Friday, February 06, 2009

The mosquito incident

Bill Gates opens a jar of mosquitoes at TED2009
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.

(Thanks Jake!)


Nina Simon said...

Check out this amazing exhibit at a children's museum in Oslo. While it doesn't have the shock quality of the mosquito performance event, it is a pretty extraordinary experiential metaphor for climate change's potential effect on a low country. Working with water in a museum--especially a children's museum--is incredibly expensive and complicated. Kudos to the Oslo team for doing it anyway.

There have been many exhibits that use metaphor to powerfully convey experience. I'm thinking of the famous exhibit on civil rights that forced you to enter through one of two doors labeled "Whites Only" or "Negros Only," or the exhibit on animal extinction in which each animal was portrayed on a giant domino, with the already extinct tipping the soon-to-be extinct.

stuart candy said...


Many thanks for sharing this great example! Like you, I really admire the museum designers for taking on the formidable logistics of a wet exhibit. I was also struck by the story about the museum staff member who says kids visiting them don't get the point about climate change, because of being preoccupied playing with water and boats. This seems to epitomise the tension in any simulation (drawn to my attention by Clark Aldrich) between maintaining verisimilitude or conveying content, on the one hand, and augmenting playability or enjoyment, i.e. incentivising engagement, on the other.

The other examples you provide are thought provoking also. One of the thoughts thus provoked in me is around the difference between evocations of scenarios which are more experiential (segregated doorways) vs those which are more symbolic (falling dominoes). Bill Gates's mosquitoes are kind of a hybrid, I guess. Most people in the auditorium would not actually have seen or heard any of the mosquitoes (I'm assuming he did actually release some rather than just pretending -- the TED organisers said the exact number let loose was seven). But even without that direct experiential element, I suppose the gesture was symbolic enough to kick-start the conversation he sought to have.

Yet here, too, we find a question mark over the calculus of engagement value vs educational value (the terms are a bit slippy here, because I'm aiming to make an argument that operates across quite disparate areas). Releasing mosquitoes got people's attention; no question about it. But I'd guess that more of the conversations it generated were about the attention-getting technique itself, than about malaria research. Similarly, our first intervention for FoundFutures: Chinatown attracted plenty of attention, but the most visible portion of it, at least, was less interested in the very real future possibility of the neighbourhood being taken over by corporate developers, than in the fact that we had "pranked" some people into believing this was already happening.

One can certainly make a case that all engagement is for the good (cf "there's no such thing as bad publicity"). But releasing mosquitoes in an auditorium, flooding a room and putting toy boats in it, and simulating a corporate takeover of an old neighbourhood can all be subjected to the same question. To what extent, and with what tradeoffs, do they draw attention to the substantive issues animating them?

stuart candy said...

Just found another example.

Fellow futurist Wendy Schultz, blogging from Futuropolis 2058, a future of cities conference in Singapore last October, wrote:

Representative from Vestas (wind turbine / energy company) Matthew - just "role-played" a negative scenario of biocapacity crash: they fed us "lunch" in the auditorium by handing almost every participant a small plastic pack containing three kidney beans.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for almost giving me Malaria, Bill. Next time I'll remember to bring some DEET and a Mosquito Magnet.