The Secret Genius of Modern Life review – irresistibly contagious TV

Prof Hannah Fry is a joy, and will make you deeply excited about the weirdest things – like the magnetic strip on the back of your bank card

Prof Hannah Fry brings her irresistible enthusiasm to the BBC for The Secret Genius of Modern Life (BBC Two), a documentary series about the seemingly simple everyday objects or ideas that we tend to take for granted, and how clever they really are. Fry, a mathematician by trade, who hosts podcasts, writes books and adds weekly cheer to Lauren Laverne’s morning show on 6 Music, is a host who is winningly awestruck at the facts she uncovers and the experiments she conducts. Her interest in finding out everything about everything is hugely contagious.

In this first episode, she looks at the humble bank card, though naturally, it turns out to be not so humble after all. There is a lovely brisk pace to the show, which takes in history, science and technology, tracing as many elements as possible back to their roots. It begins with the Fresno Drop, in 1958, in which the Bank of America introduced a credit card to its suspicious customers and kickstarted a technological revolution. It whizzes through the introduction of the magnetic strip, via an acronym-friendly segment on how the CIA worked with IBM on inventing a new form of ID, and follows the money through to online shopping, chip and pin, contactless and what a biometric future may look like.

There is no discussion of money and commerce without discussion of fraud, and this covers that, too. A reformed “skimmer” of credit cards, named Tony, cheerfully recounts how easy it was to clone cards back in the day; as to how much he made, he has “no comment”. (A stint in prison led him to see the light and he now advises businesses on how to stay safe from fraud.) More frightening is the AI technology that randomly generates numbers in the hope that it will get a precise match of card number, expiry date and CVV, at a terrifying speed.

There are plenty of experiments, from using iron filings to show what data a magnetic strip contains, to attempts to recreate a cold war-era bug that lived inside a carved wooden replica of the Great Seal of the US. At times, it goes a bit Adam Curtis, using archive footage and freeze-frames to bring in the Russian gulags, the CIA, and a French inventor obsessed with signet rings. It’s as if Curtis were trying to make an episode of Inside the Factory.

Earlier this year, the pop star Taylor Swift delivered a commencement speech at New York University in which she argued against the “false stigma around eagerness” and advocated for not hiding your enthusiasm for things. This series is a joyful demonstration of how great eagerness can be, celebrating everything from how magnetic tape is attached to plastic to the dissolution of a bank card in acetate to find out what’s left behind and whether its skeletal remains still work. “Look at that, it’s like a spider! Wow!” says Fry, as she holds a microchip and some delicate wires with some tweezers. You should see her face when she tries to buy a coffee with it.

There are members of my family who insist that cash is king and find nothing more infuriating than a car park that only accepts payments via a phone app; this programme may make them despair at a future in which even cards are obsolete and we’re all using our faces or fingerprints to pay for 30 minutes of parking in the town centre. But I love finding out exactly how the inventor of the theremin is tied to the last time I bought a round, and how the porn industry ushered in the online shopping revolution and how the little things are nowhere near as little as they first appear to be.


Rebecca Nicholson

The GuardianTramp

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