my life as a new media dog
By Bill Thompson
November 2002 |-> September 2005
WHO AM I?
I live and work in Cambridge. I have been a self-employed hack and pundit since leaving The Guardian in 1996. I do stuff, like write for magazines, newspapers and Websites, appear on radio and TV, speak at conferences and seminars and think about the way the network is changing the world. I get involved in politics, and was for a time embarrassingly close to New Labour.
I have two children who show me a lot and help me understand how uninteresting most of the technology is until it is being used by people who don’t notice it.
This is my story.
I was born in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, and lived in Jarrow until age four, when my family moved to Corby, a steel town in Northamptonshire. I left there age 19 to do a degree at Cambridge University, and stayed in Cambridge.
I first touched a computer in December 1981. I was in the third year of my undergraduate degree and, after two years of Philosophy, was doing Experimental Psychology. As a philosopher I had been particularly interested in philosophy of mind, and doing psychology seemed to me a good way to get a deeper understanding of how one sort of mind – human – worked.
Instead I ended up seeking insight into pigeon epistemology. For my experimental work I was trying to condition pigeons to peck a red button for food, looking for evidence that other pigeons could notice what was going on and learn through observation. I found no evidence that they could, but I doubt my protocol was actually well thought through, so I would not draw any conclusions about pigeon intelligence from my dodgy undergraduate work.
The experimental rig was controlled by a computer – an Acorn Atom – which was programmed using a version of the BASIC language called ONLI-BASIC. Not only that, but the dozen or so Atoms in the labs were networked together – the prototype of what later became the Acorn Econet network had been installed on the top floor of the Psychology building by the company as a test site.
My first experience of computers, then, was programming a real-world application in a networked environment, over a year before the Internet was called into existence from the icy wastes of the Network Control Protocol by Doug Licklider and his staff of power (also known as the ARPA team).
I was privileged, but knew too little to appreciate it. Just as those who do not understand computers will never admire the CGI expertise that produced Star Wars or Shrek, so those who have never realised that computer networks are hard will not be impressed by the Net. We may, however, find our lives transformed by the technology while we are not looking.
In September 1984, three years after my first contact with a keyboard, I began a graduate course in Computer Science. The Diploma in Computer Science was the world’s first taught qualification in computing, founded in 1953, and provided me with a theoretical introduction to these strange machines and the way they work that has been absolutely central to my use and understanding of them since.
Thanks to the Diploma I know that Chomsky’s hierarchy of formal languages is vital in designing programming languages so that they can be compiled..
I know how simple switches – flipflops – can be combined to make logic gates, and that the XOR function is at the heart of binary logic and all today’s computers.
I know what an operating system kernel must do, how indirection solves most problems and why an address space should be linear.
This seems to matter, because I have found again and again that knowing how this stuff works all the way down has enabled me to appreciate the significance (or lack of significance) of new technologies and new developments a lot faster than other people.
As a result my writing and theorising about the state of the network is informed by an appreciation of what is really going on, so when someone tells me that the Internet is ‘essentially ungovernable’ I think about the detailed requirements of the Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) and wonder about the emergent properties of this network, that can build such chaos on top of this precise mathematical order.
The Diploma has also given me the ability to get in and do stuff – when I was head of new media at The Guardian, for example (to jump ahead slightly) I was also coding the dynamic website we built for Top Marques magazine, configuring the DNS for our bit of the network and installing the CERN Web server. Again, this gave me an insight into what was really happening as the Web was growing, an appreciation of the technological limits on our ambition and an idea of how to get around them.
During the Diploma course I found myself using networked computers again – this time they were part of a processor bank on the Cambridge Ring network that circled the university. I had access to the Joint Academic Network (JANET) which was itself linked to the Internet, so that my email could pass over it and I could copy files from remote locations.
Our email addresses looked different – mine was firstname.lastname@example.org – but our connectivity was in place and we used it. However there was no sense at the time that this was unusual or special – it was just something that these computers did. I was – again – privileged but unaware of just how unusual network access was at that time.
Later, after two years working for a local software house writing a database management system in C to run on UNIX systems – the IT equivalent of being ‘made’ in the Mafia – I began working at Acorn Computers, developing their internal systems and working with the team building RISCOS and the ARM microprocessor. Inside the company we had both Ethernet and Econet networks, and a connection to the Internet via the Computer Labs because we were working on EU-funded research into natural language processing.
It was geek heaven. And I was a happy and contented geek.
Yet even then the network did not seem to me at that time to be either special or particularly interesting. So we could look at each other’s hard drives over the local network, send email to people around the world, read all of the postings to USENET each day instead of working, and search for and transfer files using FTP. This was not, in itself, transforming, and it stretched neither our understanding of computing nor our operational practice. It was simply there, and we used it.
Like my nine-year old son with his Samsung T-100 phone, complete with colour screen, polyphonic ring tones and picture messaging, I was not impressed because the technology was part of the given, an ordinary aspect of the world and not worthy of note. It was there and it was used – end of story.
Having been a student journalist while at University, I carried on writing even while working in the computing industry. During the 1980’s I was writing a column for Computing magazine, stringing for the New Statesman and writing and distributing politically charged newsletters for the Cambridge Nicaragua Solidarity Campaign, Men Against Sexism and a variety of feminist/anti-sexist groups.
The three aspects of my life – programming/systems administration, writing/journalism and philosophy – have, it can reasonably be asserted, dominated my professional, intellectual and personal life since:
Professionally I have moved from the computing industry, via newspapers to being a freelance writer and sometime consultant. Personally, my ex-wife is a social psychologist; my girlfriend is a technical writer who also writes children’s non-fiction books; my daughter built her first Website when she was 4; and my son is a budding games developer and film-maker. And I am rarely off-line.
I find myself writing about and doing new media because two separate threads of my life came together. In the mid 1990’s I was writing regularly for Guardian Online at the same time as I was working for the UK’s main Internet Service Provider, PIPEX.
It seemed natural that I should write about the stuff I was working on – the Internet and the Web. And as I wrote more about the Net the fact that I had been ‘online’ in some way since 1984 informed my writing and, I hope, kept me from falling for the exaggeration and hyperbole which so many others espoused.
I had begun writing for Computer Guardian (as it then was) in 1988 when Jack Schofield published an article of mine on the Community Computing Network. I had joined CCN shortly before, and was heavily involved in its project of using new technology (as we then rather quaintly called it) in the voluntary and charitable world. I have continued to write for The Guardian over the years, and still do the occasional piece for them.
I was an organiser of the second CCN national conference, which took place in Edinburgh in October 1998. I produced the proceedings but, more importantly, it was the first time I joined a fully-fledged online community.
Along with CCN I had joined GeoNet, an early computer network that provided email, file transfer/sharing and access to online databases via a host computer based in London. Access to GeoNet was through a dialup network called PSS – the Packet Switch Service – provided by British Telecom. This used the X.25 protocol and allowed a terminal to exchange data with a host. The applications on the host determined what service was provided.
Using GeoNet we organised the conference with a minimum of real-world meetings. Via email and document exchange we did all the administrative work, including the submission of material for the proceedings.
At the time – and since – it did not seem special or unusual that we should do this. The first time I got online with GeoNet I was excited because I had made the technology (a 1200/75 modem plugged into my BBC Model B microcomputer) work, but the idea of being ‘online’ was not itself radical or world-changing.
As an early adopter – often at the bleeding edge rather than the leading edge – this seems to me to be characteristic. The things we are doing are not exciting per se; we are not out to change the world – we are just doing stuff. Cool stuff, if we can, but just stuff.
One of the effects of this was that I was not aware of the Internet as a phenomenon – rather than as a communications medium, useful for transporting emails, hosting USENET and copying files around – until quite late in the day. From 1990 to 1993 I worked for an IT training company called ‘The Instruction Set’, teaching C programming, database systems and Unix. I was courseware manager and commissioned a course on Unix networking which covered TCP/IP and included details on how to program network applications which would talk over the Internet. We used email and file transfer extensively – the Net was just part of the working practice for the company, but it was not a social phenomenon, it was only a technology.
In mid 93 I moved to work for PIPEX, the UK’s first commercial Internet Service Provider – based in Cambridge – and it was then that I began to see what was going on and exactly how the Net was going to change the world.
In late 93 – I think it was December – my colleague Richard Smith called me over to a demo computer to show me something he had just downloaded and installed. It was a program called Mosaic, then at release 0.7, and using it one could look at content from other Internet-connected computers using something called, rather self-aggrandizingly, the World Wide Web.
Richard showed me the What’s New on Mosaic page. He showed me the NCSA home page, complete with pictures and a sound file of Marc Andreesen, one of the programmers on the Mosaic team, welcoming us all. He showed me an exhibition of works from the Vatican Library, put up by the US Library of Congress, complete with pictures and links to pages of more information.
After about 30 minutes we sat down to talk. We both knew that this was going to change the world, by giving people a reason to put content on the Internet and an easy way to get hold of the content others had put up. By the end of the week we had shown the Web to all of the two hundred or so people who worked for PIPEX.
In the early months of 1994 I built my first Website, for the ‘Computer College’, the training division of the company.
In March 1994 I did the world’s first Webcast from the ICA, putting the debate which took place at the launch of the book ‘Imagologies’ live onto the Web, with a transcription of the debate, audio files of selected highlights and a MOO version of the ICA where online visitors could meet and put questions which were then read out in the ‘real’ Nash Room.
In May 1994 I attended the first World Wide Web conference at CERN in Geneva, where I met Tim Berners-Lee, Robert Cailliau, Brian Behlendorf and many others [five minutes on Google will convince you of how significant these people are]. I wrote a twice-daily report on the conference, which was posted onto the Web within an hour or so of being written – it was a primitive Weblog. It also got the attention of the editor of the newly-launched .Net magazine and I was invited to write a monthly column for them.
In June 1994 I built a Website for Anne Campbell, MP for Cambridge. It was the first Website for an elected representative in Europe.
In September 1994 I created the FringeWeb, a Website for the Edinburgh Fringe. It included the complete listings (given to me by Stuart Buchanan who worked in the office), and the reviews from The Guardian and The Observer, live each morning, often before people got the newspaper delivered. It had a public reviews section – an early blogging/journal tool. And for one week we created a cybercafe in the courtyard of the Pleasance, the first in the UK.
In November 1994 I ran the online elements of Neville Brody’s Fuse ’94, a conference for graphic designers and typographers at the Royal College of Arts.
At Christmas 1994 my daughter Lili (then three) and I built our first family XmasWeb, a tradition which continues.
And in early 1995 Tony Ageh of The Guardian suggested I join them there full-time to do Web stuff, having already made The Guardian the first UK national paper with any online content. In January 1996 Tony left to go to Virgin and I became head of the New Media Lab. I stayed until September 1996, having seen the successful launch of The Guardian site, The Observer site, GO2 (Guardian Online online), Top Marques online and the phenomenally wonderful Eurosoccer.com, covering Euro ’96.
At The Guardian we were convinced we could change the world of newspapers, We were playing around with design, navigation, content and approach, looking for ways to take the printed newspaper online while preserving the values and attitude that made it work: we were all about brand extension, not about being an income-generating business unit. This gave us a freedom that others could only marvel at – when Vauxhall gave us £250,000 to build a Website for the Euro ’96 tournament I spent all of it on the best site in the world, drawing the wrath of my director, Stella Beaumont.
But I was right – the point was to spend the money and do something great, not feed 10% to The Guardian. Two years later, at the time of the World Cup in France, eurosoccer.com was still the benchmark for how to do a major sporting event on the Web.
I left The Guardian for many reasons, not least being the tension between the newsroom and its journalists and the Web team under my direction. Since leaving I can’t understand why I stayed as long as I did. My successor, Robin Hunt, lasted a matter of months. His successor, Ian Katz, threw away all the Guardian had learned, and it was left to Simon Waldman and Emily Bell to turn the experiment into a viable, brand-building proposition.
I still write for OnLine from time to time, but I have no direct involvement in the Unlimited strategy or the development of the site. Since then I’ve designed (the architecture, not the look and feel) a number of sites, run a few and written for lots.
I have watched the Net grow and the Web flourish, offered my views and had some influence, and seen the worst excesses of the feeding frenzy around the dotcoms, leaving us nothing but some pink-stained water. I did not grow rich, but I watched with interest as many friends were briefly wealthy, and saw some keep enough of the money for them to count as comfortable. I had my moments of schadenfreude, most publicly when boo.com went out of business. I also had moments of sadness when friends on technology magazines were made redundant or companies I valued or had worked with went out of business.
I watched new media come. And now I want to watch it go: this year I persuaded City University to change the name of the course I teach on their Journalism Masters from ‘New Media Technologies’ to ‘Online Journalism’, because I think that the term is no longer useful.
I appear on various radio and TV programmes, write for occasional magazines and newspapers, and am trying to shift the direction of public policy as regards the Net. I even build Websites – bill.verity-networks.com/eworld/ is a good example of a data-driven site with a graphical interface that I put together recently.
I still like to code – the latest one was written in PHP – demonstrating yet again that being a programmer is like being an alcoholic. You try to avoid writing code, but you have to take it one day at a time, and you can easily fall off the wagon. I’d managed six months before this latest site.
And yet, despite all that we have achieved none of the technology has surprised or excited me as much as that first demonstration of the Web, nine years ago.
Partly this is because most of what happens on the Net is not amazing as computer science, partly it is because the Web in 1993 was a truly disruptive technology and it was so obviously going to change the world: everything since then has been a working out of the implications of that original understanding.
We await the next disruption – I just hope I recognise it when it arrives.