Exclusive Interview: Stephen Fry

Interviews, Topics March 7, 2012
Exclusive Interview: Stephen Fry

If ever there was someone who needed little introduction it’s the polymath STEPHEN FRY . From a start as one of the most important figures in alternative comedy (before even graduating), he’s had a career in films, on radio and on TV, been a presenter and documentary maker and has written a fair shelf’s worth of books. There’s almost nothing this Cambridge graduate hasn’t tried his hand at… and succeeded.

In recent years, however, the front-runner for most intelligent man in the world has become the thinking man’s supporter of Twitter. With a new book that explores how technology (among other things) affects language and a recent TV series looking at the 100 greatest gadgets, Stephen managed to do the impossible and find time to tell us how he thinks social media is changing the world.

YOU’RE KNOWN AS ONE OF THE GREATEST ADVOCATES FOR SOCIAL NETWORKS, PARTICULARLY Twitter. WHAT IS IT YOU LIKE ABOUT THEM?

Twitter suits people like me exceptionally well. Facebook exactly doesn’t. The only way I could have a Facebook site is as a kind of bulletin board, or under a secret identity for only friends and family. Otherwise my “wall” would be unreadable. Twitter allows one to communicate with millions but in one’s own time and under one’s own terms. Anyone who understands Twitter knows that I can’t be expected to see or reply to every tweet from every follower, but that I am like one in the woods in autumn with a swirl of leaves around me, grasping at the ones nearest to hand occasionally but missing most. Those whom I follow can, on the other hand, have a private dialogue, but again not in an intrusive real time way, like Facebook’s odious messaging that tells everyone when you’re on line.

Most of all, Twitter frees me from any obligation to talk to the press. Since I have more followers (and I honestly don’t mean this in a boastful way) that the numbers who buy the Times, Telegraph, Guardian, FT and Independent combined – it means I can tell every publicity person on every film, TV project, book etc. that I work on that I simply never ever do print interviews. Ever.

It is a whole pain, terror and horror gone from my life. I can agree to the odd thing (like this) where I can be judged on my words for good or ill, but not on the malevolence, mood or disposition of some “profile writer.” Being free of printed media obligations is no small thing. Much bigger names than I, in all fields, music, film, politics whatever it might be, can tell their millions of followers that such-and-such a “media columnist” is lying, or misrepresenting and has no inside track at all on a person’s life or real access to showbusiness as they pretend to. Naturally this frightens deadwood journalists who both loathe and now depend on a “celebrity Twitter feed” in equal measure.

Plus, Twitter is fun. It’s genuinely an exciting and extraordinary way to have a connection with people you’ll never meet, while being able to control the boundaries of that connection. Plus, as every Twitter user knows, there is the blessed Block option. Someone is rude, unkind, poisonous in their opinions, and with one stroke you never see a word they tweet again. It’s a miracle. And, of course, no tweeter need ever complain that I dominate or hog Twitter, or that they find my opinions vile or intrusive because they too can unfollow and/or block me at a stroke. In that sense it’s wonderfully equal turf.

HAVE NEW TECHNOLOGIES LIKE Twitter AND PORTABLE INTERNET DEVICES CHANGED THE WAY YOU INTERACT WITH PEOPLE?

The only sensible answer to that question is ‘D’uh’. That is like asking someone if having a car and road network has altered the way they travel. The answer is in the question.

They don’t alter, if that is what you mean, the fundamentals of human face to face interaction, any more than the invention of rubber dolls alters the way humans have babies. We’re not a jot or tittle less human when we use a different pipeline down which to talk, whether it’s a speaking tube, a letter, a telephone, an email or a tweet.

There’s an argument that modern conduits allow us to be more of what separated us from other animals – which is to say language-capable entities. ‘Ordinary’ people are now, despite the views of some snobs, more articulate in the sense that matters than ever before. The parish pump, the garden fence, the market gossip all had their place in allowing freedom of interaction but there is much more real freedom for self-expression now than ever before. It may not be done in the prose style of a Gibbon or Macaulay, or with the panache and wit of a Wilde or a Coward, but it is real and as felt (or indeed as unreal, fabricated and ludic), as the communicator wishes it to be… on their terms.

WOULD YOUR CAREER HAVE BEEN DIFFERENT IF SOME OF TODAY’S TECHNOLOGIES HAD BEEN AVAILABLE WHEN YOU GRADUATED?

I don’t think mine would have altered significantly. It required a group of likeminded individuals (such as the Footlights in my case) a chance to play at the Edinburgh Festival, the acquisition thereby of an audience and reputation and well-disposed TV producers.

I think student loans, pressure on university places and the importance of a ‘good’ degree – all of which are privileging vocational training as against true education (what Americans call impressively and unembarrassedly ‘the liberal arts’) – are much more influential and to the detriment of student life and prospects. There may be some cute curriculum vitae software and LinkedIn style closed social networks available, but they cancel themselves out in usefulness by being equally available and therefore equally useless, to all.

Maybe I’m overstating it, but university is first and foremost about intellectual sodalities, learning ‘to play gracefully with ideas’ in Oscar’s phrase, reading, time and friendship. Learning to understand the limits of one’s knowledge. All these high academic ideals are horribly compromised when debt, job prospects and the ability even to think of being able to afford a roof over one’s head are called into question. And no amount of smart digital gadgetry or social networking can get round those problems.

WHEN FILMING LAST CHANCE TO SEE, THERE WERE A FEW OCCASIONS IN WHICH YOU HAD TO RELINQUISH YOUR MOBILE PHONES AND PORTABLE COMPUTERS. DID THAT MAKE YOU UNCOMFORTABLE?

Not especially. I knew that it was only temporary. A bit like when one was roughing it in the jungle for three or four nights: as long as one knows that there is a hotel, laundry and hot water at the end of it, it actually becomes a fun challenge. And the fact is there was better all-round 3G coverage in remote conservancies in Kenya than there is in Norfolk, or sometimes even the Home Counties…

FOR OUR READERS, WHO ARE GOING TO BE SHAPING THE NEXT GENERATION OF TECHNOLOGY, WHAT IS THE INVENTION, PROGRAM OR SITE YOU’D LIKE TO SEE?

Beware of prophets of any stripe: religious and spiritual ones can be tolerated with a shrug, but technology has never been predictable. I’d certainly like to see the net and the web always having room for independence, new ideas and counter-cultural forces that can’t be easily snapped up and absorbed by tech-giants. Of course Apple was once one such spirit in the world, as was Google, so there is bound to be a cyclical way in which the small and independent and minority and cult of today becomes the bully of tomorrow, but so long as the ecosystem out there allows for new growth and for biodiversity then that’s fine. So profusion, imagination, growth and bloody-mindedness, that’s what I’d like to see. I couldn’t give such sites, services or technologies a name, but it’s the freedom and fertility that counts.

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