Published in honor of Independence Day (6 July) in the Republic of Malawi
Since the 1960s computers have advanced significantly. Cars on the other hand have hardly changed. We explore these two technology products to show that whether a technology is complex or not does not explain a country’s failure of developing the technology. This philosophy is more important at the national level where one may hear arguments such as “We are not that advanced country, so we cannot do X”. Often this is said by a country (or more specifically countrymen) that is itself trying to be like that advanced country. So, as we celebrate, we believe these key points are worth noting:
- Nobody, country or person, altruist or hypocrite, will ever really teach you how a technology truly works. Not even if they genuinely wanted to!
- Thus, to make the best use of any technology you must adopt, adapt, or some other how participate not as a user but as a designer, manufacturer, supply chain supplier or such other role where you can have an insider’s view.
- Building complex systems requires a huge set of simple skills, not complex skills. An example of this is the building of an aeroplane which requires an incredible orchestration of numerous skills, including seemingly unrelated skills such as supply chain management. We can say therefore that, “Nobody builds the aeroplane. Each person does a somewhat simpler task that contributes to the making of the plane.” So the earoplane is built using what can be called “collective knowledge” which does not reside in any one individual. It goes without saying that this knowledge cannot be gained even from a billion hours of classroom work—it is knowledge that is minted in the course of the work.
- Thus, pretty much any country or company, can make most if not all technology products in existence today, from computers to rockets to vaccines because all these technology products often bring together simpler skills that a society with basic education can expect to already possess or easily acquire.
- Finally, to reiterate, the most useful and practical learning happens when actually building the product, the tool, the technology. That is why it is hardly possible to learn by observation, no matter how long that observation is for; there are many little things that can simply never be taught.
The definition of technology is rather broad: Wikipedia says it is the sum of techniques, skills, methods, and processes used in the productions of goods. The technology can also be embedded into machines which can then be run by someone who lacks some skills. We look at the microchip and the car as examples of technologies.
The microchip, or more generally integrated circuit, began being used in earnest in the 1960s–indeed around the time that Malawi became an independent nation (6 July 1964). A microchip refers to a network of connected electronic components that are placed on a small die chipped from a larger substrate; presently the common substrate is a semiconductor such as silicon. The microchip components can be arranged in such a way as to carry out computations; when the components of the microchip are transistors and gates, the chip is a microprocessor. The beauty of the microchip is that it brings components together so densely that one can have thousands (2,250 is in the Intel 4004 chip in the 1970s) to billions of transistors in the processors of 2021 and thus be able to implement complex logic.
Back in the day chips were simple. When Malawi was gaining independence logic microchips had 1 to 10 transistors and 1 to 12 gates; one could perhaps point at these components while teaching another person about gates! That was the time to get into the chip business for sure, since things were much less complex. But it’s understandable that the country didn’t: we had a nation to start building and without the internet and the world wide web, perhaps news about these inventions never reached Malawi.
So chips were complex and unknown. But what of cars? As of 1964 cars had been around for around 100 years—if we arbitrarily choose the 1877 internal combustion engine by Nikolaus Otto as the beginning of the car revolution. Around 1964—1966 to be exact—the greatest innovation with regards to the car was the invention of the electronic fuel injection system that allowed much more precisely controlled delivery of fuel and air to the engine. However, the core of the engine was rather similar to what it had been many years earlier, efficiency improvements notwithstanding. In other words if someone was able to build an engine 100 years earlier, they would not have had too much trouble building one in the 1960s; conversely, if someone were to join the car revolution in the 1960s—rather than 1870s—they would not be that late to the game, since very little had changed. So at the time it would have made great sense to get in. But again, perhaps the state of things was such that we had other priorities.
What’s even more striking is that the car has since the 1960s not changed much! The internal combustion engines of 2021 are much like those of the 1960s, though modern cars are in general more intelligent thanks to advances in computing and to some degree better materials. The computer on the other hand has changed vastly; the making of the microprocessors has become so so complex that as of this writing there are really less than 10 companies that are truly killing it in the business of making microprocessors and other logic circuits(such as memory modules). The key companies in order of market share (in terms of volume) are: the Taiwanese giants Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC) at 28 percent and United Microelectronics Corporation (UMC) at 13 percent, the Chinese Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corporation (SMIC) with 11 percent and the South Korean conglomerate Samsung with 10 percent. The likes of TSMC focus primarily on the manufacturing while getting their designs from American companies such as AMD and NVIDIA. Making chips has gotten overwhelmingly complex that setting up a manufacturing plant costs billions of United States Dollars! One may say complex and expensive is no good news.
But it is extremely important to learn this: computers or cars are not going to get easier to make. So, computer chips have indeed gotten more complex, but they will not be less complex in the future. But surely complexity of the technology cannot be a sound reason for not making something: cars have hardly changed over 200 years, and are really much simpler to make. Malawi as a country was very young during the ‘car revolution’ (defined as when Asian car makers were coming onto the scene) so perhaps then there weren’t enough people to get involved in this field. But now with a far more educated workforce if we are not able to even make such a simple technology product that has stayed static for two centuries, then it is worrying.
But what to do? The answer is DO. Really there is no apt moment to say this: “Just Do It!” It is important to know that no country, no entity, no company, in their right state of mind will give you the secret sauce for their technology. Let me share a story to illustrate this.
As of 2019 my football skills had become impressive. In my high school years I happened to be one of the worst players—I had come to believe. I could not make it into the school team because to get in you had to be really good player. Whenever I played football there was much laughter because it seems each time I got the ball I was going to make a comic move, a mistake so classic that people would laugh instead of get mad at me.
For seven years therefore I was known as the guy who could not play football. Then I moved to Abu Dhabi for college, where I heard fewer and fewer voices that said, “You are not a good player.” And indeed over time I became a reasonably good and respectable defender. I as an individual hadn’t changed much. I had just changed environments and beliefs; all along I had some capacity to play well. Often we all do have such capacity; the problem often is finding that environment where you can thrive. In fact such environments where you can show your capacity do not exist or come by so easily; you may have to create the environment.
So, “who will let the new player in?” In my smalltime soccer career our games have often been 7 v 7 people. Something interesting happens when a new player comes along: how to let her in? Does one on the team get out, giving up their spot? Or do we play 7 v 8—that is, change the game?
This 7v7 game really is somewhat how the technology industry is like. Nobody wants to get out of the game, so nobody will let you in. We see periodically fights over intellectual property and lawsuits against Asian companies that got truly good at copying. This shows that in truth we will never have someone come down from the North or heaven to hand us the keys to the technology kingdom. We must create, even if it means copying others at the beginning. In fact we must copy and then adapt the technology to our context–the adaptation itself is often an organic process.
The history of Malawi stretches far back before independence, but for the sake of this article let us assume our history begins in 1960s. The country was uneducated, poverty reigned, the internet and WWW hadn’t been invented, electricity hardly a thing locally. One could understand why it may have been hard to do “Advanced Technology”. But in 2021, the population is far more educated (really more educated than America was when the Wright brothers built their plane!), on average people have sufficient food (minus the 2001/2 famine), there is some connectivity among people to facilitate the flow of ideas and knowledge both within the country as well as internationally. A lot of has changed. And yet a lot still hasn’t.
So then what’s stopping us? Perhaps people believe there is some magical, out-of-this-world kind of thing that we simply don’t know of? Perhaps there is a belief that we are a people that just cannot do “Advanced Technology” for whatever reason? The naked truth is that anything that is being built anywhere on God’s green Earth can be built in Malawi. This is the miracle of biology: the brains we have are like general purpose computers—they can be programmed to do anything. So just as we have been able to use the 12000-year+ technology called farming we can program ourselves to make quantum computers, to make Wi-Fi modules, 5G/6G gear; we can start setting up our own city on the moon and manned missions to Mars; we can locally develop mRNA vaccines against HIV; we can build the energy generation, transmission and distribution equipment so that we have over 30 gigawatts(which is about what is needed not 1 or 2 GW) of electrical energy capacity; we can do these and so much more. We just need to start. Now. In 1964 we were young and unsure in a world where information was locked behind university and corporate doors. Some information has since been unlocked but we have also seen that unless we make something with our own hands we never learn, because access to education and information alone is not enough. The only way for us to be a technologically advanced country is not to wait until we are a high-income nation; no, to be a high-income nation we must first develop and deploy advanced technologies. Remember the definition for technology: sum of techniques, skills, methods, and processes used in the production of goods—this definition requires what we have had all along: a versatile brain.