Looking both back and forward

This week’s Tech Tent has a nostalgic feel. It was recorded in the dim, distant past when Meta was called Facebook and was facing huge reputational problems.

We hear from Damian Collins, a long-term critic of Facebook who chaired the UK parliamentary committee which heard from whistleblower Frances Haugen this week.

And we talk to Saurabh Shukla, founder and editor-in-chief of NewsMobile, a third-party fact-checking partner of Facebook in India.

He tells us about the challenges of tackling the dangerous misinformation on the social network blamed for inciting racial violence and vaccine hesitancy.

Calling Facebook Meta is Mark Zuckerberg’s way of telling us his company can shed its troubled past and move into a shiny new virtual world where everything will be awesome. It is of course extremely unlikely that a change of name will suddenly transform the image of the company, and Tech Tent will continue to keep a close eye on Facebook’s battle to show that its impact on the real world rather than the metaverse is not as its critics claim.

But I won’t be part of that as this was my final programme, and I am leaving the BBC. So forgive me if I take a look back at how far Tech Tent has come over nearly 400 editions.

Rory Cellan-Jones and guests
Image caption,Tech Tent’s very first episode recording in a makeshift part of the office with a curtain around it

It was on 17 January 2014 that we launched a new programme on the BBC World Service with a brief to give listeners a weekly update on all the most important news and trends from the technology business.

We wrestled long and hard over the name and I can’t quite remember how we came up with Tech Tent, but it may have been because in its early days the programme came live from a makeshift studio surrounded by a curtain.

In that first edition we had something of a scoop – an interview with the tech entrepreneur Tony Fadell, who had sold his Nest thermostat business to Google for what seemed an extraordinary $3.2 billion.

The arrival of the smart home, the progress made in artificial intelligence and the growing concerns about the power and influence of the tech giants, have been constant themes for the programme.

Over the years we’ve broadcast from Las Vegas and Silicon Valley, from Barcelona and Helsinki, from Dundee and on several occasions from the Cheltenham Science Festival.

Professor Stephen HawkingIMAGE SOURCE,GETTY IMAGES
Image caption,Interviewing Prof Hawking was one of Rory’s highlights

We’ve had a series of memorable interviews with some leading tech figures. Uber’s founder Travis Kalanick did his best to play down his somewhat aggressive image, but when I asked him about reports that he’d been rude about taxi drivers, he suggested I shouldn’t get all my facts from the internet.

An interview with the physicist Sir Stephen Hawking in 2014 – when he warned that full artificial intelligence could make humans obsolete – helped trigger a global debate on the ethics of AI.

And in 2016 an encounter with Elon Musk which had been months in the planning, delivered plenty of memorable quotes. The founder of Tesla and SpaceX told me that we would one day be a multi-planet species. He predicted that within a decade owning a car that you had to drive yourself would be like owning a horse, something you did for sentimental rather than practical reasons.

Afterwards, I wrote a blogpost about our encounter, with the headline “Bonkers but Brilliant”. His PR chief said this was disrespectful, and my attempts to explain that “bonkers” was a term of affection in the UK fell on deaf ears.

Elon MuskIMAGE SOURCE,GETTY IMAGES
Image caption,Elon Musk did not take kindly to being called “bonkers”

Until March 2020, Tech Tent came live from a studio in London’s New Broadcasting House at 3pm every Friday. Then two things happened – the global pandemic arrived, and we were given a new slot in the World Service schedule in the early hours of Friday morning.

We quickly adapted to working from home, organising our interviews via Zoom calls and then getting each interviewee to record their end of the conversation using a smartphone, and send us the file.

We have recorded the programme at lunchtime each Thursday, and then our masterful producer Jat Gill has spent the afternoon editing it together and uploading it to the BBC’s servers from his home near London.

If anyone deserves credit for Tech Tent’s success and for keeping it on air it is Jat, who has been in charge from the start. We’ve shared many adventures, working late into the night at CES in Las Vegas and at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.

Jat drove the Tesla which took us to meet Elon Musk, wrenching back control from the Autopilot system as it tried to follow the white lines off the freeway as we crossed the border between Nevada and California, in a blizzard on a January night.

Now Jat too is moving on. But Tech Tent will continue with a new producer, Edwin Lane, and the excellent BBC online technology team. I shall be tuning in next Friday, and so should you.

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