Waiting for Godot won’t deliver better tech policy

Government needs bold initiatives in education, not Beckettian fatalism

“I’d prefer another Beckettism, something that’s about true positive disruption, from Endgame: ‘I use the words you taught me. If they don’t mean anything any more, teach me others.’” Peter Davey as Nagg in from Blue Raincoat Theatre Company’s recent production of Samuel Beckett’s play Endgame. Photographer: Dara Mac Dónaill

“I’d prefer another Beckettism, something that’s about true positive disruption, from Endgame: ‘I use the words you taught me. If they don’t mean anything any more, teach me others.’” Peter Davey as Nagg in from Blue Raincoat Theatre Company’s recent production of Samuel Beckett’s play Endgame. Photographer: Dara Mac Dónaill

Mon, Nov 4, 2013, 12:00

While everyone was searching for the next best start-up last week, it was hiding in plain sight. The best new start-up at the Web Summit was the Web Summit. The intimidating ambition of the summit – and actually managing to realise that ambition – means it is both the product of and a catalyst for change. Of course, there’s a lot of hot air, and a focus on entrepreneurs making buckets of cash over ideas and intellect. But what now? We’ve spent the past five years grasping at straws, so shouldn’t a generally positive moment like this be something to be seized?

The Taoiseach was at the summit and probably picked up some useful cliched mantras from the tech heads in attendance. If I was a multimillionaire who had made my cash in some typical contemporary internet manner – an app that uses zombies to help you to lose weight, or some ground-breaking form of communication that basically just allows teenagers to send pornographic images to each other more conveniently – I probably would have told Ireland to “seize the moment” last week. That’s how a lot of multimillionaire entrepreneurs talk. Dream big! Be disruptive! Be nice to people! Network! Go for it!

I sometimes feel Enda Kenny tends to goof around in tech situations. Come here to me will ya, Computer Man, and just move your offices to TBSCITWIWTDB because we’re sound (eh, that’s Enda speak for The Best Small Country In The World In Which To Do Business).

But he pushes his mantra well, even if at times when it comes to luring business here it’s less suaveness and more chugging. Politicians and entrepreneurs ape the actor-musician paradigm. Politicians want to be entrepreneurial and entrepreneurs want to influence politics. But the failure-loving philosophies of internet entrepreneurs who adore the Beckettism of the Palo Alto “fail, fail better”cliche doesn’t fit with policy. Policy needs to work and politicians need to win all the time.

The obsession with disruption in the tech world also doesn’t work for politics, which in Ireland right now is about preserving the status quo to the point of boring everyone to tears so much they just end up going along with you.

And as a friend of mine said at a panel talk on the first day of the summit, if you’re going to disrupt things, it’s helpful to have an alternative solution or plan to hand, otherwise you’re shaking structures that are for the most part functional.

But let’s just say, as an experiment, we took the disruptive mantra of the internet entrepreneurs of today and hit them for some post-summit actions. The first issue is access to talent, which is the biggest barrier to ambitions of expansion, both in companies and cities.

People respond to incentives. On paper, third-level education here is of course one big incentive. Fees have crept back in, but – in comparison with our fellow English-speaking zombie app developers in Britain and the US – are low. But perception is reality, and the perception of Irish third-level education as expensive because it started at such a low base since free fees were introduced, means there’s ill will towards paying for it. So how do you incentivise something like that?

Monetary barriers
You remove the monetary barriers from specific courses that would increase talent in the areas tech companies look for. That might not just be applied sciences and engineering and straight up IT courses, but also languages. How do you pay for it? Well in case anyone hasn’t noticed, there are some very happy clappy gigantic tech companies here whose corporate tax payments are miniscule compared to their profits. Make them pay. It’s mutually beneficial.

People also respond to trade-offs, like “here’s all my personal information for a decent email service”. Companies, government policy, education institutions and the individual all need to have a vested interest and all need to be making a short-term trade-off for a long-term gain.

On the side of the individual, there should be an obligation to work in the sector here for a minimum period and also in some helpful manner – perhaps a specialist job twinned with mentoring younger people – for a period of time (paid, obviously, this ain’t no JobBridge.) This means the learning is kept within the cycle that created and fostered it, and by coupling a good job with some voluntary work, which could be anything from study assistance to coding workshops, there’s a social investment as well as an economic one.

Fail better? In this context, I’d prefer another Beckettism, something that’s about true positive disruption, from Endgame: “I use the words you taught me. If they don’t mean anything any more, teach me others.”

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