured Google funding for the project, arranged a hack in collaboration with Rewired State and Newspaper Club to send the winning developer to SXSW and led experimental coverage of the tech festival in Austin. We reported, we experimented, we made new things. It was great.
I joined the judging panel for the 2017 digital art prize. Evan Roth's winning project builds on his previous preoccupation with the inadvertent surveillance networks around us. Interviewing our shortlisted artists was the most fun I've ever had at work. A real privilege to explore and interrogate these ideas with such a motivated group of artists.
British playwright James Graham took on the challenge of exploring privacy for his 2014 play, examining the implications of the Snowden revelations. James spoke to many of us at the Guardian during his research and included us in the play; that started with an intense discussion at the Donmar between me and a room full of probing and sceptical actors. A tough crowd!