90% Sturgeon; 10% the Whingeing POMs.

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Introduction.

Andy Mindlin, a friend of mine from my professional days, suggested I read an article in the Wall Street Journal about Silicon Valley and why it became a successful major centre of high-tech innovation and expertise according to Silicon Valley venture capitalist, Marc Andreessen. To elaborate. Silicon Valley is the area just south of San Francisco starting at Redwood City and progressing south to Los Gatos, south-east to Menlo Park, Mountain View, Milpitas and San Jose, and south-west to Los Altos and Saratoga. Well-known high-tech companies such as Apple, Alphabet (Google), Cisco, Meta (Facebook), Zoom and many more originated in and are now headquartered in Silicon Valley. Highly-rated Stanford University is located in Stanford near the top end of Silicon Valley. As for Marc Andreessen, you may not have heard of him but he co-founded a company called Netscape in Mountain View in 1994 which produced the ground-breaking Netscape Mosaic and Navigator web browsers that dominated the browser market until eventually losing out to Microsoft’s Internet Explorer in the browser wars of the late ’90s. Andreessen is now a co-founder of a Silicon Valley venture capital company responsible for investing billions of dollars in risky start-ups (but not Theranos!) and established companies that require further funding to get new products to the marketplace. Andreessen’s company is headquartered in Menlo Park.

Between 1993 and 1995, I lived and worked for almost two years in Silicon Valley, initially for Synopsys and subsequently for LogicVision, and it was a buzz – very bright people, high energy levels, terrific work ethic, and an almost religious fervour to do what it takes to succeed. Silicon Valley was, and probably still is, a great place to work and my immersion in Silicon Valley’s culture left an indelible impression on me. During that period, I was a user of Mosaic and Navigator before switching to Internet Explorer, an integral part of Windows 95 when it was released in 1995.

What did Andreessen say about Silicon Valley in the WSJ?

Andreessen first recalls Sturgeon’s Law—90% of everything is crap. The law, if that is what it is (more likely an adage), originated from sci-fi novelist Theodore Sturgeon’s observation in the ’50s that although sci-fi novels were mostly considered to be low-quality fiction, so was everything else – art, music, other literary works, and so on. Sometimes referred to as Sturgeon’s Revelation, he is quoted as saying “It came to [me] that [science fiction] is indeed ninety-percent crud, but that also—Eureka!—ninety-percent of everything is crud. All things—cars, books, cheeses, hairstyles, people and pins are, to the expert and discerning eye, crud, except for the acceptable tithe [ten percent] which we each happen to like.” Marc Andreessen’s adaptation of Sturgeon’s Law is that only 10% of new ideas (in engineering technology) are good but this 10% is concentrated in Silicon Valley and is why Silicon Valley is a success. Having experienced Silicon Valley first-hand, I can agree with Andreessen’s conclusion but note that other concentrations of 10% excellence exist in other parts of the USA and, indeed, in many other places throughout the world.

Other 90%/10% Adages

I was intrigued by the 90%/10% ratio advanced by Sturgeon and my mind wandered to other possible 90%/10% adages. Here’s what came to mind: the opinions of 90% of a population are unfairly influenced by the opinions of the remaining 10%. The observation may have another name but I call this the Whingeing POM Adage and, for me, it first surfaced in the late-1950s when, as a young lad close to completion of my secondary education and thinking about my future, I observed the Australian government’s efforts to encourage people to emigrate to Australia. Here’s an extract (** to ** below) from one of my books (Conversations, 2015, Atheos Books) that explains the origin based on the theory that POM, sometimes written as POME or Pommy, is an Australian-created acronym for Prisoner of Mother England—someone who is trapped in dreary England rather than basking in exciting Australia.

** After World War 2, the Australian government established an assisted-passage migration scheme to entice white people to come and settle in Australia.  The deal was that for £10 per adult, children go free, people would have their passage paid to Australia and assistance with finding a job and a home once they arrived.  Many took up the offer and the “Ten Pound POMs”, as they were called, helped Australia grow into what it is now a successful multi-ethnic first world country.  But, some, only a few, were disenchanted by what they found and they returned.  The media at the time—newspapers and radio mostly—seized on the few returnees and presented interviews and published articles about why they had returned.  The Australians called them the whingeing POMs.  As a result, immigration to Australia took a downturn and Australia acquired an undeservedly earned bad reputation: the climate, the job opportunities, housing and health, everything. **

Only about 10% (actually, around 12.5%) of the UK’s Australian immigrants returned but their bad comments influenced the rest of the UK community and probably contributed to the demise of the Ten Pound POMs program in 1982. Nobody thought to interview the 90% who stayed in Australia to produce counter-arguments to the 10% critics. Or, if they did, their counter-arguments were not well publicised.

We see this ratio everywhere. QAnon’s ‘elite Satan-worshipping paedophile cabal in government, business and the media’ conspiracy theories are without substance but the theories were upheld by many of the 6th January 2021 Capitol rioters. Similarly, I would imagine that less than 10% of American voters really believe that massive fraud in vote counting caused Trump to lose the 2020 Presidential election but, boy oh boy, look at the column-inches of press and social media coverage the topic occupied. In the UK at the time of writing, around 90% of the over-12 population are single-jabbed against Covid-19 (84% double-jabbed) but the 10% who are not vaccinated attract all the publicity and, I’ve no doubt, is one of the reasons why some undecided people take up an anti-vax position.

Here are two more examples. I would imagine that less than 10% of the adults in the UK would class themselves as being in the LGBT+ gender classification classes (actually, around 3%)  but woe betide anyone who dares say anything anti-LGBT+. The opinions of 90% of the population are modified or even suppressed by the opinions of 10%. Earlier this week, Mike O’Farrell, a leading figure in the world of English cricket talking about non-white ethnic groups’ interest in becoming cricketers said football and rugby become “much more attractive to the Afro-Caribbean community” and cricket was sometimes “secondary” to education for young South Asian players. He had to apologise for what is considered outdated and politically-insensitive remarks about ethnic groups who probably make up less than 10% of the UK’s population.

And so it goes on—the opinions of the ten-percenters have an unnaturally high influence on the opinions of the ninety-percenters. I agree that minority groups deserve respect and should have a voice but when majority groups are unfairly penalised for negative comments or non-violent actions against a minority group, it’s time to sit back and rethink the rules of society. The excellent proverb ‘live and let live’ is defined to mean you should tolerate the opinions and behaviour of others so that they will similarly tolerate your own. Reciprocity; the key word here is reciprocity. ‘Live and let live’ is reciprocal—do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Freedom of speech is enshrined in Article 10 of the UK Human Rights Act 1998 but with the caveat that this freedom ‘may be subject to formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society’. But remember, it works both ways. 10% can influence 90% but, in the same way, 90% can influence 10%.

Reproduced from Bert and Mavis: The First Fifty Cartoons, Atheos Books, 2020

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