If you’ve ever been spooked by a social media algorithm that seems to know your holiday plans before you do, The Privacy Paradox, from the American tech podcast Note to Self, is here to assuage your anxiety and arm you with information. This special five-part series examines our contradictory love of convenience and desire for digital privacy, and is at once soothing (it’s OK, everyone worries about this stuff) and terrifying (there’s nothing Google doesn’t know about you).
If a tech podcast sounds a bit niche, Note to Self has always made a point of staying on the right side of nerdy. Previous mini-series have included Bored and Brilliant, about the pleasures of detaching yourself from your smartphone, and Infomagical, about how the human brain struggles to deal with the tidal wave of information in the digital age. The secret to the podcast’s success is its focus on our interactions with technology, rather than the inner workings of technology itself, and that extends to asking listeners to pitch in and assist with its investigations.
In The Privacy Paradox we are asked to fill in surveys and take part in challenges that encourage us to take control of our digital lives. This includes adjusting the privacy settings on our phones, checking how advertisers are tracking us and creating self-imposed online boundaries. Should we choose to sign up, a newsletter containing further information and advice is sent out with each episode.
The podcast is hosted by the journalist Manoush Zomorodi, who does a valiant job of explaining complex concepts with the help of assorted experts, while grappling with some uncomfortable truths. “Is this the system we want to live with?” she asks, observing how freely we hand over our personal information online. “Are free apps enough of a trade off?” Wondering whether there should be ethical agreements between tech companies and their users, she explains, “[This] isn’t just about shopping. It’s about basic human rights and dignity and democratic principles.”
If that sounds overly serious, there are also moments of levity, and Zomorodi retains a quizzical but calm tone throughout. Note to Self doesn’t so much deal in scare tactics as in smartness and common sense.
Gimlet Media’s Reply All is another tech-related podcast, and the standard to which similarly themed shows aspire. Like Note to Self, people are at the heart of the programmes, though it’s their relationship with technology that makes their tales worth telling. Late last year the hosts, PJ Vogt and Alex Goldman, broke with the usual format and posted their phone numbers online, pledging to answer anyone with a question. This resulted in some fascinating encounters in which they dispensed tech wisdom, relationship advice and, in the face of the more eccentric callers, laughed hysterically and said nothing much at all.