Oct 212012
 
harold wilson and the white heat of technology

A Telegraph profile of Joanna Shields, the incoming Chief Executive of London’s Tech City Investment Organisation, is an interesting view of how we see economic development and the route to building the industrial centres of the future. Much of that view is distorted by the ideologies of our times.

London’s Tech City is a brave project and somewhat reminiscent of future British Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s 1963 proclamation about the UK’s future lying in harnessing the “white heat of technology.” From Dictionary.com;

“We are redefining and we are restating our socialism in terms of the scientific revolution…. The Britain that is going to be forged in the white heat of this revolution will be no place for restrictive practices or outdated methods on either side of industry.”

Fifty years later a notable part of Wilson’s speech is the use of the word “socialism” – the very thought of a mainstream politician using the “s-word” today and being elected shortly afterwards is unthinkable.

Today the ideology is somewhat different – much of Tech City’s objectives are around aping the models of Ireland and Silicon Valley – which in itself is accepting the failed beliefs of our times.

Based around London’s “Silicon Roundabout” – a term reminding those of us of a certain age of a childhood TV series – the heart of the Tech City strategy lies the tax incentives used by the Irish to build the “Celtic Tiger” of the 1990s and government investment funds to create an entrepreneurial hub similar to Silicon Valley, something also done in Dublin with the Digital Hub.

It’s hard not to think that copying these models is a flawed strategy – Silicon Valley is the result of four generations of technology investment by the United States military which is beyond the resources of the British government, and probably beyond today’s cash strapped US government, while the Celtic Tiger today lies wounded in the rubble of Ireland’s over leveraged economy.

At the core of both Silicon Valley’s startup culture and Ireland’s corporate incentives are the ideologies of the 1980s which celebrates a hairy-chested Ayn Rand type individualism while at the same time perversely relying upon government spending. Ultimately failure is not an option as governments will step in to guarantee investment returns and management bonuses.

Just up the M1 and M6 from London’s Silicon Roundabout are the remains of what were the Silicon Valleys of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

The manufacturing industries of the English Midlands or the woollen mills of Yorkshire revolutionised the global societies of their times. These were built by individuals and investors who knew they could be ruined by a poor investment and managers who retired to the parlour with a pistol if the enterprise they were trusted to run failed.

Today’s investment attraction ideologies – tax discounts to big corporations and grants to entrepreneurs – are in a touching way not dissimilar to Harold Wilson’s 1960s belief in socialism.

At the time of Wilson’s 1963 speech China and much of the communist world were showing that socialism, with its failed Five Year Plans and Great Leaps Forward of the 1950s, was not the answer for countries wanting to harness the “white heat of technology.”

Similarly today’s Corporatist model of massive government support of ‘too big to fail’ corporations is just as much a failed ideology, like the socialists of the mid 1960s had their world views had been framed in the depression of the 193os, today’s leaders are blinded by their beliefs that were shaped by the freewheeling 1980s.

Whether the next Silicon Valley will be in London, or somewhere like Nairobi or Tashkent, it probably won’t be born out of a centrally planned government initiative born out of the certainties of Margaret Thatcher or Ronald Reagan anymore than the 1960s technological revolution was born out of Karl Marx or Josef Engels.

Silicon Valley itself was the happy unintended consequence of the Cold War and the Space Race, which we reap the benefits of today.

Every ideology creates its own set of unintended consequences, those created by today’s beliefs will be just as surprising to us as punk rockers were to the aging Harold Wilson.

Maybe Tech City will help Britain will do better at this attempt to regain its position as global economic powerhouse, but you can’t help thinking that economic salvation might come from some West Indian or Sikh kid working out of a storage unit in Warrington than a bunch of white middle class guys celebrating a government grant over a glass of Bolly in Shoreditch.

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