Eric Schmidt and the Submerged State Problem

Former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, speaking at the Edinburgh TV Festival, recently decided to explain to the British public exactly what was wrong with their computer industry– their education system. A quote from Schmidt’s talk, posted on GigaOm, really grabbed my attention as a historian of media and technology:

“The UK is the home of so many media inventions,” he said. “It’s interesting that you invented photography, you invented television, you invented computers in both concept and in practice — it’s not widely known, but the world’s first office computer was built in 1951 by Lyon’s chain of tea shops. Interesting. Yet nobody, none of the world’s leading players in these fields are from the UK. That’s a problem.”

Now while I’m sure that the British public was pleased as punch to have Schmidt come over and lecture them on their nation’s historical achievements and its subsequent inability to live up to those achievements, I wonder if anyone in the audience immediately noticed what a tin ear for history Schmidt seems to have.

The British definitely do deserve a lot of credit in the early history of computing. And Tim Berners-Lee, a product of British schools somewhat later, has had a little bit of influence himself. The fact is, though, that– as Schmidt was arguing– the British influence on the computer market isn’t what one might have expected it to be in the 1950s. But for Schmidt to pointedly lay that on the feet of British teachers is historically inaccurate, to put it mildly.

Schmidt is letting an ideologically-driven mythos of the history of computers drive his interpretation of history at the expense of very basic facts.

Silicon Valley likes to think of itself as a meritocracy. Every company starts with scrappy, nerdy college kids in a garage somewhere, college dropouts become multibillionaires, and the internet is a place where information wants to be free– and make the deserving very, very rich. Internet wonks and tech firms are full of techno-libertarians who believe that computers make the market work better, and that markets fix everything in the end. It’s an understandable belief. Computers are a disruptive technology, and disruptive technologies always (initially) upset rigid class boundaries. For this reason, tech is full of people who made it to the top because of skill, intelligence, and perseverance in a way that older industries are not.

However, this fact has led to blind spots about the history of the industry, and why the computer industry looks the way it does. The fact is that the US government spent its way to US dominance in the computer market in the era when the British really had a chance to be players.

This is a widely-established fact, a matter of public record, even if it isn’t often brought up in the mythos of American computing and Silicon Valley. For a single, easily readable account, see Roy Rosenzweig’s historiographical article “Wizards, Bureaucrats, Warriors, and Hackers: Writing the History of the Internet,” recently collected in his posthumous volume Clio Wired: The Future of the Past in the Digital Age (most of which, ironically, is available for free on Google Books):

That the Cold War. . .fostered the development of digital computers is relatively easy to show. In 1950, for example, the federal government– overwhelmingly, its military agencies– provided 75 to 80 percent of computer development funds. Even when companies began funding their own research and development, they did so with the knowledge of a guaranteed military market. Such massive government support enabled American computer research to destroy foreign (mostly British) competition; the American hegemony in computer markets– routinely attributed to American free markets– rests on a solid base of government-subsidized military funding. “The computerization of society,” writer Frank Rose aptly observes, “has essentially been a side effect of the computerization of war.”

So why this collective amnesia in the tech industry about who has been filling its coffers for most of the last half-century? I would argue that it’s a problem of what Suzanne Mettler has described as “the submerged state.” That is: beneficiaries of government successful government programs have a tendency to forget that they are the beneficiaries of government programs. They tend to think of their success as their own, over-emphasizing the importance of their own accomplishments and underestimating the institutional structures that allowed them to achieve them. Just like how 45% of recipients of unemployment insurance claimed to not be beneficiaries of government programs, the American tech industry sees government grants and contracts as a right, as something earned, not as a hand up.

That someone as intelligent as Schmidt could overlook this difference in subsidy defies reason, especially since he himself is a beneficiary of that same fountain of money. Google would never have existed without the Department of Defense’s funding of the proto-Internet ARPANET, or without military and other government grants and contracts with Stanford where Larry and Sergey did the original work on PageRank, just to name the two most obvious.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I think that students do need a “license to tinker” And if Schmidt is honestly trying to get the British to follow Barak Obama’s lead in funding more education Engineers, I support that. He’s right, “the world needs more engineers.” My primary reason for writing this is primarily to point out that blaming the British tech market for not keeping up with America’s on issues of curricula seems, historically speaking, colossally unfair.

But there’s something more, too– I think that Schmidt’s tenuous grasp on his industry’s history belies the difficulty with his desire to return to 19th century standards of education:

“It was a time when the same people wrote poetry and built bridges,” he said. “Lewis Carroll didn’t just write one of the classic fairytales 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.”

This is all true, of course. But the issue that I have is this: in a time when America is in the middle of a blame-the-teacher-first “educational reform” movement, when the British government is in the middle of austerity reforms, a call for this sort of integrated liberal education is likely to fall on deaf ears, and more likely to be interpreted as a call to defund the humanities, rather than simply beef up funding for science education.

And this is dangerous. It’s dangerous because Eric Schmidt is a Very Clever Fellow, and he missed a very fundamental point about the history of the industry that has made him a billionaire. In a world where history becomes a generalist hobby for businessmen and engineers, where funding is taken away from the humanities, we are likely to only see far more misunderstandings like this. And failing to understand the history of a subject tends to make it very easy to make very, very bad decisions about the future.

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