Bad Ha Joon Chang, Bad Chang

Arguably the most successful state enterprise in human history, however, is the United States military, which has almost single-handedly established the modern information economy. The development of the computer was initially funded by the US army; the country’s navy financed the research that created the semiconductor; and the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency developed the Arpanet, the precursor of the internet.

Yup. Military funding of the basic research was indeed involved. And then, because such knowledge is indeed a public good, a public good that had been funded by taxpayers, they gave that knowledge away.

All of which is a very different point from the one that Chang is trying to prove here, which is that state run companies are a good idea. Indeed, I would argue that it’s precisely because DARPA and the others *only* finance the original research and do not try to take a stake in it or direct its commercial exploitation that the system works.

21 comments on “Bad Ha Joon Chang, Bad Chang

  1. He also rather missed the most important point, the US military hasn’t managed to win a significant conflict it’s got involved in since WW2, so much for all that government planning……

  2. Perhaps someone needs a deedpoll change to Mahjong Hoon…

    Or would that get the wombats too excited?

  3. I don’t know if you quote cut out some context (and there’s no way I’m following a grauniad link), but I wonder how much funding from the US military was given to Babbage, Zuse, Flowers, and Lyons.

    I’m sure everyone on here has heard of Babbage.

    Konrad Zuse built the world’s first programmable computer (the Z3) in 1941, in Germany.

    Tommy Flowers built Colossus, the world’s first programmable electronic computer, for the Bletchley Park codebreakers in 1944. Chang might claim credit for the state here, as Flowers was working for the GPO; however, he designed it in his spare time and only later got build permission and parts from his manager. Flowers was reimbursed £1000 by the government after the war to cover his personal investment in equipment, but was still seriously out of pocket.

    Lyons (the tea business) designed, built and sold the worlds first commercial business computer, the LEO (Lyons Electronic Office.) It was first used within Lyons in 1951. The LEO business was spun off, and in 1968 was forced to merge with other UK electronics companies by that central planning genius the 2nd Viscount Stansgate. Continued state meddling in the business saw it ditch commercially successful lines in favour of obsolete and incompatible ones which were mainly sold to the UK public sector (presumably at vastly inflated prices!) Benn had decreed that choice and competition were best served by having a single provider for each business sector. So we can see a direct contrast between the state’s central planning, and the free market’s innovation.

    I guess Chang is crediting the ‘computer’ to the US Army’s ENIAC, which was not switched on until 1946.

  4. BiW, interesting. So Labour f*cked up the nascent British computer industry just as they did (and with the same methods) the aerospace and motor industries.

  5. BiW:
    Didn’t Babbage do a lot of the preliminary thinking on this and Edward Teller follow on from his theories, or am I thinking of something else?

  6. Babbage’s difference engine was built later on and is in the National Science Museum. Astonishing. I believe he also had himself baked in an oven to see what would happen. I should like to bake Chang, a bit more, for the same end.

  7. “the most successful state enterprise in human history, however, is the United States military”: in the era he refers to they’ve been jolly good at winning battles, pretty poor at winning wars. Maybe they should have stuck to funding basic research and outsourced fighting?

  8. @David Moore

    “the US military hasn’t managed to win a significant conflict”

    It hasn’t? Wouldn’t both Iraq conflicts be considered as military victories, the second one pissed away by the civilian-led operation.

  9. I second what Bloke in Wales said.
    Lefties don’t let the facts get in the way of their arguments – an economics professor from Massachusetts, writing in the FT, credits the US government for the long-term funding of the innovation that created railroads, agricultural science, medical science and public universities … I never knew that Alfred the Great was an American!

  10. He’s got the wrong end of the stick on Continental government-owned businesses.

    In most cases in the 19thC it was considered essential not to be left behind in the “white heat” of technological advance. A lot of these countries simply didn’t have the experience or knowledge to invest in and build the infrastructure (e.g. railways, telegraph). The Austrians had a sort of State/Private hybrid for its railways from the 1860s ( much of it owned by French capitalists). So the governments bought in the expertise to start the process. Why do you think that there are football teams called AC Milan and FC Vienna out there ?

  11. The US military is an awesome machine which could start a war anywhere in the world and pretty much be home in time for tea and scones (or cookies and malts).

    Trouble is, the civilians and politicians keep getting in the way.

    Thousands of British and US (and Danish, French etc) squaddies have died in eg Afghanistan because of some fairly ridiculous ROE.

  12. If by “semiconductor”, Chang means transistor then he’s wrong. The transistor as we know it was invented by John Bardeen and Walter Brattain at AT&T’s Bell Labs in the United States.

    Shockley, Bardeen, and Brattain were jointly awarded the 1956 Nobel Prize in Physics “for their researches on semiconductors and their discovery of the transistor effect.”

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transistor

  13. Bloke in Wales said: “Lyons (the tea business) designed, built and sold the worlds first commercial business computer, the LEO (Lyons Electronic Office.) ”

    Thanks for that information. I hadn’t heard of it before. Very interesting to wonder what might have been. Same old story of the UK Government trying to compete with US companies by mashing together businesses and making them produce crap.

  14. “Bad Ha Joon Chang, Bad Chang”

    Not an accurate title for this piece. Sounds more like the time I dropped parts of my drum kit down the stairs.

  15. The Met Office and British Rail bought downtime on Leo before they had their own computers, BR to do quite sophisticated network optimisation calculations.

    The history of the internet ought to include minor elements like tcp/ipnetworking and DNS that came from universities, not the state.

  16. No-one has yet mentioned software that in my youth was dominated by Fortran (an IBM language) and Algol – developed by individuals who did not like the domination of software by a corporation. Analogous to Microsoft and Firefox.
    Neither the US nor any other military had anything to do with Algol or Firefox and as far as anyone can see Fortran and Windows are wholly commercial ventures funded by private capital.

  17. Doug,

    “It hasn’t? Wouldn’t both Iraq conflicts be considered as military victories, the second one pissed away by the civilian-led operation.”

    Plenty of military victories no doubt, they won the Tet Offensive in Vietnam and destroyed the Viet Cong as a fighting force for example. But what is that worth if those facts make no actual difference to the eventual outcome?

    The US military is usually the wrong answer being applied to the wrong question. Doesn’t that sum up state driven things to a very large extent?

  18. Peter Risdon,

    “The history of the internet ought to include minor elements like tcp/ipnetworking and DNS that came from universities, not the state.”

    TCP/IP was a DARPA thing, but it’s really just another network protocol. OK, more advanced than others but that’s an evolutionary rather than revolutionary step. Left to the market, we’d have got something just like it.

    And realistically, it’s a tiny fraction of what most people think of as “the internet”. All the rest of it like you say DNS, and also the browsers, HTML, CSS, Javascript and all the services that we use as a result are a mix of academic, commercial and activist endeavour.

    I think it’s also worth pointing out that if you look at all government funding successes (and you can include the World Wide Web and GPS), they never involved a politician making a speech or political support. They were by-products of other things. You never had Thatcher saying that she would fund the development of a hypertext information exchange system. It was Tim Berners-Lee and Robert Caillau in the IT function of CERN just doing it. There was never a news item on the front page about Reagan declaring that GPS should be for everyone upon completion. Or to put it another way – we may sometimes get “winners” from state spending, but they’re accidents rather than by attempting to pick them. The money poured into stuff that politicians make speeches about – car companies, manned space programmes, mega sporting events is nearly always a disaster.

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