Justin Spooner: ‘Digital tools are just a means of expression..’

2nd March 2020

Sarah Rees headshot

Sarah Rees

justin spoonerIt seems that Justin Spooner is a man determined to avoid the credit for his professional success. “To be honest, I’m just an extraordinarily lucky person,” he says. “I’ve made a sequence of bizarre choices that have all worked out, and I now spend my days working on incredibly interesting projects with superb people.”

The steady stream of interest is provided by Unthinkable, a firm he co-founded to  ‘create digital experiences that inspire, entertain, teach and enable people to better connect’. Nominet has benefited from their expertise in our Public Benefit work supporting young people, such as the Scouts partnership on the Digital Citizen badge curriculum revamp and our Micro:bit Foundation projects.

“A good example of what we are trying to achieve is one of our recent projects,” says Justin, “We made a prototype art installation with creative arts company Heart n Soul that uses natural language processing to allow the audience member to have a dialogue with people on one of four screens, all of whom have learning disabilities or autism. It creates an opportunity for people to connect and discover new things that wouldn’t usually be possible in normal life.”

Justin believes that digital tools should be accessible to everyone as “a means of individual expression and a tool for learning. That is where technology becomes truly powerful.” Being able to deliver on his belief through exciting projects – his most recent endeavour is a ground-breaking online learning platform, FutureLearn – is one of the aspects of his life that bemuses Justin, especially when he looks back on the journey he’s taken since childhood.

It started in a single-parent, working-class home in South London where he watched his Dad “always pushing at the edge of his working-class expectations”. Spooner Senior was always shifting between very different jobs, at one point running a budget computer games company from the front room, making games for the Sinclair Spectrum, for which “my brother’s programming skills were put into action,” Justin recalls.

“I was the play tester and did anything I else I could get stuck into – and enjoyed it,” he adds. “I would have chosen physics and maths to study alongside art and literature at A Level, if the school timetable had allowed.” Instead he had to make a choice, so he nurtured his more cultural interests: he’d been making electronic music from the age of 12 but decided at 16 that he wanted to become an artist. He secured himself a place at the prestigious Central St Martins after his A Levels to study Fine Arts and went off to explore that dream, taking his early technology skills with him.

“I don’t see artistic creativity as being something different to things like an aptitude for technology or programming,” he says. “They are all tools for thinking. I love the abstract nature of things like physics and maths. They are just like music really, which I often think of as mathematical patterns.”

He re-combined his two interests at art college by approaching his work digitally, although “the teachers didn’t know how to use the computers, so I ended up spending most of the time teaching myself how to do things.” They probably did him a favour: he emerged into the job market with just the sort of skills most in demand in the fledgling days of digital transformation.

The dream of being an artist was dropped as he moved into his mid-20s. He spent a few years running his own graphic design and animation business before another “almighty stroke of luck” befell him.

“A friend of mine told me the BBC was looking for someone who knew about digital and about classical music, and I was the only person she could think of.” Justin promptly secured the position of Interactive Editor at BBC Radio 3 and the Proms, where he spent eight “challenging and enjoyable” years shepherding the platforms into the digital age.

“Digital media transformation was just beginning then, and so it all felt like a never-ending Masters in ‘online’. We were learning skills as the skills were being invented.” The role kept him busy at the BBC for many years, but once a sense of routine set in, he needed a new challenge.

Unthinkable was his next move, co-founded in 2008 with his former BBC colleague Matthew Shorter. “I love being able to work simultaneously in culture, education and digital technology. We’ve done projects for big arts institutions, like the Barbican, the South Bank Centre and the National Portrait Gallery. They have helped me develop my sense of what cultural institutions’ values should be in a digital world.”

He wonders if his working-class roots drive his approach, admitting he is extremely conscious how “these places declare themselves as ‘the people’s palaces of culture’, when really they are often only available for middle class people living within a 20-mile radius of London,” he says. “I see digital as a way of protecting, preserving and making accessible the moments of art that happen in those spaces for the people who can’t get there or don’t feel like they are allowed to take part. Not many things make me angry, but one is definitely wasted opportunity.”

Passion extends from his day job and into his extra-curricular pursuits; Justin has three children, occasionally writes poetry and regularly makes music, with plans to launch a new digital label. “The challenge is finding time,” he admits, “as I hate to do something shoddily. But I love the process of invention: I need the absorption and can get obsessed with an unfolding process. It’s a big part of why I love what I do – I just can’t quite believe that sometimes I get paid for it too!”

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