The Reading Room

MacTaggart Lecture: Eric Schmidt

I finally got round to watching Google CEO Eric Schmidt’s MacTaggart lecture onĀ youtube. The annual lecture, in memory of the pioneering and innovative writer, producer and director James MacTaggart, is the showpiece of the Edinburgh International Television Festival with previous speakers including Jeremy Paxman, Dennis Potter and James Murdoch. Schmidt’s lecture was eagerly awaited as he is the first CEO of a technology company to give the lecture. For me, it was probably the most insightful Mctaggart lecture ever delivered but there was one thing that really struck me; his strong belief that the UK had to rediscover its IT roots if it is to have success in the digital media economy.

We’ve all known that the next Mark Zuckerburg is more likely to come from California than from Shorditch but he reminded us that it didn’t have to be this way and also just how far we have come from Alan Turing. Some of the interesting extracts are below.

“If I may be so impolite, your track record isn’t great.”

“The UK is home of so many media-related inventions. You invented photography. You invented TV. You invented computers in both concept and practice.”

“It’s not widely known, but the world’s first office computer was built in 1951 by Lyons’ chain of tea shops. Yet today, none of the world’s leading exponents in these fields are from the UK.”

He said he had been flabbergasted to learn that computer science was not taught as standard in UK schools, despite what he called the “fabulous initiative” in the 1980s when the BBC not only broadcast programmes for children about coding, but shipped over a million BBC Micro computers into schools and homes.

“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,” he said.

He said the UK needed to bring art and science back together, as it had in the “glory days of the Victorian era” when Lewis Carroll wrote one of the classic fairy tales, Alice in Wonderland, and was also a mathematics tutor at Oxford.”

“It was a time when the same people that wrote poetry also built bridges… James Clerk Maxwell was described by Einstein as among the best physicists since Newton – but was also a published poet.”

“Over the past century the UK has stopped nurturing its polymaths. There’s been a drift to the humanities – engineering and science aren’t championed. Even worse, both sides seem to denigrate each other – to use what I’m told is the local vernacular, you’re either a ‘luvvy’ or a ‘boffin’. PS

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