Interview with Bill Thompson, technology columnist for the BBC – Part I

5 Mar

While technology has become an important part of our social, economic and political life, most analysis about technology remains woefully inadequate, limited to singing paeans about Apple and Google, and occasional rote articles about security and privacy issues. It is to this news market full of haberdasher opionating that Mr. Bill Thompson brings his considerable intellect and analytical skills every week for his column on technology for the BBC.

To those unfamiliar with his articles, Mr. Bill Thompson is a respected technology guru and a distinguished commentator on technology and copyright issues for the BBC. Mr. Thompson’s calm moderated erudition of technology comes from his extensive experience in the IT industry in varying capacities and a childhood that he spent without computers. “I was born in 1960. So I grew up before there were computers around. Indeed, I never touched one at school.” It was not until his third year at Cambridge University when he was running experiments in Psychology that he first touched a computer. He says that in many ways his first experiences with computers formed his mindset about computers. And that view—computers are there to perform a useful function—has stayed with him for over 25 years.

Mr. Thompson went on to get a Master’s level diploma in Computer Science from Cambridge University in 1983. After graduating from Cambridge, he joined a small computer firm and then quit it to join Acorn Computers Limited, creators of the successful BBC Micro., as a database consultant. He left the enterprise because “they wanted to promote me” and joined as a courseware developer with Instruction Set. After a stint with PIPEX, he found himself running Guardian’s New Media division a decade or so ago when the Internet was still in its infancy. After working for a few years managing Guardian’s online site, Mr. Thompson left to pursue writing and commenting full time. It is there in the field writing and providing astute analysis on technology-related issues that Mr. Thompson finds himself today.

I interviewed Mr. Thompson via Skype about a month ago. The interview covered a wide range of issues and given the diversity of issues covered I have chosen to put an edited transcript of the interview rather than an essay styled thematic story. Here’s an edited (both style and content) transcript of the interview.

The technology opinion marketplace seems to be split between technology evangelists and Luddites. Your writing, on the other hand, manifests a broad range of experience; it reflects moderated enthusiasm about what computers can do. I find it an astute and yet optimistic account.

I am fundamentally optimistic about the possibilities of this technology that we have invented to both make the world a better place and to help us recover from some of the mistakes of the past and make better decisions as a species, not just as a society, in the future. It informs my writing. It informs as well the things that I am interested in and the areas that I want to explore.

Our relationship with machines was once fraught with incomprehension and fear. Machines epitomized the large mechanized state and its dominance over the natural world. There was a spate of movies somewhere in the 70s when refrigerators and microwaves ‘rose up’ to attack us. Over the past decade or so, our relationship has transformed to such a degree that we not only rely on fairly sophisticated machines to do our daily chores, we look at machines as a way to achieve utopian ideals. Dr. Fred Turner, professor of Communication at Stanford, in “From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism” traces this rise of digital utopianism to American counterculture. How do you think the relationship evolved?

The way you phrase the question leads me to think that perhaps it was the exaggerated claims of Artificial Intelligence community that led people to worry that computers would reach the point at which they would take over. And the complete failure of AI to deliver on any its promises has led us to a more phlegmatic and accepting attitude, which is that these are just machines; we don’t know how to make them clever enough to threaten us, and therefore we can just get on with using them.

The fact is known that Skynet is not going to launch nuclear weapons at us in a Terminator world and so we can then focus on the fact that the essential humanity of the Terminator itself, certainly in the second and third movies, is a source of redemption. We can actually feel positive about the machines instead of negative about them.

When you have a computer that is around, that crashes constantly, that is infected with viruses and malware, that doesn’t do what is supposed to do and stuff like that, you are not afraid of it. You are irritated by it. And you treat it as you would a recalcitrant child that you might love and care for and that has some value but is certainly not something that is going to threaten you. And then we can use the machines. That then actually allows us to focus on what you call the Utopian or altruistic aspects. It allows us to focus on machines in a much broader context, which recognizes that human agency is behind it.

The dystopian stories rely on machines getting out of control but in fact, we live in a world in which the machines are being used negatively by people, by governments, by corporations, and by individuals. The failure to have AI allows us to accept that – to reject the systems they have built without rejecting the machines themselves.

And for those who actually believe that information and communication technologies are quite positive – (it allows us) to focus on what could be done for good instead of just dismissing all of the technology as being bad. It allows us to take a much more complex and nuanced point of view.

You make an excellent point. I see where you are coming from.

In a sense, it is where I am coming from and which is—I am a liberal humanist atheist. I believe we make this world and we have the potential to make it better, and the technologies we invent should be part of that process.

Just as I am politically socialist, I believe in equality of opportunity and social justice and all those things [similarly] I have a humanist approach to technology which is that what we have made we can make ‘do good’ for us.