Mohammed Bagayogo once prodded his colleague with the question: “If you stepped onto a planet and saw a huge ship traversing the sky, what would you say about this planet?” Amir Karamo replied after much thought: “That, the people of this planet have an advanced science.”
That was 1573 A.D.
Science, as in institutionalized art of inquiry has yielded many varied fruits. Its currently best-publicized products are undoubtedly the technological innovations that have transformed traditional forms of human economy at an accelerating rate. It has also been responsible for many other facets not at the focus of present public attention, though some of them have been, and continue to be, frequently prized as the most precious harvest to scientific enterprise.
By harvest, I mean profitability. Take for example the laser. Although the laser was developed in the 1950s and ’60s by two Russians (who received the Nobel Prize for inventing it), it wasn’t until an American scientist Charles Townes sold a patent to a business that the technology became profitable. Along with this, many businesses were born and with it, many jobs were created.
For this reason alone it is not astonishing that science as a way of acquiring competent intellectual and practical mastery over events should be a perennial subject for attentive study. But however this may be, the record of reflection on the nature of society, its impact on scientific inquiry and its significance for human life goes back to the beginnings of theoretical science in ancient Kemet; and several notable figures in the history of African science and philosophy, like Bagayogo and Karamo, have given serious thought to pertinent issues raised by the science of their day.
What has fascinated many, including the professors of Sankoré, is not only the production of new technology via science, but also the technological or even the commercial differences in the quality of science practiced in various cultures. To use but one such example in modern history is the supposed gap between Russian and American commercial technological achievement.
Many scholars on this subject would admit that there’s little, if any, difference between the scientific achievements of Russia and the US. It will be well-nigh impossible to detect any difference in how both nations have bettered themselves at war – they have achieved dominance in the production of weapons of mass destruction.
However, there is by consensus a marked difference between the two states in how science has been used to achieve economic wealth and power.
In the aforementioned example of the laser, who, for instance, is profiting off lasers today? There isn’t a single Russian company selling lasers on the international market that has any significance at all. On the other hand, Charles Townes who sold his patent to a business is a cult figure in America. The Russians who invented lasers have achieved no such fame—in fact, the story insists that they couldn’t have achieved the fame and the enterprise in the environment in which they lived.
How then were they capable of inventing the laser in the environment in which they lived?
As a matter of consequence, I must clarify the relationship between science and technology, since I have concurrently discussed the two without sufficient distinction. It is true that some technologies predate the science – that is, the systematized knowledge underlying the technology. But when I speak of science I am also alluding to the technology that that science produces, or can produce, and vice versa. One can see why the specific terms have become, by convention, interchangeable in modern history; since the case study I have chosen in Russia and the US are phenoms in recent history – in turning scientific knowledge into technology – the choice can be excused.
The question that organically arises then is: How can the same science produce different results in different societies? Even for our ancestors in Sankoré, the question for Bagayogo arose: “What makes one planet and not the other build a ship?” Even more baffling is how two nations with different cultures are capable of producing the same ship, but only one nation is capable of making an economic enterprise off the technology?
Why is Russian culture relatively able to match America’s excellence in the production of weapons of mass destruction but lag significantly behind America in the use of that science in the production of commercial technology – like television sets and cell phones? How come the Russians can also reach the Moon but have complete amnesia in the use of that technology in the production of commercial goods for large markets?
Russia isn’t a technology backwater—in fact, the culture that supports Russian scientists has made them capable of some of the most important scientific advances of the 20th century. Among their achievements, they invented lasers, did pioneering work on computers, and even came up with the idea of fracking—all of which were later developed and commercialized in other cultures like the US.
Any aisle at a local technology store will reveal shelves that are stocked with computers made in China and Japan and hard drives from Thailand. Likewise, a drive down the street reveals cars made in Germany, Japan and Korea – all nations that stroke America’s hand through investments (both technological and monetary) in the commercialization of products in an increasingly global economy.
But Russia has outsourced no such great global technology in any country. It’s unthinkable that you’d seek out a Russian Lenovo, made in China or make a call on a Russian IPhone whose parts are made in Thailand, or watch a movie on a Russian flat-screen TV that is made in Japan.
Hence, the only defining difference between the aspirations of science and technology in Russia and the US is not even the ongoing inability to turn ideas into technological products, which has not proven to be a profound problem for Russia, but the inability of Russia to invest in its scientific and technological inventions for commercial success.
These facts suggest no qualitative difference in the cultures that produce the science underlying technology. These facts do not bear out any suggestion that Russia cannot produce laptops or cell phones. In fact, Russia can! The American success, however, in commercial technological advancement is not a matter of social construction but rather a matter of the particular use of capital to advance the commercial success of any given scientific and technological invention.
In the Tsarist period in Russian history—particularly in the 19th century, Yablochkov developed electric lights and later left for the more dynamic economies of Western Europe where his lights were bought and were used to illuminate the avenues of Paris and London. That’s how Paris got its nickname—“The City of Lights.”
That Yablochkov found an economy in the West that could support his genius – which was by the way made in Russia – is not complex to comprehend. After the Russian government saw Yablochkov’s success, they persuaded him to come back to Russia—and to do it in Russia. He came back to Russia, started a company, and went bankrupt—he couldn’t find investors. But more important, there was no market! He couldn’t even get the hotel he was living in to install his free lights. They preferred the inexpensive gas lights.
To this point Amir Karamo’s answer to Bagayogo’s question is important. “What makes two nations invent the same ship may be the same animus that drives two blacksmiths to invent the machete.” Now, Karamo insists that “what the machete is used for by one farmer can be markedly different from how another farmer uses a machete.”
So, Karamo re-visited the fundamental question with a profound modification: “What makes one nation produce one more ship, over the other nation? More important, “What makes the blacksmith produce one more machete over the next blacksmith? After the first machete, is it a matter of necessity or is it the availability of the next consumer that drives the production of the next machete?” To couch this in Tsarist language: What made Yablochkov’s invention marketable in France and not Russia?
Still the question can be rephrased: What makes America (or an American company) produce one more laptop, over a Russia that obviously has the science and the technological know-how to make the next laptop but does not? This, in essence, is the fundamental question.
The answers are obvious – the chimera of opportunistic investors and a voracious market.
Yet, the generality incumbent on this answer provides basically nothing to resolve the profound differences in Russian and American commercial technological attainment. The answer provides no solace in pinpointing the origins of the opportunistic investor and the market of voracious consumers in France, which perhaps is necessary for scientific innovation and technological advancement to flourish beyond the first machete, or the first sky-ship!
To illuminate this point, we can examine the economic policies of both countries and survey the way and manner in which either nation has built, or has not built, the environment – of opportunistic investors and a market of voracious consumers – to support commercial technological success. That is, if success means producing technological products for voracious consumers, and making huge sums of profits like Yablochkov did in France. The question remains: Why then were opportunistic investors and the market of voracious consumers absent from Russian society?
The answer is palpable. No economy was built overnight—no opportunistic investor was made overnight and certainly no market of voracious consumers was developed instantaneously. The historicity of economic development of both nations is necessary to illustrate the differences between Russian and American commercial success (or failure) from their scientific and technological innovations.
Communism, which consumed the Russian elite at the pinnacle of Russian influence, is perhaps the culprit. It may have helped the better part of Russian science and innovation, but it seems to have grossly dampened any commercial success Russian technological products could have achieved. Russia’s communist manifesto clearly was not an efficient system for producing the commercial success the Americans have achieved at their craft.
At the same time, to insist that it is a lack of a stable, independent business sector in Russia that prevents the commercial success of Russian innovations is six of the obvious, and half a dozen of the unique historicity. This clairvoyance cannot ignore a piece of transformative history within the same epoch in the US, which propelled America to untold heights in the commercial success of its technological products.
The American Industrial Revolution of the 19th century drastically influenced the American landscape and prepared it for the commercial success of its scientific and technological advancement. Corporations in America began to manufacture goods that had previously been made in the home. Goods were mass produced using machinery instead of people. These advances in manufacturing had major effects on American culture and provided the American government tremendous power.
But all this power was based on proceeds from a free labor system (American slavery), from an acquisition of free land (Native American lands) and free resources (through wars and conquests in the colonies in Africa and Asia), which spurred the production of the wealth of the West. The early American economy was built on slave labor. The Capitol and the White House were built by slaves. President James K. Polk traded slaves from the Oval Office.
The laments about Russia’s inability to turn science into economic gains ring hollow when compared to an America whose wealthy existence was predicated on the free lands of Native Americans, the torture and labor of Black men, the rape of black women, and the sale of black children. An honest assessment of America’s ability to create the environment – the opportunistic investors and the market of voracious consumers – necessary to turn science into technological products reveals the country to be not a nurturer of science and technology but a brutal exploiter of shackled labor and bloody land.
And this enterprise, to create American wealth and hone the many generations of consumers needed to make commerce for technological products to thrive, did not end with slavery. Discriminatory laws malformed the equal burden of citizenship to the unequal distribution of its bounty. These laws reached their apex in the mid-20th century, when the federal government—through housing policies—engineered the American wealth gap leaving money in the hands of white businesses and the federal government.
When we think of western capitalism – opportunistic investors and a voracious consumer base – we picture entrepreneurs, but we should picture pirate flags.
In this sense, it is necessary to always reiterate the impact of unimaginable wealth – religiously acquired, cunningly acquired, racially acquired, and brutally acquired – in the pursuit of the commercialization of scientific and technological products.
Russia did not have this unique providence of history. In the 1950s, Russians developed the technology of fracking, but they couldn’t use it. Later Americans, through wealthy businesses hewn directly from slave plantations and a wealthy government took Russia’s idea, further refined fracking, and 30 years later, American companies were over in Russia—Chevron, Exxon, BP—and teaching the Russians how to successfully do fracking even though the Russians developed the idea.
The same point can be made in America itself. During the American Industrial Revolution, numerous African American inventors had their ideas copied and ripped from them at little to no remuneration, for the furtherance of the American empire.
Even more recently, to appreciate the importance of the maintenance of a market of voracious consumers, Big Pharmaceutical Companies in the US have refused to bring to the market real cures for HIV and AIDS (notably by such scientists as Dr. Sam Chachoua) with the calculation that antiretroviral drugs are more profitable, no matter how unethical.
Suffice it to say that the Russians have also tried their hands at exploitation. For after all, Stalin’s nuclear weapons and his rat race to the Moon with the Americans were launched largely through a brutal period in Russian history – an exploitation of the Russian masses. Still, the Russians achieved nothing on the scale of what the West achieved in exploiting others.
It will be foolhardy to ignore this historicity – in the creation, maintenance and expansion of opportunistic investors and voracious consumers – at the base of any commercial success for scientific and technological advancement. The American Revolution holds sway over its Russian counterpart only in this regard.
Again, when we think of western capitalism – opportunistic investors and a voracious consumer base – we picture entrepreneurs, but we should picture pirate flags.
It is for this reason that the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, underscored a new era for Russian geopolitics – that of expanding Russian markets. Obviously, inherent in this new strategy is the need for Russia to create a consumer base necessary for igniting a commercial tradition for Russian technological products in the 21st century. In a way, Russia is now willing to adopt the American market strategy.
However, since the Russians cannot resort to enslaving their own or others, or seizing other people’s lands – maybe they can and probably have to – the only way they can amass the capital to achieve this necessary base of opportunistic investors and voracious consumers that can match the American landscape, is to enrich the 140 million Russians through the mass extraction and sale of its vast oil and gas reserves. Still, Russia must expand its borders for newer markets of voracious consumers for its oil and technological products.
But this move by Russia has been met with an American military intent and trade embargos on keeping the status quo – creating, maintaining and expanding a market of opportunistic investors and more, voracious consumers for American products. Together with NATO, the US is determined to keep the Russians at bay and out of its envisioned markets, even in the East – Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Syria and Ukraine. This has resulted in a freeze in international relations – a new Cold War – and an unprecedented drop in oil prices.
The unique confluence of these ingredients – investors and markets – necessary for the creation and growth of technological products rests carefully within the bosom of the creation, maintenance and expansion of the Wealth of a Nation. A nation with a modicum of wealth like Russia can invest in science all it wants, but without the necessary markets of voracious consumers, there can be no technological advancement of the stature needed to keep Yablochkov at home.
America has the wealth – garnered through centuries of exploitation of others and their lands – to invest in new technology. America has the wealth to maintain and expand a market base, or a consumer base, for its products, and America has the wealth to protect from Russia the markets for its products, through a sophisticated military and a national propaganda machine.
A cursory look at America’s innumerable military drones all over Africa reveals this indefatigable reality. A cursory look at the new trade deals – the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), The Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), the 51-nation Trade in Services Agreement (TiSA) – reveals a reality in sync with the creation, maintenance and expansion of markets. This is the only way to ensure a constant supply of opportunistic investors and a voracious consumer base!
Taken together, these represent a mixture of necessary and precipitating conditions which alone underlay the moral, aesthetic and entrepreneurial difference between America (the West) and Russia in the commercialization of technological know-how.
In ending however, the voluminous talk about the benefits of bucolic markets, or the desultory necessities of mother nature’s call for innovation, in its most general terms does nothing but conceal a lack of perspective towards the chimera – opportunistic investors and a voracious masses – unique to the American Industrial Revolution and hence the commercial success of its technological products, which merits as close a judgment as a similar lack of perspective towards all ingenuity of the human spirit.