Apple Stomping on the Shoulders of Giants

This is from the i paper, by Andrew Johnson, titled “Without public funding, there is no iphone” or much else, for that matter:

Hands up who likes paying tax? No one? Thought so. While most of us recognise it’s a necessary burden there are others – often the very wealthy – who don’t like to pay any at all. Tech entrepreneurs in articular just don’t seem to get the concept.

This week Tim Cook CEO of apple, has railed agains the European Union for landing his company with a €13bn (£11bn) tax bill, describing it as “political crap” even though Apple is sitting on huge assets of more than $300bn.

“It’s maddening and disappointing,” he said. “This comes from a political place It has no basis in fact or in law.”

“Investment and jobs” is usually the canard that’s wheeled out for the anti-tax argument. But tech companies don’t employ that many people, comparatively. Apple, the biggest company in the world, employs around 100,000 people directly worldwide. When General Motors was the biggest company in the world in the 1950s it employed around 600,000, meaning huge amounts of income flowed back into countries’ economies.

But that’s not what really gets my goat about the tech heads. It’s the fact that there would be no internet, tech revolution, or fortunes for the likes of Cook without huge amounts of public investment paid for the taxpayers of the UK, USA, Soviet Union and even, let’s say it, Nazi Germany, over decades.

Every major technology on an iPhone – the GPS system, the touch screen, the internet – owes its development to publicly funded research. The infrastructure of the internet, for example, was developed by the US Defense Department, the old British General Post Office, UCLA and the Stanford Research Institute.

The interface that makes it easy to use, known as the World Wide Web, was developed at Cern in Switzerland by Sir Tim Berners-Lee. GPS the system of 30-odd satellites which circle the Earth, was developed by the US military and made available for civilian use in 1983.

Satellites are launched into space on rockets developed initially by Nazi scientists, who were then whisked away to work for the Americans and Russians. Most satellites were launched by states. Private launches only began in 2010.

And let’s not forget computers themselves, which were developed during the Second World War at Bletchley Park to crack the German Enigma code. After the war, few could foresee a use for them. Who needs a counting machine as big as a house? Again, the answer was the US military, in order to work out the chain reaction of a nuclear explosion – which is the why the US pumped trillions into computer research.

Of course, without the Steve Jobs and Bill Gates of the world, who took the technology and ran with it, we wouldn’t have smartphones or laptops. But the point is that no one knows where publicly funded research now till lead to.

By taking huge sums out of the economy and sitting on them, the billionaires who only made their fortunes because of the tax paid by previous generations could deny the next generation their ow tech and economic revolution.   

As I often write, early science in Britain especially, was very much about openness and sharing of information. That knowledge should be used for the greater public good.This principle is part of the appeal of science for its practitioners – science transcends national and religious boundaries and is a unique environment for sharing ideas and for social progress.

Newton is generally attributed with the quote ‘If I have seen further it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants’. But the idea, and possibly the quote predates him. The English friar Francis Bacon wrote a novel, ‘The New Atlantis’ in 1624, a utopian novel that promoted the concept of experimentation and testing, of the sharing and collaboration to replace the blind trust in ancient texts. This was also the basis of the founding of the Royal Society which continues to support this practice.

As Johnson claims, wealthy tech firms are the ultimate beneficiaries, not only of tax funded research, but he work of lots of individuals who have tinkered, and tested and discussed and dreamed up new concepts and technology. The likes of Cook are not just greedy, they are an insult to the long and proud history of science and research by ordinary people, as well as the money of taxpayers.

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