In Conversation with: Bill Thompson

What do you get when you mix Philosophy, Applied Psychology, AI, Political activism and Unix programming with the Web?

In conversation this time is well-known BBC journalist, author and technology pundit Bill Thompson, who is surely an obvious candidate for the titles of both renaissance man and Web Scientist – he recently joined the board of Trustees at WST and we are delighted to welcome him. Ian Brown sat down to find out a little more about Bill’s road from Philosophy to Web Science and why he has been “thinking about the way the network is changing the world”.

Ian: Bill, you left Cambridge with a degree in Philosophy (with a side interest in Experimental Psychology) and decided to stay in Cambridge (post grad) to take a Diploma in Computer Science – how did that mix of disciplines shape your thinking?

Bill: I had initially been interested in the philosophy of mind and, from there, to how minds work (psychologically) and then whether it might be possible to build minds (machines that sense and think) using neural networks and artificial vision. From there I became interested in human-computer interaction and started to think more about how to build machines that might amplify our own minds.

Ian: What was the state of the tools available at that time to tackle those goals?

Bill: Well the technologies were starting to emerge – I joined Acorn just as someone was saying “what if we did something different and created a RISC processor..?” which was pretty interesting. As I moved through roles at Pipex and The Instruction Set I learnt more about programming, databases and networking and I attended the very first WWW Conference meeting Tim Berners-Lee (one of WST’s founders) in the process. Looking back I was on the periphery of some very interesting projects and impressive characters in AI and the Web throughout much of my education and early career.

Ian: Did you have a sense back then of how important these technologies were going to be and did you have a feeling whether the people were driving the technology or vice versa?

Bill: I think my views came together slowly over a decade between ‘84-‘94 culminating in helping to run a national body called the Community Computing Network through a growing sense of what computers could do for society and the social and political impact of technology. We wanted to help people see computing for what it could do socially as well as technically.

I think there was a sense of anticipation that technology could level the playing field between big businesses (or even oppressive states) and the rest of us – we were telling charities to embrace the same computing technologies as the big players with our slogan “If it can do it for them – it can do it for you! “. We realised we had to consider how technology is applied and not only the tools themselves. We wanted people to get engaged in owning/shaping their technologies for better social outcomes.

Whilst I had initially developed my thinking in the HCI world, I started to run into people (including Nigel Shadbolt – a fellow WST trustee) talking about Web Science – an approach that seemed to crystallise many of the things I had been thinking about in terms of interdisciplinary boundaries and adaptive models to describe fluid conditions and new technologies – in effect “thinking about the way the network is changing the world”.

Ian: I typically ask my “In conversation” guests which part(s) of Web Science particularly interest and attract them but I understand you’ve come up with a different definition of Web Science which addresses the moving target issue in Web Science.

Bill: I’ve really side-stepped the difficulties in defining what an ever-changing Web Science is by taking a cue from pragmatic Philosophy and focussing instead on what Web Science does* and, more importantly asking, “What do we need from Web Science?”. Web Science can usefully be defined by what we need it to do at any given point.

Ian: So let me ask you instead what do we need from Web Science now and is it the same as we needed when Web Science was founded over a decade ago?

Bill: Whilst its difficult to point to specific examples I think we need to understand (in a changing environment) where we can have most leverage to deliver the outcomes we think are most desirable for society as a whole. With 3 billion extra people coming online soon and technologies becoming more pervasive every year I think we are going to see a number of “step changes” in the Web we know today and a need to determine which aspects of this vast and growing system of interacting technologies that will need to be regulated. We can’t expect to build technologies with global reach and so many effects, both positive (e.g. economic) and negative (e.g. social/climate) effects and simply leave the world to cope. Web Science needs to research, reflect and advise on the impacts and (dis)benefits of these approaches, bringing a strong evidence-based historic viewpoint which will allow us to effectively learn from the past as we plan for the future – something which seems sadly lacking from the approach of some modern tech companies.

Web Science can help us to see that technology can be grounded in humanity and human processes in a rigorous and useful way. We can help people that aren’t really “noticing” these invisible/pervasive technologies by making clear to them that whilst society is indeed moulding the Web, the Web is also moulding society at the same time. I’ve been saying for the last 20 years that we need to stop thinking of “the Web” and “Cyberspace” as distinct places – they are simply new ways of expressing society and humanity with everything ultimately grounded in the real world with real-world costs and consequences.

There are many new freedoms (both positive and negative) that become possible on the Web. We need a level of rigour to balance those personal freedoms against the social responsibilities that maintain the Web as a viable and positive experience. Perhaps we need to be the “anti-poets” in this venture.

Ian: Bill, thanks for joining me in conversation – we look forward to another session soon.

Bill Thompson is an English technology writer, best known for his weekly column in the Technology section of BBC News Online and his appearances on Digital Planet, a radio show on the BBC World Service. 

He is a Trustee of the Web Science Trust (WST), an Honorary Senior Visiting Fellow at City University London’s Journalism Department, He is chair of the Centre for Doctoral Training advisory board, a member of the main advisory board of the Web Science Institute at the University of Southampton and writes for BBC Webwise.