Sometimes a post you see on Facebook is not the latest news. You’re momentarily fooled by it and you can embarrass yourself by reacting as if it was the latest happening. But that’s the beauty of the internet too. Nothing is forgotten. Gems from the past resurface. What you didn’t know before you know now.
And so it was with a Wall Street Journal blog titled Wozniak: Apple couldn’t emerge in Singapore. It was only after I had finished reading it, just as I was about to click away, that I noticed it was dated 15 December 2011. But no matter. What Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak had to say is still very relevant.
“Look at structured societies like Singapore where bad behavior is not tolerated [and] you are extremely punished” Mr. Wozniak said in a recent interview with the BBC. “Where are the creative people? Where are the great artists? Where are the great musicians? Where are the great writers?”
Speaking specifically about Singapore, he said that though many people are educated with well-paid jobs and nice cars, “creative elements” in society seem to have disappeared.
Go read it and listen to the BBC interview
In the audio of the interview, Wozniak said innovative change happens when “big guys” are challenged. He spoke about the importance of “liberal counterculture thinking” and how “big guys that just want to crank the wheels and keep things running” must be contested by new ideas. Alluding to Singapore, he described a society where people are “taught this nationalism… not to think what’s right and wrong, but to take a side at an early age. That’s not lined up with creativity.”
“Thinking for yourself is creativity.”
In hallowed journalism style, reporters Shibani Mahtani and Sam Holmes included a response by Singapore officials to Wozniak’s comment.
Speaking about Internet innovation, Jayson Goh, Executive Director for Infocomms & Media at Singapore’s Economic Development Board, said he was happy that “many innovative Internet companies” had chosen Singapore as the focal point for their investment in Southeast Asia, specifically naming Google, Yahoo, PayPal and Facebook.
“We will continue to work…to enhance the infrastructure to create a conducive environment for enterprises to provide innovative solutions,” Mr. Goh said.
Singapore actively encourages startups and entrepreneurship in the city-state. According to government statistics, 29,798 companies were formed in Singapore in 2010 across all sectors, a 13% increase from the previous year.
You can’t help but see Jayson Goh speaking from a (poorly-prepared) script. To start with, why give a number of new companies “across all sectors”? How many of these sell cupcakes, Hello Kitty cellphone jackets, or provide foot reflexology? There’s an awfully large number of such enterprises around town.
Secondly, how does the statistic of new companies incorporated address the question of culture and human talent (including artists and writers) that Wozniak was speaking about?
Thirdly and likewise, how does name-dropping big American companies as investors (“Google, Yahoo, PayPal and Facebook”) address the same question? The reflexive reliance on inward investment by foreign companies only serves to indicate that we are still stuck in the Texas Instruments days — that’s 1969, when a huge song and dance was staged after this American company set up an electronics assembly plant in Singapore (Bendemeer Road, if I remember correctly) employing several hundred young adults (mostly women) doing repetitive menial work. Texas Instruments was high-tech in its day. But rolling out the red carpet for a high-tech investor is not the same thing as having your own citizens be the inventors and creators of original art and science.
More specifically, the WSJ blog mentions a particular investment by Google, positioned to sound like a rebuttal of Wozniak’s point. Whether it was Jayson Goh or some other source that pointed WSJ to this I cannot say (but knowing how these media responses work, you can probably allow that Jayson or another source from the Economic Development Board would have mentioned it as part of their comment). That investment was of a US$120 million data center.
Those two words ‘data center’ were what triggered this post. I had a vague idea what such a thing was. I promptly did a websearch and it more or less confirmed my mental picture of one. It’s typically a huge facility housing numerous servers and switches, backed up by reliable power supply and environmental systems. The top picture is of a data center by techxact.com. They are the workhorses of the internet age, the warehouses of the information goods that our age produces. They are not places where new information is made. Humans don’t figure very strongly in them, let alone innovative creative types.
How does Google building a data center in Singapore disproof Wozniak’s criticism? It does not. It is monumentally embarrassing that we can’t even provide intelligent responses. We read off a script that relies on an audience’s ignorance, conflating one with another: companies registered (cupcakes included) in answer to a question about brilliant inventors nurtured; human-free data centers in answer to a question about artists.
Worse yet, the pride we take in being able to attract foreigners and their money tells us we’re stuck in a groove. We can’t conceive of development any way other than having capitalist juggernauts roll over us.