On Psychic Comfort & “Technical Sophistication”

Why exactly has it proven difficult for African countries like Ghana to become as technically sophisticated as South Korea and those other countries like Finland that have built serious national capacity despite having started out on their “development journey” with similar challenges around the same time as we did.

‘Technical sophistication’ is closely related to ‘economic development’ but the two are not completely identical.

The Eastern Bloc nations, for instance, developed a very high level of technical sophistication without ever matching the material wealth of the Western, capitalist, countries.

Technical sophistication also appears to be more cohabitable with a wider range of political, social and cultural conditions.

China has serious institutional limitations, which it has addressed much more slowly than it has its technical constraints. As many have pointed out, South Korea was for many decades politically chaotic.

Nor is geopolitics as strong a determinative factor for technical sophistication as it is for economic development.

North Korea continues to make strange progress in a wide range of national defence objectives despite a very hostile geopolitical environment.

In that respect, most of the usual explanations we give in Africa for our lagging economic development (American aid to South Korea, for instance) are rather less impressive when it comes to explaining our bumbling attempts at building national capacity in various technical domains.

My own view is that our situation is best explained by one word. Meritocracy. We only pay lip service to meritocracy.

In my experience a Ghanaian (the African I know the most) will always flow with the person, team, institution or arrangement that makes him or her feel ‘comfortable’ and least threatens his or her ego, as opposed to the individual, team or arrangement that challenges him/her and compels him/her to improve his/her craft.

That is the key differentiator. We prize psychic comfort. The more technically advanced cultures prize ‘improvement’ and are extremely keen to deepen their self-capacity. We are not. We need constant assurance that we are okay.

This attitude creates a spiral towards ‘degeneration’ in the words of Max Nordau.

It makes ‘apprenticeship’ next to impossible. It makes ‘schools of thought’ next to impossible as no one is keen to hone a craft for years by following a ‘master’ who is also honing her craft every day, and participating in a peer group that challenges his/her thinking and forces upon him or her high standards of exactitude.

Everyone needs only enough to assuage their ego-anxieties. That’s all. One learns quickly in such a culture not to cast one’s pearls before the trough. If you have ever wondered why there are almost no “schools of thought” in Ghanaian academia for any major area of enquiry, consider this explanation carefully.

A school of thought requires ‘ego subjection’. It requires a high degree of tolerance for psychic discomfort. One has to continually justify every new ‘step’ in the expansion of the subject area for which the school has emerged, and one must do so in the context of sharp scrutiny by a critical peer group. This requires a good tolerance for cognitive stress.

To use a more contemporary example, take a look at open-source computer projects or the development of protocols, new frameworks and utilities.

Your first instinct might be to say that poverty is the reason, until you observe how Indian, Ukranian, and other post-Soviet space technologists aggressively participate in such projects. The average monthly salary in urban Philippines is not that different from urban Nigeria or Ghana or Kenya. And yet, I often see a lot more Philippino involvement in such projects and activities. We must clearly look to psychocultural factors, specifically to the issue of “psychic comfort”.

Our love for psychic comfort also makes delayed gratification difficult. Why care when no one rewards the attention to detail that is often the result of what one might call: “the masochism of thoroughness”?

When I was in secondary school in Ghana, we had a word, ‘posse’. A naive take on it might lead to a conflation with the term, ‘cool’, widely used elsewhere.

But to be ‘posse’ in fact was not really about being ‘cool’. It was about not compelling people to want to examine themselves too much and seek to improve on what they have and what they do.

A posse in the camp meant that no one would ever feel ‘inadequate’.

We reward those who leave us feeling adequate. We give them promotions and accelerate their advancement. Those who assure us that we deserve the best without extra effort win our loyalty. Those who comfort us with the notion that we are ‘valuable’ and ‘precious’ just for being us get our votes.

We believe that if something feels difficult to grasp or deal with, then there is a flaw in the source and not in us. That we don’t have to spend days chewing over something difficult. Because in our current state we are fine, so if something we are working on keeps foundering then the problem must be in some other domain, natural or supernatural.

If one observes carefully, one would conclude that the corruption we complain about so much is often mere scaffolding for deeper problems of the type described in this short piece. The confidence a public official has in awarding a large contract to a completely inexperienced contractor comes from certain knowledge that a meritocratic debate would be incoherent. The culture simply does not exist to host such a debate properly. It will rub off badly on many people.

A civilisation that prizes its psychic comforts cannot create complex things. And the truth is: moving from one phase of development to the next is INDEED a complex thing; there is no silver bullet. It takes ‘deep’ penetration into discovery on multiple fronts. It takes insatiable LEARNING and IMPROVING.

Learning and improving, unfortunately, CANNOT happen in one’s comfort zone. Any society or civilisation that prizes comfort cannot build technical capacity fast enough to make a difference.

This simple fact has the force of a universal law.

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