Freedom’s Just Another Word for Something Left to Edit

I gave a talk at Wikimania 2014 in the Democratic Media strand. These are my speaking notes – what I said was different, but roughly aligned with this.

BBC Protest
BBC Protest


I’m part of the Democratic Media Strand, with a bunch of people whose work I’ve known and admired for many years. Heather Ford from the OII, Dan Gillmor, Carl Miller from Demos, Ryan Merkley from Creative Commons – here with us – and of course my old friend Danny O’Brien from EFF – twenty years ago Danny did a standup show called ‘Caught in the Net’ at the Edinburgh Fringe, and I sponsored it, and it was the start of a beautiful friendship1.

I’m also here to talk about ‘freedom’, and we’ll be discussions the freedoms that Creative Commons licences offer, as well as the nature of trust online, with Ryan and Luis exploring the ways we engage with each other and what could change for the better.

Continue reading “Freedom’s Just Another Word for Something Left to Edit”

Don’t Mind Digital: talking at #digiconf14

This morning I spoke at the Publishing for Digital Minds conference which precedes the London Book Fair. These are my speaking notes.

Don’t Mind Digital


I want to start by pointing out something that we all know but too often choose to deny:

Words in a particular order are very powerful.

They remain the primary machine we have for moving ideas around.

The things we do with them are astonishing.

We have constructed industries, ideologies, religions, careers and scientific theories on the back of them.

Once, the words were simply spoken, but their power was enormously enhanced when we found ways to capture them.

Writing is the most significant invention since fire, and the transformative power of the alphabet cannot be underestimated.

Writing matters so much that we deliberately reshape the brain function of every child in order to make them literate, because unlike language, reading and writing are not hard-coded into the neural organisation of our species.

Words matter.


So far, so good.

Continue reading “Don’t Mind Digital: talking at #digiconf14”

It was twenty years ago in May…

In May 1994 I attended WWW’94,  the inaugural World Wide Web conference at CERN, outside Geneva.

I reported on the conference on Lynx, the online magazine established by Tony Jewell and Bernard Jauregui at Cityscape, their ground-breaking ISP. Lynx, and Cityscape, are long gone but I’ve found the articles cached on the Wayback Machine and here they are:

The Announcement


To launch ‘The Lynx’ magazine, the latest CityScape/Global On-Line project, our first issue is a special on the WWW ’94 conference in CERN.

At no expense spared we have sent Bill Thompson, our roving reporter, to sunny Switzerland to give us the latest, up to date, inside views of what is happening at this important event.

The Lynx is an attempt to see if a real magazine can be published on the World Wide Web on a regular basis. The magazine will cover the more alternative sides of the Web and the Internet, and we hope to be amusing, informative, and slightly anarchic …

We need your articles and columns to make sure this magazine works, and in return we will carry full resumes and CVs of anyone that works with us. The magazine is run from the Global On-Line server in Cambridge, UK, one of Europes largest commercial servers, with nearly a quarter of a million access a month, so we hope to get considerable publicity for this venture.


Tony Jewell

Continue reading “It was twenty years ago in May…”

Oxygen Lecture: Maker Culture 2/2

As promised here’s the text of the talk I gave at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design, University of Dundee.  It is part of the Oxygen Lecture Series, organised by the University of East Anglia to address subjects – from digital technology to the environment – of critical contemporary relevance to society at venues in London and Scotland.

Commissioned by Creative Scotland, the series has been put together by Ian Chance, director of the MA in Creative Entrepreneurship at UEA London, the university’s London centre.

Here’s the text of the first lecture – it’s long. There will be a video available at some point.

Continue reading “Oxygen Lecture: Maker Culture 2/2”

Oxygen Lecture: Maker Culture 1/2

Yesterday and today I’m giving talks about Makers and Maker Culture, one at UEA’s London campus and one at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design, University of Dundee.  They are the first of the Oxygen Lecture Series, organised by the University of East Anglia to address subjects – from digital technology to the environment – of critical contemporary relevance to society at venues in London and Scotland.

Commissioned by Creative Scotland, the series has been put together by Ian Chance, director of the MA in Creative Entrepreneurship at UEA London, the university’s London centre.

Here’s the text of the first lecture – it’s long. There will be a video available at some point.

I’ll post the text of today’s lecture soon.

“Don’t touch that or you might fix it”: The Emerging Maker Ethic

Part 1: Oxygenation

[Slide: primordial earth ]

These two lectures will explore Maker culture and its impact on culture and society more generally.

Oxygenation: how maker culture came to be

Respiration: how to work in a world of makers

The titles of the two lectures reflect a major change in the Earth’s biosphere called The Great Oxygenation Event (GOE) (also known as the Oxygen Catastrophe or Oxygen Crisis or Great Oxidation),  the biologically induced appearance of free oxygen in Earth’s atmosphere, after which living organism could use it to drive respiration, the chemical reactions that are the basis of life[1].

Geological, isotopic, and chemical evidence suggest this major environmental change happened around 2.4 billion years ago. The emergence of free oxygen shaped the consequent evolution of all life and has given us the world we know today, just as the emergence of information and communications technologies based around electronic circuits has shaped the modern world.

[Slide: Arduino ]

The first lecture will consider how we got here, looking at the history of technology, the emergence of hacker culture and open systems, the development of computers and the internet, and the ways culture, society and the economy have adapted to and influenced these developments, ending with the emergence of maker culture as a response to the plethora of electronic devices in daily life.

[Slide: 3D Bill ]

The second will consider where we go from here, and the potential significance of faster, pervasive networks, mobile devices, 3D printing, sensor networks and other new technologies, touching on the movements to teach all children how to code, on issues around copyrights and patents, and on the ways artists and cultural organisations use – or could use -the new tools.

Continue reading “Oxygen Lecture: Maker Culture 1/2”

iGuffins in an Ideal World

Earlier today I took part in a panel discussion at Watford Palace Theatre – where they serve illy coffee, I’m pleased to report – as part of the Ideal World season  for which the theatre worked with CRASSH – the Cambridge Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities. The theatre commissioned three plays on technology and its impact on human life and we were there to discuss some of the wider implications.

You can still catch the plays – Perfect Match, Override and Virgin.

Perfect Macht

Perfect Match

I got there in time to watch the afternoon performance of Perfect Match, the plot of which hinges on the idea that an algorithm with full access to your entire social media profile could find your ‘perfect match’ and that this could be life-changing. I don’t want to review the play here but I will note that throughout the play there was no real questioning of the algorithm itself, perhaps making it more of a plot device than a fully-rounded examination of contemporary technology – an iGuffin, perhaps.

[an iGuffin, like a MacGuffin, is an object of power or desire used to propel a plot which in the end turns out to be either unimportant or simply an empty vessel. An iGuffin is a technology that serves as a MacGuffin]

Out of Body

As for the panel, the question posed was whether we are having ‘a collective out of body experience’ and we were asked to consider the role of the technologies as pulling us out of the moment and ask if it is important to live life increasingly in an embodied state.

Using the theatrical performance as the analogy, we ask if there needs to be co-presence to full engage with others, or in fact if it is possible to have social interactions with others in an increasingly disembodied way.

The organiser was Dr Kathleen Richardson and she asked specifically what we each felt the consequences are for these technologies/robots that seem to be pulling us out of the moment and locality and into the virtual world and encouraging us to have more interactions with machines.

These are my notes, which I suspect betray more about my views of those who believe that consciousness and the body can somehow be separated than the use of technology in theatre. I’ve tidied them up a little but as you read them you’ll get the right authorial tone of you imagine me coffee fuelled in an upstairs room behind a long table trying to be entertaining at 4pm on a wet Friday in Watford.

Continue reading “iGuffins in an Ideal World”

The final brick in the wall of the security state?

I don’t have a problem with sending journalists to gaol.

Sometimes we break the law, and sometimes we do it in ways that are not defensible as being in the public interest, or for reasons that are not related to our journalism. I also think it’s okay for the police to detain and question journalists, as they may anyone else. I work on the assumption that we should all, as citizens, respect the rule of law and act within legal constraints – a big part of any journalist’s training covers legal issues around contempt, defamation, confidentiality and copyright.

I don’t even want special protection under the law as a ‘journalist’ because then someone has to decide who counts as one, and as we’ve seen in the UK with the debate over the Leveson inquiry, that quickly ends up with some sort of state-approved licensing mechanism which none of us would find acceptable.

Continue reading “The final brick in the wall of the security state?”

The State of the Intersection: my #opentech talk

At Opentech 2013 today I gave a talk about the ‘State of the Intersection’ as part of a wider debate about the value of open data with Gavin Starks from the ODI.

This is the text I wrote beforehand, and which I used as the basis for my talk. But as ever, what I said will have differed from this..

The State of the Intersection

25 mins for OpenTech 2013

Bill Thompson

We live in a liminal space, between the real and the virtual, and neither its scope nor its characteristics are determined or well-understood.

Rather than discuss the state of the union, I want to consider what is happening in this intersection.

And in so doing I propose to suggest that we take the politics of our current situation more seriously than we have done so far, because if we don’t we are in danger of being useful idiots in the cast list of the next iteration of global capitalism.

The Compulsory Opening Quotation

Courtesy of John Naughton I was alerted to this comment from John Carey regarding his view of the Internet1 Carey, a professor of English at Oxford, wrote in his review of Richard Holmes’s history of ballooning:

Ballooning was a dream that failed and the lesson of Holmes’s story is that an invention that seemed to promise democracy and universal brotherhood became merely another means for humanity to exhibit its insatiable appetite for triviality and destruction. Perhaps the nearest modern parallel will turn out to be the Internet.

The triviality doesn’t bother me too much – I’m as fond of kittens as anyone here. But the destruction seems like a real danger, not least because the principles on which the Internet is founded leave us open to exploitation and appropriation by those who see openness as an opportunity to take without paying – the venture capitalists, startups and big tech companies who have built their empires in the commons and argue that their right to build fences and walls is just another aspect of ‘openness’.

Continue reading “The State of the Intersection: my #opentech talk”