What’s in the tech crystal ball?

This post is the text of my spring 2022 column for Stage, Screen & Radio – the quarterly magazine for members of BECTU, the media and entertainment union and a part of Prospect. This issue of the magazine features the plans by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to privatise Channel 4 and abolish the BBC licence fee; and is well worth a read if you’re a member of the union.

My article, which looks at the remarks of Sachin Jogia, Ofcom’s then recently-appointed Chief Technology Officer, about the top trends in technology for 2022 reflects the published version with the addition of some links.

The start of any year is always a good time to plan and do some thinking about what’s lying ahead: in spring, the year remains new enough to allow us at least to think about what we might do to have some influence on the world that we see around us. (Summer, when this column was posted, just ahead of the August summer holiday season, is also not a bad time to get people thinking about the issues while lying on a beach – or, indeed, over a beer or two.)

At the end of January, Sachin Jogia, Ofcom’s Chief Technology Officer since early autumn 2021, looked at the major developments which he saw coming down the line.

His thoughts focused on broadcasting, the online world and our smartphone devices – very much the issues that will be of major concern to BECTU members. As always, however, it’s what he didn’t say that’s also of considerable interest.

But first, what did he see as the major technology issues affecting us?

Broadcasting:

– a range of developments combining recognised platforms and the online world in order to make TV and radio more personalised and capable of delivering a more individual experience. In TV, this includes ‘object-based media’ – the distribution of content via a series of component parts allowing greater personal choice and control

Online:

– more immersive use of alternative and virtual reality hardware achieved via lighter and more powerful headsets

– greater use of synthetic – i.e. fully automated – media by which films can be made without actors being present in a studio and requiring different skillsets for make-up artists, etc.

– regulatory technology which is able to automate compliance with laws such as the forthcoming Online Safety Bill

Smartphones:

– continued roll-out of high-speed networks allowing our devices to make use of superior performance and improving take-up of virtual reality applications while on the move.

Development work on some of these things is already well underway; others, perhaps, look at first sight to be a little longer away from having a direct influence on our lives. And not all will be personally attractive to us.

Either way, these things will start to shape our lives and our work and we do therefore need to be aware of them.

Regulation

For an ex-Amazon employee, who previously oversaw the development of voice-activated services, Jogia’s interview is light on references to Alexa, although there may very likely be a reason or two for that. Nevertheless, he has previously spoken, in an interview with Ofcom on taking the role, on the role of voice-activated software and I would expect that to be very likely both to guide and become the ‘human’ face of how we interact with the virtual reality world which he also anticipates.

Neither did he have much to say about the role of regulation in general. As Chief Technology Officer, that might be understandable in one context – but Ofcom’s purpose is to regulate and I would expect regulation to feature quite strongly in all its pronouncements.

That said, Jogia appears to be on board with the modern approach – to let the market decide and direct developments; and intervene only once something becomes a problem. Hence the arrival of the Online Safety Bill – although I’m not convinced that politicians are particularly better at this than specialist regulators.

Hands-off approach

Furthermore, I’m not at all sure that such a hands-off approach is one that is sustainable. Do we really want to hand control of the development of the virtual reality world to Facebook and Amazon (among others)?

Don’t we already know enough about their approach to data safety and our privacy to be sure that regulators should have a say in what they’re developing before it arrives, fully formed, on our devices?

Greater data literacy might be one thing – and Ofcom has some things to say about this, too, although I do wish they’d choose a new term for it – but data safety and privacy is, fundamentally, a regulatory issue and that, in 2022, is the main area on which I’d like to see technology develop.

Putting us, not the tech giants, in control of our platforms and devices.

Reading FC shows its stripes

Since Reading FC announced its partnership with the University of Reading, centre of the ‘Show Your Stripes’ initiative to help people visualise climate change, in the attempt to improve its sustainability practices (see my post immediately below), rumour has been rife that this season’s kit design would encompass climate stripes in some way.

These things are kept closely under wraps and nothing concrete ever emerged, sparking a few hopeful design contributions, other than a rumour that the partnership might lead to the third kit – worn when there’s a clash between both the ‘home’ kit (traditionally blue and white hoops) and the ‘away’ one (red, sometimes yellow, but also both white, black and, er, African Violet in the past) – might feature the stripes in some way.

The long-awaited kit announcement – there are (seemingly inevitably) supply chain issues involved affecting many clubs launching new kits – was ended yesterday ahead of this season’s opener at Blackpool on Saturday with the club’s announcement that this season’s first team kit – not a third one – would have sleeves documenting climate change stripes. The stripes are apparently for Berkshire itself (according to the Twitter thread of Ed Hawkins, who came up with the idea), data for which is readily available on the #ShowYourStripes website. A separate news release today from the club has a video containing interviews with one player each from the men’s first XI and the women’s, filmed at the club’s swish training ground. The University co-operated here, too.

I shall absolutely be buying one – my first replica kit for some years. Apart from the visuality of the stripes, what really appeals to me is that the shirt is 100% made from recycled plastic bottles – 13 500ml bottles in each one – and that the material retains the essential characteristics of the form of plastic from which it comes, which means that the shirt is, equally, 100% recyclable. What it’s like to wear I don’t know, though I have a few hopes related to the accepted characteristics of plastic bottles in the sun (and when flying through the air). The only question is whether it will be the first team shirt or the away one (as the club’s announcement says: watch this space!).

Readers can make up their own minds as to whether this is an important attempt to open dialogue on the issue of climate change and what football can do about it – the week after historically high temperatures were recorded across the UK, and against the backdrop of a debate about how climate change affects cricket – or whether this is simply virtue signalling by a club far too ‘woke’ for its own good. But it is clear that the launch has sparked a sizable debate across the football community, both in the printed football media and in the TV media, too.

The observant, and perhaps the cynical, might point out that the club’s shirt sponsor is a company whose business lies in leasing cars – roads and driving of course playing a major part in climate change – and that it plays in a stadium named after that same company (we no longer go down the MadStad but down the SCL). Without going into too much esoteric detail (available on request), the club has been a financial basket case for a few years now and, well, frankly beggars can’t be choosers. Here, the notion of the club seeking to improve its sustainability practices is actually a rather amusing one: the club hasn’t been run on a sustainable basis for years now. In short, it needs the money – and at least it’s (no longer) a(nother) betting company on the front of shirts going, in no small measure, to children. More prosaically, the sponsorship deals were signed before the sustainability partnership with the University of Reading came about and these are likely to involve fairly long-term contracts – probably at least one more year, maybe two. One hopes that wiser counsels might prevail when that comes to be renewed – and that a suitable alternative sponsor can be found. In the meantime, a little publicity around the battery electric vehicle options of Select Car Leasing (a Reading company, by the way) – as well as a few players regularly turning up to Bearwood or the SCL in one, wouldn’t go amiss.

But the club has to be applauded for doing something – as it recognises, ‘doing nothing’ is not an option and it – both the club and football more generally – have to start somewhere. Football has arguably never been particularly concerned with its wider social role – some notable initiatives, and players, apart – and, at the start of a season in which the World Cup will be played in stadiums and associated infrastructure built on the back of the deaths of thousands of migrant workers (as far as late 2020), more correctly described as modern slaves until very recently, and with the games potentially being played in hot and humid temperatures sufficient to require additional cooling measures, the importance of that social, and particularly that environmental, message takes on sizable proportions.

Perhaps its just me, but I suspect that whether people (and here I’m really talking about fans of the mighty Reading FC) like the shirt or hate it is likely to bear a fairly close relationship with their view on climate change itself: those who accept the reality of climate change liking the shirt (or, if not a fan, appreciating the endeavour); while those who are denialists are going to hate it.

What I do appreciate, however, is the effort that has gone into explaining what the stripes mean, which can be found in the club’s comms, as reported elsewhere in the media and via various social media accounts both from official sources and ordinary fans. Ed himself, whose Twitter feed confesses to him having never before been excited by the launch of a football kit (he should take a look at the video of our 2016/17 launch although, perhaps on second thoughts, it might be fairer to say we’ve come a long way since then), has been pictured wearing the new shirt and has also contributed his own explanations of what the stripes mean. [EDIT 8/8/22: Ed features in a small segment of this week’s The Tilehurst End podcast, @ 32.45 in.] If that debate is to have any meaning, and to overcome the accusations of ‘wokery’, such that it has a chance of convincing more people that climate change is real, and that, yes, we (and football more widely) can do something about it, it has to be based on explanations that are clear and understandable. Here, awareness raising plays a vital role in what the club is trying to do in, and for, its local community. Being a bit old school, I tend to prefer the triumvirate of educate – agitate – organise to ‘awareness raising’ although it’s perhaps a step too far for the club to be doing more than just the first of those three. The rest, of course, is up to us.

But of course it doesn’t stop here either: the club is serious about the partnership and about sustainability; and the latter is clearly more than just about what it does with its replica kits. Otherwise, it has to affect, materially, what the club does around the ground, on match days and in stadium powering, stewarding, maintenance and cleaning, as well as at Bearwood. It has to be to do with how fans get to the ground for games. Recycling and re-using – not least around its catering offers – has to be a much more visible element of its relationship with us fans, while sustainability seems to point to the use of more local initiatives (ahem: Blue Collar) than the generic contract majors. It’s in its data use and its use of power-hungry technology to analyse our players’ performances so as to improve our chances on the pitch; and it’s about how it powers its social media. It’s about ensuring that as many fans as possible – against the back of a cost of living crisis – get to wear those shirts, as Adam argued on The Tilehurst End this week. And it has to be around workers’ rights, including ensuring that all contractors pay living wages and in terms of the general environment in which employees of the club work.

I’m sure that the Supporters Trust is taking these initatives and a club which, at last, is these days paying much more attention to engagement with the fan base ought to be having a dialogue with STAR about what all this means to us fans, too. Here, it seems a few practical targets off the pitch (other than ‘win next game’ on it) would help enormously.

I’m looking forward to much more of this sort of thing on our journey to being the first ‘woke’ football club; and, meanwhile of course, come on URZZ!