Thursday, April 19, 2012

Totalitarian technology

Wired has a down-beat article on what's come of Singapore, which twenty years ago looked like it was on the fast road to technology utopia. I'm old enough to remember the William Gipson article that bemoaned Singapore's combination of totalitarian control and seemingly visionary planning. Sadly -- or happily, depending on your perspective -- not much has come of those visionary plans. Singapore is still a centrally-planned, repressive state, and those big dreams never made it much past the planning stages.

This article should be of interest to anyone who thinks China will be the next big thing in the technical world. We know enough about innovation to be pretty sure that two elements are required: lots of money, and a vibrant idea economy in which inspirations can build on top of one another. China has no shortage of money, and with their enormous population they certainly have plenty of people to dream up the next big thing, but the Communist government remains allergic to radical ideas and non-conformist styles of thinking. I've seen China's ultimate success celebrated in some quarters as if it's only a matter of time, but Singapore's counter-example raises very interesting questions. China may, in short, need to choose between control and innovation. If it comes to a choice, my money is on the government opting for power over prosperity.

On a wider front, is it realistically possible for a government -- any government -- to set up a tech hub like Silicon Valley by way of careful design and top-down planning? It's hard to imagine that a bureaucracy wouldn't screw it up in some way, through bad laws, bad plans, or simple inertia. If it was that easy to foster hotbeds of ideas and innovation, we'd have more and better examples of such communities to talk about.