The death last month of Mikhail Kalashnikov, the inventor of the AK-47 assault rifle, prompted me to think about the role of transformative technology in shaping the world. When I first mentioned this to my colleagues, one or two quizzical editorial eyebrows were raised, and the inevitable question asked: “What has the AK-47 got to do with development?” The short answer is: “Quite a lot, actually”.
My thoughts about Mr Kalashnikov’s invention started to germinate after a conversation I had in South Africa with Jonathan Ledgard: author, East Africa correspondent for the Economist magazine and director of the Afrotech initiative at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, Switzerland.
Ledgard had just given a presentation at a workshop organised by South Africa’s National Research Foundation, in which he spoke about China’s growing influence in Africa, the continent’s population explosion and the potential for new technologies to have a major impact on Africa.
In one imaginative touch, an image of an AK-47 was briefly juxtaposed on the screen with that of a smart mobile phone. Ledgard explained that in his, and in many other people’s view, Africa is emerging from what he called the Kalashnikov Era — a period that has seen development held back and the continent racked by conflict and fuelled by division — to a new age of high-tech connectivity and peace.
That technology should still be at the epicentre of this momentous transformation is what got my own creative juices flowing. Can a new age of technological innovation learn lessons from the old?
To begin with, and notwithstanding the lethal nature of the AK-47 (Automat Kalashnikova 7.62mm Model 1947), I would argue that its design principles do indeed hold important lessons for present and future technologies.
When, in the late 1940s, Kalashnikov and his team of engineers turned their attention to designing an automatic infantry small arm, they created a piece of technology that was simple, robust and reliable. These are qualities that designers of future technologies would do well to keep in mind.
“It remains to be seen whether some new, non-lethal technology will emerge that will give the ‘gun that changed the world’ a run for its money.”
Its minimal design and working parts made the AK-47 easy to learn to use. No previous experience was necessary to turn a farmer, peasant or factory worker into a fighter. And the AK-47 is robust — it doesn’t break under rough handling, it is straightforward to dismantle for cleaning, and damaged parts are easy to repair. In mud, dust, water or high humidity, the weapon keeps on working. Over the years, its reliability became legendary.
If we apply these enduring qualities to non-lethal technologies such as mobile phones, then we find a significant difference. With their rare metals, fragile structures and complex operating systems, mobile technologies stand in stark contrast to the Kalashnikov.
Considerations other than design are worth pointing out too. Like the mobile phone, the Kalashnikov gives its owner a magnetic appeal. It is, without doubt, the most famous small weapon ever produced. It is iconic, it is cool to be photographed with and it made its designer a household name — more so than Martin ‘Marty’ Cooper, the engineer behind the first mobile telephone. In an age where celebrity is worshipped, this is not to be ignored.
My first encounter with the Kalashnikov was in Damascus in the 1990s. I’m relieved to say that it was not at the end of its barrel, but it still amounts to first-hand experience of its power and iconic status. At a road checkpoint outside the trade fair I was visiting, I faced a young man with an AK-47 slung across his shoulder. He was not in uniform and radiated an aura of confidence, arrogance and menace. I pointed my camera at him, hoping he would pose for a picture. With a shake of his head and a jerk of his weapon, I was motioned to move on. Needless to say, I didn’t argue.
The AK-47 gained prominence on the global stage in the 1960s during the Vietnam War. China supplied the Viet Cong with the weapon and news of its durability and reliability spread like wildfire. Since then, it has become synonymous with guerrilla warfare or ‘liberation struggles’ across the globe from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe.
Indeed, there are those who argue that, far from being a technology that holds back or blights emerging states, it should be considered a technology of liberation; one that paves the way for independence and makes genuine development possible — tune into that discussion in the accompanying audio slideshow.
The spread of mobiles
But when I look at the proliferation of mobiles compared with AK-47s, I’m struck by something else. It is estimated that 50 to 100 million Kalashnikovs have been produced worldwide. The figure for mobile phones makes this pale into insignificance — Wikipedia reports 6.8 billion mobile phones in use across the planet. If in no other way, modern mobile technology is proving to be far more popular than the weapon, and that’s encouraging.
Ledgard told me that when he first worked in Kenya, Safaricom, one of the biggest local mobile network operators, aspired to having 400,000 subscribers in the country by 2012. In fact, by the end of 2012, that figure reached 19.5 million. This is, he says: “a message of accelerating technology”, leaving far behind what he calls “the shadow of the Kalashnikov”.
Yet it isn’t numbers that matter but the practical use to which people put any piece of technology. It only has a life in people’s hands. It remains to be seen whether some new, non-lethal technology will emerge that will give the ‘gun that changed the world’ a run for its money in something more than numbers.