Sitting in an Internet café in the Czech
Republic, Clive Thompson is frantically searching for lawyers in
Spain who specialize in Internet law.
prior, in Britain, Thompson received news that a virus writer had
been arrested in Spain. The only information he could find about
the arrest was on a website written in Spanish - a language he
doesn't speak - which didn't name the virus writer, his lawyer or
the city in which the arrest had taken
En route by train from Britain to
Belgium, Belgium to Germany, and Germany to the Czech Republic,
Thompson contacted the Spanish police, who confirmed that a man
had been arrested for writing and releasing a virus that infected
120,000 computers - but declined to release any
"So I'm figuring, okay, these lawyers
probably know each other," Thompson says, "and if I can just talk
to one of them, he'll probably know who the lawyer handling this
case is, right? Because there's going to be a finite number of
lawyers who know enough about cyber law to be able to defend this
Thompson has only two days before he has
to be in Austria. Even if he's able to track the virus writer
down for an interview, he'll have to take a train up to Prague,
catch a flight to Britain, then catch the next flight to Spain.
And then he'll have to figure out how to get to Austria in time
for another interview with a virus writer who'll turn out to be
the lede of his story.
"There was a lot of
hair-trigger timing with that story," Thompson says, laughing,
a year after it was published in The New York Times
Magazine, "but it all came together nicely." He
tracked down the lawyer and, halfway to Prague, received a text
message on his mobile phone from the virus writer agreeing to the
It's hour number three of my
interview with Thompson. In his West Village apartment in New
York City, the 37-year-old freelancer is wearing dark jeans, a
four-day growth of beard and a headset, so that he can walk
around the apartment while he talks. Thompson, who grew up in
North York, Ontario, is a regular contributor to the
Times magazine, New
York magazine and Wired. His
most recent feature, about blogs, was
the cover story for the February 20 issue of New
Times magazine feature about virus writers,
Thompson's writing tends to fall along the intersection of
politics, culture and technology. He's written about artificial intelligence, neuromarketing and video game violence. And he loves
wearing suits. "Some of us think it's just an affectation," says
Greg Sewell, who was the best man at both of Thompson's weddings.
"Clive just thinks it looks better than any other format of men's
clothing." His dogged work ethic has earned him the praise of his
editors. Like few other Canadian-born journalists - Patrick
Graham, Guy Lawson and Malcolm Gladwell - Thompson has made a
name for himself in New York City. "He's insanely successful,"
says Sewell, "He's not just getting by." And he's done it with
"So, who else have you talked to?" asks
Thompson's wife and fellow New York journalist Emily Nussbaum as
she rocks their three-month-old baby. She guffaws when I mention
Sewell. "He must have basically said that Clive is this fabulous
person, very well-dressed, curses like a sailor," she says. "Did
he compare him to a Tarantino movie?" No, I tell her. "He once
said that to me, that Clive is like a Tarantino
Sewell, who also lives in New York, has
known Thompson since his University of Toronto days in the late
1980s, when they reported and edited for The
Strand, a biweekly Victoria College newspaper, and
The Varsity. It was where the two of them
learned and fine-tuned their journalism
Thompson has known since Grade 12 that
he wanted to be a journalist. He wrote hundreds of articles for
The Varsity and took a year off to serve as
its news editor. One piece in particular he worked on, a profile
about Ursula Franklin, a philosopher of the politics of science
and technology, turned him onto what has become his life's work.
(His childhood spent programming games on a Commodore 64 and his
self-described "geekiness" might also have contributed.) "I
realized, oh my god, I could actually unify this technology stuff
with my interests in politics," he recalls, "and that's
essentially when I began to realize, this is something I think
I'd like to do with my life. I'd like to write about science and
technology and how they impact society."
he graduated from U of T in 1992, Thompson took a job as a
receptionist at a driving school on Bloor Street for $8 an hour.
Then he worked at the League of Canadian Poets for a year. He
considered himself a good reporter, but had no connections in the
industry and no one would hire him as a journalist. So he
enrolled in Ryerson University's two-year post-graduate
journalism program. "Generally, I hated it," recalls Thompson.
"It was horrifying to have to go back over all this crap I
already knew how to do." He spent more time working with his
classmates on a zine called Shapeshifter
than on schoolwork. (In one issue, Clive wrote about the
nutritional value of Pop-Tarts.) "We'd take them to bars we liked
and dump a pile," remembers former classmate Sean
When one of his journalism
instructors sat him down and told him that he'd never seen such a
depressed and angry person, Thompson took that as advice to leave
the program - but not before he'd landed a summer internship at
The Globe and Mail. That same summer, in
1994, Thompson got a call from Naomi Klein, then editor of
This Magazine. She'd edited The
Varsity a couple of years before Thompson and knew him
from activist groups he'd been involved with at U of T. She
wanted him to write a feature about anti-racist action. The
feature catapulted Thompson into freelancing after he left the
Globe at the end of the
"I thought, if I can just make $250 a
month for rent and maybe $100 more for food, then I'll be fine,"
Thompson says about his first crack at freelancing in Toronto. He
lived in "an absolute shithole" infested with cockroaches in
Kensington Market with four other underemployed friends. When
Klein left This Magazine a year later, he
got the editorship.
The first issue Thompson
edited was the second-worst selling issue in the history of
This Magazine. The January 1996 cover story
about legal corruption on a Native reserve from his second issue
won a National Magazine Award. Then Thompson had the idea of
running a technology issue. "At the time, the readers of
This Magazine were really, really
technophobic," he says. "They were like, 'Technology and robots
are taking our jobs away. We have to fight this.'" The
controversial issue ran stories about interactive pornography and
digital cash. Though there was a lot of backlash, the May/June
1996 issue was Thompson's favourite.
• • •
The first time Thompson's
wife remembers hearing of him in New York was at a job interview
for Lingua Franca, a now-defunct New York
magazine. "I walked in, and the editors at Lingua
Franca, who I knew because I'd been writing for them,
said, 'We just met this crazy Canadian! He talked a mile a
minute!'" Nussbaum remembers. "They were so flabbergasted by
him." Thompson, who had traveled into New York City for the
interview, didn't get the job. But he moved to the city shortly
after with his first wife who was attending university there.
Thompson has an equation that he uses to illustrate what moving
to New York is like, financially: to live in New York and
maintain the same standard of living as in Toronto, you must
double your income and convert it into American dollars. Even
then, you'll only be living in a Brooklyn suburb. If you want to
live in Manhattan, you must triple your income. "I was terrified
of the move to New York," says Thompson. "I was prepared for
total failure at any time." Although he wanted to freelance,
Thompson considered looking for a full-time job. "I had these
visions I was going to end up working for a magazine about the
organizational infrastructure of the paper clip industry," he
says. "It only comes out once every quarter, and there's two
people who work for the magazine in some sub-carrel in the Time
Warner building and I never see the light of day, and that's
essentially my journalism career."
big New York feature was an article published in Lingua
Franca in 2001 about a university professor who'd
created a controversial "essay-grading machine," a story that
plunged Thompson into a study of linguistics. He worked full-time
for two months on the story. "It didn't make that much money, but
I was like, I'm going to make this story absolutely rock,"
Thompson says. "I'm going to just kill myself so that this thing
is fantastic. I'm going to cover every base. I'm going to talk to
every single person."
In that year, Thompson,
who was still freelancing for Canadian magazines, wrote two
monthly columns, three features for Report on
Business magazine, four features for the now-defunct
Shift Magazine and two features for
Lingua Franca. "And anyone who called me up
and needed a 300-word brief written for some minor magazine," he
says, "I would do it."
From there, Thompson's
career became a web of editors - "precipices of connections," he
calls them - who moved from smaller American magazines he was
writing for to larger ones, editors who saw his writing in other
magazines and a hell of a lot of hard work. Seven years after he
arrived in New York City, Thompson got his first story in the
Times magazine. By that time, he had a
tremendous work ethic. "He seems to be able to write a lot more
than most writers," says Paul Tough, Thompson's editor at the
Times magazine. "Most of our writers only
write for the Times magazine because we take
up a lot of their time. Clive's got enough energy that he can
write for a couple of magazines at the same time. I'm always
impressed by that."
When his friends aren't
working on anything specific, Thompson urges them to freelance.
"And our answer is always, 'We're not you, Clive,'" says
Thompson stopped working for a couple
of months when his son Gabriel was born, but now he's back to
juggling 16 features (3,000-8,000 words each) a year, a biweekly column for Wired
News, a monthly column for Wired,
a bimonthly column for the Times magazine
Play and a few occasional guest columns. His
home office, filled with old-fashioned typewriters, huge stacks
of video games, origami and thousands of books, was converted
into a nursery, so Thompson moves his laptop from sofa to sofa in
his living room and rents a desk at a "cubicle farm" across town.
He occasionally works out of Internet
"I'm actually delirious right now,"
Thompson said when he answered the phone for one interview. He'd
gone to sleep at 8 that morning, after working on a draft all
night. He'd slept for three hours and woke up again to spend the
rest of the day writing. He'd forgotten, when he scheduled the
interview, that he'd made plans to meet up with a
"I'm going to be up at 7 tomorrow
morning," he'd said, "You can call me anytime after
When I call, Thompson launches into a
story about an unemployed manic depressive, living in San
Francisco, who's built a machine that mimics human conversation
so well that people can't tell they're not talking to a human
being. "Clive has three million different interests that he's
extremely passionate about, knows a lot about, and can debate
about," Nussbaum says. "He's genuinely not
Thompson even writes poetry. A
slow-running computer became an excuse for writing a series of
poems called "startup poems" - each composed on a typewriter
while Thompson waited for his computer to
And one of the hardest reporting
assignments he's ever had was the first story he wrote for New
York magazine about an art dealer who'd been running a
forgery scam. The only information that the editors had was a
clipping from a newspaper, and they wanted the article researched
and written in two weeks. Thompson worked twenty-two hours a day
on the story.
"When the story came out," says
Thompson, "the FBI called and said, 'You actually hunted down
people that we weren't able to contact.'" He admits he drinks
lots and lots of coffee.
For more Clive Thompson, check out his
blog Collision Detection, or read some of
his articles in our selected reading list
Riches," New York Magazine,
February 20, 2006.
"Meet the life hackers,"
New York Times Magazine, October
"The Other Turing
Test," Wired Magazine, July
Intentions," New York Magazine,
February 7, 2005.
Auteurs," New York Times Magazine,
August 7, 2005.
"How to Make a Fake,"
New York Magazine, May 31,
"A Really Open Election,"
New York Times Magazine, May 30,
Virus," New York Times Magazine,
March 21, 2004.
Underground," New York Times Magazine,
February 8, 2004.
"There's a Sucker Born in Every Medial
Prefrontal Cortex," New York Times
Magazine, October 26,
New York Times Magazine, July 7,
Machine," Lingua Franca, September
"Good Clean Fun,"
Shift Magazine, December