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Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The tragedy of short-sighted LNP Governments

Menzies era 'lost a lead in technology'

The Menzies' Government was responsible for Australia's dependency on imported computer technology, according to the Federal Opposition spokesman on science and technology, Mr Barry Jones.

He said that government made a "conscious political decision not to develop" an Australian computer industry.

Mr Jones made the comments to delegates attending the Institute of Engineers' conference on computers, held in Melbourne last week.

“The tragedy was that short-sightedness by the Menzies' Government (stopped Australia) . . . from taking a leading role in the development of the computer industry," he said.

"Even worse, it has forced Australia into total dependence on overseas computer suppliers, mostly from the United States and Japan."

To make his point, Mr Jones cited import figures: "Australia spends $13.60 on computer imports for every dollar spent locally.

"The next greatest imbalance between imports and local production is in Spain; the equivalent of $5.90 for every dollar."

He warned that even Britain, so often written off in high technology areas, still managed to strike an even balance

And the pity of it all, he said, was that in the 1940s Australia was a pioneer in computer hardware.

"'Australia produced one of the earliest first-generation computers, originally called CSIRO Mark 1 Automatic Computer, and later renamed CSIRAC.

"It was probably the fourth or fifth stored-programme computer in the world."

CSIRAC was designed in 1947 by Maston Beard and Trevor Pearcey, who worked in the CSIRO's radiophysics division in Sydney.

Mr Jones accused the computer industry of preoccupying itself with gadgetry, without thinking about the consequences.

"Your 'gee-whiz' enthusiasm for the hardware produced by your industry is infectious, but you ought to devote a few moments of thought . . . to these questions: Who are the beneficiaries? Who pays the social price?"

He blamed technologists for being more preoccupied with the medium, than the message.

"I would like to think that you purveyors of information technology were interested in information for its own sake; for ideas and concepts which are the substance of the Western intellectual tradition . . . rather than the technology.

"I see no evidence that you are.

And Mr Jones berated them, adding: "Where are the thinkers among you?"

He warned that the control of information technology could divide society into two groups: the "information rich", who would take an active role in dominating the business world, and the "information poor", those who played a passive programmed role. "Australia already has the heaviest concentration of media ownership of any Western nation," Mr Jones said.

"And after the ABC is dismembered, this concentration will grow even tighter."

And apart from the attendant stress induced by the "knowledge explosion" — the inability to keep up with it all — there was little indication that this knowledge was filtering through all sectors of society.

An education study tabled last year, revealed that 49 per cent of 15-year-olds in NSW had a reading comprehension level below the competence "required for a fully literate adult life."

"The possession of a large data base is no guarantee that the quality of public understanding, debate or decision making will be any better," Mr Jones said.

Finally, he warned the engineers that a pre-occupation with the present — in the sense that only the latest information was relevant, and that old data may be misleading — was emotionally destructive.

This attitude disrupted our personal sense of history, damaging both our individual and collective view of life.

Source: The Age, Tuesday 8 September 1981, page 37