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TED Day 2: Congolese Mobile Networks, Fractal Villages, and Jane Goodall’s Great Apes

The elite technology show mostly sparkles, but sometimes grates. That’s fine.

Seven years ago, before Chris Anderson purchased Technology, Entertainment, Design (TED) from the legendary events programmer Richard Saul Wurman, I was a devoted follower of this event. At its best, TED felt wonderfully eccentric and intellectually stimulating. Subjects and speakers were drawn from the most disparate of topics and fields; the audience was left to draw its own conclusions, with only gentle prodding from Wurman. And, it might as well be admitted, the event felt very exclusive. Hardly anyone knew about TED; fewer still were invited.

Most important, Wurman had a strict rule: there was to be no promotion of companies or projects by his speakers.

Anderson claims to have a similar rule, but on this second day in Tanzania I felt strongly that I was being sold to. Generally, I was being sold the idea of Africa as a rational subject for optimism; more specifically, I was being sold individual ventures.

The first is a fairly harmless species of chauvinism, I suppose, and insofar as it offers Africans in the TED audience a swelling sense of dignity, it might even be useful. But I think it does serious damage to the complicated truth of Africa, which combines great hope and opportunities with blood-curdling misery. It’s worth noting that by any economic measurement, whether it is national GDP or per capita income, most regions of Africa are the poorest in the world. Arguably, many areas are also the most environmentally despoiled, the hungriest, and the most ethnically rancorous on our dark planet. This evening, when Anderson invited the TED audience members to say what they liked and didn’t like about his show, one African attendee expressed astonishment that we had discussed neither the genocide in Darfur nor the more economically motivated violence in Zimbabwe. I muttered under my breath, “That’s right, brother.”

For me, however, a more serious problem was how the speakers who talked about their companies comported themselves. Perhaps it was asking a little much that small-time African entrepreneurs should be as polished as American executives with their speechwriters and media training. In fairness, many of the Africans were speaking a language that was not their first. But the executives also seemed to be involved in blunt appeals to the very rich investors and executives in the TED audience. Perhaps it would have required the self-denial of a saint for an African entrepreneur not to have pitched his or her company, given who was sitting in the crowd. But it was terribly counterproductive, I fear. TED’s organizers would have done better to tell the speakers to sound smart, innovative, and intriguing.

But worst of all, the African entrepreneurs were dull. Yesterday, I complained that there was no technology at TED. Today, we heard from a number of technology executives. But they left me cold. Even the most interesting, Alieu Conteh, the founder of Vodafone Congo, could not evoke the heroism of his story. Conteh created a mobile network of 6 million mobile subscribers in a country that was at war and that had only 15,000 fixed lines. He did it with no outside funding, because no Western investor would help. He built his own infrastructure, because no Western equipment manufacturer would visit his desperate country. He invested $1 million of his own money, and today his company is worth more than $1 billion, according to the Western investment banks that were asked to value it. We only learned this thrilling story because Anderson prompted him. Left to himself, Conteh would have modeled his manner on a tongue-tied CEO presenting his annual financials to his shareholders.

I turned in relief to the more cerebral events of the day, which seemed more echt TED. A mathematician named Ron Eglash discoursed amusingly (no, truly!) about how African villages and other artifacts were built on the same self-generating fractal patterns that form ferns and snowflakes. By contrast, he said, Western towns and artifacts were built on a grid. He revealed to us the fractal algorithm that he had wormed out of an African priest for sand divination. I was beside myself with pleasure. This is what TED is meant to be about! I thought.

Finally, Jane Goodall, the famous primatologist, made a moving appeal to save the planet. Controversially (at least to my mind), she quoted approvingly E. O. Wilson’s dictum that to provide the world’s poor with a Western standard of living would require four planets. She explained that our environment is being progressively destroyed and reminded us that we have only one Earth. But while she seemed to be saying that no one should be as rich as TED’s attendees, she talked convincingly of programs that could alleviate the poverty that, in Africa, is most responsible for environmental despoliation.

I thoroughly agreed with the latter point. But I was left a little bemused by her suggestion that the poor of Africa must not enjoy Western standards of living. In my fairly extensive travels in Asia and Africa, the one commonality I have found is that however much the poor hate our colonialism, our arrogance, our values, or our religion, they really want our stuff. Who can blame them? Our stuff is pretty good, not unenviable. Perhaps the real challenge for this century is figuring out how to enrich the poor world in a fashion that is both equitable and sustainable.

Tomorrow: tales of invention and heroism.

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