Sunday, 13 May 2012

Maker? WTF is a maker?

By happenstance - as I just don't bother reading the news much these days much less specific papers - I came across this interesting article about the 'hacker culture' this morning in the age.

First i've ever heard hackers wanting to be known as 'makers'. Sounds a bit faffy and overly-pc if you ask me. I had seen 'maker' sites, but I thought that was just a brand-name, and not a movement ...

I have no problem calling myself a hacker, but then again it's not like i'm talking to anyone but myself ;-)

George finishes with the question: could Australia develop it's own 'Silicon Valley'? And I think the answer is simple: No, no it couldn't.


First, there is the education system. Computers are now just mechanisms for running software from Microsoft, Apple, Adobe, or other large US companies. One doesn't start with an 'introduction to computers' covering 'word processing, spreadsheeds, and programming', all you get is: Microsoft Excel, Microsoft Word. If one progresses ever past that point it is merely to 'Photoshop', or maybe avoiding stalkers on the intertubes.

In primary school we had one Commodore 64 in the whole school and as a `bonus' for finishing class work early we sometimes got to type in computer programmes (often from Compute!, which used it's own checksummed number entry system - so it was pages of hexadecimal numbers). High school had a pool of crappy Apple ]['s, but even then word-processing, 'desktop publishing' and spread-sheets were only a small part of the course, which ended with programming. And this was in year 8.

Gone are the days when education was about educating people, now it's just low-level training for stuff anyone who will ever work in the field has already done before they start school: using a mouse, using a crappy 'word processor' (which sadly, is still just as crap as they were back then: i.e. a fancy type-writer), and how to run an internet search.

Hackers of course have always gone beyond the education system, but if you're repeatedly told that computer software systems are locked up private applications which no user serviceable parts, it has to have some impact.

Also this notion of training for specific products that 'industry wants' is utter nonsense. First, you will never cover enough in high school (or even TAFE) to avoid on-the-job training specific to the business needs. And second you are always much better off being exposed to as many different systems as possible. The human brain is an incredible organ, and even more-so during developmental years: like any adaptive system, the more you expose it to, the stronger and more robust it becomes. Intentionally crippling its development by limiting it's exposure to alternatives borders on criminal.


Systems are so much more complex than they were back when Silicon Valley got it's start. Not only to write code for, but expectations are much higher.

Back in the day I could spend a whole weekend typing in a bit of BASIC to get an animated lo-res horse-sprite running across the screen and I was impressed enough just with that. And even then; the actual code required just wasn't that much and you were talking directly to well designed simple hardware. You literally could design a whole computer itself on the back of a napkin, let alone the software.

Today you need a bulky IDE to get very far, to learn some gigantic and usually poorly documented toolkit, which goes through another toolkit, through an operating system, then a driver, and if you're lucky to the screen. And you don't feel satisfied until you've come up with the next billionaire-making 'killer app'. And to make matters worse the hardware is devilishly complex; so complex it never really gets working properly and needs to be hidden behind layers of drivers and high level apis - which it necessarily must be for an operating system to function - but makes it that much more challenging to understand what is going on (which as a hacker: you need to know sometimes).

The barrier to entry is huge, and for all intents beyond the reach of most individuals. This leads them to believe there's no point in trying, and creating software is exclusively for the great wizards who doth do such things (and must be paid accordingly).

This complexity affects every level: so beyond the individual then you have large complex systems which take many man-years to create.

Silicon Valley also had a unique combination of hardware and software mixed together allowing both to leap ahead in bounds together - something which would only be possible in China or Taiwan at the moment. But they're not interested in the software or the hardware design, just in making throw-away junk cheaper than everyone else.

Fucked up Legal system

And then we get to patents and so on. It is now impossible for anyone to create any piece of useful hardware or software without stomping on someone's stupid patent in the USA. Which means effectively everywhere in the world as all of our local politicians have kowtowed to the almighty US dollar and wont dare to argue for their or our own interests.

It would simply be impossible for Silicon Valley to become Silicon Valley in today's legal environment. The whole notion was based on a solid foundation of sharing of ideas and people, and a free flow of money. This latter point alone rules out Australia ever being more than a bit-player in the game, things just aren't done that way here.

The USA wouldn't let us

So this is related to the previous point, but the legal system is just one tool they use for this.

The USA is the dominant military, political, cultural, and financial force of the day. They do not let anything get in the way of that dominance. Anyone who thinks otherwise just hasn't been paying attention.

e.g. The H1B visa programme in the USA isn't about US companies not being able to get enough talent at home; it's about preventing any of the talent from being used by competitors.

If Australia ever had a Silicon Valley it would only be at the divine blessing of the USA. It would almost certainly be in the form of a 'technological partnership' with an IBM, or a university. And these are just talent syphoning systems.

Pretty unlikely for that matter - just not enough people, too high wages, that's why they've set-up shop in India and elsewhere.

The tyranny of distance, money, etc

Australia is just too big and too thinly populated to create a high enough density of a specific type of people needed for such a thing to occur. Not to mention too parochial - although a lot of people would travel interstate for work, plenty wouldn't.

The NBN has the potential to remove the distance factor, but even if that ever gets done properly - it just doesn't create enough connectedness for it to work effectively. If people aren't excitedly talking about their latest idea in the pub with competitors the ideas just aren't sharing quickly enough (this will be silicon valley's downfall - already a lot of the exiting stuff is happening elsewhere).

And you need all that excess money to throw at random ideas as well. Which basically means you have some source of free money - imperialism, oil, the world's trading currency, or somesuch.

We will never have that here. And even the great source of free money here at the moment - mining - only seems to produce overweight greedy arseholes (an unusually number of whom are remarkably fugly to boot) who have no interests beyond their own fat arses.

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