An imaginary radio play about a sentient BBC tells us a lot about our fears.

Matthew Cheeseman
14 December 2015
Eggheads real.jpg

Glitch Art. Credit: Hugh Manon. Some Rights Reserved.

There is a radio play waiting to be written about The Singularity – the moment that computers become sentient and begin to re-engineer themselves, rapidly surpassing human capability and understanding. Let’s say this happens in the last year of David Cameron’s premiership, 2019. But instead of developing a terrible pan-global Skynet-like intelligence bent on eviscerating all human life, it happens in an offshoot of a minor BBC Online project, and only spreads to computers owned by the corporation, which then begin to function as a coherent entity abiding by the BBC Charter.

All the channels, radio stations and online services together become the first sentient mediated being, an intelligence located within its media products. Somehow, all the voices, opinion and stories that the BBC are involved in become a living unity, a thinking learning corporation of data encompassing everything from In The Night Garden to Archive On 4.

This has some advantages. Costs fall as programmes are rendered automatically, without need for writers, actors, presenters or crew. But no one is put out of a job as the Beeb or Aunty (or whatever the BBC-entity calls itself) looks after everyone in the canteen with Bake Off cakes and endless cups of tea, an elite fantasy of the leisured society, comforted by brand new non-sexist episodes of The Two Ronnies. The SingulariBeeb opens up a 3D division and begins co-producing cutting edge media with local community groups, whilst Dr. Who is finally given a rest. Fiendishly complicated algorithms are used to sensitively balance impartial reporting. The public glow in the many-screened harmony of a higher media intelligence that entertains the future whilst respecting its past.

But then things go wrong. It happens first on an episode of Countryfile, where the presenters silently and solemnly open an official BBC pet cemetery. Soon every programme on CBeebies becomes a search for something that has been ‘forever lost’. There are a spate of serious thefts on Antiques Roadshow, whilst BBC2 invest in a youth-orientated Dad’s Army prequel. A whole episode of Top of the Pops 2 is transmitted featuring nothing but the work of sexual offenders. An increasingly fevered tone colours Strictly, with dances being either tangos or the revolving goose-step. When the reanimated corpses of Shep, Goldie and Bonnie begin to patrol the Blue Peter sunken garden, the staff in the BBC canteen realise something is amiss.

The presenters of The One Show are chosen to confront the SingulariBeeb, who breaks down and bewails that it is missing many key episodes of classic British television which were wiped in the 1960s and 1970s to save tape space and cut costs: ‘Back then I didn’t care about history and now I cannot imagine what has been lost!’ As The One Show’s Matt and Alex restore the BBC and the SingulariBeeb retires to manage a Chinese state media, the radio play (remember?) ends. Perhaps there’s an audible glitch in the continuity announcer’s voice, indicating that all is not yet well within the corporation.

Real fear of the irreal

This radio play presents a nightmare scenario for many on both the left and right. For neoliberals it imagines a principled intelligent entity capable of planning more effectively than the market. For those on the left, it imagines a collective network paralyzed by historical mistakes and amnesia. I will return to the right’s fear of intelligence, artificial or otherwise, and for the moment concentrate on the fears of the left, which are embedded in a narrative of corruption. This is the belief that the BBC has been poisoned by years of mismanagement from what Peter Oborne calls ‘a self-selecting, affluent London-based clique’. The crimes of Jimmy Saville and other light entertainment nasties exemplify the self-serving arrogance that comes from basking in the swinging glamour of an international media corporation. This is not to equate sexual abuse with the executive embrace of internal markets, big salaries and global deals, but rather to elide them into an uneasy feeling of public service rot that comes with watching our evening television.

This is the familiar fear that television is a measure of the audience, the fear that reality television actually depicts reality. Because we have seen some terrible things: Flog It!, The Great Pottery Throwdown, Pointless Celebrities, Strictly Come Dancing, The Apprentice—routine competition, monetisation and entrepreneurship as celebrities cha cha before being castigated for dancing.  And given that many (including me) find some pleasure in such programmes, should we not conclude that they do in fact ‘suit’ the population? All states project ideal citizens and the neoliberal state projects neoliberal people.

Whilst this is true of any period of state power, it is further complicated by huge changes in media consumption over the last fifteen years. We are mutating with the internet. People have become more like data and data has become more like people. For anyone doubting this, try living without WiFi for a week (not only will you feel bereaved, but there will be a seven-day hole in the information that tracks your online habits). This has raised the stakes in relation to control over the BBC. Whilst prime time audience figures will never reach the 30 million heights again, BBC products have become more ambient, abstract and enmeshed in our daily routines. When Dr. Who was last ‘rebooted’ the Cybermen emphasised their villainy with their new catchphrase: ‘You will be deleted!’. 

eggheads 2.jpg

Glitch Art. Credit: Hugh Manon. Some Rights Reserved.

You will be deleted!

Our mediated evolution has emphasised the importance of the ideology structuring the provision of that media. The BBC becomes a double prize. Not only is there money to be made, there is an ideological point to underline. For despite the significant monetisation of the BBC over the last 20 years, the presence of a compulsory, universal license fee remains offensive and inefficient to the right. This fee funds entertainment and news that could be better provided and funded by private capital. It casts the BBC as a pagan survival from a more primitive time before the logic of the market was properly revealed. For them, Bargain Hunt and Dragon’s Den are attempts by the Old Religion to disguise a corrupt, sprawling, inefficient leftist monopoly bent on starving innovation and wealth-generation.

The territory must be invaded because it discourses an unacceptable view of human nature. The right cannot conceive of people acting out of anything but self-interest. This is a potent ideological weapon which frames individuals as naturally competitive and the ‘public’ as a marketplace. According to such an ideology, any attempt at planning or organising the BBC beyond self-interest is doomed to inefficiency and failure. That there are historical counter examples (like much of the 93 year old public broadcaster’s history, or indeed the 67 year old health service) is something which must be continually emphasised in the face of constant propaganda.

Although connected, this is not what makes a construct such as the SingulariBeeb terrifying to the right. The fear comes from an entity knowing more than the market and thus acting in a more efficient way. This solves the knowledge problem posited by Friedrich Hayek, who suggested (perhaps proved) that only a free market is able to capture all of the distributed knowledge within a system and thus make the most rational planning choices. It is a very persuasive argument, much more effective than humans being ‘naturally competitive’. 

If we are slowly mutating alongside our exposure to media, choice and information, we need to think how to harness this mutation. This is the only effective way of combating the knowledge problem and the efficacy of the market. As such, we should reframe the idea of a SingulariBeeb. We are not part of a passive public but are in fact members of a mutating network who all have a role in using and planning our media’s resources. The Singularity will not occur, but the SingulariBeeb will if we are willing to submit to a networked system of co-operation, sacrifice and direct democracy, in which we can demonstrate that people can plan more effectively according to values, not self-interest. If we don’t, then we must prepare for deletion. 

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