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Advances in Tech and What They Mean for You

Leo Laporte talks about advances in tech and what we can expect in the future.

Technology has changed so much over the past few years. New tools and ways to use them are showing up at an unprecedented rate. For those of us who aren’t enthusiasts of fancy tech stuff, it can feel like a lot of these advances only matter to the people who use high-tech gadgets and fiddle with computer code every day. But recent and upcoming advances in tech will also affect how we live our lives every day – hopefully for the better.

See Advances in Everyday Tech with Leo Laporte for a complete transcript of the Easy Prey podcast episode.

Leo Laporte is a broadcaster, author, tech pundit, and podcaster. He merged a career in radio and TV broadcasting with his personal interest in computers and technology to become one of the earliest tech show hosts back in the 1990s. Now, he’s the founder of the TWiT podcast network, which focuses on tech, and he hosts several tech-focused podcasts on the TWiT network.

A Tech Career that Started in Radio

Leo’s road to a career in tech started in college nearly fifty years ago. It wasn’t going well. Leo wasn’t a great student and didn’t like being told what he had to study. His original ambition was to be an actor, but his school didn’t offer acting classes, so he went with a major in Chinese history instead. To pay his way through school, he worked in the dining hall. He did voices while he served food, which, in hindsight, was probably really annoying. People kept telling him to be in radio. Now he understands that they meant, “Go do your silly voices somewhere where people want you to do that.” But at the time, he took it literally.

Leo went down to the small campus radio station and got himself a job there. He worked there during the rest of his schooling and fell in love with radio broadcasting. Eventually he got his FCC Radio Telecommunications Operator Third Class license, which at the time you needed to have to work at a radio station. He remembers back then looking at job ads that required 3-5 years of experience and thinking how hard it would be to get that. Little did he know that he would end up working in radio and similar broadcasting his entire career.

Getting Interested in Computers and Advances in Tech

Leo also had a hobby in computers and tech. He loved the arcade game Battlezone, and used to spend a lot of time at Chuck E. Cheese playing the game. He spent a lot of quarters on it. Eventually he decided there had to be a better way. So he got an Atari 2600 game console and played Battlezone there.

The Atari game console was pretty cool. But Atari also made computers, and Leo thought having one of those would be even cooler. So he got an Atari 400 computer. It had Atari BASIC on it, and Leo started playing around with programs. He later upgraded to the Atari 800, which was basically an Atari clone of the Apple II.

As he got more and more into it, Leo realized that computers and tech were an expensive hobby. He needed to find a way to subsidize it. So he started writing for tech magazines, including now-defunct publications like Byte, InfoWorld, and obscure Atari magazines. It was mostly reviews and smaller stuff, but it was a way to pay for some of the more expensive advances in tech.

Combining Work and Hobby

In the early 1990s, Leo became friends with John C. Dvorak, who was a well-known computer columnist at the time. Together, they started doing a tech-based radio talk show. Over the years, it turned into a full-time call-in computer talk show.

At the time, Leo was working for broadcasting company Ziff Davis. After the success of his technology talk show, Ziff Davis asked him to work on the treatment for a show. Microsoft and NBC, they said, were going to create a channel called MSNBC, and they would need computer programming content. Leo wrote up a treatment and went to NBC headquarters in New York City to pitch it to the executives. They approved it to go on the air.

The show was called The Site, and Leo played a virtual character called Dev Null. But when MSN decided to drop the tech stuff and become a full-time news channel, Ziff Davis decided to do their own 24-hour cable channel about tech, called Tech TV. Paul Allen, one of Microsoft’s founders, bought it in 2001, then sold it to Combast in 2004. Comcast rebranded the channel to focus more on younger audiences. They didn’t cancel Leo’s show, but they fired all the older hosts, including Leo.

Advances in Tech Create a New Channel

Leo had known his time on TV was drawing to a close, so he was ready to jump back into radio. He started a radio show, The Tech Guy, at KFI in Los Angeles. But he was only doing that on the weekends and needed something to keep him busy the rest of the time. The radio executives had given him approval to put his KFI radio show online. In September of 2004, a teenage fan called him and asked, “Are you going to make this a podcast?” Leo responded, “What’s a podcast?”

The fan explained the concept of a podcast – a radio show on the internet with its own RSS feed. Leo decided, why not take advantage of these advances in tech? For a long time, it was just him typing XML into the RSS feed for his The Tech Guy show.

In January 2005, Leo attended the Macworld expo and met up with a bunch of his old TV friends. He invited them to all go to a brew pub, and since he had recording equipment, do a round table-style discussion. That was the very first episode of This Week in Tech, or TWiT. He put it online. And 20,000 people downloaded it.

When 20,000 people downloaded his podcast, Leo realized that advances in tech were a great opportunity.

Leo thought that maybe there was something to this idea. But they all lived in different areas, and phone call quality wasn’t good enough to do a podcast regularly. It wasn’t until a few months later, when someone called into his radio show with great sound quality, where he found out about this tool called Skype. It sounded so good that he thought he might be able to do a podcast that way. And it worked.

Pivot to Podcasting

Leo started a podcast network, which he also called TWiT. It started with just his radio show and the conversations between him and his friends. It grew and got a lot of attention. Eventually Leo realized this might be a business. He started an LLC and started adding shows.

The TWiT podcast network peaked in 2014-2015. Since then, some of their audience has been pulled away into big-name podcasters. Now YouTube stars are really dominant. A lot of podcast networks have gone out of business lately, and Leo wants to avoid that. In a way, it was advances in tech that is saving the TWiT network. Patreon acquired a company called Memberful, which was designed specifically for what TWiT is doing – you can join and pay for a membership, and get a special feed with ad-free versions of the show and other bonuses. TWiT doesn’t have the infrastructure for that, and it’s worth the cut Patreon takes of their profits.

Advances in Tech Change the World of Business

If Leo was starting TWiT today, it would be a different kind of business. In 2004, there was no infrastructure, but he was coming from mainstream media. He figured he was just building a local TV or radio station without the antenna. TWiT had video, a studio, a control board, live streaming capabilities, all the things a small TV station would have. Leo knew what Tech TV cost to run, and TWiT was operating at 1/100th of that budget. Obviously, they would be profitable.

That was true for a long time. Now all their features are overkill. Technology changes incredibly fast. In the old days, you could start a business and you’d have a few decades before what you were doing would be out of touch. Now you have five years, maybe less, before your business practices are out of touch.

You have to be pretty nimble, I think, to continue to succeed in this internet era.

Leo Laporte

For Leo, the medium is the thing. He loves radio and podcasting – they’re both a voice in your ear. But you don’t have to have a tower to do it anymore. The internet is superior. Leo just bought a new car, and it came with a free subscription to XM satellite radio. It’s fine, but when the free subscription runs out, he won’t renew it. He can get the same experience on his phone. And that’s a good metaphor for business. It’s a huge expense up front to set up an XM radio station. But times change so rapidly that you can now do the same thing online for almost nothing. Advances in tech have made this world so different from even a few years ago.

It’s Not Easy Being Online

One of the things that made it difficult for Leo to leave his The Tech Guy radio show was because people were desperate for information. It’s really hard to be a user online these days. If you’re lucky, you have a family member or close friend who’s willing to help. But that support usually wears out pretty quickly.

It’s hard to be a user these days.

Leo Laporte

People are desperate to learn what they need to know about being online. And Leo was on the air six hours a week answering all sorts of questions about tech and answering completely and correctly. He always promised himself that he wouldn’t give answers that he wasn’t sure were accurate. You don’t want to look like an idiot on the air, and that motivated him to keep up with changes and advances in tech. If he didn’t know the answer, he would say so, but then he would go look it up so he’d have an answer next time.

The show also had a chat room it supported for years. Leo always acted like the radio show was a user group, not just one guy with all the answers. Between Leo and the people in the chat room, they could answer almost any question. The real value was in Leo’s ability to explain it in a way that made sense. He never wanted to dumb it down. The callers were smart people, they just weren’t tech experts.

The ultimate goal of the show and now the podcasts are to educate people on tech so they can use it, understand it, and be an active player in their own fate. It’s essential now more than ever.

Online Scammers are Everywhere

A lot of what Leo did, and still does, is helping people stay safe online, particularly against scammers. They’ve become more and more of a problem. The latest is pig butchering. Practically every week, the TWiT network puts out a warning about it. If someone texts you “Hi,” it’s not your friend. If someone texts you and says, “This is Joe, I can’t work my shift tonight, can you cover it?” that’s not an innocent guy with the wrong number. That’s a scammer.

We’re now learning that some people doing these scams are basically slave labor. The scammers kidnap normal people, lock them in a compound, and force them to do pig butchering or other scams all day. They’re not trying to get to know you, and they’re not your friend. Ultimately, they will try to steal money from you, whether that’s with a fake crypto investment or a sob story. But these people are motivated because they’re basically enslaved – they get in trouble if they don’t deliver.

They’re also getting more clever about what they say. Every scam plays on your greed, fear, ignorance, or good-naturedness. If someone texts you, “This is Joe, can you cover my shift?” as a decent person you want to let Joe know he has the wrong number. But scammers take advantage of this to get you in a conversation and manipulate you. Many scams also rely on greed. They promise a great investment that will make you a lot of money, or you’ve won something. Don’t fall for it.

Protecting Yourself from Scams

Many people are ashamed to admit that they fell for a scam. But anyone can fall for a scam and even lose a lot of money. Leo’s ex-wife, for example, once lost $5,000 to a pig butchering scam. She’s a kind, generous, and loving person, which is why scammers get her almost every time. Once, a hacker got into their landscaper’s Yahoo! Mail account. They sent an email claiming to be a young woman who got mugged while traveling in Europe and just needs $1,000 to get home. His ex-wife almost sent it.

It’s easy to fall for this stuff. Leo once encountered a link that looked like a link to Twitter, and when he clicked it, it went to a Twitter login screen. But when he looked closer at the address, it didn’t say “twitter,” it said “tvviter.” If he’d entered his login information, it would have gone to scammers.

One way to avoid this, even if he hadn’t noticed, is two-factor authentication (2FA). Even if the scammers got his password, they wouldn’t have had his 2FA. It’s an annoyance, but it makes a huge difference.

There are advances in tech that protect us. There’s stages you get your loved ones to go through to protect themselves. First, get them to get a password manager and use it. Second, get them to turn on 2FA. If we can get people to do this, little by little, they won’t be scammed for the most part, they’re going to be safer online, and they’ll be less likely to get hacked or have their accounts taken over.

If you can get people to [use password managers and two-factor authentication], they won’t be scammed for the most part. They really are going to be a lot safer online.

Leo Laporte

There’s No Tech Support for the Internet

One of the calls Leo got on the radio all the time was about lost accounts. Lost Facebook accounts, lost Google accounts – sometimes people haven’t just lost their personal accounts, but also their business accounts. It’s a tragedy.

People like to assume companies like Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Apple are normal businesses like the storefront down the street. But they’re not. Leo once had a caller say she lost her Google account, but she found the location of a Google office in her city and went and banged on the door. Nobody answered. Leo had to explain that probably nobody was in that building, and if they were, they were all salespeople who couldn’t help.

For the most part, Google’s tech support is a bit of computer code. There’s no human behind it, and no phone number unless you pay them. We’re so used to free internet, but we forget that nothing is free. Support is expensive – it requires call centers and humans to pick up the phone. Companies aren’t going to pay for all the infrastructure of support when you’re not paying for their product.

We’re so used to free internet. We forget that nothing’s free. One of the things you give up with a free service is support.

Leo Laporte

That’s hard for people to accept. If your account was compromised, clearly something bad happened. But you have very little recourse. The big companies don’t provide support or sympathy if you lose your account. In fact, there’s probably something in the small print saying they’re not responsible at all. People called about it the whole nineteen years Leo did the radio show, and it was always difficult.

Advances in AI Tech

Leo was skeptical about AI for a long time. It scould generate reasonable text, but it wasn’t intelligent. Increasingly, though, we’re getting closer to a time when it is. Those advances in AI tech will also enable scammers because they won’t need slave farms anymore. The scams probably won’t increase in quality, but they’ll definitely increase in number.

Earlier we mentioned how quickly the business cycle turns in the internet era. Advances in AI tech will speed that up even faster. Not too long ago Sports Illustrated created a bunch of AI “authors” to write for their website and promote content. After someone called them on on it, the content was removed. But we’re going to see more of that.

Advances in tech will improve AI technology and we'll see it used more.

At some point, we’ll also have competent AI assistants. ChatGPT now has a feature where you can create your own GPT. If you’re an auto mechanic, for example, you have a huge shelf full of auto manuals. Normally, you’d have to thumb through them to find your answer. But if you put all of the manuals into a GPT, then you can just ask the AI. Leo created one for a programming language. Instead of looking through books, he fed in all the books he used and now can ask the AI to find what he needs and give him a competent paragraph about it.

We’re about to enter the app store era for AI.

Leo Laporte

When the app store happened, it was a huge advancement in tech. It created a new multi-billion dollar economy and changed how we used computers. The same explosion is going to happen in the next few years with AI apps. Whether on your phone, your TV, or your car, you’ll have a knowledgeable personal assistant who can help you in real ways.

Privacy versus Convenience

Leo is a privacy advocate. But at the same time, if you are able and willing to give up some of your privacy, there are some real benefits you can get from it. Leo does give up some of his privacy for the benefits. It will be an interesting debate over the next few years – do you want AI to be useful, or do you want to be completely private? Those of us willing to give up our privacy might get access to some really useful tools.

One such tool is the Humane Pin, which records conversations. While Leo was having a conversation with two of his friends, one of them asked to record with his Humane Pin. When they all agreed, he recorded it. At the end of the conversation, they had a neat synopsis of their discussion and a list of action items. It was done in a minute or two at low cost.

But of course there are privacy concerns. Advances in tech let us now record every conversation. Should we? It’s an interesting question. It would be great for meetings where everyone has a greed to be recorded. But in real life, it’s more complicated.

If you ask most people if they want privacy, they say yes. But in practice, most people just want a small amount. They’re okay with some stuff being public, especially if letting some things be exposed provides benefits. It’s your right to choose privacy. But there will be a price – these tools won’t work as well as you’d like.

We Live in Interesting Technological Times

What we have now is dramatically ahead of what tech could do when Leo first started podcasting. It blows him away all the time. His first broadband connection was an ISDN line – it was very complicated and needed a lot of expensive equipment. It was barely faster than a 56k dial-up modem, but it felt like living in the space age.

Now people have amazing bandwidth that we completely take for granted. We have devices with more computing power than most of the first home computers that we carry around in our pockets and wear on our wrists. Our cars, refrigerators, light bulbs, and all sorts of home devices can be controlled with apps on our phones. Advances in tech have come so far. The next thing is AI, and it’s going to be a wild ride.

The best way to learn more about Leo Laporte and This Week in Tech (TWiT) is just to Google it. They’re the second result, right after a the dictionary definition of a silly, annoying person.

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