Interview: Rory Cellan-Jones at the Cambridge Union

Wills Wynn Thomas 24 May 2021
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

“Everyone’s full of shit” were not the closing remarks I expected out of an interview following a Cambrige Union debate. But gifts come in many forms, and my interview with Rory Cellan-Jones certainly felt like one. Cellan-Jones is the BBC’s tech correspondent. He is an accomplished author, journalist and commentator and, all-in-all, a class act. Following his speech proposing the motion “THW break up big tech”, I am presented with the opportunity to sit down and chat with him, which I very much look forward to after witnessing his humour and quick wit from the Union press seats.

Being an alumnus of our very own Jesus College, I ask Cellan-Jones when he was last in Cambridge. Resisting, I’m sure, the temptation to quip “now”, he answers “I’m in Cambridge quite a lot”; given his wife, Diane Coyle, is currently the Bennett Professor of Public Policy here (as if his own success weren’t enough), this makes sense. Well before that, though, “I would come here for stories often, I did a lot on the Raspberry Pi project, which I was kind of involved with from the start”.

Although I’m somewhat starstruck by this early involvement with the ubiquitous mini-computers, I follow up by asking what his path to tech journalism was like after studying MML (French and German). He notes that “people get into journalism with all sorts of different degrees, I came into it with a whole crop of people who worked in the student newspaper”. As to why tech specifically, “I was initially a business correspondent, but in the late 90’s got very excited by the tech world – those were the stories I was interested in. Eventually the BBC let me do technology full time”. Though I suspect “let” was included for humility rather than accuracy, this is perhaps a good lesson in pursuing your interests and letting success duly follow.

Given Cellan-Jones’s impressive experience in tech, I ask the obligatory question – what will the next tech revolution be? His answer displays some nuance. “We’re still going through one.” As he dubs it in the title to his most recent book, the “social smartphone era” began “effectively, in 2007. Looking at what happened around this time: Facebook, Youtube and Twitter were all founded between 2004 and 2006, with the iPhone coming along in 2007. All of those forces come together to create this different world, where we’re all carrying powerful computers around with us. People always ask ‘what’s the next big shift?’ – we’re still in the middle of that shift. Phones, the apps on them and the data they’re generating are still in the process of changing our lives.”

Looking further to the future, Cellan-Jones comments that the next big shift will likely follow from AI and automation. “There’s a lot of talk about it and a lot of progress in the labs, though perhaps an exaggerated estimation of how far it’s got so far in terms of real change.” It sounds like we’re safe from being involuntarily cast as extras in the next Terminator movie for now (that said, if you want a dose of AI induced existential dread, look up Roko’s Basilisk). As an example, he mentions that “we’ve been talking about self-driving cars for the last decade, but that’s proving to be a much trickier problem than we realised”. Not only from a technological standpoint, but also an ethical one.

Having wittily plugged his book in the Cambridge Union speech, professing that “a man with a book to plug will do anything”, I give him a further opportunity to sell. Why should we read Always On: Hope and Fear in the Social Smartphone Era? “It puts into perspective this revolution that’s happened so quickly since 2007.” Given the prior point that this revolution is still happening, a thoughtful look back doesn’t sound like a bad idea. Fittingly, Cellan-Jones continues, “it’s got a story arc which takes us through the huge optimism about the potential for this technology to how we’ve woken up in the last 5 or 6 years to the downsides.” On a lighter note, “it’s got lots of great stories about the people I’ve met” – Elon Musk and Tim Berners-Lee (the inventor of the World Wide Web) to name a couple – “as well as war stories about what it’s like being a reporter covering this industry.” If you’re not already sold, he adds “and! Stephen Fry gave it a great review”. The review starts “Delightfully insightful and intensely readable”, so I’m inclined to agree.

In wake of the Union debate, I ask Cellan-Jones what we can do as individuals to mitigate the harms of big tech corporations. In true neutral, journalistic fashion he points out that he could argue either side, having commented in his speech that we might find him switching sides during the debate. Neutrality aside, though, “there are genuine questions about whether breaking them up is the solution versus different forms of regulation. We’re becoming more aware of what’s happening to our data and waking up to the fact that if something is free, there is probably a price to be paid.” Although there are issues, Cellan-Jones thinks “that sometimes we can be overpanicked about it”. As an example (from his previously mentioned book), he talks about the creation of the contact tracing app and the surrounding debate about privacy. “It struck me that this was a bit of an abstract debate about an abstract harm that could come to people from having their data shared with the government. When actually, they were facing a real concrete harm, which was being locked in their homes and, in theory, this was a way of unlocking them from their homes. So there’s a debate to be had about the balance of harms.”

Now encouraged that big tech has the potential to do a lot of good and with only two minutes left, I change tack to a more lighthearted topic, asking whether he has any particularly noteworthy stories from his student days at Cambridge. He begins “it was the most exciting time of my life… What was great for me was my 4th year. Having been intimidated by Cambrige in my first 2 years, coming back from living in Paris for a year it all seemed less intimidating and I got involved in journalism.” Continuing with a golden anecdote about this involvement, “we had to put the paper together in this kind of ramshackle way pre-computers, everything being typed, so we always ended up pulling an all-nighter and wandering down King’s Parade at 5am in search of a kebab.” In many ways, this sounds all too familiar, but I’m reassured to know that I’m in good company.

My final question is simple – how can we make the most of our time at Cambridge? The answer is equally simple. “Don’t be intimidated.” Reflecting on his 4 years here, “I was very intimidated about how clever everybody else would be, so I didn’t get into journalism in my first year. I did a tiny bit of acting but I was kind of scared of doing that too, because everyone would be so brilliant. But actually, when you do it you find that everybody is putting on a show. Everybody is full of shit, and that’s the big lesson. So if you’re full of shit too – you’ll be fine!” The message is poignant. Feeling like you’ll be inadequate or inferior is unfortunately common at Cambridge. But, as it turns out, the difference between success and not is often the simple act of giving it a go. So next time you’re wondering whether to do something and fear or intimidation tell you no, remember that everyone’s full of shit and give it a go.

Rory Cellan-Jones was a real pleasure to talk to and I imagine his book (and other work) will equally be a pleasure to read. According to his Twitter his “DMs are open”, so if you too want the opportunity to chat with the BBC’s tech correspondent then take his advice and try it out! If more passive interaction appeals, you can find the Union debate on Youtube.