Category: technology and communication

Merchants of Culture – new edition for a changing industry

When John Thompson‘s Merchants of Culture appeared in the summer of 2010, it was the first serious study of the publishing industry in many years. Thompson compared himself to an anthropologist studying his subjects in order to explain a field of human activity that strikes many outsiders as baffling and often irrational.

The industry recognized itself in the portrait that Thompson drew. One reviewer said succinctly: “If you want to understand the publishing industry, read this book” and one New York Times bestselling author called it “a must-read for anyone hoping to become a published writer, or who already is one”.

Now, some eighteen months later, comes a substantially revised paperback edition which takes into account the profound changes affecting the industry as print sales shrink and uncertainty grows over where power will reside in an electronic future in which the roles of publishers, authors and agents are set to change.

To listen to the complete interview, click here. For my original interview from the summer of 2010, click here. And to listen to extracts from our conversation, clink on the links below:

1. “It is to some extent a test of whether I have got it right that [publishers] recognize their world in the account that I have given.”

John Thompson reflects on the warm reception the first edition of this book received from an industry undergoing profound change. To listen, click here [2:06].

2. “By the summer of 2011, it was clear that the industry was going in a certain direction and that the ebook revolution had become a reality.”

John Thompson discusses the dramatic changes that occurred in the world of trade publishing between Merchants of Culture‘s first publication and this new paperback edition. Click here [2:56].

3. The ebooks future had been long foretold and was slow in coming. Was the advent of Amazon’s Kindle in autumn 2007 the key tipping point that changed publishing? Click here [5:22].

4. The key question: why has the ebook caused such a profound existential crisis in the publishing industry? Click here [5:35]

5. Finally I asked John Thompson if he felt publishers were doing enough to shape the future, or were they ceding control to retailers and technology companies? Click here [4:06].



Tales from Facebook II

Daniel Miller introduces Tales from Facebook from George Miller on Vimeo.

Renowned anthropologist Daniel Miller introduces his new book, Tales from Facebook, the result of an in-depth study of the way that Facebook impacts on its users’ lives. In this interview, he explains why Facebook interests him as an anthropologist and describes some of his findings. Full details about the book can be found at

Tales from Facebook

Miller Tales from FacebookDaniel Miller is professor of material culture at University College London. His new book, Tales from Facebook (Polity, 2011) looks at the impacts of being a Facebook user on people’s everyday  lives.

Drawing his examples from an in-depth study of Facebook users in Trinidad, the book is in part a sequence of detailed pen-portraits of a dozen individuals whose habits he examined. What emerges is a picture more fascinating and more complex than the easy media generalizations about Facebook’s impact on society.

To listen to my complete interview with Daniel Miller click here. To listen to shorter sections of the interview, click on the links which interest you below.

Daniel Miller1. Why did you focus on Trinidadian Facebook users, rather than users in London, New York or Sydney? Click here.

2. You describe Facebook as being uncannily well-suited to Trinidadian culture. In what ways? Click here.

3. How did you go about researching something as personal as how people use Facebook? Click here.

4. What do you make of the charge that Facebook is just a waste of time? Click here.

5. Much of the book concerns Facebook’s effect on relations between men and women. So is there an erotics of Facebook? Click here.

6. You suggest that Facebook may in fact be a conservative force. Can you explain what you mean by this? Click here.

7. Finally, do you have any predictions as to how Facebook will develop in the future? Click here.

35. A Don’s Life

It's a Don's Life coverThis week marks the second anniversary of Podularity, so I’m delighted to be welcoming back an old friend of the programme, Cambridge professor of classics, Mary Beard.

Mary appeared in programme 15 to talk about her book on the Roman triumph and more recently in programme 28, to talk about Pompeii.

This time, we’re in conversation about the book of her blog, A Don’s Life, which is out in paperback from Profile Books on 5 November.

AlthoMary Beardugh – as she explains in the interview – it can be a burden to be constantly described as “wickedly subversive”, that’s just what she often succeeds in being in her posts.

Her subjects range from what Romans wore under their togas to whether Prince Harry should have gone to Afghanistan. To hear how Mary took to the blogosphere – and the blogosphere took to her – click on the link above.

And if you listen to the end, you’ll find out how high she rates the chances of her appearing on Twitter any time soon…

26. Who owns your body?

Body Shopping cover

“This is what I think is really surprising to most people: you don’t actually own your body, in the sense that tissue taken from it and used afterwards is yours to use as you see fit.

“The law traditionally took the view that tissue, once it had left the body, was what was called ‘no one’s thing’.

“And it took that view because traditionally the tissue wasn’t of any value. It is modern biotechnology that has given it this value.”

This podcast is an extended version of an interview I did with Donna Dickenson for Blackwell Online about her book Body Shopping: Converting Body Parts to Profit.

We talked about the global commodification of the human body, from the sale of eggs and the “grave-robbing” of bones to gene-patenting.

Donna’s approach is not to sensationalize these issues, shocking though they often are, but to look at the big questions we as a society need to face in their ethical, legal and scientific context.

16. “Our sweaty ape hands on the thermostat”

Mark Lynas“The chemistry of this is more than a century old… The basic physics of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases has been known for a very long time. In fact some back-of-the-envelope calculations were made then which more or less stand the test of time a century later.”

A few weeks back I met Mark Lynas in Oxford to talk about his book, Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet, shortly before the book won this year’s Royal Society Science Book Prize. The book looks degree by degree at the consequences for the Earth, its biodiversity and its inhabitants, as average global temperatures continue to rise throughout this century. The book is alarming without being alarmist, sobering without being defeatist. As the Royal Society recognized, the book represents a magnificent achievement on Mark’s part, who sifted through a huge amount of scientific data in order to construct such readable and readily comprehensible scenarios.

Six Degrees coverSix Degrees coverAverage rises in global temperature of up to two degrees have serious consequences; above that, the consequences range from the dramatic to the catastrophic. The latest projections from the Met Office Hadley Centre, which Mark wrote about in the Guardian the week we met, suggest that if we make a step change soon in our carbon emissions, we may limit warming to under 3°C. If we continue on our current path – the scenario called “agree and ignore” – the level of warming is likely to be 4.85°C by 2100.

As Six Degrees makes clear, a world nearly 5°C warmer than our present one would begin to resemble an entirely new planet: no ice sheets, massive loss of biodiversity, flooded cities, our “prosperous interlude” nourished on fossil fuel a “lucky aberration”.

Publishers talk all too glibly of books being “necessary” when all they really mean is worthy of attention. In my view, Mark’s is a rare example of a truly necessary book and I do enjoin you to read it. In the book he talks of the “awesome responsibility” of “our sweaty ape hands resting on the climatic thermostat”. Our time to turn that thermostat down is rapidly running out…

The price of gas

What’s the big idea?

Festival of Ideas logoIn May I made a number of recordings for this year’s Bristol Festival of Ideas, a series of very popular events which brought some high-powered thinkers to the city to stimulate discussion on subjects as diverse as the legacy of ’68 to why the human brain is not quite ‘fit for purpose’.

I’m editing my interviews now for a series of podcasts sponsored by The Philosophers’ Magazine, which will be appearing over the next few months. The first one is downloadable now from iTunes here. Read More

12. A Chinese character

T. H. Barrett
“I think the burning question is: we think of printing as having revolutionized intellectual life in Europe, how come it doesn’t appear to have revolutionized intellectual life in China? There’s no great fanfare when it arrives. It seems to creep in and people don’t talk about it much for quite a long time. That was the problem I was trying to address overall.”

This week I’ve been at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London to see Professor of East Asian History, Tim Barrett. It was the title of Tim’s recent book – The Woman Who Discovered Printing – which made me keen to meet him. After all, most of us have grown up with the idea that printing was invented in medieval Germany by Gutenberg. In fact, Tim’s book shows that printing was already well-established in China many centuries before Gutenberg, and that Europeans had probably seen eastern wood-block type at a period when they were too far behind China technologically speaking to make use of it.

Woman who discovered printing book jacket

Perhaps our difficulty in the West with acknowledging the great advance the Chinese had over us (cultural prejudice aside) is how very different the story of printing looks from China. The woman in Tim’s story, for example, is not a artisan or a scientist, but Empress Wu, the only woman to rule China single-handed in its long history.

And her interests in the fledgling craft of printing around 700CE was stimulated not by a desire to spread knowledge, but to reinforce her own position. You can hear how she did that and how Tim has pieced together the evidence in the podcast.

In the programme, we touch on the possible impact of climate change on the development of printing and the role of Buddhist texts which were never meant to be read. You can also hear about the impression (if you’ll pardon the pun) made in the history books by one Gong the Sage, who, with his magic inks and words which appeared on paper when he blew on it, may be the very first printer in recorded history…

Reading Tim’s book provided me with a list of further titles I wanted to track down. Here is my personal selection:

Elizabeth Eisenstein: The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe

Blake Morrison: The Justification of Johann Gutenberg

John Hobson: The Easten Origins of Western Civilisation

Here comes Clay Shirky

Shirky UK coverThere’s an interesting podcast on the Penguin site featuring Clay Shirky, whose new book Here Comes Everybody has just come out. Shirky has been called ‘the finest thinker we have on the Internet revolution’. He runs the Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU, which brings together people from the worlds of the arts and technology. He says he jokingly refers to as ‘the Center for the Study of the Recently Possible’. Read More