The Rich Neighbour

Feature Article The Rich Neighbour
APR 3, 2021 LISTEN

Birthday Blues
After going through my ‘Thirty days hath September, April, June, and November’ song for the umpteenth time, I have arrived at this fact: today, being the 31st day of March, constitutes the last day of the month—Ghana’s birth month. Watching Kwame Nkrumah and the rest of the Big Six, mounted on that podium, with Nkrumah vigorously hammering his words with his hands, and the rest of the Big Six nodding vigorously along—“At long last, the battle has ended! And thus, Ghana, your beloved country…” You know how it goes. One cannot help but be introspective with these words.

For those not blessed to be alive at the time of Ghana’s (and the rest of Africa’s) independences, it is not very easy for these words “…is free forever!” to really hit home. Having been born into independence, into this state of ‘our own affairs managed by our own hands’, it is very easy for one to take the concept of ‘independence’ and everything that goes with it for granted.

“…The new Africa is ready to fight his own battles and show that after all the Black [person] is capable of managing [their] own affairs.” That is the great Osagyefo still speaking. ‘Managing our own affairs’—I think the basic principle underlying that sentence is that we as a people, are going to utilise those resources we are blessed with, that we find within our national borders—both human and natural, towards the building of our nation. It was an aspiration during the very early days of our nation’s independence; it is an aspiration remaining unchanged. To this very day, that is what the Ghanaian is fighting for. Heaven knows that the developed nations of our time—even as advanced as they are in their national journeys—are fighting towards this same end. (Except, in their case, they still insist on taking this a step further by managing other nations’ affairs for them—imposing themselves on developing countries.)

As I wrote this article, ‘Humble Beginnings Look Like Tetanus’ three weeks back, there was an analogy hovering over my head the whole time. One that I tried shaking off because it is very self-critical, almost too introspective, and I dare say, would be abhorrently racist should it proceed from a mouth other than our own inward-looking Black mouths. But let’s go for it. After all, closing an eye to a pile of garbage does not necessarily make the garbage disappear—at least not into that permanent state we hope it.

Robbing the Rich Neighbour?
In the aforementioned article ‘Humble Beginnings Look Like Tetanus’ we ran through the personal computer revolution of the ‘70s and ‘80s—a revolution spearheaded by Apple and Microsoft (Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, Bill gates and Paul Allen). In that article, we exalted these two sets of extremely brilliant duos to positions of gods solely from whose brains emanated such groundbreaking, innovative, world-changing ideas—just their brains, and nowhere else. We made it look as though Apple Inc. and its inventions, Microsoft Inc. with its inventions, rode only on the ideas and inventions of their founders.

But as you may already know, that is not the case—at all.

In the 1960s, before these young gentlemen, Gates, Jobs, Woz, Allen were even old enough to build personal computers or create programmes for microcomputers, there were giant corporations already existing, such as, among others, Dell and Xerox—the former inventing and selling commercial computers; the latter, ruling the photocopier industry. At the time, it was widely believed that that was how far computers could go—as massive, monstrous, commercial-purpose equipment.

Years of patent protection eventually gave way to the expiration of said patent, and Xerox, with its innovative designs now public knowledge, begrudgingly saw a country like Japan making its own copies of the company’s photocopier machines—ripping off Xerox’s inventions. (In this capitalist world of ours, ‘ripping off’ perhaps isn’t the best expression to use. Let us try ‘capitalising on’ instead. I don’t know if that is better.)

Xerox faced enormous competition from these cheap Japanese knockoffs. The company had to revamp its efforts—it had to diversify. So, then it employed a brilliant man, who employed a brilliant group of people, and together they formed the Palo Alto Research Centre (PARC), a vibrant research centre tasked with devising marketable, innovative ideas and inventions for the company.

And ‘innovation’ this group of computer scientists and engineers at PARC did. They invented, what today, forms the building blocks of personal computers as we now know it—the mouse, ethernet networking, and most importantly, the Graphical User Interface (GUI). Coincidentally, at this time, Apple and Microsoft had experienced successes of their own. But these two companies needed the extra oomph. They needed these PARC creations to become the legends they are today. So how do they get these innovative technologies when companies naturally are very protective of their inventions? Because—need I mention this—inventions, in the right economic and socio-economic order, sells better than gold. How does Steve and Steve, Bill and Paul get their hands on Xerox PARC’s new technologies? Do they steal? Beg for them? Sell their souls for them? Remember, we are talking about the very foundation of personal computers here. How much does one pay for such an invention? What does one give in exchange for this?

Digging through the Rich Neighbour’s Trash

As it turns out—nothing! So, it turns out, one can have on their hands, the brightest people the world has to offer, and still find this group of people without vision. Xerox’s management failed to give heed to the PARC’s team’s innovative technologies. They dismissed them all and insisted that these brilliant minds focused their attentions rather on developing photocopier-related inventions—something the company was already specialised in. Xerox was not ready to diversify. They were not ready to take that risk, even though there existed a large, untapped market; one needing such an invention—an invention as crucial as the personal computer.

So, there was PARC, having achieved something so brilliant, yet denied appreciation. Their parent company, Xerox, decided to open the PARC offices up as circus for computer enthusiasts, and the ‘PARC Alto’, this brilliant invention supposed to be the first personal computer, was put on display, like a dinosaur—grand, yet totally useless.

This caught Apple and Microsoft’s attention. It was not long before the two Steves, and the rest of their Apple team, somewhere in 1979, visited the PARC site, studying this innovative work, and … you can call it ‘stealing’ ‘borrowing’ or ‘gaining inspiration’ from this technology. Apple gave a very nonchalant Xerox some Apple shares in exchange for a bite of this PARC technology—in exchange for permitting them to study it.

You see, at that same time, Microsoft had entered into a partnership with Apple, and was working on writing an operating system for Apple’s Macintosh. This Macintosh was famously set to release in 1984. But Gates and his company Microsoft, knowing that Apple had attained the technology for the Macintosh from Xerox’s PARC, beat Jobs to it, releasing their now very famous, indomitable Windows operating system in 1983, incorporating—you guessed it—PARC’s inventions. Of course, Jobs was angry. This was a betrayal, he told Gates. Gates had stolen from him, he accused. It was then that Bill Gates famously responded, “Well, Steve, I think it’s more like we both had this rich neighbour named Xerox and I broke into his house to steal the TV set and found out that you had already stolen it.” You get Bill’s point, right? If the thief steals from the thief, can the thief be said to be a thief?

All this talk of thieves, stealing and what not, really masks a much bigger issue—it regards those people in this world who are in possession of valuable things, yet are unaware or fail to appreciate how valuable it is, the thing they hold. I mean, imagine if Apple and Microsoft had never ‘looted’ the PARC office. Will the personal computer as we know it now have happened? Or will it have sat in those offices, rotting away, the world denied its vast benefits, because its owners refused to see that they are in possession of a world-changing item? The latter scenario, looking at the adamance of Xerox’s management, would have easily been the situation.

Or let’s take a look at Jobs’ and Wozniak’s dynamic for instance—Jobs the visionary, and Wozniak the brilliant computer engineer. If Jobs had never come into Wozniak’s life, would the latter have challenged himself to invent, and make available his brilliant inventions for the rest of the world’s consumption, or would he have sat in his little apartment, doing it all just for the fun of it—nothing world-changing resulting out of it? Same can almost be said for the Gates/Allen dynamic.

In this Xerox example given, does the company have any right to be angry at Microsoft and Apple? If you threw your empty sachets outside your gate, hoping that by throwing them out they would disappear into thin air (by that I mean, find their way into some gutter, and as I said, disappear) but found this particular man coming by religiously to pick them up. Should you find said man on TV one day highlighted as a millionaire who converted rubber into say…designer bags, would you be mad? Would you call the TV station claiming the man stole from you?

I am thinking about Ghana and Africa through this all. This long analogy is to lead to this point of ‘Ghana’ and ‘Africa’. I saw once on TV this documentary—I do not remember which African country it was, but this scenario I am about to present to you, you will find not to be peculiar to one African country—I saw on TV, this White anthropologist scouting the regions of a certain African country, looking through historic grottos, deemed by this African country to be homes of their gods. Apparently, it was a mineral-rich cave. It remains one of the most tragic things I have witnessed—watching on as this Black man gingerly, fearfully points in the direction of the ‘ancestors-home’ cave to this White man. It was tragic seeing this White man bravely enter the cave, as the Black man leaves him—thinking himself leaving the poor White man to his own mercies. It was even more tragic watching this White man return from the cave, with minerals in hand, ‘un-slain’. The Black man hadn’t even bothered to stay to witness this—he wasn’t going to stay around to carry a White corpse. (Word going round is they turn blue when they die—even I wouldn’t have stayed to witness the aftermath.)

But isn’t it the saddest thing, that a Black man—having been indoctrinated to believe this rich soil given him by God, had parts of it being the bedrooms of their ancestors and gods—refuses to mine his own land for his own advantage—for fear of the ‘gods’, and leaves the mining for a White man to do—for the White man’s own advantage?

Ruling on The Rich Neighbour
I write about the ills the Caucasian has caused us in the past; and the ills they are programmed to continue to cause us in the present a lot. Such dissections into history always finds us at the ‘victim’ end; and they, rightly at the ‘aggressors’ end of the equation.

But as we sit here in Ghana (and Africa) still exporting primarily raw materials in this highly industrialised age, fetching for ourselves peanuts—as we find ourselves constantly on the ‘cheated and abused’ end of international trade;

As the Ghanaian (African) cocoa farmer slaves away in farms, most in subsistence-equipped capacities, sometimes outrightly deadly conditions on our own rich lands; as child labour, neo-slavery persists on our continent so that the developed world can have cocoa cheap, and consequently enjoy chocolate, cocoa powder, etc. at cheap prices, and even export them back to us, at high prices, and as one 90-something-year-old Ghanaian cocoa farmer said, “I have never eaten chocolate before; I have heard of it—but never eaten it before”, or that Ivorian child slaving away in a cocoa plantation responded, “No, I have never had chocolate before”; as I sit here writing this article, chewing chocolate-chip cookies at 2 am in the morning—made in USA, but the cocoa from which it is made probably imported from Africa;

As the Chinese is constantly exporting gold from this country of ours without our ‘legal knowledge’—if you will;

As we remain in this country and continent, having the world’s youngest population, yet the endemic of untapped potential remaining rampant, hence our able and brilliant minds finding themselves channeling themselves right through our national and continental borders into the developed world—this, an argument for ‘neo-slavery’;

As we witness, each passing day, the replication of our history pre-slavery, during slavery, during colonialism; post colonialism—a history of the endowed yet complacent; gifted, yet constantly cheated; the advantaged, yet consistently disadvantaged;

As we sit, witnessing all these horrors—some within our country, others, our continent—resulting primarily from our inability (reasons for which are varied) to convert our natural and human resources towards our own sustained growth…

…we cannot help but find ourselves wondering, ‘Is Africa the rich neighbour?’

[Kindly reread the Apple-cum-Microsoft-cum-Xerox analogy]

ECG has stolen my light, so I am going to end this here.

[Published in Business & Financial Times, B&FT - 31st March 2021]

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