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Schmidt bewails Blighty's boffin-v-luvvie culture clash

You Limeys and your rubbish school IT courses

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Comment "The more one pleases generally, the less one pleases profoundly" – Stendahl

Eric Schmidt had two objectives in the TV industry keynote he delivered last Friday evening, apart from getting out of Edinburgh alive. Those objectives were simple: plug Google, and plug the internet. Schmidt went about this by being self-deprecating and devoting much of his time to buttering up the audience, which was memorably once described to me as "TV's bottom-feeders". As a result, his speech was wide-ranging but fawning and bland.

Meanwhile, the audience listening to Schmidt appears more confident than ever that when it comes to TV, Google is the wrong company with the wrong plan.

The part of the speech calculated to "generate debate" was a short passage lamenting the absence of "polymaths".

"There's been a drift to the humanities – engineering and science aren't championed. Even worse, both sides seem to denigrate the other – to use what I'm told is the local vernacular, you're either a 'luvvy' or a 'boffin'," said Schmidt, adding that:

"Your IT curriculum focuses on teaching how to use software, but gives no insight into how it's made. That is just throwing away your great computing heritage."

Well, that part is true: but it's only part of a larger dumbing-down of education in order to meet government targets – Goodhart's Law in practice. The teaching of geography, history, basic maths and English has (arguably) become even weaker than science teaching in recent years. How else does one explain that almost half (44 per cent) of employers have to teach basic literacy to school leavers? Or that teachers try their best to dissuade pupils from taking hard sciences, knowing it will bump the school down the league tables? One pupil choosing a science subject over "soft" subjects can cause a school to drop 50 places. Including such observations into the speech would have given it real impact.

As would lamenting some of the rigour of what passes for computer science these days – I'm thinking of "web sciences" (more here). But Schmidt was hardly going to go there, was he?

Schmidt's speechwriter – and one sees the work of the wondrous Sarah Hunter in this – fails to realise that while "luvvie" is always used pejoratively, "boffin" is almost always used affectionately. "Geek", if anything, is the pejorative equivalent.

Schmidt mentioned antitrust issues without really addressing them, and accused his accusers of protectionism.

"Consumers are the ones in the driving seat – all we're doing is hitching a ride; and the door is open to anyone. Online, competition is only ever a click away, and there is more of it than ever. As history has shown, it's common for once-leading online services to become out-innovated and overtaken. Our rivals are formidable innovators and who knows what new start-up stars will join the fray."

He also repeated the dodgy statistic that "the internet accounted for over 7 per cent of GDP in 2010: £100bn". The figure comes from a Google-commissioned report. It is dodgy because it adds up the retail value of goods sold over the internet in the UK.

As for Google's own platform, he presented a determinism that people in the audience found patronising.

"Doubts have been raised over whether personalisation to this extent is even desirable for society. There's a fear that filters will become so narrow, we'll wind up living in a bubble of our own prejudice," said Schmidt.

"In practical terms – what's the alternative?" he then asked. "Without some form of filtering, we would drown in information. So the real question is, if not personalisation, what kind of filtering should we have? The nanny model where someone else has the power to dictate what you should and shouldn't see? Or the lucky dip model where things are plucked out at random? To my mind, both these alternatives to personalisation are far worse."

For alternatives, ask HBO or AMC. The business plan there is very simple: you pay for the TV, and they make stunning programmes. Or the BBC of old, which with a charter to enlighten people, went about making quite mind-expanding factual TV, oblivious to accusations of "elitism".

Google is very much in a straitjacket: it's a classified ad-broker and Google's technology is geared towards feeding those machines. Its vision of TV advertising is narrow and constrained, and hasn't changed in years.

It's much like Bill Gates' idea of TV – and while Schmidt pleaded for more companies to be led by engineers, when Gates and Schmidt attempt to do "the vision thing", it isn't a great advertisement for companies led by engineers.

Schmidt unctuously praised almost every constituency there: BBC, Sky, ITV and the independents, as well as lamenting the regulation that kyboshed Project Kangaroo. ITV was shackled by onerous regulation (such as the CRR rules, which are going anyway), and Schmidt sympathised.

The answer to the criticism that Google takes more out of the UK than it puts in – it pays no tax – was addressed like this:

"We provide platforms for people to engage with content and, through automated software, we show ads next to content that owners have chosen to put up. But we have neither the ambition nor the know-how to actually produce content on a large scale. Trust me, if you gave people at Google free rein to produce TV you'd end up with a lot of bad sci-fi!"

We don't doubt that. But whether Google is the right technology partner for TV companies looks as iffy as it did on Thursday.

At least he didn't do a Steve McLaren, and deliver it in a faux Scottish accent. ®

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