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Gig economy, summer special look-back – Computer Weekly Downtime Upload podcast

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In this summer special episode of the Computer Weekly Downtime Upload podcast, Caroline Donnelly, Clare McDonald and Brian McKenna look back to pre-lockdown episodes, and reflect on the podcasting experience since. First, they discuss the gig economy through the prism of new bite-sized BBC comedy Mandy

In this week’s socially distanced summer special episode of the Computer Weekly Downtime Upload podcast, Caroline Donnelly, Clare McDonald and Brian McKenna look back to pre-lockdown episodes, and reflect on their podcasting experience since. But first, they discuss the gig economy through the prism of the BBC’s bite-sized comedy, written, directed and performed in by Diane Morgan, Mandy.

In so doing, they are reviving a 2019 practice on the podcast: digging the technology angle out of a TV programme. Last year, the team discussed the Casualty/Holby City crossover episodes, Line of Duty Season 5 (the one with Stephen Graham in it), The Capture and The Circle.

This time round the trio got to a discussion of the gig economy – whether and how it will emerge from the pandemic – via a consideration of Diane Morgan’s gloriously silly new 15 minutes per episode series Mandy.

Though not quite a digital worker (despite dabbling in Airbnb in a later episode), Mandy Carter could plausibly be construed as a figure of the gig economy.


SPOILER ALERT!

In his enthusiasm for Mandy, Brian does say quite a lot about the content of the first episode, so the listener should a) watch the episode first, b) skip this section of the podcast, or c) tolerate any spoilers with insouciance.


Mandy, as played by Diane Morgan, is an unemployed schemer. Each episode is about her trying to find a way to make money or succeed in some other way. In the first one, she gets a job in a banana distribution factory as an “arachnid control operative”. She then goes on to other ventures (enough said).

The humour will not be to everyone’s taste – it’s slapstick and comic-like – but Brian liked some of the lines, including Mandy’s answers to standard interview questions. (Example: “What are your strengths?” “I’m not a grass”). Clare mentions the surfeit of spiders in the first episode as possibly disturbing, and Caroline thinks the company mantra for spider squishing (“one to stun, two to kill, three to make sure”) could be applicable to eliminating software bugs.

After some knockabout chat about the programme, the team moves on to discuss the gig economy. Will it survive the pandemic? Has it, indeed, been bolstered by the pandemic? Time will tell, and no one really knows the answers to such questions. On the one hand, online delivery companies, including food order and delivery companies like JustEat, have taken on more staff, and are increasingly wary of the toxicity of the gig economy as such. On the other, the experience of the pandemic will have put many people off flexible employment. But will the economy recover to deliver more stable, more secure jobs?

Brian, Caroline and Clare then recount their own experiences of precarious employment, from which they have moved on. And, unlike Mandy Carter, they have managed to stick with something, namely the podcast itself, which has kept going through thick and thin. Certainly, last year’s summer special podcast took place under very different circumstances.

Caroline leads off a discussion of what the experience of doing the podcast during the pandemic has been like. We have swapped the noise incursions from construction work near our office into our podcast chamber for a different set of sonic challenges.

Caroline talks amusingly about the difficulties of recording in Zoom over wireless broadband in a way that will resonate with many of our listeners who have been enduring similar experiences. Many will relate to her stories of pets and other family members getting in on the Zoom act. Not to speak of reversing supermarket lorries.

Pods from the “before times”

Brian borrows the phrase “the before times” from US TechTarget colleague Craig Stedman to frame recollections of two episodes – the first one of the new decade and our 50th podcast. Clare also mentions, as a prelude to that, the episode where Hannah Foulds, from the Open Data Institute, walked round the corner to join the team for the podcast. And very welcome she was too.

In Episode 42, published on 14 January, the trio greeted the new decade with reflections on the Travelex ransomware attack and Dominic Cummings’ call for data science to rejuvenate Whitehall. They also took stock of the retail sector’s grim 2019, while remembering to mention the big story of the moment: Harry and Meghan.

Clare spoke on that podcast about how much retail, especially food shopping, was shifting online, and that’s certainly accelerated during the pandemic.

And in Episode 50, published on 10 March, the team were joined by CW production editor Claire Cormack to discuss the Everywoman in Tech Forum, the vulnerability to hacking of smart cameras and baby monitors, and the utility of the traditional annual performance review.

Brian recommends both these episodes, from “the before times”, to give a glimpse of a bygone era when journalists still stocked up on foreign currency for press trips and in-person conferences were still the normal order of the day – whether inspirational ones, like Everywoman in Tech Forum, or the more mundane ones.

As we now sporadically emerge from our locked-down hibernation, still concerned about a possible second wave of the Covid-19 coronavirus, and head into the end of summer, Clare starts to bring the curtain down on the episode with parting gifts for the listeners – or at least some recommendations for things to do as they staycation.

Clare and Caroline entertainingly swap tales of Animal Crossing, from which aficionados of the social simulation game will learn a lot. Caroline’s been island hopping during lockdown. Clare’s had to remake her island, following the breakdown and repair of her Switch. And both are getting more into Fitbit-powered and gamified walking.

Brian’s recommendation is Magpie Lane by Lucy Atkins, a thriller/crime novel with a missing child at the heart of it, set in an Oxford College. So far, so Morse/Lewis/Endeavour you might think. But two of the main characters are a bit like Mandy Carter in a sense, says Brian, as members of the precariat.

For, in Oxford there is a big floating population of people with unfinished doctorates, putting together a gig economy living. This group is, thinks Brian, under-represented among the mass of fictional depictions of Oxford, including those which make the city out to be the murder capital of middle England.

In any case, it is a page-turner that he heartily recommends.

And so, the trio bids listeners goodbye for the (late) summer.

In the meantime, they’d like to thank other CW team members who’ve joined in the podcast so far in 2020: Alex Scroxton, Cliff Saran, Joe O’Halloran, Sebastian Klovig Skelton, Bill Goodwin and Claire Cormack.

A special word of gratitude is due to Jaime Lee Daniels, senior sub-editor on CW, who created the podcast’s artwork.

And the animating spirit that is CW’s Downtime column is never far from the team’s thoughts. Ryan Priest, who is Computer Weekly’s satirist-in-chief, is the author of most of those, has enlivened not a few podcasts, and will be back.

The CW Downtime Upload podcast power trio will return as autumn leaves start to fall ...


Podcast music courtesy of Joseph McDade.

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