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Fake History Alert: Sorry BBC, but Apple really did invent the iPhone

Mad Mazz strikes again

iPhone at 10 You've heard of "Fake News" – but how does Fake History gradually supersede the reality-based version? It's through repetition, and Christmas found the BBC busy doing some scrubbing.

The proposition it set about is simple: Apple didn't really invent the iPhone.

From Oxford, inventor and engineer Andrew Fentem writes to take issue with a programme for the BBC World Service – summarised at the BBC website – by best-selling pop economist and Radio 4 presence Tim Harford. Fentem created the multitouch technology essential to modern touchscreen interfaces – but fatally agreed to work with a British innovation quango. Apple went elsewhere for its multitouch UI.

Don't go thinking that the iPhone was a success because of Apple's technology and design decisions. Or that Apple broke with the smartphone industry norms at the time, and attached phone functions to a new and easy-to-use tablet computer. The real innovators here were benevolent and far-sighted state bureaucrats.

"The foundational figure in the development of the iPhone wasn't Steve Jobs. It was Uncle Sam. Every single one of... 12 key technologies was supported in significant ways by governments – often the American government."

Harford concludes that history has given Apple too much credit, and instead of a pioneer like Henry T Ford, a more apt comparison should be Willy Wonka: "Even without the touchscreen and the internet and the Fast-Fourier-Transform, Steve Jobs might well have created something wonderful. But it would not have been a world-shaking technology like the iPhone. More likely it would, like Woody and Buzz, have been an utterly charming toy."

Fentem retorts: "Such a loose definition of the 'State' potentially enables Harford and Mazzucato to claim that almost anyone and anything is a product of the State's omnipotence and benevolence – making economic analysis meaningless."

For this Harford relies entirely on one academic. Her name might be familiar. It's economist Mariana Mazzucato of the radical Science Policy Research Unit at Sussex University. Thanks to a TED Talk and regular appearances on the (telly-tax-funded) BBC, Mazzucato has become a media celebrity. And according to the academic, the state isn't a bureaucratic bungler, it's the real innovator.

But simply because the BBC keeps repeating this version of history doesn't make it true, says Fentem, who testified for Samsung (against Apple) in its patent litigation. By using Mazzucato as its one and only source, he argues, the BBC is propagating fake news.

Mazzucato subsequently argued that Fentem's multitouch inventions should also be credited to the state, because he was educated at a state school.

Here's his letter.

Over the Christmas period the BBC World Service published the article "The iPhone at 10: How the smartphone became so smart" – written by the FT journalist Tim Harford. Unfortunately this story contravened the BBC's primary news values – independence, impartiality, and honesty – in the following respects:  
  • Mr Harford's single source for the article was a secondary one – the controversial economist Mariana Mazzucato – a political writer and advisor to the Labour leadership.
  • Professor Mazzucato's extreme political theories were not balanced by any other points of view, even though just a quick Google would have pointed you to a multitude of opposing views. Furthermore, the 'smartphone patent wars' unearthed an enormous quantity of relevant primary evidence that Mr Harford could have referenced.
  • The article is intellectually dishonest because Harford and Mazzucato have cherry-picked their evidence. Inventing technologies is a very complex process, usually involving many different agencies, but Harford and Mazzucato seem to have excluded all data that doesn't support their simplistic thesis – therefore their 'evidence' could merely be insignificant background noise.

Mazzucato also seems to bend definitions in order to manipulate evidence – for example, when she discussed my own work in Forbes Magazine, she claimed that both myself and my multi-touch touchscreen inventions were products of the State – simply because I was educated by the British State and then worked in defence technology R&D.

Such a loose definition of the 'State' potentially enables Harford and Mazzucato to claim that almost anyone and anything is a product of the State's omnipotence and benevolence – making economic analysis meaningless.

As it happens, I actually sympathise with some of Mazzucato's less extreme views, and I think that she provokes interesting debates, but the way she distorts and misuses the available evidence means that her work needs to be treated with caution.

As if this wasn't all controversial enough, Mr Harford concludes his article with a spectacularly patronising final flourish – saying that without the State's help "Steve Jobs might well have created something wonderful. But it would not have been a world-shaking technology like the iPhone. More likely it would... have been an utterly charming toy."

Mr Harford must be aware that such 'counterfactual' arguments have no credibility in mainstream economics thinking because they quickly lead you into absurd territories: The lightbulb, transistor, typewriter, biro and pencil were all invented in the private sector; using Harford's perverse logic one could therefore argue that were it not for the private sector, he would have to write his slightly silly economics articles in the dark, with a stick.

I am certainly no fan of Apple – I think they have abused the international patent system, tax regulations, and Asian manufacturing workers on a massive scale. However, the development of the iPhone was a great engineering achievement, and it was also a big risk – one that Nokia, with its greater know-how and dominant market position, did not even contemplate. Apple's triumph of vision, perseverance, and perfectionism should not be denigrated by a publicly funded news broadcaster in order to make left-wing and pro-State political points. Your article is not only disrespectful to Mr Jobs – who is no longer able to defend himself – but also to the millions of engineers around the world who have worked incredibly hard over recent decades to make miraculous products like the iPhone possible, and to create the infrastructure upon which the BBC's own service is built.

Over recent months certain sections of the media have latched on to ideas around 'post-truth', widespread distrust of 'expert' economists, and 'fake news'. The BBC has even written a guide to fake news. Unfortunately, your misleading article about the iPhone has already been re-blogged, and so has entered the 'fake news echo chamber'.

Could a better article be written? Most certainly, but I would therefore have three suggestions as to how the situation might be rectified: The BBC could publish an apology and retraction on its main page. Or, the BBC could publish another article – preferably written by engineering experts rather than economists – that presents the counter-balancing arguments.

We look forward to hearing how the BBC responds. Expect to hear something about how opinion pieces don't need to be balanced (by reality) and how it needs to fulfil its duty to invigorate debate (by perpetuating absurd fringe arguments).

One could conclude that Mazzucato views the State much as a pre-reformation Roman Catholic bishop views the Church. For some academics, the State is a kind of secular Church. For some journalists too.

Fentem has a suggestion for the BBC: "If you stand by the iPhone article, then perhaps [I] – accompanied by two additional engineering experts, and a camera person – could come into the BBC to discuss the issues with Mr Harford or [with you]." ®

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