And the digital Antoinettes cried 'Unemployed? Let them cut code'

Summary:Australian politicians of all persuasions need to take a long, cold shower to rid themselves of their Silicon Valley fetish.

It's been pretty funny watching the collapse of the Australian car manufacturing industry these past few weeks. Not from some hypertrophied sense of schadenfreude, of course — I'm not that nasty, or at least not just yet — but from the sheer hilarity of seeing so many otherwise intelligent people suggest that internet startups and the rest of the futuristic digital wonderland we geeks love so much will fix all the problems.

Let's be clear. Australia has a serious problem on its hands. As Dr Phillip Toner, senior research fellow in the Department of Political Economy at the University of Sydney, wrote in The Conversation, we risk losing our technology.

"The car industry is a critical part of Australia's science and technology base. The sector spends AU$600 million a year on R&D, and another AU$800 million on buying inputs from the computing, engineering, and consulting industry. So it's a major producer and user of knowledge.

"It also supports an incredibly diverse array of technologies, such as light metals, computerised machining, electronics, chip manufacture, plastics, chemicals, metallurgy, and a diverse range of robotics — technologies involved in assembling cars or making the components in cars."

Some Australian component manufacturers might be able to continue supplying parts for cars assembled elsewhere, but what about the rest? Toner reckons it's hard to innovate out of the auto sector.

He's also worried that under the current Coalition government, there seems to be a conscious move to "dismantle the whole post-war reconstruction view of the state and its active role in industry policy". Our export base will regress to "a 19th century model of unprocessed agricultural and mineral resources", he wrote.


So we've got two big problems to solve here. One, what do we do with thousands of redundant auto workers who need to feed their families? Two, how do we develop Australian industry in the long term to fill the auto-industry's soon-to-be-vacant parking space?

The thing that I've been laughing at hardest this week is the idea that we can fix both problems at once by absorbing the displaced auto workers into the tech sector.

Do we really think that someone with 10, 20, 30 years of experience in the auto sector could be retrained, in just a couple of years, to be a developer or systems administrator — even if they had the aptitude and desire?

It's supremely smirk worthy when this idea comes from the usual-suspect digital libertarian princesses — in the non-gender-specific sense — flouncing around as if they're Marie Antoinette, spouting "Let them cut code." Do we really think that someone with 10, 20, 30 years of experience in the auto sector could be retrained, in just a couple of years, to be a developer or systems administrator — even if they had the aptitude and desire?

It's only slightly less smirk worthy when people suggest that auto workers could move over to something like the NBN rollout. Now, I don't know a lot about the innards of a modern car factory — unlike the majority of feelpinion writers, I'll admit that — but I suspect it's more about metal presses and welding and robots and servicing complex chains of custom mechanical stuff than digging trenches, stringing cables, and screwing customer equipment into people's laundry walls. But that's OK, geeks, this stuff is all much the same, just blokey physical-world stuff, right? Right.

Look, I have no idea what we're going to do with all the auto workers. But at this point, I'll use the excuse that ZDNet is just a business technology masthead. This ain't my problem.

What does fit our brief is the question of building the future — and politicians across the spectrum have become infected with the daft idea that the answer lies in developing some sort of Aussie Startupland modelled on Silicon Valley.

On the Coalition side, for example, Treasurer Joe Hockey recently cited The Lego Movie as an example digital saviour because "600 young Australians" had done the animation. "These animation jobs, these IT jobs, are highly skilled and it is a new form of manufacturing," he said. Sure, until all that grunt work gets handed over to software in five to 10 years.

At the Tech Leaders Forum held earlier this week on the Gold Coast, both the government's Parliamentary Secretary for Communications Paul Fletcher and the opposition's spokesperson for communications Jason Clare highlighted their recent visits to Silicon Valley — and both seem to have guzzled the Kool-Aid.

"Visiting Silicon Valley as I did in January was a powerful reminder of the way that IT is disrupting every sector of the economy," said Fletcher in his speech — at least, once he'd finished spending what seemed like half the weekend criticising Labor, as if he were still fighting the September 2013 election campaign — name-checking payment service Square, which just launched in beta in Australia, and dropping the buzzwords mobility, big data, and doubtless various others before I nodded off.

I woke up when Fletcher mentioned crowdfunding. "Australia has traditionally been short on capital — so there is an obvious appeal to using this new way of generating seed capital to get innovative ideas moving," he said, referring to the "terrific potential of crowdsourced equity funding".

I don't know about you, but I thought we already had a system for "crowdsourced equity funding". It's called the stock market. Still, that's what "disruption" is all about, right? Giving old things a new name so you can wriggle out of regulation and any other concomitant responsibilities.

This worship of Silicon Valley, and its east coast media-oriented equivalent in the Silicon Alley of New York, is nonsense. But even Americans fall for it.

Clare echoed Fletcher's name-checks and buzzword bingo performance — admittedly tongue in cheek for some of it — but also pondered what makes Silicon Valley so great. It's a question he's been asking everyone.

"Some mentioned infrastructure. Some talked about the laws in the US, particularly copyright. Some mentioned the proximity to venture capital and the appetite for risk. But everyone — everyone — mentioned Stanford [University]. Its research park, applied learning, its entrepreneurial spirit and engagement with business," he said.

Sure. But as I've written previously, the forces that shaped Silicon Valley are unlikely to come together anywhere else . Stanford was vital, yes, but so was the unique collision of the freedom-loving hippie counter-culture with the freedom-loving libertarian followers of Ayn Rand. And more important than any of that has been the billions and billions of dollars from the US defence industry — either as direct investment, or simply by creating an affluent society where successive generations have been willing to take the risks.

This worship of Silicon Valley, and its east coast media-oriented equivalent in the Silicon Alley of New York, is nonsense. But even Americans fall for it.

On Thursday, British-born Paul Carr, whose Las Vegas-based media startup NSFWCORP was recently bought out by Pando Daily, ridiculed that attitude.

"So great watching Valleywag's demoted 'co-editor' snark [because] we raised VC in the South (gasp!), where we're also doing a conference (horror!)," in Nashville, Carr tweeted. "I mean, I know the world is a scary place outside of Brooklyn but you should give the rest of America a try. And then... the world!" he added.

Australian politicians need to take a long, cold shower to rid themselves of this Silicon Valley fetish. Apart from a select, lucky few, Australian startups can never be more than lice on the buttocks of the vast, lumbering, cud munchers of the US defence-tech industries and their private-sector data-mining offspring.

We need to choose our own path.

Stilgherrian travelled to Sanctuary Cove as a guest of Media Connect.

Topics: Start-Ups, Australia, Tech Industry


Stilgherrian is a freelance journalist, commentator and podcaster interested in big-picture internet issues, especially security, cybercrime and hoovering up bulldust. He studied computing science and linguistics before a wide-ranging media career and a stint at running an IT business. He can write iptables firewall rules, set a rabbit tr... Full Bio

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