Bill Thompson

Journalist, commentator and technology critic

Bill Thompson is a freelance journalist, public speaker and self-styled New Media pioneer based in Cambridge, England. He is well known for his past columns in the Guardian and current posts for BBC Online, as well as for his work on the web project Working for an MP. Don't miss his informative blog posts on creative, practical online innovations of all shapes and sizes at

Interview with Bill Thompson

What inspires you most in the arts and cultural sector, in the UK or worldwide?

I am inspired by those who take risks, in whatever area of activity, by people who refuse to settle for what is already there but choose instead to push out into new creative areas, take advantage of what new technologies have to offer, experiment with new ways of doing things, or new social structures, or new channels for reaching out to others.

The writer Bruce Sterling – a risk-taker himself – noted that when his laptop was only good for running a word processor he wrote books on it, that once it could be used to edit audio he did recordings and music, and now he creates and edits video and publishes the results online. Our tools do not shape our imagination but they help to create the world of possibilities that we explore – I like people who embrace the new tools and are finding out just what they can do, even if the result is sometimes an artistic or cultural failure.

Can a thriving arts and cultural sector help to pull national or global regions out of recession?

I’m deeply sceptical about talk of cultural industries or attempts to
measure the economic impact of arts, culture or even sport or to treat
such measures as the only real way of assessing value. How do you
measure the increased productivity of an Arsenal fan during a
successful cup-run, or the enhanced creativity of a tax accountant who
saw a great production of La Boheme the night before a critical meeting? What is the cost to the nation of yet another shoddy reunion tour by a superannuated eighties band?

So the answer is ‘yes’, but not in the ways that economists and politicians would like to think and probably not in any way for which they will get any long term credit.

How have online journalism, freelance journalism, w4mp or any of your other projects been affected by the economic downturn?

I’m very fortunate in that my work as a journalist hasn’t really been affected at all by the recession, perhaps because the rate of technological innovation continues to increase and most of us seem still to believe that more effective use of new technologies will actually be one of the drivers for changing the economy and getting
something that is more stable and sustainable in future. I get fewer invitations to speak at large corporate events, perhaps indicating that spending on such gatherings is being cut, but there seems a continuing need for someone to help describe the future we seem to building for ourselves.

How can online environments support the arts and cultural sector's recovery and future growth?

It isn’t really a question of whether online can support recovery and future growth but rather that online tools, services and content are now unavoidable and define the world we live and operate in, so that it is impossible to imagine recovery or growth without an online element. An arts organisation without a website doesn’t really exist – it would be like not having a telephone in the 1980’s.

The support, therefore, will come from finding ways to take advantage of what online can offer, both in audience facing ways and behind the scenes. The big impact might in fact be on the ways organisations work internally, enabling them to be more effective and adaptable, rather than just the quality of websites or social media offerings.

If your own blogs were colours, what colours would they be and why?

I rather hope my blogs would be red, partly because I like the wordplay between ‘red’ and ‘read’ but primarily because politically I am and will always be on the left, pushing for social justice, freedom and the rights of all of us to live to the full.  It’s too easy to become cynical about politics when we are simply tired of the forms of
political expression available to us or the current set of leaders, parties and policies, but I think that the organising potential of the network, the ease with which groups can form and begin to act, and the transparency which online publication brings can revitalise politics
and encourage engagement.

What message would you like to give to Arts Research Digest subscribers and visitors?

In ‘The Life of Reason’ (1905) George Santayana wrote ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’.  Digital technologies have brought about a revolution as important as the Industrial Revolution of the 18th century, and it is not over yet. In today’s world we need to remember that those who do not build their own future will be condemned to live in somebody else’s, and make sure we work towards the future we want.

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