Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Technology and the Australian Media

I have been at the Four Seasons Palo Alto this week for a company sales conference. It's a very nice hotel right in the heart of Silicon Valley, near a few small companies that do stuff with the Internet or something. Walking into the hotel this morning, I did a double take when I saw this sign in front of one of the conference/banquet rooms. For non Australians, New South Wales (NSW) is the most populous state in Australia, with 7.2m people, and Sydney is the state's capital (pop. 4m).

I was genuinely excited to see this sign. Days after my four year anniversary of arriving in America, I still get a kick out of little reminders from home. To me this sign was like Vegemite on toast. I have no idea of the agenda or the invite list, other than to wonder how my invite got lost in the mail. My impression would be the NSW Government are looking to build relationships in Silicon Valley. That they they recognize the importance of a vibrant technology sector to the ongoing growth of the Australian economy. That they believe NSW can be a center of excellence for high tech and what better way to learn than to come to Silicon Valley and learn from the best. That they can provide guidance and a pathway for Aussie entrepreneurs and companies to operate in the most competitive market in the world, which can only lead to good things for NSW. Any Aussie will proudly tell you about Australia's ability to punch well above its weight globally in any field, given it is a country the size of the continental US with a population the size of Southern California. It was pride that made me think this little piece of paper was significant enough to bother taking a photo with my iPhone. 

So of course I then googled "NSW Government Silicon Valley", to find out some more about the event. Here is where the rant starts and like any good rant it starts with the Daily Telegraph, a News Limited property that is probably one of Australia's most tabloid like news sources. This article came up as the top result talking about Andrew Stoner, the NSW Deputy Premier and Minister for Trade and Investment, making a 10 day trip to LA, San Francisco, Silicon Valley, Japan and Hong Kong. The tone of the article is set in the first few sentences, where the trip is referred to as a jaunt, implying that it is frivolous and of no value. It then quotes an opposition minister saying that China is more important, so why doesn't the Minster go there. The low blow is pictures of a self funded holiday to the US last month, taken from a Facebook profile belonging to the wife of the Minister. Admittedly his wife should be more careful with her Facebook privacy settings, but the personal photos of he and his wife at the Grand Canyon on their own coin bear no relation to the story. 

The paper makes a small effort to provide balanced reporting by allowing the Minister to provide a quote, where he rightly points out that the US is the major source of foreign investment into NSW. However, none of the other possible positive benefits I have mentioned are discussed. Digging stuff out of the ground and selling it to China has been great for Australia. Continued growth in the mining sector has helped isolate Australia from a lot of the effects of the global financial crisis, with none of the high unemployment and GDP stagnation other nations are seeing. But the Australian economy needs to diversify to reduce the risks of a drop in commodity prices, which would have a devastating impact. I do realize a lot of Australians recognize this fact, but it bears repeating because history has shown the danger in thinking the good times will last forever. 

I am all for keeping politicians accountable. They are after all spending our tax dollars and I do question the value of some of the "study tours" that politicians embark upon. In this case the piece just feels like a hatchet job. I hate to generalize, but I am sure there is an element of the Daily Telegraph playing to their audience. Also in the interest of not generalizing, certain quarters of the Australian media such as Asher Moses have been providing extensive coverage of the technology sector and what a great job Australians are doing in Silicon Valley. Although we may need to work on a moniker with less negative connotations than the "Aussie Mafia". I find the Telegraph article insulting, because rather than presenting facts for and against this trip, it presumes that I should be outraged and the story is written accordingly. Having done the international road warrior thing, I can assure anyone that 10 days away from home taking in 3 countries with a full schedule is no fun. I am certain the Deputy Premier will enjoy the work aspects of this trip, but from personal experience there is no other outside fringe benefit from being on the road. The other angle that I am certain will come up is the cost, once requested by the opposition under FOI. This sort of itinerary based on personal experience will be upwards of $30k, assuming business class flights, 4-5 star accommodation, transport and meals. If he has staffers with him, then clearly this cost will increase. While it may sound like a large amount and certainly more than most would personally spend on their own travel, when you consider the hundreds of millions of dollars of benefit to NSW if this is done right, then it seems a reasonable and minor expense. I'll also predict a letter to the Telegraph editor stating, "Your forgetting that he flew business class, doe's he think hes better then us". As well as being grammatically incorrect, it is a flawed argument. Andrew Stoner has worked hard to get where he is and has an incredibly stressful and very high profile job. He has earned the right to fly business class and it is necessary for him to be able to rest while in transit so he can perform on arrival, particularly when spending such a small amount of time in each location. This is a work trip, not a junket, boondoggle or whatever other negative term is used as an insinuation. I should also point out that regardless of the party in power my position would be the same, a minister doing all he can to lift the international profile of Australia is a positive thing that should be celebrated. 

My hope is that one day Australian children will aspire to achieve success from building technology, in the way that sports are held up as the pinnacle of achievement today. Maybe in the future Australians will mention our technologists in the same breath as we do our great athletes, actors and musicians. Both the media and the government have a role to play in making this happen. However I also feel the egalitarian nature of Australian society may be holding us back a little and articles such as this do nothing to give me confidence. I learned very quickly upon moving to the US, that a key to making the transition successfully is developing the ability to talk about what you do and why you do it better than anyone else. This does not come naturally to an Australian, mostly due to not wanting to appear boastful (or come across as a wanker) in front of our peers. Let's not allow tall poppy syndrome to stop Australia from competing and winning on the global stage.