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Ashlee Vance on visiting NZ innovators for his new Bloomberg webseries

Hello World is a new online TV show from Bloomberg, conceived of and presented by Ashlee Vance, a Bloomberg Businessweek journalist and author of Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future.

For the first episode, Vance and his crew came to New Zealand where they visited such local technology and innovation luminaries as Mark Sagar, Ray Avery, Weta Digital, Richard Little, Peter Beck and 8i.

We talked to Vance about why he came to New Zealand and what he found here.

It has to be asked: why New Zealand?

We’re shooting ten episodes and each episode is a different country so we shot in Australia and New Zealand to double-up and do two episodes while we were down there. We shot the pilot in Sweden and were going to run that one first, but after we’d done the New Zealand shoot, we just all decided that it was by far the strongest. And we were a little surprised to be honest. When we were setting it up, I thought it might not come through, but we were blown away so then we had to really rush things to get New Zealand up as the first episode, because we wanted the first episode to be really strong and we thought it was the best one.

What impressed you so much about what you saw?

A few things. In the case of someone like RocketLab, I wrote a book about SpaceX, so I know a lot about rockets and I went in being pretty sceptical about how far along they would be and how good the rockets would be. But when I got there, I was amazed. Peter Beck was obviously this really capable guy. I mean, it wasn’t just about making a cheap rocket, they’d totally done all this innovation around a better engine, around better avionics, so I was blown away with the quality.

And with some of the others, like Mark Sagar and the staff down at Weta, it really did take on this ‘technology of the absurd’ sort of thing in my head. Guys that are tackling areas that other people are also going after, but in this different way. I just think Mark Sagar’s approach to artificial intelligence is very different than what Silicon Valley is trying to do right now. So I came away very impressed with the level of quality and this whole fresh take on what was going on.

And everyone was just real characters. Sir Avery was a character. We shot with Michelle Dickinson, who didn’t make it into the show, but she was a real blast of fresh air. And Peter was really down to earth. You want the people to come alive as well as the gear, so I felt the personality and the technology was strong.

Ashlee Vance in 8i VR

What was different about the approach you saw here in the context of what you’re used to in Silicon Valley?

In the case of Rocket Lab, you see that they have limited resources and so they have to do things a little bit differently, like make everything themselves and come up with unique solutions to problems. I did have a line about this that I stripped out, about how I think that New Zealanders are pretty crappy at talking themselves up and playing the whole Silicon Valley game. And the marketing stuff. A lot of times it was like pulling teeth to get these people to talk about themselves. There was just this whole aversion to patting yourself on the back and Silicon Valley does not have. That seems to be part of the modern tech game, you’ve got to trump yourself up.

In the case of Sagar, it’s unique because I think this stuff that’s emerged out of Weta and Peter Jackson is state-of-the art and is the best in the industry and then you’ve got this guy who leaves there and has this different world view. In Silicon Valley, the guys who are trying to reverse engineer the brain right now, it’s all about building these huge clusters of computers and running algorithms and having the algorithms come to life one day. I just thought the idea of this guy coming from the special effects world and caring about how the face moves and how that movement ties into parts of the brain that are lighting up with different emotions and trying to go backwards from there. I’ve never seen anyone do anything like that. I don’t know if that comes from part of the Kiwi character, but it’s definitely unique. Maybe because it’s a little bit of isolation and that do-it-yourself feeling, there is this feeling that you tackle it in a unique way. But, I don’t know. I don’t want to make too much of it, but I do get that feeling.

Mark Sagar’s Baby X

One thing that came up about multiple times in the show is the national myth of the no. 8 wire. What was your take on it as an outsider looking in?

Yeah, everyone brings it up! I can definitely see where it comes from. I saw it with a lot of guys still having the garage workshop. It was cut out of the show, but we actually went to Richard Little’s garage where he’s got all these other side-projects that he’s working on to help stroke victims. And Sir Avery, he was in a garage. My family is Australian and my grandfather had the same thing, the garage with the tools. Obviously that happens in other places, but it really struck me, and that self reliance is still alive and well in New Zealand. But I ended up siding with Peter at the end.

To me, it seemed like part of the national character but it also seems like if New Zealand really wanted to step up its game and compete against these multinational companies, that it would be the time to move past the no. 8 wire legend. If you look at what Peter’s doing at RocketLab, there’s no. 8 wire aspects to it – ultimately, it was a guy and a couple of other people in a garage who built this rocket – but you look at his rocket and it can compete with anyone else’s, man.

At Weta Digital

So what was your overall impression of being here?

It’s sad in some ways, that you have to get the marketing and stuff better, because I actually like the down to earth people there, so I feel like that’ll be a tough battle, to maintain the appealing part of the culture while having to whore yourself out a bit. It’s funny, I talked to people who said New Zealanders were kind of curmudgeonly, but I really had a sense of total optimism when I was there that I was getting from people and that it was a really exciting time to be there. I was half-tempted to move there, actually.

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