Future Speak

A radio documentary about "learning to code" and computer literacy

Future Speak was a half hour documentary for Radio 4. It explored digital literacy in the early 21st century from a variety of angles. From the BBC website for the programme (where you may still be able to listen to the show).

In Future Speak, Tom sets out to decode digital literacy for the so-called ‘second machine age’. He considers why and how we should become fluent in the language of computing and, once we’ve mastered it, what we might do with it. With perspectives from education, industry, academia, the media, science and the arts, he explores a world where, increasingly, code is what you make of it.

I was approached by a radio producer about a show in late 2013 - a programme about the growing trend of ‘learning to code’, be it children learning through organisations like Code Club, or adults learning in ‘bootcamp’ style programmes. This was before the changes to the computer science curriculum in schools. We passed ideas around, though it took a while to get the ball rolling.

In early 2015, the project surfaced again with some momentum. By this time, events had moved on: “computer science” was now being established part of the curriculum. The focus of the show grew to encompass what it meant to be digitally literate. Was teaching programming enough, or was it only part of the solution? What role did technological understanding have to play in a changing society? Needless to say, I had a few opinions about this - but we wanted to put together a tapestry of people to explore the complexity of the subject in an engaging manner.

It’s hard to understate how much work a producer does, really, in a radio show. Kirsty McQuire produced the show in 2015, and was essential to its success. She definitely did the lion’s share of the work: setting up interviews, speaking to interview subjects, gathering audio, helping this neophyte presenter learn the ropes, putting a the final script together, and working on the edit. I was hugely lucky to work with her.

My role was as a domain expert, coming up with ideas for the direction things might take (and seeing what interviews might get us there), suggesting and researching interview subjects, and then interviewing our subjects and recording the final voiceover.

We recorded the show on and off over a few months - ten interviews, largely in the field or BBC studios, and then voiceover at the end to tie it together. The show went out in April, and was featured as Documentary of the Week, as well as appearing on Pick of the Week in the week of broadcast.