Mon 28 September 2020
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What I'm Thinking About...the Downside of Digital
As a guest selector at the Edinburgh International Book festival I'm reminded of how digital technology has affected every aspect of life

When I started on Radio 4's Today programme in the 1980s (we still typed the scripts on ancient typewriters - with a carbon copy for the producer), getting hold of anyone abroad, be they correspondent or foreign politician, in what was called "quality" mode, involved a series of complicated international telephone connections - with no guarantee that the end result would be audible. Or even that the contributor would be there at all, and not have popped out of the studio for a cup of tea, fed up with waiting.

Now, though, satellite phone connections are generally so crystal clear that "abroad" doesn't sound exotic any more. Correspondents from Delhi to Djibouti, from Afghanistan to Antartica, might as well be sitting in the studio in London (and perhaps sometimes wish they were). Even bog-standard mobile phone connections can be in pretty impressive quality. On Any Questions on a Friday night, you might hear a politician airing his or her views from a parked car near a motorway if they've misjudged the traffic jams. Before mobiles they never made it on air.

Indeed, since almost anyone can get on air from anywhere these days, it's probably hard to imagine the sheer excitement of getting through live to someone important sitting in a radio studio in, say, the old Soviet Union. In 1986, two weeks after the Chernobyl explosion, I had a phone-in date with Georgi Arbatov, one of Gorbachev's advisers. He'd agreed to take part, but after the nuclear disaster would he be there? And would the technology work? The minutes ticked by to live air time (we had 45 minutes to fill) and still no sign of Georgi. Then suddenly through my headphones I heard the unmistakable sound of Russian tea being stirred in a glass. With seconds to spare, we were on. And it was an historic moment - a representative of the old Soviet regime opening up to live callers with no advance notice of the questions.

Complete article here.