Peters pall falls over report

Just as a draft report on information and communications technology opportunities was emphasising we might need skills from overseas, a row was blowing up from the Winston Peters quarter, playing to a deep xenophobic thread in Kiwi character.

It was one of those unfortunate coincidences of politics. Just as a draft report on information and communications technology (ICT) opportunities was emphasising that we might need skills from overseas, a row was blowing up from the Winston Peters quarter, playing simplistically to what I see as a deep xenophobic thread in the New Zealand character.

It wasn’t so long ago, after all, that we tried to be a Robinson Crusoe economy, making our own cars and televisions, and considering overseas products and culture somewhat suspect and corrupting. We have a deplorable historical record of treatment of immigrants, particularly Chinese. And even today the mask of the courteous tourist host slips alarmingly when a “foreigner” encounters a Kiwi in a near collision on the road. I speak from personal experience.

A third factor, toughened English-language tests for immigrants, was played by the government as a coincidence; but it looked suspiciously like a sop to a minor party and a perceived public mood.

The taskforce report’s authors played down the apparent conflict, saying anyone of a high enough standard to take part in the local ICT industry would have sufficient English-language skills to pass the test anyway.

I’m not sure. I’ve known people participating competently in New Zealand IT, with English whose understanding took some intelligent guesses and repetitions. They are competent where it matters, and New Zealand colleagues rightly show tolerance elsewhere.

In talking IT with one of these people and a compatriot of his, I found I could understand much “computer-German,” with its sprinkling of English jargon and acronyms. Most ordinary conversational German goes over my head. My German friend was similarly at home in computer-English, as I suspect any Indian, or Chinese geek would be.

Working with the internationally standard innards of an operating system or popular application would take less adaptation than learning your way round New Zealand suburbs as a taxi-driver.

More important than any practical barrier is the impression these restrictions give of us as a nation friendly or unfriendly to skilled immigrants. At this unfortunate moment, we are veering in the direction of unfriendly.

If we value expertise in IT and telecomms, it should count towards a total of points, with English proficiency simply another contributor to that total. If you have more computer knowledge, we’ll pardon you a little less English.

Another attitudinal change we must embrace, the taskforce says, is to science and technology. We often hear that computing is no longer about maths. Well, evidently it is; the common feature among successful ICT entrepreneurs in a recent survey, we were told, was their high mark in algebra at school. Mathematical and logical skills are important, said a taskforce member. I don’t remember logic being part of the syllabus at my (English) school, and it certainly isn’t at my daughters’. Witness AltaVista having to relaunch its search engine assuming its customers are unlikely to be competent in Boolean algebra (see AltaVista relaunches itself ... as a search engine).

A striking comment on New Zealand young people’s attitude to science came a few years ago from botanist David Bellamy. He is proud of being a scientist and he tells our young people that. But worryingly few of them look to science or technology as a career. Scientists, to their mind, aid industrialists to pollute the environment, says Bellamy.

Try a simple test on any teenager. What adjective would he/she associate most readily with “scientist”? You’ll probably hear “mad”. And “genius”? “Evil”. There’s your problem.

That negative attitude will take some turning around when our government is willing to spend $600,000 to set up a database of “alternative” healing practitioners (see Work starts on alt.health database). A Health Ministry that does that, and a national ethos that tolerates it, is one that is clearly finding it hard (or perhaps politically inexpedient) to distinguish science from superstition.

Dunedin IT entrepreneur Ian Taylor points to the evident public appeal of a display at the Viaduct Basin praising the achievement of technologically skilled staff alongside the muscular sailors who are the more typical hero figures of the America’s Cup effort.

It’s a small encouraging sign; but I’ll believe it’s getting some traction in the public consciousness when I see “exclusive pictures” of the wedding of a local IT figure or accounts of a night-club brawl between two of them attracting prominent coverage in the mainstream press or women’s magazines.

Oracle’s visiting boss has been trying his best for (positive) coverage, but you’re not a Kiwi, Larry; you don’t count.

Where our national attitude is concerned, we have a long way to go yet.

Bell is a Wellington-based reporter for Computerworld. Send letters for publication in Computerworld to Computerworld Letters.

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