Fear and Brexit in Tech City: Digital 'elite' are having a nervous breakdown
Who will pour cash into our disruptive apps?
Comment As Brexit sends London's tech sector and Silicon Roundabout into post-traumatic shock, and protesters out onto the streets of London, inventor Andrew Fentem wonders "what sort of hippy free-for-all is this anyway?"
While some sections of the British press celebrate the Brexit vote in the UK, in the technology press there has been much gnashing of teeth and rending of garments.
Forbes interviewed a clearly traumatised Brent Hoberman – of Lastminute.com fame – who seems to be in need of a reassuring cuddle: "People feeling rejection. I think this is what the Leave campaign underestimated: the psychology of rejecting openness."
Sensitive Brent's words will no doubt remind Peep Show fans of this classic scene.
Preening international elitists like Hoberman are exactly what Brexit voters so dislike. While the self-styled “digital elite” talk in therapy-speak about European peace, love, and understanding, they are masking their true motivation – which is the freedom to exploit low-cost mobile tech labour. Cheap labour was the top reason cited by Tech City startups for voting Remain.
Whatever happens after Brexit, tech poseurs will remain in the UK because the global elite just love London – it's a wealthy, well-connected, cool, creative city with a ready supply of precarious labour and an impressive money-laundering infrastructure.
Last week, I met up with a friend who is the head of software for a large, well-known British technology company. Like a lot of the Remainers in the tech press, he was complaining that he had to do most of his recruitment abroad – such as from Eastern Europe. So I asked him what levels of salaries he was offering. The answer, it turned out, was £25k a year for junior roles. I was quite shocked. In the very early 1990s I was briefly employed as a junior coder and was paid about the going rate back then: £19k. Since those days, general compound inflation has been approximately 100 per cent, and rents have increased approximately 200 per cent.
When I asked why they were offering so little, my friend replied that with the EU’s mandatory freedom of movement, the owners of the company "know that they can get away with it".
In the early stages of my career I was an engineering apprentice and benefited from a considerable amount of on-the-job training. Apparently British tech employers no longer feel the need to provide that, either.
Meanwhile, over at the BBC – among their deluge of Project Fear articles – was a piece about London's apparently endangered Tech City. What is most interesting about this BBC article – and is unwittinglyly ironic to the point of satire – is the image they used to illustrate the UK's thrusting tech sector. The photo is of a young man sitting alone in an empty cafe with his laptop, presumably waiting for his next tech gig.
This not a picture of UK tech success – this is a picture of the precariat: no steady job, not even a desk to work at, living in cramped and expensive housing. These same young people have spent this past weekend petitioning, protesting, and marching for the right to be further exploited.
Silicon Roundabout is not an economic phenomenon, it’s a lifestyle scene, and this “tech lifestyle” is underpinned by taxpayers' money. The European Union is the biggest investor in UK venture capital firms, according to Adrian Drodz of Frost & Sullivan
The beneficiaries of this public money in Silicon Roundabout are simply disguising their self-interest as modernity.
During these protests, I received an email from a well-known Silicon Roundabout innovation agency urging their mailing list to “Save the UK” by signing a referendum petition. I reminded a worried friend that in 1974 (when I was very small) the UK only had commercial electricity for three days a week, and sometimes after school we would just sit in the silent darkness until bedtime. Amazingly, the UK survived.
For growth: look beyond Silicon Roundabout and beyond the EU
KPMG's sensible head of technology, Tudor Aw, also sought to reassure us, saying that, "Technology is a sector that will only increase in importance and works without borders." He's right. Speaking personally, very few of my own activities in the high-tech sector have involved anyone in the EU; almost all of the significant collaboration offers that I have received over the years have come from the US, China, South Korea, Japan, and from within the UK. The EU has primarily been a source of legal headaches – as I explained here on The Register two weeks ago.
Moving on from Brexit and the referendum, what will damage the UK more than Brexit is a continuation of the angst and disunity being driven by the losing Remain camp’s Project Fear. I suggest that, in the interests of true peace and understanding, technology entrepreneurs, VCs and pundits take a break from jetting between London, Berlin, and New York, and instead go on a Brexit Safari – taking in the delights of Grantham, Sunderland, Bolton and Merthyr Tydfil.
Brent – you can have that one for free. ®
Andrew Fentem has worked in human-computer interaction research and hardware development for over 30 years. He pioneered multitouch surface technologies before Apple entered the field. His recent work includes Flick Pixels, a programmable fabric display technology.