Jason Pontin

A View from Jason Pontin

TED Day 3: Candor and Inspiration

The penultimate day of Chris Anderson’s African conference is pleasing.

  • June 14, 2007

Editor’s note: Our editor in chief was without any connection to the Internet on the last days of TED Global 2007. This blog describes Wednesday, June 6.

Today’s presentations and speeches at the Technology, Entertainment, Design (TED) Global 2007 conference were much more satisfying and intellectually coherent than the others. I came away better satisfied with the entire notion of a TED conference dedicated to Africa.

Chris Anderson, the owner and organizer of TED, always says that one must wait until the different themes and ideas he throws into his rich stew of programming begin to meld–and so it has proven here in Tanzania.

The morning’s sessions began with one called “Tales of Invention,” where innovators, who were not so much inventors working on African problems as inventors who happened to be African, described their work. One, in particular, stood out: Seyi Oyesola, a physician who invented something he called a “hospital in a box.” It was a simple, portable (well, 150-pound), resilient set of medical devices that makes surgery possible even in the worst parts of the world. The hospital in a box has anesthetic equipment, a defibrillator, a burn unit, plaster-making tools, surgical tools, and an operating table.

The next session, titled “Health and Heroes,” was notable because it allowed Anderson to directly address the darker realities of Africa that TED Global 2007 had until then seemed to be ignoring.

In retrospect, I am sympathetic with how Anderson chose to present Africa’s troubles. Nearly every African who spoke at TED Global 2007 talked with great bitterness about Western journalists’ representations of Africa as a slide show composed entirely of starving babies, child soldiers, and sprawling shantytowns. They found such images and stories insufferably degrading. Anderson was clearly advised by his African speakers to distance TED from such reporting. Then, too, his own tastes run to the breezily optimistic. Finally, a technology show that emphasized Africa’s problems would be difficult to market: such a downer! Anderson’s solution was to limit discussion of Africa’s problems to a single session and issue (Africa’s ill health)–and to explore those problems in the context of heroic figures who were offering real solutions to intractable difficulties. Dr. Leon Kintaudi, for instance, talked about the collapse of health care in the Congo and how he hoped to rebuild his country’s rural health infrastructure.

To my mind, the problem with Anderson’s solution is that it glossed over unwelcome and unflattering facts. More, even if one accepted (as I do) TED Global’s thesis that technology, commercial investment, and trade might find in Africa’s shortages economic opportunities that would create wealth, one left the conference without a very clear idea of how desperately hard it is to do business here.

I found the last session I saw the most thrilling. Called “Connecting the Continent,” it drew together a series of very canny African chief executives, most of whom had worked in the West, to discuss one of the continent’s most obvious needs: a modern communications and computer infrastructure. Each of the speakers impressed me with his or her passion, intelligence, and reasonableness. Not one underestimated the difficulties they faced, but each had conjured up African solutions to African problems.

One executive in particular, Herman Chinery-Hesse, the founder of SOFTTribe, moved me. He said, “I could of course work in the West. But I think it is undignified for an African to spend his entire career outside Africa.” He was a patriot as well as an entrepreneur.

Tech Obsessive?
Become an Insider to get the story behind the story — and before anyone else.
Subscribe today

Uh oh–you've read all five of your free articles for this month.

Insider Premium

$179.95/yr US PRICE

More from undefined

Want more award-winning journalism? Subscribe and become an Insider.

  • Insider Premium {! insider.prices.premium !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Our award winning magazine, unlimited access to our story archive, special discounts to MIT Technology Review Events, and exclusive content.

    See details+

    What's Included

    Bimonthly home delivery and unlimited 24/7 access to MIT Technology Review’s website.

    The Download. Our daily newsletter of what's important in technology and innovation.

    Access to the Magazine archive. Over 24,000 articles going back to 1899 at your fingertips.

    Special Discounts to select partner offerings

    Discount to MIT Technology Review events

    Ad-free web experience

    First Look. Exclusive early access to stories.

    Insider Conversations. Join in and ask questions as our editors talk to innovators from around the world.

  • Insider Plus {! insider.prices.plus !}* Best Value

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Everything included in Insider Basic, plus ad-free web experience, select discounts to partner offerings and MIT Technology Review events

    See details+

    What's Included

    Bimonthly home delivery and unlimited 24/7 access to MIT Technology Review’s website.

    The Download. Our daily newsletter of what's important in technology and innovation.

    Access to the Magazine archive. Over 24,000 articles going back to 1899 at your fingertips.

    Special Discounts to select partner offerings

    Discount to MIT Technology Review events

    Ad-free web experience

  • Insider Basic {! insider.prices.basic !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Six issues of our award winning magazine and daily delivery of The Download, our newsletter of what’s important in technology and innovation.

    See details+

    What's Included

    Bimonthly home delivery and unlimited 24/7 access to MIT Technology Review’s website.

    The Download. Our daily newsletter of what's important in technology and innovation.

You've read of free articles this month.