I’m returning to The Kernel as a columnist… and writing a book

Friday, 28 March 2014

Since The Kernel joined forces with Daily Dot Media, I’ve been considering what to do next. And I’ve finally decided to write the book that has been burning a hole in my desk drawer for the last few years. It’s called The Sociopaths of Silicon Valley and it’ll be out in 2015. I’ve pasted a brief précis below in case you’re interested in getting in touch about it.

I’ll also be returning to The Kernel as a columnist, covering technology, media and society. The column will deal with a lot of the themes in the book – the intersection of technology, psychology, celebrity and society - and come out on Friday each week.

The first instalment is online now. It features east London’s “Tech City”, Lily Cole, Mount Kilimanjaro, Joanna Shields and Facebook’s acquisition of Oculus VR. And you can always find my latest stuff here.

 

Here’s what’s wrong with the ‘gay Establishment’

Monday, 17 March 2014

The dirty secret about the gay rights movement in Britain today is that there is no longer any reason for it to exist. All the big battles for equality and recognition have been won, and were won quite a long time ago. The cosmetic row over gay marriage last year didn’t affect the legal rights gay couples were entitled to under civil partnership. And, truth be told, there’s really nothing left to be angry about in this country, unless you count last year’s absurd campaign to ban children from using the word “gay” in playgrounds.

Talk to anyone who works in the gay lobby and they’ll probably agree – but only privately. You won’t hear anything like it, of course, from charities jonesing for taxpayer cash, or from magazines that depend on outrage to shift copies to those unmoved by oiled torsos. There have been widespread changes in staff at gay charities and campaigning groups recently: chief executives are burnt out and, more importantly, they are recognising that there’s little left on the rights checklist to advocate for. Stonewall and the Terrence Higgins Trust are haemorrhaging talent and leadership, and gay conferences and campaigns are descending into trivia and navel-gazing.

It’s exhausting to watch the endless, cyclical hand-holding and whipped-up frenzy that can accompany the most inconsequential of discussions. This is what happens when rights movements run out of steam: panic, bewilderment and an orgy of self-justification, wrapped up in activism at the far fringes of relevance. The gay lobby’s mission du jour is transsexual rights, and the arcane and baffling new linguistic conventions that govern that complex web of transsexual and transgender people.

Today’s debates treat self-indulgent middle-class problems that affect barely a per cent of these organisations’ own members, and a vanishingly small proportion of the population at large, as though they were historic civil rights battles. Every transsexual in public life seems to “identify” their sexual orientation in a subtly different way, which creates problems for organisations like Stonewall, which have been used to representing relatively homogenous groups and who in any case are wondering whether and how their remit ought to be expanded to include transsexual issues.

 

We’re joining the Daily Dot family

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

This morning, I published the following update on The Kernel’s website.

Since The Kernel returned to your computer screens last year, reimagined as a tabloid magazine that would treat the web as a cultural phenomenon, rather than simply a technological or economic marvel, we’ve broken some of the most important news and told some of the best stories it’s possible to read anywhere on the internet.

Our stories have appeared everywhere, from the BBC to Time; from Gawker to ABC News. On a modest budget and with a small but ferociously dedicated team, we educated and entertained some 500,000 people a month.

During that time, we watched and admired another, similar publication flourish. The Daily Dot describes itself as the internet’s paper of record, and the team over there are doing extraordinarily brilliant work in approaching the communities and stories from and about the internet as people-centric news, instead of the same old boring and hopeless tech coverage you get everywhere else.

Sooner or later, it was inevitable that the two companies would discuss pooling their resources, sharing what they had learned with one another and becoming, through the combination of their expertise, more than the sum of their parts.

To realise that vision, as reported by the London Evening Standard this morning, we have sold The Kernel to Daily Dot Media. From 1 February 2014, our team will report to Austin, Texas, while The Kernel’s brand and assets will be rolled gradually into the Daily Dot’s core product. Shortly after that, I will step down as Editor-in-Chief of The Kernel to pursue other projects.

None of this would have been possible without the extraordinary hard work and loyalty of my team, the generosity and hospitality of the Daily Dot and, most importantly, you, the reader. You voted with your feet to demonstrate that quality journalism – important news, great stories and sharply-written commentary – can still excite people in the age of Buzzfeed.

Together, The Daily Dot and The Kernel will offer a compelling blend of deep-dive investigative reporting, entertaining features and gripping human interest stories. I look forward to tracking their successes and I hope you’ll join me.

 

The Next Web imploding, PandoDaily in shame… yes, technology journalism still needs to be fixed

Monday, 22 July 2013

July has been a rough month for tech blogs. Robin Wauters, a talented startup reporter, announced just now that he has been let go from The Next Web. Brad McCarty is also out the door. But they’re not the only ones.

Wauters wouldn’t be drawn on the subject and I don’t know McCarty, but I am told by those in the know that both Alex Wilhelm, who posted obliquely on the subject last week, and one other (very senior) person I can’t name yet are leaving the site, too.

They join Matt Brian, Jamillah Knowles, Anna Heim and Amalie Agathou as people who either left or were fired from TNW already this year. If you spot a trend there, you’re right: all the good reporters are going or gone.

“I have no clue which direction they plan to go,” says one source. “They’re clearly not profitable nor able to keep talent. [TNW] is going to stop covering news though, that at least I know.”

Meanwhile, PandoDaily has been humiliated in the most abject manner, immediately after having to deny claims that it has already burned through all its funding.

Let me be clear: I take no pleasure in any of this news after my own horror story earlier this year. If anything, it’s simply another cautionary tale about how hard it is to make a media business work.

I believe it comes down to quality, integrity and strong editorial direction. These sites aren’t turning a profit because they aren’t providing a good enough overall product.

If there’s any light on the horizon here, let it be more media entrepreneurs betting the farm on quality, rather than rehashed press releases and made-up news.

Because, if you ask me – quite aside from various financial woes – readers are getting pretty sick of the sloppiness, contempt for basic journalistic ethics and downright terrible writing that has plagued technology journalism for so long.

 

The Kernel’s mission statement

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

I’m being asked quite a lot by writers thinking of pitching stories to us and interested friends and colleagues about the Kernel’s new direction. So I thought I’d share a few extracts from our internal mission statement, which describes where we are headed.

Screen Shot 2013-07-10 at 12.28.43

I’ve cut out stuff about reader demographics, which you’re unlikely to be interested in unless you’re thinking of investing, and focused on the sections that describe how our content will be different this time around. Needless to say, it’s an iterative process, so this is just a snapshot…

 

Obstructed anal glands

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Brian Sewell, to whose name it seems obligatory to append the word acerbic (I sympathise), is the best art critic writing today. On a weekend break to Cornwall, where I had the displeasure of visiting Tate St Ives, always a wretched disappointment, I finished the first volume of his remarkably explicit autobiography.

Here are a few passages that touched me.

I learned from them that love can be extraordinarily cruel and destructively submissive, that love of a sort can remain long after the sexual interest is extinguished, and that lovers can be lovers for years without ever understanding each the other’s needs and wants – Keith was both a sadist and a masochist, tormenting himself with whip and thong while longing for a victim, but Ramsay was neither and did not know how to gratifyingly respond. Only in Keith’s confession that he spent two thirds of his waking hours dwelling on sexual matters, did I find some reassurance.

 

One direction

Monday, 10 June 2013

As most readers will know by now, The Kernel is back. We go live on Monday, 12 August: in 62 days.

I thought I’d explain a bit more about where we’re headed, because there was a fun piece in the Independent on Sunday about our return but I’m not sure it made clear, as I’d like it to have done, that we’re making some changes to the way The Kernel looks, sounds and operates.

The first thing to say is that we’ll be doing a lot more picture-led features and we’ll be experimenting heavily with video, inspired by publications we admire, avoiding the traps of publications we don’t.

At its best, The Kernel was a mixture of whimsical, satirical fun-poking and serious, thought-provoking comment. With the journalists we’ve invited back this time, we’re holding on to that feeling of cerebral mischief while excising some of the more, say, vindictive excesses of the past.

That’s one of the reasons The Nutshell, our runaway success subscription newsletter, is not returning.

The other is that The Kernel in its new incarnation will be a more middle-brow, mass-market product than before. I won’t claim we’ll never again shine a spotlight on the hubris and absurdity of the Tech City project, or Europe’s bland and derivative tech blogosphere, but in general our mantra is to punch up, not down, and do so in a way that is intelligible to ordinary people.

With that in mind, we’ll be concentrating on more policy and governmental journalism, explaining and analysing the frictions that occur between the fear and control freakery of government and the disorientating pace of advance and innovation in the private sector.

We’ll also be covering more of the research, discoveries and businesses that matter to civilisation. If we were occasionally a little pessimistic in the past, that’s largely because we focused on the petri dish of the east London internet industry, leaving infinitely more transformative stories from the worlds of artificial intelligence, robotics and politics untold.

I’m particularly excited about our renewed focus on psychology and neuroscience. Whilst scrupulously avoiding the charge of windbaggery we will make more space for academic discussion. Then, of course, there’s the small matter of internet culture and online celebrity, which is in our blood and will be returning with aplomb.

Besides that, you can expect comment, analysis and investigative work in technology, media and politics, in particular in the areas of addiction, art, morality, sexuality, body engineering, augmented reality, love, sex, death, money and every other important corner of life that technology is touching and changing.

In short, we’re returning to our original mission: a blend of Vanity Fair, the Spectator, the Daily Mail, the Economist and the National Enquirer for tech: a funny, feisty, clever and compelling blend of satire, opinion and expertise that entertains as it informs: the one truly unmissable tech publication in a sea of derivative bilge.

See you in August.

 

Second chances

Saturday, 1 June 2013

Kernel2Suspending publication at The Kernel in March this year was a painful and humiliating process. I’d been too arrogant about my ability to run a business and allowed a combination of starry optimism and financial incompetence to bring the company to its knees. In the end, it caught up with me and I had to admit failure.

But though the business behind it was a commercial disaster, I am enormously proud of much of the journalism The Kernel published. All things considered, it was a terrific editorial success, thanks to the hard work of our brilliant writers.

That’s why I’m thrilled to be getting a second chance at making it work.

I’m delighted to announce that BERLIN42, parent company of the Axel Springer-backed hy! event series, is relaunching the magazine with fresh investment and a proper commercial team. I will at last have a proper CEO overseeing me, so I can concentrate on writing, editing and commissioning the best technology journalism in Europe.

There won’t be a Nutshell. There might be some ads. There will be a lot more video and picture content. And the vindictive excesses of the editorial (I’m talking to myself here) are going to be quite severely curbed – without losing The Kernel’s unique sense of humour.

But, yes: The Kernel is coming back.

The last two years have been an emotional rollercoaster for me and those involved with the project – many of whom, I am delighted to say, are returning as staff writers to the new and improved version 2.0. At the time of writing, six of the previous contributors are signed up to Kernel 2.0.

I’ve learned a lot about my own limitations and weaknesses. (To answer the inevitable question now in readers’ minds: I settled The Kernel’s outstanding debts personally in April.) It’s time to concentrate on my strengths, and I now have a team that will enable me to do just that.

You can read the full press release, which contains more details about what’s coming, below. The Independent on Sunday covered the relaunch in today’s paper. Their piece includes an interview with me and the new CEO. It’s online here.

The new and improved Kernel goes live on Monday 15 August 2013. In the meantime, I’m hiring. So drop me a line if you’re up for making some mischief.

 

Falmouth

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Good counsel for women and gays alike.

A girl can’t live alone, Mary, without she goes queer in the head, or comes to evil. It’s either one or the other. Have you forgotten poor Sue, who walked the churchyard at midnight with the full moon, and called upon the lover she had never had? And there was one maid, before you were born, left an orphan at sixteen. She ran away to Falmouth and went with the sailors.

- Daphne du Maurier, Jamaica Inn

 

Residential home

Monday, 15 April 2013

axel-springer

I have today been appointed writer-in-residence at Axel Springer’s new Plug&Play Accelerator in Berlin. It’s a cool project – more credible and considered, it seems to me, than Telefónica’s efforts in Munich and London – and I have some experience of working (and playing) with the ebullient Robin Haak, among others. I think it will be fun.

The full press release is pasted below, for those interested.

 

Broadening horizons

Sunday, 14 April 2013

View from the office

I’m in the south of France, on a post-MIP creative retreat with a hand-picked group of technology entrepreneurs, television commissioners, network producers, actors, entertainment professionals and, later this week, a media-minded MP. We’re discussing TV formats, trends in media and ideas for new media business models in a villa nestled in the beautiful, mountainous French countryside above Tourrettes-sur-Loup.

And it occurs to me how dramatically the technology industry would be transformed, were founders to shake off the limitations of self-regard and spend their downtime with great minds from other worlds. The number of thrilling new business ideas discussed casually over Bordeaux and pâté is remarkable. It’s a testament to the organiser, my friend Robert Loch, that such catalysis is going on.

Then again, the space for this sort of thing is still wide open, because the entertainment industries are crying out for innovation and expertise from technology. The posers in the TechCrunch beauty parade haven’t the faintest idea how to interface with such enormous and lucrative industries and markets, so consumed are they by photo-sharing, by social networking and by congratulating themselves at shoddy conferences and laughably amateurish awards ceremonies.

Not least among the many reasons for start-up failure, it seems to me, is this utter lack of imagination, ambition and, yeah, sex appeal. We can do better. A little modesty is called for: rather than the frankly desperate cult of “disruption” and its systemic disdain for the content industries (and just about everyone else), entrepreneurs would do well to take a moment and try learning from those they arrogantly suppose their platforms and APIs are set to displace.

The future is more complex – and collaborative – than you think.

 

Ich bin ein Berliner

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

As friends will know already, Berlin is rapidly becoming my home from home. Part of the reason is the extraordinary friends I have made there, particularly in hy! founders Hans Raffauf and Aydo Schosswald.

I’m thrilled that Hans & Aydo have this week given me an excuse to spend even more time in the city I love by asking me to come on board as Editorial Director of their terrific invitation-only event series.

I’ll be helping to put the programme together for an event I already know and love. Axel Springer-backed hy! is by far and away the most credible and inspiring gathering of entrepreneurs and creatives in Europe. I look forward to contributing to its ongoing success.

I’m moving to Berlin full-time, with immediate effect. I’ll still be writing regularly for the usual complement of European & US newspapers, magazines and websites – but a bit less often.

 

An open letter to my friends in the technology industry

Thursday, 4 April 2013

We have to talk. This thing you’ve been doing, it has to stop. When I ask you for a recommendation for an app, or a restaurant, or a new brand of toothpaste, I do not need to know that the CEO is a personal friend of yours. We all have impressive-sounding address books because this industry is the size of a postage stamp. So cut it out.

Seriously. It’s like a sickness. (Before I go on, let me just get one thing out of the way: it’s an illness I have periodic and obnoxious bouts of too. This post is partly an attempt to shame myself out of bad habits.)

It impresses no one. It adds nothing to the meaning of a sentence and it just makes me think the speakers are cocks who locate way too much self-esteem in utterly fucking unimportant things. And that makes me sad, because I know they’re not cocks. That’s why they’re my friends.

Is there any industry as pathologically addicted to name-dropping as the start-up world? I only ask because this particular epidemic seems to be spiralling way out of control. You see, I was talking about this last night to two dear friends of mine who are chief executives of two of the most successful British internet start-ups. I won’t name names but you’ve probably heard of them.

There are always outliers and eccentrics: blow-hards who swank and bullshit their way through, fibbing and flirting to get what they want. Like Julie Meyer. She’s kind of a big deal. (I can introduce you, if you want.) But seriously: when did “Oh, and she’s a really good friend of mine” become as necessary to the end of a sentence as a full stop?

I don’t need to know who people know - if they even actually really do – at every possible opportunity. When I ask how they are, I don’t need to know the name of the hotel they’ve just checked out of, as if that’s somehow relevant, or which class they flew home in. (Don’t even get me started on airport lounge bragging.) I don’t need to know that they were speaking at a conference; that they were there is all the information I need. Even that is often unnecessary.

At it’s simplest, this behaviour is a class giveaway. These are working class-nerds on the make – or, in some cases, achingly nouveau wide-boys desperate to show off because they’re so insecure about their newly acquired social standing. Beta males to a man and hating every minute of it. We get it, you had no friends at school. My friend Anthony, who used to be Mark Cuban’s PA, and I were laughing about this with Tim Ferriss at a dinner in San Francisco in 2010. Ferriss picked up the check.

At times it can seem as though the technology industry is one big happy family. Except, as we all know, it isn’t.

The problem with all this constant public back-slapping, self-congratulation and obsequiousness is two-fold: first, that you forget the almost preternatural power of a subtle, private endorsement from someone with serious clout. Like that time the president of a huge American foundation who’s on the board of like seven multinational corporations, and who is now a friend and fan, put in a good word for me with some conference I wanted to speak at.

Or that time I was at a dinner with Steve Ballmer opposite. He probably doesn’t remember me, but I know Larry Ellison does because his office got in touch to invite me to lunch in Redwood City. I don’t think I ever got back to them because I was invited to a private island for a meditation retreat with the cast of a US TV show. That was a fun summer.

Second, when everyone’s being nice to each other and praising everyone else, no one is really saying anything, are they? It’s a bit like politics, where the rows are all basically bollocks because the whole Establishment is run by a tiny elite who all went to the same schools and who don’t really disagree on anything. I’ll bring this up when I have dinner again with the leader of the UK’s third largest political party. He’s a hoot!

If it’s not a pat on the back or a bit of self-aggrandisement, no one wants to know. You see, the tech industry has inherited oppressive thought police culture without the style or substance even of politics. (That’s a good line, actually; I might mention it the next time I’m in the House of Commons. I dated an MP, you know.)  Nor does it have the effete charm of the fashionista who air-kisses and daaaaaahlinks! her way through a cocktail party. Nor, even, of the movie industry, where at least mutual compliments are passable because everyone’s so damned good looking.

This reminds me of the time I was couch-surfing in Beverly Hills in 2008 and at a pool party just off Mulholland I was talking to a really cute guy for about an hour outside by the pool and we nearly made out and it suddenly dawned on me that it was Tobey Maguire. At least I think it was Maguire; it could have been Gyllenhaal. Whoever it was, he offered me coke. I was shocked, and said no.

The tragic irony of all this saccharine sucking-up is of course that the characters at the top of the air-kissing tree are such grim, sociopathic bastards. Except the ones who are my friends, of course, who are really just very misunderstood. I just wish people would be honest, like Aaron Levie from Box. I met him in 2010. He gave me his business card.

I wouldn’t have brought all this up but I thought a touch of comic verisimilitude might help me make my point.

I mean, to drop such things gratuitously would be appallingly gauche.

Wouldn’t it.

 

Google Glass and surveillance culture

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

I’ve written a long piece for Slashdot’s original content channel on Google’s new wearable computers. You can read the whole thing here.

Consumer hardware may not yet have the power to capture and process olfactory search terms, but it is more than capable of augmenting sight. Thus we have been gifted Google’s latest, most horrendous idea: a wearable, Internet-enabled computer it has christened “Glass,” but whose inelegant aesthetic is better represented by the product’s goofy unofficial moniker, “Google Goggles.”

It’s an audacious product for a company no one trusts to behave responsibly with our data: a pair of glasses that can monitor and record the world around you. But they do so much more than that. Let’s not beat about the bush here: these specs are a thing of wonder. They can email, take pictures, record video, provide walking or driving directions, conduct searches, translate signs… the possibilities are endless.

But if Glass becomes as ubiquitous as the iPhone, are we truly to believe that Google will not attempt to abuse that remarkable power?

 

Introducing the Gove-O-Meter

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

GoveGiven that we know how comprehensively and utterly Michael Gove has won the education debate, there’s no harm in celebrating our terrific Education Secretary’s other chief virtue: his ability to drive the Left absolutely potty.

It’s well-established that Mr Gove strikes fear and terror into the hearts of the loony Left wherever he goes. The sound of his name alone is enough to prompt metropolitan liberals to spit out their organic muesli.

Behold, therefore, the Gove-O-Meter: a measure of the apoplexy various sound people and organisations induce in nutters and nitwits. For benchmarking purposes, here are a few familiar names, with their Gove-O-Meter rankings given as marks out of ten.

Now do pay attention; there will be a written test on Friday.

Boris Johnson – 4/10
David Cameron – 5/10
Douglas Murray – 6/10
Peter Hitchens – 7/10
David Starkey – 7/10
The Taxpayers’ Alliance – 8/10
Iain Duncan Smith – 8/10
Guido Fawkes – 8.5/10
Melanie Phillips – 9/10
George Osborne – 9/10
James Delingpole – 9/10
Rod Liddle – 9.5/10
Mr Gove – 10/10
Lady Thatcher – 10/10

Feel free to contribute here or on Twitter, with #GoveOMeter