Shells and pebbles

Home » Shells&Pebbles » The (forgotten) Dutch attempt to stimulate IT education

The (forgotten) Dutch attempt to stimulate IT education

By Katrin Geske

In January 1984, three ministries, the Ministry of Economic Affairs, the Ministry for Science and Education, and the Ministry for Agriculture and Fishery[1] established a policy for stimulating information technology (IT) made in the Netherlands: the Information Technology Incentive Plan (the Dutch name was INformatica StimuleringsPlan, hereafter INSP). In this program, the administration promised to support IT education and IT research in the Netherlands in order to create ‘human capital’ that would guarantee future innovation in the field and thereby strengthen the national IT industry. Over a period of five years (1984 – 1988), more than 1.7 billion Gulden were made available for the realization of the program.[2]

Today, hardly anyone remembers the INSP, even though it was the first (and biggest) Dutch IT stimulation policy whose implementation was questionable in many respects. Next to a brief description of the general aims and shortcomings of the INSP, I will discuss why the policy was established in the first place. This will lead to a brief reflection regarding some of the reasons why the INSP fell into oblivion – already in 1988. This article also takes into account the public discourse (as accessible through newspapers) accompanying this large-scale incentive plan, thus offering an insight into cultural attitudes towards digital technologies in the Netherlands during the 1980s.

Afbeelding2The background to the INSP

In the late 1960s, IT was considered crucial for sustainable growth of globalized economies. Experts realized, however, that many European countries had become delicately dependent on information technology products made in the US. As a result, discussions arose regarding possible incentive measures to strengthen the European IT market. Yet, due to strong national interests and little trust in the European Community, national and transnational efforts to overcome this so called ‘Technology Gap’ did not succeed.[3]

With the shrinking (physical) size of computing technology (referred to as ‘microelectronic revolution’) this dependence on US technology became an even greater issue. Microelectronics had enabled the production of tiny computer processors – also called microchips – that made the construction of small computing devices possible. They were considered to be ground-breaking for every business and even private households, as they could be applied widely. Microelectronic production promised to become an even greater economic growth factor than traditional computing devices, but the producing industry was still mainly based in the US.

As a result of this growing economic imbalance, discussions about microchip production also began in the Netherlands. Representatives of the industry called for greater national efforts to support the local production of this new technology and promised crucial economic advantages. Yet, not everybody shared this optimistic view. Critics of technological influence on society, from all spheres of society, voiced their worries about the possible negative effects microelectronics could have. Their primary concern was that microchips might cause massive job losses.[4]

To harmonize these opposing interests, the three ministries (see above) proposed an IT incentive policy that satisfied both the enthusiasts and the skeptics.

The aims of the policy

On the one hand, the INSP stressed the necessity of IT innovation, education, and research and promised great financial support for private IT businesses that were willing to invest in those fields. The critics on the other hand were appeased with the reinsurance that the INSP would focus on stimulating IT education. Education would not only convey the knowledge to produce computing technology and create new high profile jobs, but a proper education would also enable future generations to assess computing technology’s impact on society. In the public discussion on INSP, education was presented as the most central aspect of the program. Although the country just came out of a harsh recession and the government was facing severe budgets cuts, the INSP was – thanks to these compromises – widely embraced.

Afbeelding1

In fact, education was only one aim among many. Other focus areas of the INSP were stimulation of the private IT sector, advice, research, and the automation of the public sector – each of these divided in a number of sub-areas. Over 50% of the money was reserved for industrial projects detached from education – a fact that was not picked up by the press. In the public debate it seemed as if the INSP mainly benefited IT education.[5] The administration stressed the INSP’s educational focus and journalists did not ask further questions. There is no straightforward explanation for this, but it seems clear that the general acceptance of the INSP by the public was primarily because of its investments in education.

The implementation of the INSP was questionable. Annually published progress reports presented to parliament conveyed the superficial impression that the INSP was running successfully. However, a closer look revealed an opaque mass of projects. Neither the specific aims nor the expenses of individual projects were listed. The INSP was poorly defined. Every project remotely related to information technology met the loose requirements of the policy. Moreover, there were few control mechanisms. Various departments and officials were responsible for the different focus areas that the INSP policy vaguely defined. As a result, the operation of the INSP was hardly transparent. In the end, over hundred projects with a variety of sub-projects were funded.[6]

The difficult concept of information technology

Considering these problems, it is not surprising that by 1988 – half a year before its official end – the program received harsh criticism by a parliament-commissioned external group of experts, the Committee for Evaluation of the INSP (Commissie Evaluatie INSP or CEI).[7] Though the CEI stressed the necessity of public incentives to strengthen national IT innovation, it also emphasized many deficiencies of the INSP. It found the program had been incoherent, IT education had hardly improved, and the policy had been conducted with little transparency. In other words, the broadly defined aims of the policy had not been met. The CEI suggested further incentive measures and indirectly proposed a new and more focused stimulation plan.

However, there was hardly any public reaction to the CEI’s criticism. There was no call for a transparent statement of expenditure.[8] The interest in IT stimulation had faded away. The public seemed to have lost interest in the consequences of IT and microelectronics. Maybe for this reason, the Dutch government did not follow the recommendations of the CEI to continue incentive measures. Without pressure from the industry and the public there seemed to be no reason to introduce an improved IT incentive policy. In 1989, all financial support connected to the INSP ceased.[9]

Why did the initial interest in the program fade away? It is very likely that the public was distracted by other political issues at that time (the affair around the student grants, for instance). Moreover, the fears regarding microelectronics, widely spread during the 1970s, had turned out to be unfounded – people enjoyed having small tape players and other entertainment devices and the technology had not caused mass unemployment.

It is one thing for lay persons to demand an improvement in IT education. It is something else to judge the success of implemented projects. Electrical engineering and computer science were topics that exceeded general knowledge, and the public was hardly capable of assessing the quality of INSP-supported projects. Moreover, the 1.7 billion Gulden did not hurt any large social group directly. The failure of the INSP did not have any direct consequences that could have provoked a public outcry.

The absence of a public reaction to the INSP indicates that computing technology was perceived as something intangible, maybe even something outside society. Many had been afraid of the effects of microelectronics but those worries seemed to have been groundless. The aims of the INSP were abstract, difficult to grasp, and its failure did not disturb any influential social group. Yet, IT had a direct and material impact on society: 1.7 billion Gulden were spent for its benefit, but the overall success of these expenditures was very doubtful.

o-o-o

Katrin Geske finished her Bachelor at the Technical University Brandenburg (BTU) in the program “Culture and Technology” and recently finished her Research Master at Utrecht University in “Historical and Comparative Studies of the Sciences and Humanities.” She is interested in the interdependent relationship between society and technology, especially with regard to information and communication technology.


[1] Ministerie van Onderwijs en Wetenschappen, Ministerie van Economische Zaken, Ministerie van Landbouw en Visserij

[2] 3.5 – 2.5 Gulden were worth $1 at that time. Currencies were very unstable. On an average, the INSP was worth around $680 million. Correcting for inflation, $680 million would be approximately $1.3 billion today, according to the US inflation calculator.

[3] The EC tried to bring its member states’ IT businesses to cooperate, but it failed. The unsuccessful case of the trans-European company Unidata is often taken as an example for the dominating national interests that blocked Europe wide IT-policies. For more details see: Eda Kranakis, “Politics, Business, and European Information Technology Policy” In Information Technology Policy : An International History, ed. R. Coopey (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 209-246. Only in 1984, a Europe-wide incentive program was initiated, the ESPRIT.

[4] Preceding the INSP was the so called “Rathenau Report.” This report stressed the necessity of microchips and urged the government to act. For more details on the microelectronics discussion: see Paul Wouten’s paper. Another report influencing the policy was commissioned by the interest group of large Dutch software companies, COSSO: “The computer services industry in the Netherlands: a report prepared for COSSO (Vereniging Computer Service- en Software Bureaus)” by the Quantum Science Cooperation in 1980.

[5] The great majority of newspaper articles on INSP featured educational projects. Moreover, one conference dedicated to INSP especially featured the necessity of Dutch IT education. It received wide press coverage.

[6] It would be misleading to claim that all of the projects supported by the INSP were a failure. SURF and SPIN were two very important and influential projects. Both, however, focused on research and were only partially financed by the INSP.

[7] CEI, ‘Een Eerste Aanzet’ : Verslag Van Een Sobere, Toekomstgerichte Evaluatie Van Het Informatica Stimulerings Plan (INSP), ed. Commissie Evaluatie INSP ([Zoetermeer]; Den Haag: Ministerie van Onderwijs en Wetenschappen ; DOP, 1988).

[8] This is indeed surprising, especially when considering the affair of the shipyard RSV (Rijn-Schelde-Verlome) only a few years earlier. In this affair, about 2.4 billion Gulden were embezzled, leading to many public discussions and a Commission of Inquiry.

[9] Some projects came to a sudden end as a result of the (for some) unpredictable end of the INSP. For instance, the Centre for Mathematics and Informatics Amsterdam (CWI) had radically expanded with the help of money from the INSP. After the program was put off in 1989, half of the CWI staff had to go.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: