The CBC’s audience is incredibly diverse. How do you strike the right tone so that your content speaks to everyone from tech geeks to my Luddite grandma?
One of the things we learned early on about doing an audio show on technology is that focusing on just tech can make the show both difficult to explain and boring. So we really try to recess the nuts and bolts of it and focus on the human dimension. I think that’s part of what allows us to speak to those two communities.
We’ve also tried to develop things like our Twitter and online presence as a focus for people who want to engage more deeply with those questions. On Twitter, we can link to more material, answer more questions and participate in more of a dialogue with community members that may be into tech.
We can also facilitate conversations where there are no time constraints, so the conversation can get as woolly or as technical as people want, whereas on the air, we have a tight constraint of an hour a week.
The other thing we do is post almost all of our full-length interviews online. So we try to have a really tight and narrow conversation that can live on the audio version of the show, and then the conversation can get longer, more in-depth and more technical in the longer form.
You’ve mentioned having a love-hate relationship with technology and with what you call “armchair sociology” – how so?
I’ve been interested in technology for a long time; I even did my master’s degree in issues around the philosophy of technology.
But what I often find is missing is critical discussion. It’s an area that so routinely devolves into technophobes and technophiles, or technology determinist versus technology neutralists, whereas I think the reality is that it’s much more nuanced.
There are also things I love. I love playing with new software, I love looking into how new technologies have historically been introduced into societies and I love learning about the impacts they’ve had. But I often feel like our thoughts on the daily impacts of technologies are totally starry eyed.
The hate really comes from this idea that it doesn’t need to be discussed in a political way, because it really does. Right now, the pace at which technology is evolving is clearly outstripping our political and legal institutions’ ability to address [its impact]. Look at how difficult it’s been to even get any kind of discussion going on about copyright issues.
At Spark, you talk about everything from privacy, to publishing, to education, to copyrights, to robots. Are there subjects that come up again and again?
Every season seems to have a subject that always comes back. The first season, we always ended up talking about the virtual meeting the real, the blurring between online and offline. The difference between artificial and human intelligence and our human relationship to artificial intelligence and robots also comes up a lot.
We’ve done a few stories that have had to do with grieving and online communities, and they’ve provoked a lot of reactions. I think those stories aren’t covered too often because they kind of seem antithetical to each other in the same way that technology and spirituality do.
But they really aren’t. I actually think there are ways in which they can be paired really well.
You recently did a show about “gamification,” which has become quite the buzzword lately. Do you think it’s just hype or are we seeing game mechanics playing a bigger role in how everything from content to retail gets monetized these days?
There’s already a bit of pushback on the term, but I do think that it’s a real thing, and that game mechanics are way too powerful. It actually kind of scares me.
There’s something very Skinner box about it and ethically, it has the potential to be really dubious. I sometimes create game mechanics to try to motivate myself or break a bad habit, and it can definitely be effective, and I do think we’re going to see it spread out to more and more areas. But it’s not a trend I’m super comfortable with.
You’ve been at the CBC since the 1990s. How do you think the station’s approach to digital content has changed since you started there?
I think that the CBC is focusing a lot right now on the importance of getting content into people’s hands however they want it. Even as a listener, I’m aware of how that’s changing things.
For example, there’s more community-based content in areas like the news, where I think it would have been pretty unheard of five or 10 years ago. But I don’t think I have a good enough sense of what the CBC is generally doing to really speak to that one.
How would you say the Spark community has evolved over the last four years?
It’s certainly changed in the sense that the practice of engaging with social media has really taken off. When we went on the air, things like Twitter were pretty fringy and geeky – most people just weren’t engaged in content creation. But I think that using things like Facebook got people used to the idea of posting their thoughts about stuff.
Now, we have a Twitter community made up of casual CBC fans who probably follow Spark along with a ton of other CBC shows. We also have those who are very passionate, very intensely focused, and another big chunk of people who just dip in and dip out whenever something strikes their interest.
Getting a handle on your community and understanding how you can better serve their needs is a big challenge for any kind of content creator today.
Would you say the show has changed as well?
The show has changed in that the way we even think of “the show” is changing.
I think that we’ve moved in a direction where it really becomes a conversation that then becomes distilled into this end product.
A big part of that comes from the sense that we have an ongoing relationship with the broader Spark community.