Why backing technology makes sense

It may sound a bit contrived, but truly, the pace of technological progress has always fascinated me.

Older readers may recall the earliest episodes of a programme called Tomorrow’s World, presented by a wonderfully enthusiastic ex-RAF pilot named Raymond Baxter.

I was hooked on it after watching its live experiments and listening in wonder to predictions that by the end of the century, most of us would have colour televisions, portable phones and access to more manageable computers than the behemoths which dominated the late 1960s landscape.

I can’t say I was ever taken by the prospect of wearing a one-piece, all grey, zip-up jump suit, the twenty first century attire of choice according to scientists at the time, but then, not everything Mr Baxter presented on Tomorrow’s World actually came to pass.

Over the past 40 years, rapid technological progress has been most apparent when a new or improved consumer product first seen on Tomorrow’s World has been launched. Because the majority of us have a strong consumerist streak, it means our eyes are constantly taken by new gadgets and products, from colour televisions through dishwashers, onto laptops, iPads, tablets and beyond.

As the cost of these ‘must-have’ items has fallen, so their possession has become the norm; their widespread acquisition forms part of Britain’s social history.

It’s for this reason that I kept my first mobile phone. Bought for £750 in 1988, it is the size of a house brick and nearly as heavy; now I’ve got one of those smart phones less than the size of a packet of cigarettes. Mobile telephony has seen some of the most dramatic developments of all during the last decade. Whereas there is a limit as to how far microwave ovens or dishwashers can go, mobile phone manufacturers and network operators believe we have not yet scratched the surface when it comes to mobile telephony..

I think they’re right, although choosing one such company in which to invest is a potentially tricky process given that technological advance of the type consumers find attractive only comes after considerable research or infrastructural expenditure.

Recently, a Computer Weekly editorial suggested that: “Financial services are no longer the future for the UK economy - technology is. We need policy-makers, lobbyists, advisers, politicians and decision-makers in government to accept that and act accordingly.”

The magazine argued that ever since the City of London was deregulated in the 1980s, the government of the day has favoured and actively nurtured the UK’s financial services industry. It acknowledges that, for the most part, the overwhelming majority of people benefited from this, although perhaps we were simply storing up problems for the future. We certainly hit the proverbial wall five years ago when a debt-fuelled boom of unprecedented proportions came to a shuddering halt.  

As the debt crisis shows no immediate sign of ending and, according to Computer Weekly, because many maintain that: “the UK’s banking industry is institutionally flawed and motivated by avarice”, we now have a golden opportunity to shift our industrial policy away from financial services and focus instead more robustly upon building an indigenous technology sector.  

On paper, it’s a good idea. After all, industrial policies change frequently, but unfortunately, the magazine does not explain how this shift would take place.

The financial services sector contributes more than £50 billion in tax revenues to the Exchequer. It might well be ‘institutionally flawed’, but frankly, no government is about to sanction it out of business, not when it generates revenues of this magnitude.  

However, boosting indigenous technology industries makes enormous sense.

Given that banks are still reluctant lenders (of billions of taxpayer’s money), perhaps the Government should explore ways in which they could benefit – or at least be guaranteed not to lose – by lending to the technology sector. It’s a little ways from Computer Weekly’s yearning for “policy-makers, lobbyists, advisers, politicians and decision-makers”, but it could represent a step in the right direction.

posted on 02 November 2012 16:21 byPJS