news Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull has again engaged in a highly public clash of wills with technology innovator and futurist Mark Pesce, over whether Labor’s flagship National Broadband Network policy is the right way forward for Australia’s telecommunications industry.
The pair first clashed publicly in April this year on the ABC’s The Drum opinion-based discussion show, on which occasion Turnbull notably told Pesce, an advocate for the NBN, that he needed to “lay off the kool-aid” with respect to the fibre-optic technology on which most of the network will be built. The pair’s at-times vitriolic exchange was captured for posterity on YouTube.
Round two was fought late last week on Twitter. Although the conversation was initially cordial, it quickly descended to the same level as the previous verbal stand-off between the pair. “If we had an NBN, we could videoconference out meetings, rather than flying to them on Qantas,” Pesce wrote in the wake of the Qantas industrial relations debacle and linking the tweet to Turnbull’s account.
The Liberal MP quickly fired back: “But you don’t need [fibre to the home] to achieve the bandwidth to enable that,” he said. “NBN is a needlessly expensive and anticompetitive way to achieve universal fast broadband. From there the discussion quickly disintegrated into rounds of insults. Pesce said facts indicated that Turnbull “radically underestimated” the broadband speeds which Australians wanted to upgrade to and accused the MP of moving “from engagement to ad hominem attacks”, which he said was a sign that Turnbull had lost the argument “again”. “Yeah, Twitter, I’m done schooling @turnbullmalcolm,” he wrote, “Your turn.”
“Now you have moved from technology to theology,” Turnbull told Pesce at one point. And then, when Pesce referred to the so-called Gilder’s Law of the growing bandwidth of communications systems: “This type of exponential growth assumption needs to be checked against reality.”
“In the Lotus123 era we called mindless extrapolation the \copy school of modelling,” Turnbull wrote.
Both Turnbull and Pesce have a fair degree of experience in the technology sector. Pesce is perhaps best known for his stint as a judge on the ABC’s The New Inventor’s program, but he has also worked for a number of technology firms including Apple, and spearheaded the invention of the Virtual Reality Modelling Language in the 1990’s. Pesce is currently based in Sydney and is a lecturer, commentator, author and developer.
Turnbull’s closest engagement with the technology sector came in the late 1990’s courtesy of his chairmanship and investment in now-defunct ISP OzEmail, which has been sold several times since. However, his investment company has also taken holdings in a number of other Internet companies. He was appointed as Shadow Communications Minister in late 2010.
What we have here is an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object.
I’ve met and observed both Turnbull and Pesce a number of times over the past few years, and there is no doubt that they are each other’s equal when it comes to sheer willpower. When you consider their differing political ideologies (for example, Pesce recently re-tweeted a tweet calling for Qantas to be nationalised, while Turnbull is a staunch traditional liberal), it is no wonder that they continue to clash.
There is perhaps one difference I have observed between them, however. Over the past year, Turnbull’s views on broadband have continually evolved and developed as he has greatly enhanced his understanding of the field. Turnbull is willing to give ground in an argument if he can see that he’s wrong, and in his discussion with Pesce, he did attempt to get the futurist to question his own views on broadband through questions. In addition, Turnbull’s argument was based on real-world uses of technology — rather than its theoretical strengths.
Pesce, on the other hand, took an approach which I have found to be more common amongst technologists: Asserting the primacy of technology and the speed of technological development against all arguments, with less consideration for societal uses of that technology and its financial cost.
Watching the discussion happen between the pair was fascinating. Contained in their little war of words might be the entirety of the national broadband debate. Idealist technologists on the one hand, waving their blazing branches of progress, with realists like Turnbull calling for moderation and rational prognostication on the other. Very interesting ;)
Image credit: Screen cap of Turnbull and Pesce on ABC’s The Drum, believed to be fair use