Interview with award-winning Author and Broadcaster, Antony Funnell
Antony Funnell is a Walkley award-winning Author and Broadcaster who currently presents the ABC podcast Future Tense.
Medianet sat down with Antony to discuss his career and experiences in the media industry.
You are currently working as the host of the Future Tense podcast for ABC as well as being a published author. How did you first start your career?
I was doing history, politics, and philosophy at university and got to the end of it, having a fantastic time, and realised I now had to find something - a job.
I was always interested in issues and particularly public affairs, politics, and international relations, and it just seemed like a natural fit to enter journalism. So, I did a course on journalism at UQ and eventually got a cadetship with the ABC and just went forward from there.
A lot of people find themselves falling into journalism after studying something different. It’s a very versatile career!
Yeah, it really was an accidental career path for me, in a sense. But I also was one of those classic kids, I suppose, who didn’t quite know what I wanted to do at the end of uni.
My great skill in life is that I’m naturally inquisitive. I like finding out things, and once I got working I discovered that I’m actually quite good at explaining things to people, breaking complex matters down; which is a lot of what I do in the Future Tense podcast and before as the host of Media Report on ABC Radio National.
What makes technology journalism so unique and what first drew you in?
As my career developed I noticed how technology became more and more entwined within the entire landscape of life, in fact, the first episode of Future Tense was in 2009 and was the same week President Barack Obama was inaugurated.
The title of that episode was ‘The Internet President’ which shows that even back then, over a decade ago, people were talking about the great potential of technology to change the world and the way we communicated with each other.
It was a really exciting time, but it was full of hype and spin and it just seemed like there was such a big opportunity there for someone like me to actually be a bit more skeptical about new directions.
It led me to start thinking about things such as: “Where is this digital technology ultimately going to take us? What are the benefits? What does it mean? What are the costs?”
Interestingly, I think the really big change came with the Cambridge Analytica scandal.
As journalists we are meant to be skeptical and ask questions, but from that scandal on everyone began to view technology a bit differently.
Acknowledging that while there were a lot of good aspects to how the world was changing, there was also a lot of bad.
How do you stay on top of all the new developments and changes in technology?
Well, from my own perspective it’s always been most important for me not to get caught up in all of the gadgetry and products.
I remember when the iPhone was first launched and I remember people asking me if I was going to cover it. It already had a lot of coverage in mainstream media, so I said, “We won’t cover the launch but we will cover how people interact with it, how they start using it, and how they really feel about it.”
At Future Tense we always try to keep pace with the rapid changes going on in the world, but put them in more of a social context - asking, for example how this will affect how we engage with each other, or the ways we understand the world. Having this viewpoint is helpful in making great and steady content, instead of just being enamoured by every new device, website, or platform that comes along.
You can imagine that my inbox is just always stuffed with people pitching their newest invention - it’s always “the future” of this or the future of that!
Having a healthy dose of skepticism and looking more broadly at why these things matter to us as a society is much more important.
What do you predict humanity’s relationship with technology will be like in the future?
I think the biggest worry is not that we overuse technology. A lot of people think that addiction to gadgets and devices is a really huge problem, which I’m not so sure about.
We do tend to forget that technology is everything. If you use a pen, that’s technology! The clothes that you wear are technology! It’s all around us and we use it in all different ways.
That’s not to say that certain addictions to technology aren’t an issue, especially around gambling and corporations that use psychology to make sure you stay longer on their sites. The most concerning thing with technology is the removal of agency, and by that I mean we are getting incredibly used to platforms and corporations making choices on our behalf. Some of that is through recommended content, just leading us towards things that algorithms think we are interested in simply because we have been interested in them before.
I think that is more of a concern, because it’s taking away decision-making and if you take away decision-making then it’s harder to respond in a resilient way to the real challenges happening in our world.
I’m ultimately optimistic about the way in which we as human beings create and change. I often hear people say that human beings don’t like change, and I don’t think that’s true. Human beings are change - we’re always changing ourselves and our environment. You know, that’s what we do!
That’s why there are humans on every continent on the planet, in every environment. We are actually good at change, but we don’t like being sold a change that doesn’t really serve our benefit.
There are now more relevant discussions surrounding the importance of privacy and agency, as we encounter more and more of these problems. It’s not the fault of the technology itself, because technology is neutral, it’s more about how these technologies are used and designed by vested interests.
What has been the most memorable experience in your entire career, so far?
Honestly, I don’t know!
It sometimes feels to me like journalism is disappearing, and you hear so many people talking about how modern journalism is no good anymore. But I’m cautious about that. The truth is it wasn’t always that good in the past anyway!
I remember witnessing some really ropey practices when I was a cadet in newsrooms. Overall, though, it does feel like standards are slipping and resources diminishing. But whenever I get a bit depressed about that side of the industry I remember technology has opened up a whole new world of opportunities. Every week I’m talking to experts and people who have done hands-on, brilliant work, all around the world. It’s a real privilege and not many people in life get to talk to a leading neurosurgeon one day, and then an Oxford philosopher the next!
For someone like me, who is infinitely curious, it’s a wonderful thing. It’s brilliant to be able to talk to these people and ask questions, and give the public an understanding of what’s going on.
I really like that side of my life. Sometimes when you’re just sitting alone in the studio putting together a program and when you send it out into the world you feel a bit disconnected from the audience, and the whole process can feel a bit artificial. But then you are reminded, every now and then, that you have connections with all these people who listen in.
I remember I got a short email one day, and it was from a man in Slovenia in Eastern Europe. He told me how much he enjoyed my program and that he listened to it every week when he went walking with his dog through the local forest.
That was such a lovely thing, knowing that a program that I put out, on the opposite side of the world, was being listened to by a man walking in a Slovenian forest. And a nice reminder about how amazing the modern world can be..
What are your pitching preferences?
Given the nature of our program we tend to work several weeks ahead of the broadcast/publishing date. We have so many overseas guests that it’s hard to coordinate time zones and we always try to get the actual creators or researchers involved in new developments, not just some commentator.
The frustrating thing is that often when we tend to get a pitch about something we have just covered on the program, and therefore we can’t use. It’s out of date.
What will attract my attention is not the stuff that we have already done, but the issues we haven’t yet covered - and things that are out of the box.