Rory Cellan Jones

Straight tech talking

16 January 2015

BBC Technology Correspondent, Rory Cellan-Jones switches EQ on to the next tech revolutions

This smart watch tells me that I have 10 new interactions on Twitter, and the other day it informed me I had 617 new emails. How is that useful to me?” It’s a line that neatly sums up what the BBC’s long-serving technology correspondent, Rory Cellan-Jones can do so expertly. Cut through the endless hype and jargon that swirls around the tech business world and boil it down to something with meaning and relevance for the layman.

Today, Cellan-Jones is probably the most influential journalist talking about technology in the country. And while he has been immersed in technology, start-ups, gadgets and all things digital since writing his first book, Dot.Bomb: The Strange Death of Dot.Com Britain, in 2001, his expertise does not spring from a traditional technical background.

“I’m from an arts background. When I was at university in Cambridge I studied languages and saw myself as an arts person. I didn’t even know people who studied sciences and it was a closed world to me. But, I regret that and I think those two worlds come together a lot more now. It was something I came late to but now I tinker where I can.”

After university he admits to being captivated by the romance of the roving life of the foreign correspondent, and he joined the BBC in 1981 in Leeds, returning to London in 1990 to work as a business correspondent, which led him eventually into the tech world.

“By the late 90s I was fascinated by what was happening with the rise of the internet and in particular the dot.com bubble and I was bagging these stories whenever I could – the rise of Google and all the IPO craziness,” he says.

“I also got our first home computer in the mid-90s and we were bewitched by the possibilities it opened up. It’s just brilliant that tech has become personal. When I was growing up it was remote. It was about space shots and nuclear power stations and big engines. It was a thing of wonder but you were never going to get your hands on a nuclear power station or fly to the moon. The computer at my school filled a huge lab and only boys studying physics were allowed near it.

“All the interesting businesses were the new tech firms and this came together with my personal fascination with what computing and the web would offer and led naturally to my current role.”

In the future everything that I can see developing comes back to the mobile connected revolution. So if we are talking about the Internet of Things, how will I be controlling my smart home? Well, it will be via my phone. 

His working life changed radically. As a business correspondent he was on television more regularly, but with less impact than in the technology specialist’s role. Now, there are many more platforms to broadcast stories and there is an appetite for technology news, but the subject matter can be difficult to articulate.

“The trouble with technology is that the really interesting stuff is not a ‘this happened today’ type of story, but is more about what is going to happen and how it will change your life. It is hard to get these big ideas across. Take the Internet of Things – the fascinating idea that we are going to have a completely connected world, that every single object one way or another will be online. Firstly, the term is horrible, but also, why should that be on The BBC News at Ten tonight? It can be difficult to find the right hook to hang these stories on, but getting these big themes on is one of my obsessions,” he says.

Of course, technology has not just changed the subject matter Cellan-Jones is covering, but the way he gathers, processes and broadcasts the news.

“When I started we were working on film that we had to wait to be processed,” he says. “And then when I came to London we were on video but it was terrible quality and it was a huge piece of kit with a great big, heavy camera and an umbilical cord to the sound recordist, who had the equivalent of a VHS. So all of that has obviously massively changed. New technology has changed my working life, not so much in terms of what I do for The BBC News at Ten, but by giving me the ability to look after myself, especially on platforms like YouTube and Facebook and Twitter.

“I started work in the age when you work incredibly hard and then you go home and you completely switch off, but I never switch off now. Social media has made a huge difference to my work and mostly very beneficially but the first thing I look at is Twitter on my phone and the last thing I do at night is probably the same, so work leaks into every area of your life.”

With daily dealings with the UK’s established tech giants and start-ups alike, Cellan-Jones is well placed to gauge the country’s digital strengths and weaknesses, and says he’s feeling upbeat and is less sceptical than before about the prospects for schemes like London’s ‘Tech City’ (the publicly funded East London tech cluster).

He says: “I have been very focused on Cambridge being the UK’s most powerful tech cluster. There you have real science spinning off very clever tech companies. Tech clusters don’t happen overnight. Silicon Valley has been going for 50 to 60 years and Tech City does have a lot of energy about it. 

Silicon valley

“I think there aren’t many very impressive companies born out of London so far, and there is still a big funding gap. What everybody tells me is that actually getting a company started is pretty easy these days. It doesn’t cost much and modern web tools are cheap or free, but there is a big gap when you want to scale up and there is still a caution that you don’t get in Silicon Valley, where there is just such a huge appetite for risk. But there are clusters and countries around the world saying the same about themselves, everybody is saying, ‘Why can’t we be like Silicon Valley?’ And the answer is: because it bloody well takes time.”

So, is there an important role for government in fostering this confidence?

“Businesses have a schizophrenic attitude to government,” says Cellan-Jones. “Half of the time they are saying, ‘Get off of our backs and leave us alone,’ and half the time they are saying, ‘Where’s the money?’ I think what governments can best do is almost cultural rather than financial, and having been critical of Tech City, I actually now think, forget the money that has been spent on it because that’s not much, what it has done is shine a light on entrepreneurship and the possibilities.”

Where governments must have an impact though is in combating digital exclusion. For years, businesses have complained of a lack of skills coming through and Cellan-Jones recognises a gap in technology education.

“It may not be as simplistic as getting kids to code, because most kids frankly are not going to end up as coders, but it is in some ways getting kids to think creatively about technology and be creators rather than just consumers. I think we often beat ourselves up about this, but it’s a global problem and we have at least had this big debate and started doing something about it,” he says.

“Away from schools there are plenty of adults lacking digital skills. I think the other looming problem is robotics and artificial intelligence and the threat they could pose to a lot of jobs and whether that will have a disproportionate effect on those people without digital skills.” 

For businesses, Cellan-Jones says the main technological concern is knowing when to change. “It is always impossible to say when to adopt a new technology. The supermarket world is a great example. Tesco is obviously in crisis at the moment yet it was a leader and at one point it was Britain’s biggest online business because it had gone early into online delivery. It brought out a tablet, it has done all of the right things, but then the old world caught up with it and it has found that being ahead on the technology front doesn’t save you if in the old traditional areas you are going to get lost.”

So, where will the next great technological leaps forward be taken? Cellan-Jones believes the biggest immediate developments are still to come from the continuation of the smartphone revolution. “In the future everything that I can see developing comes back to the mobile connected revolution. So if we are talking about the Internet of Things, how will I be controlling my smart home? Well, it will be via my phone. If we are talking about the development of social networks, well the way that people will continue to come to that, new people around the world, is via the mobile phone. We’re seven years into it and we are only five years into the app revolution and so I think that has a long way to go.”

Next big things

WEARABLES

The big question for business is about the relationship with their staff and whether they want to monitor them. If you are going to monitor staff performance more closely and sell it to them as something that will enhance their lives, that’s going to cause a huge debate. In terms of customers, all of this technology is going to provide a vast amount more data. We are continually being told that data is this vast goldmine that every company will need to know how to use. I’m slightly sceptical here because I have heard so much big data rubbish in recent years, but there will be companies that use that in clever ways. 

ROBOTICS AND ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE

Advances in AI, machine intelligence and robotics are going to make every business think about the number of people it needs to employ and how these devices and this software and capability will change the structure of things. Also, if we look at driverless cars, having them will have a massive impact on our cities and our social lives, it could lead to a huge rise in alcoholism, it will have all sorts of social implications. But, the computer took so long to change business in many ways, and robotics and AI still feels a long way away.

FINTECH

Banking is the industry that really needs to be disrupted and wouldn’t it be great if it was? I think it might happen now. We’ve seen money transfer revolutionised in Kenya, but not here. The reason is that it is meeting a need in Africa, where most people are unbanked. If you work in one part of Kenya and want to send money home, you’ve got the choice between getting on a bus and taking it or sending a text, so it’s a no-brainer. Over here, very few people are in that position. But there has been a whole wave of attempts to innovate and so far none of them have quite worked. Bitcoin is obviously a fascinating area but you are seeing a lot of resistance from regulators for very good reasons and also from the banks. If a crypto-currency like Bitcoin did take off, wiping out the cost of transferring money across borders would be huge, and the potential for cash to disappear would also be a big game changer.

HEALTHCARE

There is a lot of potential in the UK not in the provision of healthcare but in the relationship between patient and professional. Just very simple things could make a big change. For instance, I would love to book an appointment online with my GP. That is starting to happen but it has been incredibly slow. I phoned my surgery recently asking for their email address and they said they weren’t allowed to give it to patients. I thought that was pretty scary. There is obviously potential in things like remote monitoring and Skyping your doctor.

All eyes on Google Glass

Rory road-tested Google’s experimental wearable computer for the BBC and found a device in need of further experiment

“The failure is in the design. Do I want to walk around looking like this? I did it for two months but I was doing it as a journalistic exercise and so that is like a shield. But the minute I didn’t have to wear it for journalism, I took it off. A lot of wearable tech at the moment is essentially an accessory for your mobile phone. Google Glass does a couple of useful things, it’s a great camera and occasionally I found it did flash a useful message up in my eye. I found it much more useful than the smart watch I’ve been using. I think Apple will go on to dominate the smart watch market, but the question is if it will be a market worth dominating.”

Photography by Anthony Upton.