Month: March 2012

Consumption and its consequences: “rethinking our relationship to the material world”

My guest in this programme is Professor of Material Culture at UCL, Daniel Miller. Daniel appeared in an earlier Polity Books podcast to talk about his previous book, Tales from Facebook, which looked at how people really use Facebook as a form of social interaction, as opposed to how media commentators would have us think they use it. In his new book, Consumption and its Consequences, Daniel takes a similar approach, examining how we behave as consumers by paying close attention to what we do, rather than heeding received ideas about consumption.

Of course, with consumption, the stakes are potentially very high, as our patterns of consumption have direct bearing on the earth’s resources and its climate. So the questions Daniel addresses here, while informed by academic research, are of much more than just academic interest. Understanding how and why we consume is, the book argues, a prerequisite for finding ways to consume without completely exhausting our planet’s resources. And to pursue these issues, Daniel opens and closes the book with an imaginary three-way conversation between advocates of different approaches to consumption. So it is more than an academic book in both its form and content.

To listen to the complete interview, click here. To hear extracts, click on the links below.

1. I began by asking Danny about this book in relation to his earlier work. Click here for his response [1:44].

2. “We’ve used the material world as a stick to beat ourselves with”. Daniel Miller on contesting the unrelievedly negative view of material culture. Click here [2:40].

3. “Everybody’s decided in a sense what consumption is without really going out there and being open-minded and going out there to ask ‘what do people actually seem to be doing?'”. Danny Miller on the contribution of anthropology to the study of consumption. Click here [2:12].

4. I remarked that the book expresses scepticism about the methodology of economists and psychologists in studying consumption, so how did Danny Miller collect his data? Click here [2:30].

5. This books maintains that consumer culture is not necessarily individualistic,  materialistic, and competitive, which will raise many eyebrows. I asked Danny Miller to explain. Click here [1:52].

6. Consumption and its Consequences is distinctive not just in its content but also its form. Here Danny Miller explains more. Click here [2:48].

7. If we follow Miller’s interpretation of consumption, do the problems of climate change appear more or less intractable? Click here [2:41]

Wikileaks – “significant, symptomatic but not game-changing”?

WikiLeaks is the most challenging journalistic phenomenon to have emerged in the digital era. It has provoked anger and enthusiasm in equal measure from across the political and journalistic spectrum.

Its use of new technologies and its methods of disseminating information raise profound questions about the role of journalism and its future in the contemporary world. What are the responsibilities of the journalist? What are the limits on freedom of expression? How far does the public’s “right to know” extend?

These and other questions are tackled in Charlie Beckett and James Ball‘s Wikileaks: News in the Networked Era (Polity, 2012), which eschews fixation on the personalities of the key players in favour of engaging with the substantive issues.

Charlie Beckett is director of Polis, the journalism and society think-tank in the Department of Media and Communications at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Before POLIS, Charlie Beckett was a programme editor at ITN’s Channel 4 News editing coverage on 9/11, 7/7 and the RTS award-winning series of live News From Africa broadcasts before the G8 in 2005. He was a senior producer and programme editor at BBC News and Current affairs for ten years, making documentaries and news programmes at On The Record, Public Eye, Panorama, Breakfast News and News 24. James Ball is a data journalist working for the Guardian investigations team. He joined the Guardian from Wikileaks, and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

I recently met Charlie Beckett to talk to him about the book. To listen to the complete interview, click here. To go direct to specific questions, click on the links below.

1. I began by asking Charlie to take us back to 2006, when Wikileaks was launched. How clear were its intentions at the outset? Click here to listen [2:56].

2. Next I asked what drove Wikileaks in time to collaborate with traditional media such as the Guardian and the New York Times. Click here [2:07].

3. Attempts to crowd-source the analysis of data in Wikileaks’ possession didn’t really work. I suggested to Charlie Beckett that this pointed to the enduring value of traditional journalism in sifting, evaluating, contextualizing and presenting information. Click here [1:57].

4. Clearly there were personality clashes between Julian Assange and some of his media partners. But beyond that, did the tensions which became manifest point to Wikileaks’ fundamentally different way of seeing the role of journalism in the internet age? Click here [3:15].

5. Charlie Beckett refers to Wikileaks as an entity rather than an organization. I asked him to explain more about its nature. Click here [2:03].

6. Is it too early to talk of Wikileaks’ influence on both old and new media? Click here [2:28].

7. In conclusion, I wondered if Wikileaks had highlighted the fact that both old and new journalism had their shortcomings. Click here [1:36].

The Olympic spirit, ancient-style


Earlier this week, I interviewed archaeologist and broadcaster Neil Faulkner about his forthcoming book on the ancient Greek Olympics (Yale University Press, 2012). It’s eye-opening, often shocking stuff: full lurid details of what a chaotic, violent, hedonistic experience it was will be provided in my forthcoming podcast for Blackwell Online (link here when it’s available).

In the meantime, here’s Neil reading a short extract from the book in which he describes the bloody confrontations that took place between ancient Greek boxers. Click here to listen [4:02].

Jon Agar – Science in the Twentieth Century and Beyond

Agar coverJon Agar‘s new History of Science in the Twentieth Century and Beyond goes beyond the limitations of disciplinary and national histories of science to look at the broad themes in the science of the last eleven decades. He shows the close connections between science and warfare, politics and the commercial world, and charts the rise of new fields and the impact of new discoveries. He also tells the stories of some of the remarkable individuals, both well known and less familiar, who shaped twentieth-century science.

Jon Agar is senior lecturer in science and technology studies at University College London. He is the editor of the British Journal for the History of Science; his previous publications include histories of the computer and the mobile phone.

To listen to the complete interview, click here.
For excerpts, click on the links below.

1. “One of the interesting things about twentieth-century science is that a lot of the really exciting stuff has happened at the edges of disciplines.” Jon Agar explains here why he set out to write a history of twentieth-century science like no other previously attempted. [2:41]

2. I asked Jon if he knew what the big picture of modern science would be from the outset or whether that only emerged when he stepped back from the canvas. Click here [1:21].

3. “Nineteen hundred turns out to be a good place to start.” I asked Jon to take us back to that year and describe how science was then practised. Click here [2:13].

Fritz Haber

4. We talked about the ways in which the career of German Jewish scientist Fritz Haber (above) exemplified many of the big themes of the book, not least the intimate connections between science and war. Click here to learn more [2:36].

Jon Agar5. Science on the twentieth century is continually throwing up moral dilemmas. Here Jon Agar talks about the chemical and biological weapons programmes which were set up during the Second World War but never put to offensive use during the conflict [1:18].

6. One of the major themes of the book is the rise of the United States to a position of world dominance in science. How easy is it to explain why that came about? Click here [1:54].

7. Finally, I asked Jon Agar to venture some predictions about the state of science ten years from now. What will science 2022 look like? Click here to listen to his answer [3:16].