Cantillon: beware the myth of the mighty tech men

Book details how technologies that make the iPhone so ‘smart’ can be traced back to investment by the US government

A prototype of a driverless car  in a photograph provided by Google. Yet much of the research to get us to the cusp of driverless cars has been carried out over the past 20 years with state support, in particularby  the US government-funded Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency

A prototype of a driverless car in a photograph provided by Google. Yet much of the research to get us to the cusp of driverless cars has been carried out over the past 20 years with state support, in particularby the US government-funded Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency

 

From Thomas Edison to Steve Jobs and through to Elon Musk, society likes to attribute the big tech breakthroughs to a single individual.

The latest star of tech central casting is Musk, whose well-publicised biography makes Leonardo da Vinci look like a work-shy freeloader. Musk’s efforts have been lauded, from his attempts to revolutionise the motoring world, right through to green energy tech and rocket science. Yet much of his innovative magic is rooted in research carried out at the expense of taxpayers in the US and further afield.

Perhaps the greatest transgression of the “great men” myth is that it ignores the role of the state in both priming the macro environment for breakthroughs and underwriting much of the research as financier of public R&D.

In the Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public vs Private myths, Mariana Mazzucato lays out a contrarian view on the single-handed tech hero. In a chapter on Apple she details how the technologies that make the iPhone so “smart” can be traced back to investment by the US government, from the internet itself to the touch-screen display, to the Siri voice-activated system. An ongoing example of this public vs private myth is the imminent arrival of self-driving cars. Google and Apple are in a race to be first with this game-changing technology. Yet much of the research to get us to the cusp of driverless cars has been carried out over the past 20 years with the state support, in particular, of the US government-funded Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). At the turn of this century it was holding trials and inter-research faculty competitions to develop self-driving vehicles. Its initial aim was to create vehicles capable of supplying front-line troops, along with combat vehicles. However it progressed to supporting research into vehicles capable of safely tackling everyday urban environments, complete with unpredictable pedestrians, cyclists and pets. When the autonomous car eventually arrives it will not be Apple’s Tim Cook or Google’s Sergey Brin who will deserve the plaudits.

Where’s the harm in simplifying tech breakthroughs into folklore? Well, for a start, by negating the role played by the state, it distracts attention from cuts in government-funded of research. It also makes it easier for the tech giants reaping the rewards and the glory on the back of such research to dismiss calls for them to contribute more tax. It might make for an easier narrative for primary school history lessons but we should be wary of the influences of ‘great men myths’ on government policies and State funding.

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