No one can tell us, in detail, what the future holds, but there are a few people who hold a vivid view of the past. Out of all the popular thinkers of our time, Stephen Fry is the person I want in charge of finding the soul of whatever comes next in tech, because he has spent his life investigating meaning. He ensures we don’t discard all that is meaningful from our past as we plunge ahead.
For me, he has been a contextualizer. He provides intellectual context that feels vital, he makes ideas vital, and describes our place in this continuum. Not every business gets the opportunity to install someone like Fry on their board, or in their conference room, to dispense general wisdom. But any business operating in this new environment, any business that wants to understand why we need to remember the offline world as we plunge forward online, could do worse than turn to Fry. He’s able to eloquently remind me how we’ve always been locked in a bitter duel with technological advancement, for hundreds of years, accepting what works and rejecting what doesn’t.
Good business in the new trust environment means listening to those who can both assuage and challenge us on some of these ideas. Fry is a technophile but in our conversations I’ve always got the sense he’s thought about his own barter. How much of himself was he willing to give up? How much of his own data would he allow the miners to mine? All of this should be taken with a grain of salt.
It’s easy to be elusive, or to refrain from getting into the trenches of Twitter, when you’re already broadcasting to 13 million people. Fry is in a privileged position. But he’s also chosen to be aligned with what is healthiest, or brightest, in this new world.
What I like about him is the way he refuses to disconnect our current age from the past. We are not – even though much of Silicon Valley might like us to believe – living in some brand-new age, we are not brand-new creatures, we do not have new values.
The tools we are creating do not elevate us in any new and vaulted ways. We’re ruled by the old gods, Fry reminds us. Nothing has changed; these are new tools for old urges. The urge to data mine, to know more than we should, has been in humans since we became human.
‘You’ve mentioned you’re writing about the relationship between what one might call the cold machine world and the human heart,’ Stephen Fry said to me when we met. I agreed. I tried to explain, in the most eloquent and interesting way possible, what we were up to at WeTransfer: the no-sign-up, the refusal to collect data. I told him that, since 2009, straight through to the moment when Cambridge Analytica closed down, the tech industry was not in the slightest bit interested in talking to us. Then, suddenly, everybody became interested in companies that were online and not using data.
Stephen: So suddenly, a lack of vulgarity and commercial sort of violence, as it were, and the presence of empathy and sweetness of tone becomes a selling point.
Damian: It just happened.
Stephen: It just happened. And that’s very pleasing.
Damian: I think one of the most critical actions for us all is to determine who’s in charge.
Stephen: The buzzword at the moment is agency, isn’t it?
Whether we have agency in our online world and our online existence or whether we don’t, whether we’re puppets with invisible strings pulling us and moving us around that we’re unaware of. It is very interesting.
I come from the point of view that I think the human mind and body and all the bits in between that we give different names to – the spirit, the soul, the personality, character – are infinitely stronger than any technology we’ve yet arrived at.
I often use the image of the fact we can stand in a field – we could go to one now, outside London, somewhere in the countryside, where there are no roads and no phones – and look. And without any change in our brain or thinking, but purely instinctively, if there was a breath of wind that turned a leaf over in the distance from being dark green to being the silvery underside, miles away, we’d see it. Because, you know, we’ve evolved either to look for lunch or to look out for being lunch for someone else.
So we’re able to concentrate, focus, here, on the most extraordinary detail.
But half an hour later, on the train, we’re on Oxford Street, there’s a thousand people in our eyeline and music coming out of every shop, phone on, and traffic going. We’re crossing and talking to someone. It’s a miracle what our brain is doing and not doing.
People forget that a lot of brain processing is in the inhibition, not action – as in stopping you from falling over, stopping you from doing this, blanking that out, not seeing that, not taking account of this. And we don’t even have to think about doing that. It’s extraordinary how our brains respond. They haven’t evolved for Oxford Street, and yet they cope with it, and it’s quite remarkable.
The idea that we’re being controlled by invisible forces in the internet may be worrying for us, but our ancestors always thought that anyway. That’s what they thought the gods were. And they thought that was exactly what we were, that every time we moved, we were being watched and that everything we did was registered. There was providence in the fall of a sparrow. It says that in the Bible, doesn’t it?
Damian: Do you use Facebook?
Stephen: No. I killed that recently.
Damian: Instagram? You left it?
Stephen: I use Instagram only because if I’m doing a project, the publicity department asks me to use it. I’ve only got 100 million followers, I think. You can look it up. I don’t know. It’s not very important to me, and I can’t see what the point is.
Damian: You’re still on Twitter?
Stephen: Yes. I do it a lot. I do it in a friendly way, and I’ve learned to be at peace with not following anybody, not following any threads, not looking at anybody’s tweets. It’s a notice. I put a notice up, and I run away. I don’t watch people come up to it and look at it to make comments. You just put it up, and if people want to read it, they read it. Unlike noticeboards, they can’t take it down. It’s like one of those school noticeboards in the glass cases, locked.
When I first had an email address, which was in the 1980s, which is the world before there was a worldwide web or anything, I slowly watched it grow. I really thought it was Pandora, which is the Greek word for ‘all- gifted’. She was this all-gifted woman who Zeus had created. He wanted to punish mankind, so he sent down this jar, which she wasn’t allowed to open.
As the worldwide web arrived and Web 2.0 came on, and the first social media, I really thought that now, online, you have a city. There’s museums, art galleries, concert halls, libraries, gathering places, red light districts of course, no-go areas for children, like any good city. But it’s all-gifted. There’s everything there, and people can connect to each other with hobbies and interests and ideas that used to be in some badly smeared, printed fanzine that you had to wait a month to arrive as a quarterly thing. Now, you can connect with people all over the world with shared interests, and it will melt away differences. Mankind will become one, and we’ll no longer hate each other.
And then, at some point, like Pandora’s box – which is what we called this jar, whatever you call it – the lid got opened and, in the myth, out flew all the ills of the world. You know, lies, war, starvation. All the miseries of the world arrived, or were given to us, after Pandora’s box. It was like that. Instead of it being this perfect thing, it turned out to be this ghastly thing, in one’s worst moods. It turned out to be actually full of stinging, nattering, wheeling, chattering creatures that bit you. In Pandora’s box, she closed the lid so firmly, she was so frightened by these animals.
Damian: Who’s going to close the lid?
Stephen: She closed it too quickly, and she left inside hope, which beats its wings inside to this day, not being released. It’s a very good image, because it’s basically just saying that everything casts a shadow. Of course, the light of the internet was so bright at first, you didn’t notice the shadows it was casting. Nobody did. Now we see nothing but the shadows. We forget the light.
You've been reading an extract from The Trust Manifesto by Damian Bradfield, out now.