By Denis Jjuuko

When mobile phones were first introduced in Uganda more than two decades ago, they were really mobile. The only difference between a mobile phone and a landline/fixed one was that you could walk with it so people could look at you in awe. A mobile phone only had two functions — making and receiving phone calls.

Along the way, text messaging (short message) or simply SMS were introduced and then vibration (can you imagine a phone vibrating as it rings was a status symbol then). Cameras were also introduced at one stage. Eventually, touch screens were introduced and one could read and send emails on their phones. This revolution took 34 years since the first mobile phone call was made in 1973 by a Motorola researcher.

Today, as we have seen with the latest iPhones and Samsungs, there isn’t much a smartphone company can do to the hardware end of the phone. All technologies reach the age of maturity. For example, for many decades, there wasn’t something significant one could add to a motorcar. You could introduce power windows, airbags and all that but it isn’t such a significant world changing technology. The only significant change in vehicles in over a century might be when they become driverless in the years ahead.

So this brings me to the issue of salaries of science and art teachers. There has been a proposal to pay them more than art teachers. Actually, there is a lot of hullabaloo about sciences. Some people believe that once you promote sciences, then all the country’s problems would be solved. They even created a fancy acronym for this in STEM — Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.

As we have seen with phones and cars, there isn’t a lot one can do to phones anymore today. The technology has reached a ceiling. So if Apple and Samsung are to remain the holly grail of smartphones, there will have to do something else. Apple already planned this by creating thousands of fancy stores around the world. They knew technology will reach a limit and people would have to buy their phones not because they are technologically superior rather because they are a luxury brand, the in-thing to have. There is nothing that is significantly different from a Gucci bag and another bag made by anybody else. But a Gucci bag costs much more because they have marketed it as a luxury brand — something your boda boda’s wife will never own (apart from when she buys it second hand).

So Gucci, Apple or Mercdes Benz today don’t need as much scientists as they might have needed many years ago. Tweaking their products is the easiest thing now given the advancements in technology and existence of third party suppliers. The hard part for all those three brands I mention is to remain at the top as luxury brands. There isn’t much a scientist can do to enable them achieve that. If people are to continue logging into Facebook, it is people who studied art courses that may enable them achieve that. That might be a psychologist and that isn’t really a science per se. The typical engineer will only do what a psychologist, marketer, communications people have recommended.

People who studied for example art and marketing who will design and market a product that appeals to the biggest part of any company’s target market are going to be as needed as scientists. A car designer is probably more important than an engineer given the cutthroat competition in the automotive industry. Psychologists will study behavior and mind of consumers and help product development teams determine how products are tweaked. So if you only promoted science, your economy wouldn’t go very far.

Artificial intelligence, machine learning and all the technology of the future will need as many art experts as scientists. For example, like we have seen, the hardware technology of a phone has reached its limit and there might not be significant changes in the next 50 years or so. So a phone that will be installed with capabilities to recognize a language and interpret it for you is the future so that when somebody calls you and is speaking French, you will be able to understand them even when the only word in French you know is Bonjour. They will speak their French and you will answer in English and the phone will facilitate that interaction without necessarily having a human interpreter on standby. That is why Language and cognition experts might be in much more demand than your typical telecom engineer.

So as a country we must not promote science or STEM over art. We should promote both because they are complimentary but also advancements in technology mean that to have an edge over your competitors, you may need more people who studied art than science. However, since both science and art compliment each other, we should promote them with the same vigor and pay teachers of both subjects equally.

The writer is a communication and visibility consultant.

*Pupils entering a classroom. Should we only encourage them to study sciences?