Why nerds make good podcasters

I’ve been in the academic podcasting game since 2015 (with the launch of RightsUp), but my love affair with radio (the grandfather of podcasting) probably began in elementary school when we were tasked with producing a radio play for class. I loved it – writing the script, rehearsing the character voices, finding and recording the sounds of doors slamming and footsteps approaching and airplanes flying overhead. Our audio-noir mystery programme probably wound up being fairly nonsensical and was undoubtedly hindered by one too many Backstreet Boys references, but the experience stuck with me.

One of the awesome things I get to do as a podcaster in a university setting is teach other academics how to get started in podcasting. I run a termly workshop for doctoral students and post-docs at TORCH on audio production, from storyboarding to post-production, and it’s always the highlight of my term. Participants bring such awesome, innovative ideas, and it makes me think about my own podcasting goals in new ways. I wanted to write a post about one of the key points I like to emphasize in these workshops: why academics make good podcasters.

For a snappy overview of what makes podcasting such an easy fit for nerds like me and my academic colleagues, I really like this interview with Open University Senior Lecturer Nigel Warburton, whose podcast, Philosophy Bites, became a huge success. So, listen to that. But here are my thoughts on why academics make good podcast producers and guests.

Good research = good podcasts

If there’s one thing academics know after 20+ years of continuous education, it’s that you should always do your homework. It’s true of all research endeavours: you need to do some background reading and know the literature to know the lay of the land. Well, the same is true of good podcasts. The best magazine-style podcasts are meticulously researched using the best journalistic tools and practices. And even the more relaxed, conversational podcasts require preparation. You have to know what you’re going to talk about!

Academics are used to this kind of preparatory work — we do it when we write articles or present conference papers. We know the value of being prepared (and the pain of procrastination). When I prepare for my podcast interviews, I ask interviewees to send me literature, recordings, press releases, bullet points, or any other background they’d like me to have before we meet. I also do my own research ahead of time. It helps me prepare questions that are well suited to both the interviewee and the episode. Like planning a book chapter or a lecture, podcasts have a narrative arc, and you need to know where the conversation is headed. Good news – we already do this kind of background research ALL THE TIME!

It’s all about editing

You’re on Draft 6 of your journal article, and you feel like it will never be finished, and you’re wondering why you got into this field in the first place. We’ve all been there. But in the midst of polishing up that peer reviewed publication, it’s easy to forget the very valuable skill set you’ve developed to get there. You’re an expert editor. Podcasts require both technical and conceptual editing. The technical side of things, you can pick up along the way (or find someone who already knows a thing or two about audio editing!), but the conceptual side of editing a podcast taps into the same skills that contribute to good writing — a sense of organization, narrative, and style.

It’s useful to think of a podcast episode in the same way you would think about an essay or a paper. How will the different interviews fit together? What will be the beginning, middle, and end of the episode, and how do I transition between them? Planning and editing a podcast are very similar to outlining and drafting an academic paper.

You have to like learning new stuff

Of course, there’s going to be a bit of a learning curve when you get started. There’s a small amount of equipment required (although I recorded my first podcast almost entirely on iPhone voice memos), some software, and a few skills. All of those things can be acquired as you go. The only essential prerequisites are a sense of curiosity and an interest in learning about new topics and new technical skills. If you’re still holed up in the ivory tower at this point, chances are… you like learning. That’s great! Because a willingness to pick up new skills and acquire new knowledge is the engine that drives an independent podcast.

The weirder the better

What are academics known for if not our niche interests? The narrower the better, right? Well, while in the ‘real world’ our specializations earn us more than our fair share of eye rolls at dinner parties, narrow/niche/unexpected/under-explored topics are the stuff of podcasts. Some of the best podcasts out there (think Invisibilia or 99 Percent Invisible) zero in on a minute topic – one you’ve probably never heard of – in  order to make a broader point. If that doesn’t sound like academic research, I don’t know what does. Podcasts often go ‘off the beaten track’ in terms of content. There’s a reason that they’re related to radio but have flourished entirely independently of established radio stations. They speak to the niche!

So, embrace your unusual interests and your obscure research agendas! They’d probably make great audio programmes. Importantly, putting together a podcast also makes you think about what makes your niche interest interesting. Framing your research this way challenges you to communicate better, or at least differently, and can open the door to new insights into familiar subjects.

And importantly, academics know a lot of cool stuff. Even if you don’t want to create, record, and edit your own podcast, consider participating in other ways (scriptwriting, interviewing, etc.). The knowledge you’ve acquired over all those long years of study makes you a wonderful resource for podcasters working on their own niche subject areas. Team up, collaborate, and share what you know! There are lots of ways to do this, and podcasting is just one, but it’s a low-cost, wide-impact way to get your research out there.

Marcel Proust texts his translator, Scott Moncrieff

I spend a lot of time translating academic content for different contexts and audiences, and sometimes I can’t turn that part of my brain off…

So I finally decided to start reading Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time (an unparalleled classic that has been on my to-read list for ages), and by all accounts Marcel was a bit of a diva as an artist and something of a handful as an acquaintance (to those who knew him). So can you IMAGINE what it would be like to text him? I tried. It turned out like this.

*The following is loosely inspired by:

  • true events (obviously)
  • the footnotes from Days of Reading (indeed, I read the footnotes!)
  • an exceedingly liberal reading of Christopher Prendergast’s General Editor’s Preface to The Way By Swann’s.
















View from the Street (Photos from the Women’s March on London) 

The Women’s March on London was absolutely stunning and drew an estimated 100,000 people. I was so proud to march with such enthusiastic, energized, and inspiring people. As a friend at the march said along the way, “We’re here because angry! But here together, we’re also at peace.”

Below are some photos I took at the march. And here’s an interview on BBC with one of my awesome former professors about why she participated in the Women’s March on Washington (which involved around half a million people!).


Why we should all protest

Why we should all protest

On Saturday, January 21, there will be women’s marches in cities worldwide protesting the misogyny and marginalization of women taking place in American politics. I’ll be marching in London, and I want to encourage you to march wherever you can, too. Never protested before? Find a friend, pack your sneaks, and make this your first time. Protesting isn’t radical – it’s vital. Let me try to tell you why I think so.


In Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s tiny but powerful manifesto, We Should All Be Feminists, she writes:

Gender is not an easy conversation to have. It makes people uncomfortable, sometimes even irritable. Both men and women are resistant to talk about gender, or are quick to dismiss the problems of gender. Because thinking of changing the status quo is always uncomfortable. Some people ask, ‘Why the word feminist? Why not just say you are a believer in human rights, or something like that?’ Because that would be dishonest. Feminism is, of course, part of human rights in general – but to choose to use the vague expression human rights is to deny the specific and particular problem of gender. It would be a way of pretending that it was not women who have, for centuries been excluded. It would be a way of denying that the problem of gender targets women. That the problem was not about being human, but specifically about being a female human.

For a lot of people (not just women), the 2016 U.S. presidential election felt like a personal blow. It seemed a near certainty that we were about to elect the first female president of the United States, an historic triumph that would declare to ourselves and to the world that we were ready to let women lead. After the U.S. election on November 8, Lindy West wrote for The New York Times:

I cried because I don’t even know what it feels like to be taken seriously — not fully, not in that whole, unequivocal, confident way that’s native to handshakes between men. I cried because it does things to you to always come second.

Misogyny is real, and it’s commonplace, and feminism is the response – the only response – that can confront it. The 2016 election revealed not only how ordinary it is but how acceptable. The contest wasn’t between a qualified woman and an equally qualified man but between an exceptionally over-qualified woman and a trickster. And the trickster won (well, not the popular vote, but that nuance is irrelevant at this point). In the days leading up to the election, I had often said to friends and family that it was important to remember that Hillary Clinton shouldn’t need to be perfect to run for and win the presidency. No male candidate for president has ever been perfect (somehow we more readily accept that male leaders are only human), and we shouldn’t make the mistake of placing her on some slippery, precarious pedestal simply because she’s an extraordinary rarity – a woman running for president. She didn’t have to be superwoman simply because she might be the first woman. It’s for this reason, among others, that Clinton’s loss was about a lot more than Hillary Clinton, and I don’t want to focus on her here. You should march on Saturday not because Hillary Clinton lost but because of what her loss in this particular election year with this particular confluence of candidates and rhetoric means about the status of women in society.

By now pretty much everyone is familiar with the audio recording of Donald Trump bragging about grabbing women by the p*ssy. But that was just one shockingly abusive revelation during this election cycle. Throughout the Republican National Committee convention, delegates regularly broke into derogatory chants about Hillary Clinton. On the tamer end, there were chants of ‘lock her up!’ and ‘Hillary for prison!’ During his speech, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie even held a mock ‘trial’ of Hillary Clinton, in which he asked the crowd whether Clinton was guilty on various ‘criminal counts’ in a showy demonstration of what mob justice might look like in a dystopian Trump regime.

Outside the convention, people held signs calling Hillary Clinton a ‘b*tch’ and a ‘c*nt,’ and another popular a sign read, ‘Trump vs. Tramp.’ Inside the convention center, RNC delegates were sporting some astoundingly offensive swag, including buttons that said, ‘Hillary KFC Special: 2 Fat Thighs, 2 Small Breasts…Left Wing’ and another that said, ‘Life’s a bitch… Don’t vote for one.’ And of course there’s a lot more, but you get the idea. Maybe this is all just ‘locker room chat.’ Don’t wait until you have a daughter or a niece or a granddaughter, whom you love more than life itself, to realize how damaging this language is to girls and women. We learn by listening, and when we turn on the TV, this is what we see – in daytime, in primetime, in our national elections.

This election stirred the winking embers of our more hellish impulses – Islamophobia, xenophobia, homophobia, racism, sexism, and nationalism, to name just a few. It preyed upon our sanity and our decency, and we were all a little bit complicit in the perverse spectacle that unfolded, choosing to draw spurious equivalencies between the vile and erratic invectives of an inglorious real estate tycoon and the moral implications of a mismanaged of e-mail account. In the end, many people dismissed Trump’s racist and misogynist comments as being mere ‘banter.’ He didn’t mean those things, we were told. And Trump’s campaign manager Kellyanne Conway recently suggested that we shouldn’t look at what Trump has actually said but rather look at ‘what’s in his heart.’ This absurd appeal insults and disenfranchises us, the American people. In a regime where words have no meaning, we’ll eventually find that we’ve been robbed of a language in which to speak and be heard.

Perhaps you’ve never thought of yourself as political – many people don’t. Political, like feminist, can be a dirty word. But when I think about my relationship with politics, I don’t really think of it as a choice. I don’t delight in politics. But then, I didn’t really come to politics; politics came to me. It attached itself to me without my consent, to my body, my mind. Women and women’s issues are always up for debate, even when women aren’t standing at the podium. Politics is parasitically possessive of me – of all girls and women – and feminism is the language in which we demand our emancipation.

You might be reading this and feel that feminism, in 2016, lacks urgency. I get that. You look around and things seem pretty OK for women in places like the U.S. and the UK. They’re sure better than they once were. (Once, by the way, wasn’t that long ago…) But pretty equal isn’t equal – we have a long way to go to reach equality. This last year has demonstrated that. And beyond striving for true equality, the rights we already have need to be maintained. Rights don’t just need to be won; they need to be defended against erosion.

On Friday Donald Trump will be sworn in as president of the United States, and we will have to stay extremely vigilant against normalizing the kind of derogatory treatment of women that has typified his campaign. Marching and protesting is one way of resisting that normalization. It’s about being visible. Women need to be more than just talked about; we need to be talking. The march on Saturday will be about different things to different people who attend it (that’s the chaotic and at times frustrating plurality of protest). But collectively – and that’s the power of protest: collectivity – we’re saying, ‘We’re here! We’re not going anywhere! You can’t sideline us or take away the rights we’ve worked so hard to win! And there’s a lot more we want to do!’

We are here.

If you value the rights you have, you should march. If you think there’s more to be done, you should march. This march is a celebration of the progress we’ve made and a call to action for that progress to continue. It’s because other women marched before us that we have the freedoms and rights we enjoy today. March for their legacy. Marginalization and oppression don’t usually occur suddenly with fanfare. Sometimes they do, but often they don’t. If you wait – if you think that maybe you’ll consider going to a march when things get bad – just remember that often things get bad slowly, almost imperceptibly. Stand up now, be seen now, be heard now. March with me because you reject the characterizations of women we’ve witnessed in this election cycle. March with me because our tomorrows will be determined by what we do today.

The march, like feminism, is all inclusive – men, women, children, and domesticated raccoons all welcome! (I did warn you about my favorite Instagram celebrities…)

On blogging (spoiler: I don’t love it)

Ok so I’ve never been a particularly good blogger. I’ve had a blog for a while, probably since I moved to the UK in 2010. Initially, it was just to keep friends and family up to date on life in Oxford, but as time went on, and social media became something we do professionally now, it seemed like blogging should become part of my online ‘identity,’ so I moved the blog here, to my website. But invariably, I let it slip, I get distracted, I think I love blogging, and then I hate it. And so here we are again – way over a year after my last blog post – and I’m contemplating what to do with this space.

And here’s why (I think): the cruel tyranny of the ‘personal brand.’ I really dislike this term, ‘personal brand.’ First of all, it instantly commercializes people. Brands are for companies to monetize their products. We shouldn’t ‘brand’ people (in ANY sense of the term). It’s fundamentally dehumanizing. But the language of ‘branding,’ adopted from the realm of business and marketing, has begun to permeate our social lives so pervasively that we are now asked to ‘market’ ourselves constantly. The market is not only the space we occupy and the governing logic of economies, but it’s also become the language we speak, and that’s really no way to live.

Second of all, it’s an absurd fiction that probably does more to benefit the truly gifted dissimulators than to identify any genuine talents. And that’s because it asks us to perpetuate a fundamental lie about ourselves: that we’re consistently a particular kind of person with a particularly narrow array of related interests. We live in an age that shuns labels and yet relies so heavily on them that we’re constantly inventing new ones (and new meanings for the ones that we’ve got) – think of the semantic acrobatics performed by the term ‘consultant.’ No one is consistently one kind of person. Let’s be real – we are all messy bundles of contradictions stuffed into nice shoes that give us blisters when we have to walk from the tube to a job interview. I’m an academic, but I’m not only an academic. Advocates of personal branding will claim that it accommodates our multi-dimensional selves, but in practice, it does very little to subvert the oppressive despotism of consistency. When you think of Coca-Cola, how many different logos pop into your head? Just the one? Yeah, that’s branding. And now you probably want a Coke.

Blogs have ‘brands’ too, and for the bloggers who write them, that brand becomes part of their online identity.  ‘What do you blog about?’ is the same kind of consistency-seeking question that ‘what do you study?’ has always been. I worry a bit about creating a ‘brand’ for myself here. Should I write about Egypt? Or Internet activism? Or travel? Or feminism? After years of early career workshops and application bootcamps in the university system, I tend to get caught up in what my blog will say about my brand. (Also, an unfortunate side effect of studying the Internet professionally is that I’d always advise: approach with caution.) Branding, to me, always feels like it’s about ‘or.’ But people are ‘ands.’ I’m an ‘and.’ So let’s forget about branding for a minute. This blog is going to be about ‘ands.’

So in the interest of rejuvenating this space, I’m just going to blog about whatever pops into my head, and if a theme emerges, so be it, but I’m not making any attempt to brand this blog. Sometimes it will be about my research, sometimes it will be about activism, sometimes it will be about my favorite Instagram celebrities (heads-up: they’re all domesticated wild animals that should probably not be kept as pets). If you’re interested in my academic work, check out my papers and talks (more coming soon), if you’re interested in my audio productions, check out my podcasts (more coming soon there, too), and if you’re interested in what I happen to be thinking about at the moment in no particular order and without necessarily bearing any relevance to my research or professional life, check out my blog. Let’s see how this goes, 2017.



Further reproof (and fabulous retorts) on ‘how women talk’

Further reproof (and fabulous retorts) on ‘how women talk’

Women have a lot of self-improvement to do if they’re going to get anywhere in life, and the advice keeps rolling in. Last week, Naomi Woolf joined the chorus of advice-mongers who want women to change the way they talk in order to sound more like men….no, or was it to please men?… no, to fit in with men?… Anyway, according to Woolf, we’ve got to deal with our vocal fry problem.

She must have missed this great illustration (from The Toast) of how men have vocal fry, too.

For a more a more academic analysis, the Language Log also retorts that men have vocal fry.

And finally, linguist Debbie Cameron reminds us that “If you don’t like uptalk or vocal fry, fine: with language as with fashion and music we’re entitled to our personal preferences. But with language, people have a bad habit of presenting what are actually personal preferences as if they were objective facts.”

(She also had a great response to the ‘just’ debate I discussed in a previous post.)

Success should sound …less like a woman (apparently)

Success should sound …less like a woman (apparently)

There’s been a small flurry of online commentary lately around the way women talk. We’ve spent years criticizing how women dress, give birth and play tennis, it only seemed about time to focus some of that sententious energy on the way we speak.

It’s true that women have certain distinctive speech patterns that set them apart from their male counterparts. And now, in an advice-saturated digital age — when we are increasingly told that we should lean in, but even if we do, we still can’t have it all — it turns out we need to change almost everything to be successful, including the way we talk.

Amy Schumer jokes that we say ‘sorry’ too much, an observation that has seemingly been taken for granted by other linguistic commentators. (Oh, sorry! Maybe we do say sorry too much!) Then, LinkedIn ‘Influencer’ Ellen Petry Leanse weighed in with the answer to women’s chronic credibility problem: eliminating the word ‘just’ from our vocabulary.

By the time that we women have carefully trained ourselves to avoid saying ‘sorry,’ ‘just’ and ‘like,’ rid our pauses of ‘um’ and ‘ah,’ kicked the habit of upspeak and zapped any lingering evidence of vocal fry, will it matter what qualifiers we use when we say, ‘I mean, I’m no expert, but how high is the glass ceiling again?’

In her criticism of Leanse’s piece, Ann Friedman argues that making women change the way they talk results in a tradeoff between conformity and authenticity. She interviews feminist linguist Robin Lakoff, who says:

‘This stuff is just one more way of telling powerful women to shut up you bitch…It makes women self-conscious and makes women feel incompetent and unable to figure out the right way to talk.’

Ultimately, the trend in prolific advice-mongering has centered on helping women navigate a pervasively patriarchal business world. If we adapt, we might fit in. There are at least two crippling flaws in this logic. First, it assumes that patriarchal institutions will recognize the skillful emulation of patriarchal values and reward it. And second, it ignores the chronic devaluation of women’s language, behavior and characteristics as a result of gender inequality rather than gender difference. Social indicators of femininity and womanhood are historically stigmatized in traditionally male-dominated spheres of influence. So at this point, we should be asking why and how certain behaviors are marked out as ‘feminine’ in the first place and questioning how quickly those characteristics are attributed to some kind of intellectual inadequacy. As Friedman rightly points out, plenty of men say ‘just’ and apologize (too much, too little, and everything in between). (Are we now also raising a whole generation of men who will contemplate how to sound less ‘feminine’ in the workplace?)

Producing a podcast this year has made me more acutely aware of how I sound (and how other broadcasters sound). I never particularly enjoy re-listening to my own voice, but the editing process often requires hundreds of replays and results in opportunities for constant self-criticism. Is my voice too high? Did that word sound weird? The close-listening of the editing process would make anyone hyper-sensitive to his/her own linguistic features, quirks and habits — but at the end of the day, I always decide, the most important metric is whether I think I sound like me. The podcast genre of audio broadcasting is known for its personal, conversational tone. Podcasts are popular because they sound like recorded living room conversations about things we might never have thought about discussing in our living rooms. They’re comfy and intimate, which is how they manage to sneak in all that edgy and inquiring material. The prevailing tone of women’s professional development advice would have me grapple with an unsettling paradox: maybe sounding like me is the problem — not because of what I say (necessarily), but because of who I am when I say it.

A casual survey of history’s greatest ‘voices’ (Orson Welles, Edward R. Murrow, Winston Churchill, FDR…) immediately yields a couple important take-aways: every single voice is different, and most of them are male. Vocal idiosyncrasies aren’t inherently limiting — in fact, they can be defining.  ‘Received’ pronunciation and careful dictation have arguably gone out with analog broadcasting. Our favorite voices today are dynamic, unconventional and memorable. The staying power of the podcast orator, for example, is undeniably determined by vocal singularity, not uniformity. (There will only ever be one Ira Glass!). So when we launch into a conversation about women’s voices in the workplace, maybe it’s really more about the workplace than the voice.

A recent e-mail from a recruiter closed by saying, ‘We want to learn about who you really are. We promise if you bring your real self, we’ll do the same.’ This invitation to professional women — to bring our real selves — is increasingly fraught with contradiction. On the one hand, our collective fascination with women and success heralds an important shift in business culture. It is the result of wider participation by women in the workplace and a growing (though still comparatively minuscule) number of women in leadership positions within companies and governments. We’re having these conversations precisely because we’re seeing more women in the halls of power, previously reserved for men. However, we need to start turning the discussion toward how our metrics of success (and our advice for achieving it) tacitly replicate damaging patriarchal values.

The voices that opine on women and leadership are many and various — they are women and men, young and old, corporate and academic. In this context, we risk becoming so caught up in the self-improvement ethos of the digital age that we forget the legacy of social, cultural and institutional discrimination that permeates even our best attempts at ‘advice-giving.’ Advice can become an inconspicuous vehicle of oppression.

A recent episode the podcast I work on covered the topic of revenge pornography. In it, ‘End Revenge Porn‘ campaigner and lawyer Mary Anne Franks describes revenge porn as just one of many (longstanding) shaming practices intended to ‘shut women up.’ Revenge porn sheds light on the fact that the Internet is a public sphere like any other. As Laura Hilly and I argued in a piece in the Guardian last month, “the internet is a social product, grounded in societies that exist online and offline, and therefore replicates deep offline social inequalities, including the marginalisation of women.” Similarly, we now need to be more acutely aware of the ways that we replicate that marginalization in the way we talk about women, success, and self-improvement.

In the introduction to her academic article ‘Language and Woman’s Place,’ linguist Robin Lakoff writes: ‘Language uses us as much as we use language.’  The relationship between language and gender inequality is often buried under layers of assumptions, myths and normative pressures — it’s messy and muddled by centuries of socialization. Bottom line: we’re still getting used. And it doesn’t matter how we say it.

Kazuo Ishiguro on Fantasy, Magic and Growing Old

Kazuo Ishiguro on Fantasy, Magic and Growing Old

One thing we often do as we get older—without really recognizing what we’re doing until the damage is already done—is decide what sort of reader we ought to be. Usually this coincides with other self-realizations that sneak up on us, like what we want/ought to be when we grow up. Are we scientists? Artists? Philosophers? Politicians? Management consultants? Once we decide, we read what people-who-do-that-thing-we-do read. For most of us, this turns out to be non-fiction: reports, memos, academic journal articles, and the occasional New York Times best seller that grapples with issues of global importance – such as war, perhaps, or the nature of human progress. I have always been greatly enamored of fiction, and yet, I, too, let this insidious transition work through me, unchecked, for some years.

Once we decide What Sort of Reader We Ought To Be, we have a tendency to unconsciously neglect anything that seems inconsistent with this identity, and at some point, I realized, I had missed out on countless literary masterpieces because my formal education in literature effectively ended when I finished high school. As a student of social sciences, I became the Sort of Reader Who Reads Non-fiction, and between the essays, extracurriculars, exams, et cetera, who had time to reflect on the loss this self-categorization would entail? The thing is –eventually, for many of us (whether we wake up one day, routinized to a 9-to-5 or ascending some dizzying turret of an ivory tower) deadlines give way to daydreaming, and examinations capitulate to self-exploration. And we find ourselves drifting, wondering how we got here, why we got here, and where we’re going. This is when we need literature again. And, thank goodness, it’s never too late.

IMG_0528I stumbled upon the masterful work of Kazuo Ishiguro in the “lost and found” library of books I had long neglected while being unwittingly nudged toward the Sort of Reader I Ought To Be. This year, I finally picked up Never Let Me Go, a poignant and reflective examination of what it is to be human, written in Ishiguro’s signature sparse language. And last week, I met Kazuo Ishiguro at a talk and book signing in Oxford, in celebration of his new novel, The Buried Giant. His talk was part of the Oxford Literary Festival, and it was hosted in the elegant Oxford Town Hall. The room was packed to the rafters, but it was striking how much of an interest Ishiguro took in each individual question. He seemed to ponder his answers there, on the spot, without searching for a rehearsed anecdote or a pre-packaged observation. Here are a few notable take-aways:

Big questions create stories

 For The Buried Giant, Ishiguro began with two fundamental questions (which arguably run through many of his stories): when is it better to remember? When is it better to forget?

He discussed being fascinated with Bosnia in the aftermath of the Bosnian war and post-WWII France. In France, the way that people re-imagined their wartime experience was a point of particular interest. Many people seemed to understand that part of history as one in which everyone had been a brave freedom fighter, when many had helped the Nazis by spying and reporting on their friends and neighbors. Was this active misremembering a better way of dealing with such a horrific history?

Ishiguro said he toyed with the idea of setting his novel in Bosnia but was deterred by a lack of intimate knowledge of Bosnia and a concern that the book would become about Bosnia as a place rather than the underlying questions he wanted to grapple with.

He also wanted to engage with how these big questions—of global consequence—also manifest in our interpersonal relationships as well. Those issues of when it is better to remember or forget come up in friendships and marriages. You can’t be in a relationship for a lifetime without the issue of selective memory factoring in, he said.

What makes magic?

In a book you define what is normal – the time period and the characters – you have to illustrate what would have been normality to them. The Buried Giant became a ‘fantasy’ book not out of any commitment to venture into a distinct genre but because the people living at that time and in that place would have believed in a magical realm. Whatever would have been real to the characters is real in the book – their fears, their practices, their own application of logic, and their interpretation of their environment.

Ogres, for instance, Ishiguro explained, were real to these people because it was the only way to reconcile the appearance of disease, tragedy and conflict. We need fairies and ogres; they are logical constructs to explain the unexplainable.

When you blend fantastical elements into real situations, you establish the ‘ordinariness’ of the magic through people’s reactions to stimuli within the narrative. Whether characters overreact or underreact defines what’s fantastical to them.

The discussion on fantasy seemed to linger on the question of whether fantasy is experiencing a resurgence now. Are we becoming more interested in fantasy fiction? Perhaps, Ishiguro reflected, we’re still at a loss to make sense of the world so we resort to fantasy.

 Authorship and aging

Ishiguro said he doesn’t spend much time considering what genre to write in but feels that many writers of his generation and older adhere to the boundaries of genre. It’s only the younger generation that doesn’t seem as bound by these constructs. I don’t necessarily think in genres, he said. He writes to explore a theme in whatever way works best for that theme.

Aging, he said, is certain to affect the content of his books and the themes he finds interesting and important. He finds writing books very hard, and The Buried Giant has been in the works for nearly a decade. So, aging, in a way, has been a part of each of his novels—the novels themselves have aged with him in their very production.

The People Have Spoken, and the People Want…A Technocrat?

The People Have Spoken, and the People Want…A Technocrat?
Just a couple of weeks ago, Egypt experienced yet another explosive phase of its revolution as President Morsi, elected in democratic (though highly disputed) elections in 2012, was deposed by the Egyptian military as massive popular protests continue rock the country. The Economist recently examined the 2013 popular uprisings and concluded that the world is facing a kind of “perma-protest,” protracted popular unrest without any distinct end in sight. Perhaps nowhere is this phenomenon more pronounced than in the Middle East. Since the memorable scenes of revolutionary fervor in Tahrir Square from January and February 2011, protests have continued, addressing litany of concerns ranging from economic woes to dysfunctional Muslim Brotherhood rule. The grievances are many and sundry; various coalitions have formed and disbanded, organizations have materialized and dispersed, and issues have been articulated and then slurred beyond comprehension. Perplexingly–for observers as well as political activists in Egypt–the fury that has erupted in street protests is the result of an incendiary if desultory combination of these influences and agendas. People are angry, disillusioned, and passionately desiring of change.The Tamarod (Rebel) movement capitalized on all of these converging realities, channeling their collective energy into one of the most ambitious petition campaigns to ever hit the world’s copy machines. It arose out of the seeming chaos of Egyptian opposition to President Morsi as a grassroots, leaderless movement to collect signatures of people who oppose Morsi’s government–a kind of popular vote of no confidence. The result was a monumental stack of paper: over 20 million signatures. (For more on Tamarod HQ, check out this article in The New Yorker .) Tamarod gained the support of other established oppositional movements including the April 6th Youth and the National Salvation Front among others, and the movement called for largescale protests on June 30th, demanding the ouster of President Morsi and the implementation of a roadmap drafted by the group, in which they call for a change in leadership. They call for a technocrat to head a technocratic government. It all comes down to this: what kind of leadership do the people want? What kind of government? The answer, it seems, is: technocratic.

The military this week heard their cry and echoed it, as it called for Morsi to heed protesters’ demands, promising to take control and install a technocratic leader if negotiations went south. “The people will have their technocrat!”the army seemed to be saying. But what does this really mean? First of all, what is a technocrat? And what does this particular demand mean about the leadership crisis in Egypt?

The thing is, no one really knows. No, really. Technocracy is something of a utopian ideal (not unlike a lot of other -ocracies or -isms), and it has never been fully realized. A technocrat is someone with particular expertise, skills in a specific field, trained to apply the scientific method to problems rather than referring to popular opinion or politics (that dirty word). Governance-by-technocrat has fallen in and out of favor over the years, but it tends to rise in popularity during periods of economic crisis. And it’s no coincidence that technocracy was given new life in 2011, amidst a Eurozone crisis, rebellion against (occupation of) Wall Street, and a period of dramatic political and economic transition in the Middle East and North Africa. A Slate article that year points out that technocracy had previously been ‘all the rage’ — during the Great Depression in the United States. Commenting on the technocrat takeover of southern European leadership roles in 2012, Jonathan Hopkin writes in the LSE blog about another perceived trait of the much-sought-after technocrat: non-partisanship. Other articles in The Economist, the BBC, and the New York Times (among others) since 2011 have joined the chorus, exploring the ‘technocrat’ as a newly rediscovered ideal. Technocracy is becoming born-again in the capitalist, digital age in a climate of financial distress–and the reasons are simultaneously political, economic and technological. It’s no coincidence that the ‘Internet age’ (with all of its inherent contradictions, false promises, unprecedented communicative innovations and connectivity) might just as well be called the ‘Age of Technocracy.’

Technocracy often, in fact, stands in opposition to ‘democracy’ in the sense that it tends to glorify technical competence over popular approval in the form of electoral victories. Voting for the leader is not necessarily part of the political process in a technocracy, and often it is perceived as undermining it. Thus, technocrats have been more easily installed in appointed or unelected positions — an obvious example being in the supranational financial and technological institutions (IMF, World Bank, ICANN, etc.).  Although electorally unaccountable to the many electorates that their decisions impact, supranational rule-setting organizations maintain legitimacy through other avenues, one of which is the dazzling eminence of ‘expertise’. In contrast to politicians, technical leaders are ‘experts.’

The technical turn in leadership is accompanied by a concomitant technical turn in problem-solving. As the digital age makes data collection and crunching easier, cheaper, and more ubiquitous, the world has developed a furious infatuation with the technical ‘objectivity’ of big data. If technocrats can bring a non-partistan, skill-driven apolitical expertise to a problem, big data can provide the objective evidence for their decision-making. But this thinking has produced mixed results. Big data and the ‘technocrats’ who rely on it did not predict or save us from the 2008 financial crisis, and while financial expertise is certainly an essential prerequisite for dealing with financial disaster, technocratic leadership does not necessarily avert political and economic failures. Technocracy is in ‘vogue’ as Chrystie Freeland writes in a column for Reuters. The torrid love affair that politics, academia and the world economic system have with technocracy has empowered a ‘technocratic’ elite to influence decision-making and to play an increasingly unbeatable card: the objective expert trump card. Technocrats might be able to inform and problem-solve, perhaps even with the goal of promoting the general good, but they might equally be complicit in policies, and yes, politics that perpetuate bad practice. The aura of clinical objectivity– created by invoking data-based analysis and expertise–helps to preserve the prestige of the ‘technocrat’ even as the ‘politician’ is consumed by controversy and opprobrium.

The fascination with technocracy is pervasive, and given its prevalence at the level of supranational global organizations, it is unsurprising that the technocratic narrative plays a significant role in development. The debate over how to address the world’s most troubling challenges centers on what kind of solution we want to see: a technocratic one? Or something else? A technocratic solution looks for incremental ways to improve a system of human behavior, scientifically observed and scientifically altered. An alternative vision reimagines the very system in which those behaviors occur. This is a central debate in Egypt today. There is a real desire for reform among activists, protesters and ordinary people, but there is a heated, contentious, and perhaps irreconcilable debate about how to go about the process of changing things. The odds are stacked against those imagining a new order to the system, the nizam. Technocracy is an alluring ideology. It’s already apparent in the appointment of Hazem el-Beblawi, a former finance minister, as Prime Minister. Elias Groll writes on Foreign Policy: “A technocrat with a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Paris, Beblawi was the perfect man to carry out a reform agenda.” Yes, he’s got the resume. He’s got the expertise, so he’s got the job.

But as Hugh Roberts reminds us on the Guardian blog: “Ours is an age of technocrats. It has brought stupendous advances. And it has brought us to the edge of several abysses.” Does Egypt stand at the brink of great triumph or the precipice of the abyss? At the very least, we’ll have to do some serious data crunching to find out.