Attempted Prophecies: Humble beginnings look like tetanus


Angry, granted—but at whom?

‘One step at a time’, ‘little drops of water make a mighty ocean’, these are, to name a few, the conclusions we built last week’s article ‘Forging a Quota’ on.

“…Humankind couldn’t possibly have started off right from hunting and gathering with the most basic of tools, straight to flying off to the moon. We could not possibly have at our very early days conceived of such a world as we have it now. This giant-leap technological world ought to have kicked off with tiny, tiny, quaint steps.

Wright brothers

One brick at a time, this industrial, technological world empire was built. Tiny steps are the reality to our success, that is why one ought to be really pissed, when they see their country, continent, kinsfolk playing with these tiny steps—not taking this very crucial economic/socioeconomic tool seriously.” I forged this from ‘Forging a Quota’—classic copy-and-paste.

But I ought to explain why I chose the language ‘pissed’ in what is intended to be dignified writing. [“This language may be offensive to your reader,” Mr. Do-the-right-thing Microsoft Word said to me when I asked why he had underlined that word in a blue broken line].

Pissed is exactly what we ought to be when we see prevailing, certain governmental and sociological moves which can only be described as unimaginative, visionless. As though the entire nation suffers some sort of ‘big-picture-blindness’, even though we are privileged to live in a world where this grand picture has been presented us at our very doorsteps. All we need do is look and learn from this big picture, and forge for ourselves a working part, and consequently effect revolutionary changes of our own.

Humble beginnings really do look like tetanus—don’t ask me what tetanus looks like; it is bad I presume—but they can have such glorious ends. And we do not need convincing on the importance of science and technology, because we, each day, live its very tentacled benefits. It has an end too glorious to miss. The world all around us is engulfed in science and technology—making the field an endless pool of wealth. Those nations effectively mining this pool are basking in fortune. I am jumping the gun. Where was I…?

Humble beginnings have a funny look—just take Apple Computers for instance.

Apples and Oranges

In 1976, two friends, Steve and Steve, who had been born into a technological culture, one brewing under the Californian sun, founded Apple Computers Inc., purportedly in the first Steve’s parent’s garage. The second Steve—Steve Wozniak was a gifted chap who had developed what the first Steve—Steve Jobs, the visionary called Apple I, a supposed personal computer. These two insisted that the world took them seriously. Apple I, ladies and gentlemen, looked like this … [picture inserted.]

Apple 1

Humble beginnings smell like impending failure. We know this because Wozniak, then an employee developing calculators at Hewlett Packard (HP), having designed his revolutionary personal computer, Apple I, sent it to his bosses begging that the company used his idea—“I begged HP to make the Apple I. Five times they turned me down.” If Apple I could catapult to look like today’s MacBook Pro, these bosses, of course would never have turned this pioneering equipment away. But alas, that is not how success stories work. Life does not catapult itself to unfathomable successes, without beginning first, with small steps.

But what kind of culture can a country possibly couch for itself that a man, Mike Markkula would walk into Apple Computers Inc., the garage company, and offer a quarter of a million dollars as investment. What kind of brilliant visionaries can a culture possibly give birth to, that this sorcery would happen—and in fact did happen. So much so that two young boys, one a former-orphan, a hippie, a high school drop-out, and a user; the other, shy and unassuming, but insanely talented, self-taught engineer would climb to wield such influence and everyday-importance to the entire world around them.

[Forewarning: This is the point where I attempt daydreaming]

Should a Ghanaian individual (I am cautious saying ‘Ghanaian investor’, because what at all is that?) deigned to walk into a budding business (which will never happen—never happen!) and offer even just 1000 Ghana Cedis. This stranger would not finish saying the full figure, before talented opana starts dancing, singing their thank yous, saying their God bless yous. Opana might even lie prostrate on the ground at the feet of this angel. Nothing is impossible. This will happen to the Ghanaian innovator—one day, one day.

The PC Revolution

The homemade Apple I computer, which marketed and sold like how a Ghanaian would sell say, ointments, was a local success. [A brief moment to reminisce: Back in the day, people used to go from house to how selling ointments—‘Akobam’ was always in there somewhere!]. Apple II, infused with Markkula’s investment, followed three years later. They became the “first highly successful mass-produced microcomputers.” Dreams had taken real form. Apple Lisa followed, but very much like Jobs’ failure in denying fatherhood of the child after whom this PC was purportedly named, Apple Lisa failed.

Having had a taste of success, this failure was not damning—it was nothing but a hurdle, promising more success at the end of it. So then came further success—the Macintosh computer, just a year after Apple Lisa. Apple now a public company with stakeholders extending beyond Jobs and Wozniak, fired the former over creative differences. Fast-forward to 1997, and Jobs was back as CEO, bringing along him the next company he had founded after the can, ‘NeXT’.

The rest was, as they say, history. And history lies with you and I, and the rest of the world—as we all, one way or the other, have shared a part of this history. Most of us all are Apple consumers either through an iPhone, a MacBook, iPad, iTunes, etc.

PC: Partner in Crime

I wanted to leave Gates alone on this one—but how is that possible? Another spearhead of the 70s and 80s microcomputer revolution, Gates, a gentleman from a much more privileged background than Jobs, and having a much more privileged, formative background into the industry than Jobs or Wozniak, grew up unsurprisingly, to become a formidable, influential force of the Information Age.

Like Jobs, born in 1955. Like Jobs, had a sidekick/equally-brilliant-friend—Paul Allen. Like Jobs, a drop-out; and like Jobs, lucky—luckier than you and I. Lucky to be born into a country which had created a safe and enabling space for teenagers, young adults, individuals to make meaningful contributions to the world around them, which would subsequently shape the entire world—that is really lucky.

Their geniuses are deeply intertwined. Around that same time when Apple made and sold its first computer, Bill and Paul were meeting with a company called MITS, creators of a device Altair 8800, one supposed contender for the first personal computer throne. The company had created what it believed was to be the first real personal computer, but the problem was they needed someone to write computer language—otherwise it was just a device, purporting a name and purpose, but really just a white elephant. Bill and Paul were only 19 and 22 years old when they provided Altair just the computer language they needed. A year later, their company Microsoft was formed.

In 1980, Microsoft—merely four years old, with its founders, Bill and Paul, still in their early twenties—was licensing its operating system to IBM, a then almost imperialistic, leviathan multinational technology organisation.

Four young people Gates, Jobs, Wozniak, and Allen, among many, many others, began the personal computers revolution. These young people helped device means of making the computer accessible to all, not just corporations; computers that could communicate among themselves—my computer to yours; computers that are getting smarter and smarter by the day.

These young people helped spawn the new age of interconnectedness, catapulting the Information Age to its very height—the rich, the poor, each can have a share in this Information Age; mobile phones, laptops, electronic mailing (emails), social media, video calls, video conferencing—Teams, Zoom (proving particularly pivotal for our pandemic world), video gaming, etc. each with their economic, socioeconomic, sociological, sociopolitical benefits. Benefits that cut across all sectors and industries, from the health sector, to agriculture, manufacturing, architecture, to engineering—all aspects of our lives, covered by this revolution.

Humble beginnings smell like impending failure

There is always news flying around of Ghanaians—male, female, youth, children, adults demonstrating astounding knacks for innovation. From inventing vehicles, airplanes, robots, etc. these potentials are as interspersed everywhere on our continent as they are, our country. We only get periodical, sporadic, tiny glimpses of these innovative stories.

From time to time, these stories show their heads, and just as they came, they leave, sight unseen. But each time these stories hit, the undertone accompanying them are quite like the Biblical testimony on Jesus “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Can anything good come out of Ghana or Africa? Each time these stories hit, they carry the aura of ‘This is unheard of!’ Even though, in our relatively short history as a nation, we have had a mighty list of genius minds—minds whose fullest, world-changing potentials, were unmet or have not been met; minds whose potentials have not even began to be met.

We are constantly made to sit and watch on as the developed world showcase their best and brightest. That bodes horribly for the African psyche. It convinces the African mind that the extraordinary can only lie outside its national and continental borders. Perhaps, we ought to dedicate time to highlight our own phenomenal people—those who were or have been able to tap into a little bit of their essences, and others who have sadly had their “dream deferred.”

The Last Laugh

One is tempted to laugh, you know. When we see these ‘supposed’ inventions by these Africans, these Ghanaians; when we see all the buzz huddled around these inventions—be they physically, or on TV or social media, we are curious enough to stretch our necks to see what the ‘fuss’ is all about, only to find some rickety items made from scraps in locomotion—moving on wheels or flying. When this happens, we—having been exposed to this 21st century, far-advanced world of technology—cannot help but stifle a laughter.

Otoo and Larbi brothers

But laughing is ill-advised. Because history, from experience, is never on the side of those quick to laugh—especially when the issue at hand is science and technology. We know history enough to know that the last persons to laugh would not be us, but them. The wanton laughers will find themselves recalled by history as comic relief, the foolish character, doubting Thomas—nothing but mere hurdles in these heroes’ paths. So, always resist the smirk; this is how great scientific stories begin—they look like scraps.

And these stories, they are very much alike—scaringly similar. The stories we have on our hands as a country and continent, are woefully reminiscent of the very successful technological stories we have come to know—and live. The Wright brothers are no different from the Otoo and Larbi brothers; Jobs’ story is no different from Ghana’s brilliant young gentleman, Salifu Mohammed’s. In fact, it is like there is the same storyteller sitting somewhere in heaven writing these two sets of differing characters—characters finding themselves on different geographical and chronological planes.

A Paradigm Shift—darn overdue!

I wonder how the 70s and 80s were like for Ghana. Because in the USA, what was experienced was a revolution whose end results is the world as we have it now. This innovative spirit was a child’s plaything. Young people were constantly trying their hands on building stuff here and there.

For instance, with engineering, one did not necessarily need to have received specialised education in the field to demonstrate a knack for it. Just as the Ghanaian child may use empty tin containers to device a car, round out wood for tires, utilise actual car parts to device moving, functioning cars—American children were no different.

The difference was (and is) that these American children did (and do) so with real, achievable possibilities of turning these crafts into careers—more importantly, into world-changing inventions. They feel the need and urgency upon them to contribute to the world of innovation, because they come from a longline of ancestors who have made real, innovative contributions to the world.

The African child, for the most part, to their dismay, come from a longline of ancestors who have been rendered consumers and spectators of this fast-paced world of invention. So that konko car he has built is just that—a plaything, and nothing more. No realisable life-changing, world-changing ambitions linger behind it.

But cultures do change; and it is only people who can be responsible for this change. Governments are not useless institutions of ‘four-term/eight-term wonders’, but people who can help effect this change. Governments have the power of steering the various national institutions and interests—education being one of such vital tools—towards ensuring this shift in culture.

A culture of innovation, transformative education, of private-sector investments, venture capitalists seeking out talents in whom to invest, of public/private partners (because heaven knows that sometimes the private sector cannot do it alone); can all be rendered possible if African governments take certain giant steps—steps too huge to cover here in this article.

In the meantime, let us not rain on the parade of these young, ambitious African/Ghanaian minds trying so hard to contribute their innovative quotas to the world around them. Because when Apple started, IBM was a giant corporation, a Titanic, perceivably unsinkable, and as Jobs once referred to them, ‘Big Brother’. Who ever knew the young boys Steve and Steve could tackle such a formidable company head on, and create for themselves, the world’s first trillion-dollar company?

>>>The writer is a writer. And this sentence is circular. [email protected]


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