Like so many Americans, I jumped on the podcast bandwagon with season one of the Serial podcast back in 2014, and I haven’t looked back. While I’m cleaning my apartment or making dinner or walking to class, I can multi-task by listening to a podcast and feel like I’ve gotten more accomplished than the drudgery of everyday tasks. I can listen to shows on any topic, in any language, and feel like I’m better informed and engaged in a larger conversation, even while I’m folding laundry.
One of my current favorites is the IF/THEN podcast, hosted by Will Oremus and April Glaser, technology writers at Slate magazine. The typically hour-long episodes of this show seek to explore “how technology is changing our lives and our future.” The title of the show speaks to this goal, being a clear nod to both coding language and the tangible effects that technology has and will have on our everyday lives. While many people understand that technology plays a large role in our lives today, not all are engaged in the discussion about the specifics of what that actually means. IF/THEN breaks down issues like hate speech on social media, potential hacking of voting machines, and bias in algorithms and makes them accessible and applicable to the general public.
Being technology journalists, the hosts of IF/THEN employ the standard interview format and the podcast is broken up into three sections: the first third of any given episode introduces the latest news in tech for that week and introduces the larger topic that the hosts and guest will be discussing; the second section of the show is typically an interview with a tech leader in a specific field; and the third section is “Don’t Close My Tabs,” where the hosts discuss tech issues from the week that are still “open,” or things to keep an eye on.
The latest episode, as of the writing of this blog post, was released on November 6, 2018, and was entitled “The Meme Midterms.” In this episode, the first third of the podcast was a roundtable discussion of technology as it relates to voters—how the old adage “all politics is local” has been upended with the algorithms of attention on social media; the economy of DM engagement groups, where people are paid to amplify messages, particularly during election cycles; and the democratizing effect of social media that has led to political campaigns (most recently in Brazil) tailor-made to social media amplification and attention-getting. The interview portion of the episode was conducted with Ed Felton, a professor of computer science and public affairs at Princeton and the former deputy chief technology officer of the United States under President Barack Obama. Felton discussed the vulnerability of many states’ voting machines, noting that “something like 30 percent of U.S. voters are voting on systems that are suspect by design” and offering best practices for state and local governments moving forward. For “Don’t Close My Tabs,” the hosts switched up a bit, and discussed the news sources they would be following to track the midterm election returns as they came in.
The format of this podcast is predictable and comfortable to regular podcast listeners, and IF/THEN offers transcripts on their websites as well, which is a plus, in terms of accessibility. For those in the world of digital humanities, this is an interesting podcast to follow, as it makes real world connections between the digital and issues that we typically deal with in the humanities, like the impact of rhetoric, editing and curation choices, etc. While the show is technically distributed by Future Tense, a “partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society,” there’s not much attempt at neutrality, and the hosts’ liberal-leanings and Slate affiliation certainly shine through in their interview questions at times. Overall, though, I think it’s an interesting podcast to consider if you want to know how technology is affecting your life in unexpected ways.