Bill Gates opens a jar of mosquitoes at TED2009
Image: James Duncan Davidson / TED via MSNBC
Image: James Duncan Davidson / TED via MSNBC
At the prestigious annual TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conference held this week, billionaire software mogul-turned-philanthropist Bill Gates presented at a session called "Reboot". His topic wasn't tech, however, but instead the efforts currently being made through his charitable foundation to "reboot" social problems including malaria, a fatal but preventable disease spread by parasite-carrying mosquitoes. Malaria is the scourge of poor countries in warm areas, and according to Gates has 200 million sufferers, with one million lives lost per year.
To help underline his point about the disease being largely ignored by medical researchers because it affects mainly impoverished populations, the man who founded Microsoft took an unusual step to engage the attention of TED's high profile, invitation-only audience. Yahoo! News reported:
"Malaria is spread by mosquitoes," Gates said while opening a jar onstage at a gathering known to attract technology kings, politicians, and Hollywood stars.
"I brought some. Here I'll let them roam around. There is no reason only poor people should be infected."
Gates waited a minute or so before assuring the audience the liberated insects were malaria-free.
The stunt has generated some controversy, reports Wired blog Epicenter. While some want to accuse him of terrorism, others praise his showmanship, but since the difference between the two is more ideological than intrinsic, either way we may conclude that Gates found a powerful way to make his point.
Still, the misquotation given above, which can easily be read as thoughtless and irresponsible, has added fuel to the fire. Watch the video (embedded at the bottom of this post); five minutes in, here's what Gates actually says:
Now malaria is, of course, transmitted by mosquitoes. I brought some here [opening jar] so you could experience this; we'll let those roam around the, uh, auditorium a little bit [audience laughs]. There's no reason only poor people should have the experience [more laughter, applause]. Those mosquitoes are not infected, but, uh...
I would suggest that some of his critics are either wilfully missing the point, or spoke up before they had seen the clip.
In any case, why -- you may well ask -- is this appearing here at t.s.f.?
Well, the question posed in Gates's presentation is, "How do you stop a deadly disease that's spread by mosquitoes?" An important part of the answer to that question lies in drawing active attention to the problem. His talk was calculated to do that. As far as I can tell, it worked.
To generate experiential, immersive and affective (as opposed to purely verbal, propositional, or cognitive) vectors for opening alternative futures up to exploration is right at the heart of my current work as a futurist. Gates's stunt is one of the simplest, most ingenious, low-tech ways to spice up a conference talk that I've ever heard of, and it instantly elevates to prominence a cluster of pertinent questions about the relationships between disease, socioeconomic class, and the medical establishment. Naysayers nothwithstanding, the "scare" factor here was minor or non-existent, while the gesture was sufficiently bold, and symbolically potent, to have been newsworthy (although whether it would have been quite as widely reported if instigated by someone other than a former "World's Richest Man" titleholder remains uncertain). In an age of increasingly ubiquitous video recording and web-access, not only TED, but many other events have both a primary audience (those present at the time) and a secondary audience (those who hear about it later and watch online, etc). An effective experiential intervention will actually reach many more people in anecdotal or secondary form (via accompanying metacommentary and distortions), and that's the case here. I (and probably you too) became aware of this speech, and devoted some portion of my attention to as part of the secondary diffusion of a novel primary performance. That's the sense in which it "worked".
Now, just to be clear; this is not to say that I think people should release bugs left, right and centre whenever disease is the topic du jour. Anything that might be (mis)taken, even momentarily, for a hoax, must be handled very carefully indeed. But in any event, novelty is part of the design context, and future duplication of this intervention would almost certainly be a worse idea, not a better one.
The experience must always be tailored to the specific circumstances: topic, audience, location, resources, etc.
Here's another great example, shared on the WFSF listserv last year by a futurist colleague from the Netherlands, Andreas Ligtvoet:
[There] was an exhibition during the Floriade (World Horticulture Fair) 2002 by Hogeschool Larenstein (a higher education institution in the NL). They not only showed a multimedia presentation about the potential flooding of parts of the NL (due to climate change and ice melting), but actually flooded (!) the floor that the viewers were standing on. On the floor was a map of the Netherlands, and the flooding only took place in the western (lower) part. Of course the visitors had to crowd together on the smaller surface of the exhibition hall or get wet feet.
I have tried, so far unsuccessfully, to locate photos or video of this event; but the concept is splendid, and directly confronts the psychological difficulties we face when engaging long-term change processes.
It would be great to hear from anyone else with cases where a future (or otherwise absent, remote, or hard-to-imagine) scenario has been rendered available here-and-now, whether the setting be a conference, theme park, or classroom. But the cheaper, simpler and more ingenious the approach, the better. To my mind, whether the issue is malaria, climate change, or any other significant threat -- or, for that matter, opportunity -- in need of our sympathetic attention and concerted realignment of collective priorities, these techniques themselves are also ideas worth spreading.