Second dose of Stephen Fry: transcript from Digital Britain – ‘I don’t need to be re-skilled into anything’

Another dose of Fry this morning, in an earlier post we reproduced yesterday’s comments to the BBC about journalists and expenses.

Courtesy of Malcolm Coles, here is the full transcript [below video] of Stephen Fry’s presentation at Digital Britain on April 17. Fry’s appearance caused a little stir that day, not least for the way he was introduced onto the stage by the BBC’s Nick Higham:

“Stephen is, one of the organisers told me beforehand, the representative at this conference of the ordinary person, frankly: if that’s what someone thinks the ordinary person is like, then someone needs to take them aside and fill them in…”

Some of Fry’s comments relate to technology more broadly, but some interesting points on media, and keeping the web ‘organic’:

“You talk about the BBC doing a digital switchover, as if that’s the same thing as the world-wide web.”

“We’re moving from a world, in which no-one knew or saw the point of, online world, into something [where] everybody has reserved to themselves some special insight into how it’s to affect us.”

Stephen Fry:

It’s very puzzling. A few years ago, people talked about ‘Web 2.0’ (and user-generated content) as being somehow a new development for the world-wide web and how it enabled individuals to contribute (to send up, if you like), to upload not just to download content.

And of course YouTube, and many of the social network sites and so on, have been prominent examples of net citizens, if you like, making their mark, providing their content, improving their existence.

This whole world of skills is something that is completely alien to me.

  • ‘I literally don’t understand’

I don’t understand what a digital skill is. I literally don’t understand.

I am not been funny or smart, I don’t know what we’re talking about.

Do you mean how to operate a mouse, how to access a website?

It’s not a digital skill – it’s how to drive a car that you are talking about.

We live in a world which is entirely dominated by the car. I don’t remember a debate in which people earnestly sat together, talking about how you had to teach people to use traffic.


  • ‘It’s so peculiar’

It’s so peculiar to me that we’re sitting around saying people should learn to do this, we must tell people how to do that…

I went in the early 90s to the Director General of the BBC – tried to persuade him that the BBC should have a website.

He had no idea what one was. He didn’t know what the internet was. No-one at the BBC knew then. It had only just come into being.

I am not blaming him or trying to present myself as some prophet. All I’m saying is – go back a little further to the 1930s.

The boys’ bumper book of science, when the DC motor was invented, which was an extraordinary breakthrough in engineering, there’s a cut away picture of a home of the future in the 1960s, in which all kinds of items in the home are driven by electric motors.

The article in the 30s says how we must all become electric motor literate. Because electric motors will operate our society.

As it happens, electric motors DO operate our society. They operate every DVD, they operate everything that moves virtually in your kitchen, house, but you don’t have to know how they work. They are entirely transparent.

  • ‘You merely have to know what it is you want them to do’

You merely have to know what it is you want them to do. You want to put washing in it, you want to make toast, you want to spin a CD. Fine.

But, yes, there will be nerds who can actually take apart an engine and motor for you. People who can build a website for you if you want one built – who know what a CMS is, who know what Java is, what hot Java is. They know all the coding and nerdy things.

That’s not what you’re talking about.

  • ‘What are you actually talking about?’

You are talking about slaves, you’re talking about the fact that essentially we are slaves.

I love this technology but you go to an office now, people who used to have secretaries are their own secretary. They are operating things that an accountant used to operate, spreadsheets.

They are operating word processors that a secretary used to operate. They are using technology, as it were, to do things.

They are sitting in front of a screen, apparently being productive. Is that your digital skill? I don’t know. Is that what you mean by digital skill?

What are you actually talking about?

[Laughter] [applause]

You talk about the BBC doing a digital switchover as if that’s the same thing as the world-wide web.

  • ‘It’s just altering your television. It’s nothing else.’

It’s just altering your television. It’s nothing else.

Yes there’s a bit of interactivity, yes there are settop boxes.

Yes, I can take out my iPhone and I can use Sky+ now to record something for when I get home, remotely, yes there are all kinds of whizzy toys.

I’m still a human being, I still have exactly the same urges and passion and things that all human beings do.

  • ‘I don’t need to be re-skilled into anything.’

I don’t need to be re-skilled into anything.

Will’s absolutely right. We train on the job if a new piece of technical hardware comes on. But we’re moving from a world, in which no-one knew or saw the point of, online world, into something which everybody has reserved to themselves some special insight into how it’s to affect us.

If we had this conversation in 1994, I would have said ‘God what a prophetic bunch of people’. You see how this is going to change the world. I agree with you – how exciting.

Would have made no difference. Because in the 1990s, Ian McNaughton on the BBC was doing this ‘how you operate a micro computer’. We have the micro computer club.

It was a very good and noble thing for the BBC to do, to attempt to show people how to use microcomputer, a BBC computer.

It made not a blind bit of difference.


It didn’t change anything.

Nick Higham: “Can I go back to your starting point – the driving analogy? Surely that’s absolutely appropriate. We do all have to learn to drive a car and that involves a couple of lessons in which you learn useful skills, like which way the steering and the gears go. And then you learn about traffic which is a higher order of skills. Surely it’s a very useful analogy?

[Fry] Good point. It’s a useful analogy except in as much the very phrase ‘being digital’, I don’t know whether consciously or not, is a phrase of a very influential book by Nicholas Negroponte, called ‘Being Digital’, which was published and hugely successful.

He made the point very long time ago now, round the same time Tim Berners-Lee was developing the world wide web. He made the point – you have to understand it shouldn’t be called ‘digital’. It should be called an earlier word that’s ‘electronic’.

That’s because the things we send back and forth are no longer molecular, they are no longer atomic.

If [I] sent you a picture, it’s made of electrons – if I sent to it you on the computer, it literally weighs nothing.

  • ‘If they bump into each other there is death’

If I send you a picture by a courier on a motorcycle, it’s made of atoms and it weighs things.

This extraordinary exchange of information is all done at an electronic level – literally electrons, rather than atoms, are taking over the way we exchange things.

Now in traffic, yes, you have to get a driving test because we’re made of atoms. Our cars are made of atoms. If they bump into each other there is death.


But, fortunately, we don’t need a licence to operate the internet.

But it’s useful to know how to drive. It is as simple as that.

  • ‘I am literally baffled’

I assume that’s all you’re discussing. But when you talk about up-skilling, I am literally baffled.

I am astonished that pieces of paper are being produced and clever people are sitting round talking about upskilling workforces.

To me, I just want to go away and make a Charlie Chaplin satire about it.

It seems insane.



Nick Higham: Stephen I will give you the last word on condition there is no driving analogies.

[ Fry] I am going to change my analogy.

But first I want to add to Will [Hutton’s] point about the monopolisation and the constriction into a small numbers of brands, and the large number of content providers having dwindled to a small number. (…) Those very same content providers in many territories – not so much Britain yet – are also the ones that control the pipeline.

What Comcast has done in America, for example, has been absolutely disgusting, in the way they have throttled certain users because they see those certain users getting their content from another place, than themselves.

If Warner Brothers, Comcast as it is, and if Virgin Media continues on being a big player in it – if not a content manufacturer, certainly a provider – this a very worrying development.

But that’s [an] aside.

  • ‘An analogy argues similarity not congruency’

Let’s forget the driving. I would only remind you an analogy argues similarity not congruency.


Let’s suggest here (..) I believe human beings do not change very much. I don’t believe that the internet, the digital economy, what computers can do, has altered us one whit.

And I would say merely that we have always had these abilities, to create structures that are quite bewildering to us.

  • ‘The internet is more like a city than anything else’

A good example is a city, and I would say that the internet is more like a city than anything else.

Our ability to move round it may or may not be like driving, but we’re going to forget that.

In cities, there are slums, there are palaces of wisdom, there are libraries, museums, art galleries, theatres, places of entertainment, shops, endless rows of shops.

And we pass by them, we hardly look at them. We glance at newspaper headlines, we don’t pay much attention as we wander round – just as you were describing [how] we use the internet.

Increasingly those shops are becoming the same in every different city. Because they belong to single chains.

And there are places in those cities you would not yourself want to go down – dark alleys, let alone have your children alone.

  • ‘We let our children learn to use the cities and they do’

But slowly we let our children learn to use the cities and they do.

And there are those historically who never moved to cities, who prefer the countryside, those who can’t afford to move to the city, those who can’t afford to a good part in it.

All I am saying, we recognise this the way humans are, it’s the way we structure our lives, the way we always have.

Let’s not pretend its a new thing that needs a new way of looking at ourselves.

  • ‘I would look back at history to try to understand the internet’

If anything, I would look back at history to try to understand the internet, not try to look forward into some strange ‘New World’ that we need to understand, we need to develop a new jargon for.

That’s not necessary.

But, above all remember that the same social issues of justice and of decency and fairness, and of a right attitude to looking at our fellow citizens, still apply.

Those points made about those cut out of whatever profit, whatever joy, whatever knowledge, whatever extra excitement and pleasure can be gained from a digital world rather than a normal city – then, yes, it is our duty, I believe as citizens, but [also] my politics if you like, to help them.

And to help them by giving them free things, because we can all contribute to help make them free.

  • ‘Let’s not try and make every city like a kind of Milton Keynes’

But perhaps I will end by saying let’s for God’s sake not pull them down, and try and make every city like a kind of Milton Keynes. Let’s keep them organic.

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