Jake's View

A good reason for keeping bureaucrats away from technology and innovation: zenith of digital revolution has already been reached

New government bureau will invariably try to make tomorrow conform to what yesterday has been

PUBLISHED : Monday, 18 April, 2016, 10:19am
UPDATED : Monday, 18 April, 2016, 10:19am

Hong Kong’s new innovation and technology tsar is determined to break the city’s reliance on financial services by providing a “sustainable ecosystem” to climb the technology chain.

SCMP, April 9

Let’s play a game of comparisons here, starting with the history of the aeroplane and going back 100 years to the aircraft technology of 1916.

This would be the likes of the Sopwith Camel, an open-air, one-seat biplane made of wood, doped fabric and wire. There were admittedly some aircraft that held two or even three people. Brave people they were.

Shift forward 50 years to 1966 and you get the Boeing 737, so huge an advance over the Sopwith Camel as to be unimaginable in 1916.

Shift forward another 50 years to the present and you get the Boeing 787. If I then set picture of a 787 beside that of a 737 and ask my lady which is the newer, she is likely as not to point to the 737 as more pointy-nosed, which perhaps makes it go through the air faster.

As any industry reaches maturity of innovation it will find bureaucrats who are sure it will be leader of innovation forever

They are both white tubes with swept back wings, two under-wing engines, little doohickeys at the tips of the wings and the driver sits up front. They are both still in service. The Sopwith Camel was only a museum display by 1966.

Yes, I know the 787 is hugely advanced over the 737 in fuel economy, range, safety, convenience and much else but this all comes down to refinements on a theme. Are you sure now that you yourself can tell the two apart? Would you have any difficulty in telling either apart from a Sopwith Camel?

In one way, however, the industry in 1966 was much the same as in 1916, while different from the present. It was in the 1960s that governments everywhere began to take a huge interest both in aircraft design and in owning the airlines that operated these aircraft.

I think it may actually be possible to measure how much living standards in Britain suffered from this huge waste of money. It certainly would be in Russia. And that goes only for stupidities like the Concord and the Concordski, while Alitalia continues to demonstrate how a government-owned airline can resemble a submarine.

Now shift gears again and let’s consider the telephone. In 1916 it was a wooden box with a dial and it mounted a receiver/earphone. In 1966 it was a plastic box with push buttons and it mounted a receiver/earphone.

Yes, I know there were many advances over those intervening years. The telephone had become much more convenient to use and you could actually talk to someone across the world on it if Typhoon Static was not playing up. But it was all refinements on a theme. The basic idea and use was entirely the same.

Shift forward another 50 years now and consider the telephone of 1966 next to the smartphone. The jump is as big as from the Sopwith Camel to the 737.

This is in the nature of technological change. It does not progress smoothly along any one line. The focus of where the advances are made itself changes. It leaves yesterday’s darlings of innovation to become tomorrow’s plodders. No-one knows where the real advances will come next.

But throughout all this I see one constant. It is that as any industry reaches maturity of innovation it will find bureaucrats who are sure it will be leader of innovation forever and who will pour an Amazon of money into it.

Just as British prime minister Harold Wilson meant aeroplanes when he talked of “the white heat of technology” in the 1960s, so his counterparts today mean smartphone applications when they talk of the technology chain.

In Hong Kong this counterpart is an office rental agent who got the top political job not through his own merits but because his opponent achieved a world first of losing a rigged election.

In predictable ignorance he picked technology as Hong Kong’s future salvation and we are now to divert public resources into his Innovation and Technology Bureau in an effort that will invariably try to make tomorrow conform to what yesterday has been.

I confidently predict that the zenith of the digital revolution has been reached and the future will offer only refinements on a theme.