29 August 2011

Eric Schmidt's MacTaggart lecture

On 26 August, Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google (and unknowingly host of this blog of course), gave the keynote MacTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh International Television Festival. The full text is available at the Guardian website, but I found that the section headed ‘The golden age is coming’ resonated with some previous posts. Having suggested that the UK (in the form of Sky, ITV and the BBC) had great strengths in producing content, and in supplying it on demand through, for example, the iPlayer, Schmidt then went on:
So what could go wrong? Well, everything. If I may be so impolite … your track record isn't great! The UK is the home of so many media-related inventions. You invented photography. You invented TV. You invented computers in both concept and practice. … Yet today, none of the world's leading exponents in these fields are from the UK.
So how can you avoid the same fate for your TV innovations? Of course there is no simple fix, but I have a few suggestions. First: you need to bring art and science back together. Think back to the glory days of the Victorian era. It was a time when the same people wrote poetry and built bridges. Lewis Carroll didn't just write one of the classic fairy tales of all time, he was also a mathematics tutor at Oxford. James Clerk Maxwell was described by Einstein as among the best physicists since Newton - but was also a published poet.
Over the past century the UK has stopped nurturing its polymaths. There's been a drift to the humanities - engineering and science aren't championed. Even worse, both sides seem to denigrate the other - to use what l'm told is the local vernacular, you're either a 'luvvy' or a 'boffin'.
I suspect he was a little misinformed: I thought ‘luvvies’, was a term used unsympathetically by the British satirical magazine Private Eye for members of the acting profession and its hangers-on (example from the issue of 5 August). More importantly, there is a well-established argument that it was much more than a century ago that the UK first lost interest in technology. Martin Wiener’s English Culture and the Decline of the Industrial Spirit: 1850-1980 was first published in 1981. His thesis was that the children of the early Victorian industrial entrepreneurs were sent to public schools (ie expensive private boarding schools) which favoured training in the classics over science.

Schmidt continued that we needed to start with education, not only in schools but:
At college-level too, the UK needs to provide more encouragement and opportunity for people to study science and engineering. In June, President Obama announced a programme to train 10,000 more engineers a year. I hope others will follow suit - the world needs more engineers. I saw the other day that on The Apprentice Alan Sugar said engineers are no good at business. Really? I don't think we've done too badly!
If the UK's creative businesses want to thrive in the digital future, you need people who understand all facets of it integrated from the very beginning. Take a lead from the Victorians and ignore Lord Sugar: bring engineers into your company at all levels, including the top.
A post here in June was in reaction to Sugar’s comments, where Schmidt has surely got it right. What seems to have eluded him though (or he was too tactful to mention) is that British television is dominated by arts and humanities graduates rather than ‘luvvies’. These people come from a narrow section of society, almost entirely London-based, famously Guardian-reading and certainly having little interest in science and technology, although enthusiastic users of iPads and the like. They are a key part of what the Independent’s John Rentoul refers to as the LBLM&C (London-based liberal media and culturati) – himself included.

An interesting question is how did the BBC get itself to be in the favourable position that it is with digital broadcasting, the iPlayer and so on? The answer is probably down to one controversial figure, John Birt (now Lord Birt), who was BBC Director General from 1992 to 2000. He introduced numerous reforms to the way the BBC was run and introduced much of its new technology, but exhibited a fondness for management speak which many of the LBLM&C in the BBC found hard to take. Private Eye still runs the occasional column of examples which, if nothing else, show that the cultural changes and tensions Birt introduced to the BBC continue to the present (example from the issue of 20 June). Birt had worked in television since leaving Oxford, but, unlike most of his contemporaries at the top of the media, he was an engineering graduate.

Birt gave the MacTaggart Lecture in 2005, when he predicted:
A single, wireless system in the home - one box at its hub - may manage your media, your communication, your computing, and your household security and utilities. The battle in the home will see the telcos and cable operators in the red corner trying to build a box to connect your TV and the rest of your home to broadband - a passport to an on-demand world. And in the blue corner - surprise, surprise - Sky, creating an enormous memory in your Sky Plus box, in which you - or they! - can store thousands of hours of treasures, a box Sky can build to be your home hub supplying all the functionality I outlined earlier.
So watch out over the next decade for a new battle of the boxes, with BT and Sky likely to be the two Goliaths fighting it out to the death. The next generation of technology will pose substantial issues for policy makers and public service broadcasters alike.
I’m not sure that six years later it’s actually working out like this. The originators identified by Schmidt (and Google’s YouTube) are holding the repositories of content which are accessible through the internet to the latest TVs or Blu-ray players. These seem to be subsuming the role of Birt’s ‘box’. The telcos seem to be stuck with providing internet connectivity to the wifi modems servicing TVs, and the household galaxy of iPads, BlackBerries, Kindles etc.


The Financial Times this morning picks up another thread in Schmidt’s lecture:
The UK does a great job at backing small firms and cottage industries. But there’s little point getting a thousand seeds to sprout if they’re then left to wither or get transplanted overseas.
and goes on to point out:
The agreed takeover of Autonomy, Britain’s biggest software champion, by Hewlett-Packard of the US is a blow to the UK’s hopes of building a “global gorilla” in the sector, even if its operations remain in Britain. But more worrying, as Strathclyde University’s Prof Colin Mason pointed out in a letter to the FT on 23 August, are the smaller technology companies acquired by large foreign ones.
As Mason had explained:
Elizabeth Garnsey and Vivian Mohr of Cambridge’s Institute for Manufacturing found that 42 per cent of high-growth companies in the Cambridge cluster were acquired between 1998 and 2008 – double the 1980s’ rate. Almost half the acquirers were foreign. … emerging companies are likely to be much more vulnerable to being uprooted, especially if it is their intellectual property that makes them an attractive acquisition target. I recently heard of one Scottish life sciences company that had attracted six potential buyers, four of which would have closed it down if they had acquired it, because of the competitive threat that it represented.
The FT echoes his conclusions:
In many ways the UK has advanced as a technology centre over the past decade. Some companies grow to a decent size and there are more repeat entrepreneurs who reinvest their expertise into new ventures. But many sell too soon. Is this because entrepreneurs lack staying power, or because the funding system is flawed, with business angels or venture capitalists seeking too quick a return? Vince Cable, business secretary, is fond of reviews. This is surely worthy of investigation.
Perhaps any investigator could take the time to look out a copy of Martin Wiener's book (not available on Kindle!).

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