Berners-Lee, Silicon Valley, and Australia's cultural cringe

Berners-Lee, Silicon Valley, and Australia's cultural cringe

Summary: Sir Tim Berners-Lee's visit to Australia drew out the same cultural cringe that drives that eternal, daft question, "how can we create our own Silicon Valley?"

TOPICS: Start-Ups, Australia

Without doubt, the man who effectively invented the world wide web is smart. Berners-Lee downplays his role.

© 2013 Mark Pesce. Used with permission.

"Most of the technology involved in the web, like the hypertext, like the internet, multifont text objects, had all been designed already. I just had to put them together," he said in 2007. But he's done a lot more than invent the core protocol of HTTP and now heads up MIT's storied Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.

So what did we ask him about during his visit? What comments scored the loudest rounds of applause? Whether our National Broadband Network was a good idea. Yes, it is. Whether data retention was a good idea. No, it isn't. And that ever-favourite geek issue, whether you've got root on your device.

As usual, we wanted the visiting celebrity to pat us on the head for making the right choices, and to confirm that we're believing the right beliefs to maintain our places in the global geek-tribe.

The most embarrassing moments involved Sydney's Lord Mayor, Clover Moore. Having already larded Berners-Lee's Sydney Town Hall appearance with a conga line of hangers-on, presumably hoping to gain geek cred through osmosis, she then had the poor bloke sit with them all for a group photo, holding the words "green", "global", and "connected". How provincial.

OK, I'm a hypocrite. I wrote that got-root article without shame, and I daresay that when my video interview with Berners-Lee for tour sponsor iiNet appears next week, you'll see some embarrassing kowtowing. But journalists and editors know which stories will generate the clicks: those that pander to Australia's cultural cringe.

"The cultural cringe can be expressed in the almost obsessive curiosity of Australians to know what foreigners think of Australia and its culture," Wikipedia puts it. Quite.

The cultural cringe manifests itself in another way: Australians' oft-expressed hope to create our own Silicon Valley. Well, it ain't going to happen, folks — not unless we drop through a wormhole and become the centre of a World War III that took place in the 1970s.

The forces that shaped Silicon Valley are unlikely to come together anywhere else.

Stanford University saw the development of the US West as part of its mission, and during the 1940 and 1950s, encouraged graduates to start their own companies. The West Coast had been awash with defence funding during World War II and the early Cold War, and with veterans such as radar technicians who'd learnt about electronics during those conflicts.

There was a strange cultural collision, too. On the one hand, there was the freedom-loving hippie counter-culture. On the other, another kind of freedom-loving in the solipsistic geek followers of Ayn Rand — a story beautifully told in Adam Curtis' three-part documentary, All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace.

The US also has rather different bankruptcy laws that are more tolerant of risk-taking than Australia's. But my money's on the Valley's unique amalgam of cultures, defence dollars, and supportive institutions. We'll never replicate that.

In any event, why would we want to? For all its success, the Valley's Randroid influences have led to what I've previously called the "Evil Cult of the Internet Startup".

The Cultists truly believe that the faster-faster-VC-to-IPO chase to these glorious riches is the right and proper thing to do — and like all zealots, they think the ends justify the means.

The Cult of the Internet Startup is evil. It's selfish. It's inhuman. It's amoral. Using the term "work ethic" to describe driving (or seducing) people into appallingly long work hours to the neglect of family and community, and even self, is disgusting.

This is not the only way of starting a new business. It's just one specific model — about fast growth and high risk. Without a doubt, it can sometimes produce astounding results. It can also crash spectacularly, leaving no survivors.

The key question is whether Australia, with its unique culture, really needs to copy a different one, or whether it can build on its own strengths in its own ways. After all, improvisation and breaking the rules is in our blood. We have a strong technical tradition, having invented everything from refrigerated shipping to the fisheye lens, xerostatic photocopying to wi-fi. We even seem to have cracked the problem of provably bug-free software.

I note, finally, that in every other sector of human endeavour, people say they're starting a new business. Only in the technology sector do they say "I have a startup".

Topics: Start-Ups, Australia


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 trap, clear a jam in an IBM model 026 card punch and mix a mean whiskey sour.

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  • part 1

    Technologies are shifting industries, business models and lifestyles, well, few of them are here:
    What would any 1 have to say for all these below including potential of Facebook/FB and other social networks/media, apps world, cloud computing, gestural tech, 3D printing and so on? Things are changing due to tech including IT including social media/networks, apps worlds, cloud computing and so on which are shifting business models, industries and lifestyles. Trade shows themselves have virtual reality. Then, look at blended learning – (50% of high school would have online learning in US by 2019)(that link has the 6 basic types of blended learning where the last 2 types are mostly online). Then, self service revolution which came about a century or 2 ago from US to UK and then the rest which includes ATMs. Also, look at virtual offices (the legal, admin and other professions are changing around the globe not just due to globalization, balance of work and life but also due to tech including virtual offices where physical locations/offices aren’t needed).The yuan maybe challenging the us dollar but even the currency is shifting slowly more towards tech as nowadays can use even mobiles to pay for goods. There’s also the electronic cards as well as virtual currency (virtual currencies are mostly used within online world though if i’m right, FB has also used to for real physical products). Then, there is also 3D printing, gestural technologies also used at trade shows and so on. Most of these technologies have already changed industries – retail, entertainment including publishing and music worlds, manufacturing and so on. US has been involved in the high end manufacturing in the last 20 years or so which can be seen under Robotics has taken over jobs & the skill-sets have shifted. Less human labour now for any industry as can be seen under previous video. Journalism & public speaking also face same issues as Amazon, Apple, etc provide publishing tools while Twitter is a real-time social news network. Facebook has pages as well as the Spotify, Soundcloud,Docs & other apps. It’s immersed itself into entertainment world & more. Docs app is MS’ answer to Google Docs (cloud computing) & Docs app involves MS’ PDF version as PDF has different versions & is a standard. Facebook also has its blogging section called Facebook Notes though not as developed as WordPress. So, what can Facebook be? Well, the central library/resource/knowledge platform including for entertainment & more. Twitter, on the other hand real-time news social network & it depends on 3rd party blogging platforms for links or articles on its site. These days, social networks, search, cloud computing, apps, 3D printing, etc are not stand-alones. For example, there are real-time integrated search apps used for search content via social networks and other apps. Kurrently, for example is a real-time integrated public search app that searches content from various social networks like Facebook,LinkedIN,Twitter,etc while Cue,Greplin & Kitedesk are private real-time search app that does it for GMail, the above 3 social networks,Salesforce and more & Kitedesk can even share & manage documents. There are other such apps that integrates various technologies.

    Google searches are done according to its algorithm. Facebook can be used as an information and communications centre as Facebook has Skype, Spotify, Soundcloud (music apps), other apps including Docs app (MS Docs’ reply to Google Docs – cloud computing) while Cue/Greplin and Kitedesk are the right tools for searching not only within FB but also within other apps as mentioned above. Under FB, can choose the pages that the individual loves and not depend on Google’s algorithm (because each individual’s taste including for search differs).

    If use right settings and apps including lists which the firm has provided in the last 10 months or so, FB’s potential can be used efficiently; pages, contacts and apps wouldn’t get so cluttered and also posts/ads/comments can be done for free (mostly).

    The dying and thriving careers in next 10 years or so in US, Australia and rest of the world can be found under (Dying careers and thriving careers: the jobs of tomorrow) and (10 Careers that are dying out). Traditional retail, manufacturing assembly jobs, postal service workers, office and administrative workers, telemarketing and door-to-door sales are some of the dying careers.

    Customer centric approach alone finished in 1980s and Innovative approach took over then. IBM, P&G were the early innovators and then pushed by Google, Amazon, Apple, Salesforce and so on including Facebook.
  • Part 2

    In addition, I had written this as well, which is needed to any area and which is also the reason why students need laptops or electronic devices these days at schools-above message and this message and topic are inter-connected:
    In another 5 years when online education becomes the norm as blended learning has shifting towards online, laptops or any electronic device would be a must ( (50% of high school would have online learning in US by 2019)(that link has the 6 basic types of blended learning where the last 2 types are mostly online). Technologies are shifting each & every industry – more on that including thriving and dying careers where some of the dying careers are traditional retail, manufacturing assembly jobs, postal service workers, office and administrative workers, telemarketing and door-to-door sales can be found under the humble blog Can also check out high end manufacturing which is what the US has gone towards in the last 20 years. And so, robotics are taking over jobs compared to humans (it did with the financial institutions & retail sector as well-self service revolution which also includes ATMs and this started 2 centuries ago-from US to UK & then rest of the world). It’s the same with the education world where virtual reality would be used and that includes social networking integrated with cloud computing as well as search (more of the integration-search,social,apps,cloud computing,gestural technologies,3D printing all found under the blog).

    In the marketing world, the traditional marketing still exists but it’s over-taken by online marketing, namely search & email. Social is just coming up while search, social, apps, cloud & various other technologies have already integrated. To do SEO or SEM or SMM, which are search engine optimisation, search engine marketing, social media marketing & other types of online/internet marketing, you need to know HTML, CSS, Javascript, SQL, etc. The systems, softwares and even hardware just tools though knowledge needs to be there before that. What my parents studied 30 to 40 years ago at college/unis for biology/medicine is what students study these days during their higher secondary education because that’s how far the field has advanced (which includes combining the medical software into it these days). On the financial or engineering or tech sides, MS Excel and Access are the basics and advanced version of those uses VBA programming. If want to get into the analytical areas, these are the technologies needed along with learning statistics and mathematics. My sister who works as a Business Valuation Associate for Deloitte uses Excel as her basic tools though at uni and at school, she learnt Statistics as well as Pure & Business Mathematics while my bro who works for HP as a Business Intelligence Consultant uses SQL as his basic tool though he works on Cognos and studied Electronic and Communication Engineering (he studied SQL and others as well).

    Journalism-blogging,news,publishing worlds-they are taken over by tech. Apple, Amazon have changed it all as mentioned under my blog and this blog WAS USED under another blogging article of yours. Is it enough just to use MS Word? That’s also a technological tool that helps with essay, report writing and various other things. To communicate with the mass, need to know a bit of marketing (includes advertising)-search, social, apps, etc as mentioned above.

    So, education these days have changed like it has in the past as mentioned above with the examples of my parents (1 an anaesthetist who graduated from Royal College of Anaesthetists and Surgeons, Ireland while another a pathologist who graduated from Royal College of Pathologists UK). Students do need these devices BUT AGAIN AND AGAIN, they are just tools aided in applying their various fields in various areas (like statistics and mathematics applied in business, engineering, medicines & so forth or even humanities or arts applied in marketing, journalism, visual arts & so forth).
  • Last Part - 3

    no offense to anyone and just stating facts and reality. plus, i have just written it informally as copied & pasted from my facebook account:
    after reading this long winded message, do you think all firms can pay or australia needs to improve & follow rest of the world when it comes to fresh ideas, giving training or internships & so on including mostly unpaid ones as most internships are unpaid around the world while just few are paid ones?

    take out mining & financial sectors especially banking. what would australia's GDP be like? it's got about $1.3 trillion GDP including those 2. Australian public debts not much but private ones huge & that includes both household & business debts & it's source is the article 'is household debt a worry for australia', a article under smartcompany. The 2 Australian debt clocks shows the debt where 1 shows the total debts of about $5 trillion and other shows the debt of each person of about $19000-both under as well as The explanation for the 1st debt clock is under 'drowning in debt' article under What Australia has been doing for years is putting all its eggs into 1 basket and last 2 decades or so, mining with Chinese though it's still stuck to mining mostly and that too to India now. It has been doing that (putting all its eggs into 1 basket) for years and therefore, lost out to foreigners mostly. Australian tertiary education-its 3rd largest export sector-again, Chinese, other Asians, South Americans & lately, more Europeans, North Americans (even Africans there). Else, Australia is an under-developed country like Canada though Canadians are world's most educated + have more innovations than Australia.

    Australia till now has stuck on to the customer-centric approach & not much on to the innovative approach and that includes jobs which again can be seen under,,,,,, etc. Reason why Australia isn't perceived as an innovative country even though it has come out with some innovations -'Australia no innovation leader' article under (GE research). It also has had failures in tech including Click Frenzy + its transportation payment systems & even its online retail 10 years behind (Article is 'Rival cities leave Sydney smartcard in the dust'). Then, the social media failures of Australian businesses - statistics included under the Fifth Quadrant Report found under Craig Thomler's egov Au blog. Other hand, innovative approach took over from customer centric approach 30 years ago-P&G, IBM, etc examples of those & that's why US, European, Asian, South American & other firms are the world's best.

    Australian banks are doing well & mining still good or ok though that maybe falling also. Australian population that represents about 0.3% of the world population has sadly just 25% with a university qualification which is no match for the rest of the world (from Australian Bureau of Statistics). And lastly, who are the true australians? not the aussies but the americans, chinese and britishers mostly as australia is mostly foreign-owned & not just mines or mining firms but also land, property, etc - under ABC or Daily Telegraph or other articles under Google. how come they own Australia? Above factors.

    SO AUSTRALIA NEEDS TO CHANGE WHETHER ITS INDIVIDUALS OWNING BUSINESSES, ACADEMIC INSTITUTIONS, GOVT INSTITUTIONS OR PUBLIC SECTOR, NON PROFIT ORGANISATIONS & SO ON. why? it's globality or glocalisation or semi-globalisation & not globalisation anymore. Also, it's more of the blue ocean strategy & low cost innovations where countries like India, China, Korea, Brazil are doing well. The world's top firms are innovative ones. Customer-centric approach alone was long over in the 80s and moved on to the innovative approach started by P&G, IBM, etc and now furthered by Google, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Samsung, etc. If Australia wants to compete, it needs fresher ideas and its educational institutions, non-profit organisations, government agencies councils & departments as well as others have to buck up since nowadays individuals & firms are competing with anyone and everyone. It's there under the book Globality written by Boston Consulting Group that's a video under YouTube (talks on Embraer, Tata, etc) and which is also a video under Knowledge @ Wharton - Wharton is the world's best business school. So, those fresh ideas comes from students and current generation as well. It's co-optition these days-for example, Samsung & Apple-rivals yet collaborators as Samsung is Apple's supplier. It can also involve collaboration between specific users & company that entails innovation as well. Those who just stick to customer's needs alone will be far behind as all innovators have shown as need to at times force a change-that's how Apple, Google, Facebook, IBM, P&G have all succeeded. And innovation can also come about within the processes & not just with technology.
    • Dude ...

      ... get a blog.
  • austrays cultural cringe

    Austraya did not invent refrigerated shipping NZ did