It’s TED season again. For those who don’t know, what TED is, it’s a series of conferences that has been growing in public popularity in recent years, despite its age, where the supposed best and brightest collect to share ideas on the latest and greatest… stuff. It has also been criticized for hefty entrance and sitting fees, and the “elite” attitude some former TED Fellows carry about their work. For right or wrong; true to its nature or not, the TED talks are getting increasing attention from people in the development field due to some of the topics of discussion and the frequency with which they can be applied to development work.
In principle, I am not against conferences and discussions. They are places where people with similar thoughts can come together and focus their attention on their trade in a collective fashion. I myself was lucky enough to attend and present at a conference just after graduating from university but before coming to Kenya with the Peace Corps, and seeing the experts of the field in person and hearing them talk can be an inspiring thing. When your work is difficult and tiring, inspiration is critical.
Yet since joining the development field (though Peace Corps is arguably traditional “development work”), it seems all that’s on peoples’ minds is these conferences. This sharing of ideas. Ideas are the currency of international development, and conferences are like the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange. The problem however, is that these currencies are devalued, baseless, in my experience. For every one million ideas that I hear someone is “working on,” I hear of one that is actually been implemented and actually working as expected (de-hyperbolize as you see fit). As we all know, when currencies have no foundation for valuation, be it precious scarce raw material or trust in the issuing authority, then they are just token and nothing more. Without a working implementation, development ideas are simply token.
Just yesterday, BBC News released an article about Boeing’s Phantom Works unveiling their latest creation: a hydrogen-powered airplane capable of sustaining flight for about 96 hours. Quite an accomplishment for something with 2.3 litre engine and a 150 foot wingspan. Oh, and there’s no pilot. That’s the kicker. Were people talking about it before the release? No. Were there YouTube videos posted about it? No. Do hoards of bloggers publicly worship the ground the Phantom engineers walk on? No. Will it revolutionize the way we live our lives? Indirectly, I would venture and say yes. Engineering feats, even proofs of concept, tend to do that.
Unlike Phantom Works, development conferences don’t produce anything. Sometimes, the speakers at those conferences have not accomplished a single thing themselves: no projects completely implemented, no metrics regarding a project’s true success, no replicable model. Yet I have witnessed people gobble up others’ words as if they were the next Messiah. I have seen people rise up through the ranks of the development-workhierarchyand gain credibility. Sometimes it all makes me wonder: who’s more the fool, the Fool or those that follow him?
It’s just another contrast between the business world and the development world that frustrates me to no end. Sometimes I wish people would just take grant or seed money, implement their project, record its successes and failures in a private but replicable and then present upon those alone, not on hopes and dreams. Otherwise, the ideas coming out of these conferences discourage implementors on the ground who don’t want to be re-inventing wheels when they could be supporting a pre-existing project. The problem is that the projects aren’t really pre-existing, they are only existing in a vaporous state, not quite yet solid, not even liquid, a mere cognitive pattern upon anindividual’sbrain, neural pathways that don’t yet control the hands that build.
There are several prohibitive mentalities at play on the ground in development work. I have not noticed the “race mentality” amongst development workers, where one feels the need to be the first to implement. It might be because personal profit is not at stake, just other human lives aside from your own. Competition and efficiency is sacrificed for the spirit ofcamaraderie and cultural sensitivity. The development mentality is a double-edged sword: on one side you have the principle of working slow and together because you are dealing with peoples’ lives and livelihoods and you want to cause as little collateral damage as necessary; the other edge to the sword is that by moving slowly we possibly do not help those who need the help in the instant. I would analogize it to a surgeon performing open-heart surgery, needing to move slowly to not kill his patient while also needing to hurry so as to not kill his patient.
I guess the question is, do surgeons need to have crowds and fans, or should they just do the work. Would one rather their surgeon be distraction free, not needing to constantly be reaffirmed of their “good work” by the mases, so that they might instead focus on the results of their efforts? Sure, the Phantoms and surgeons of the world work behind closed doors, but does that belittle their success? While at the same time, do the hoards qualify the development worker’s efforts or merely serve to motivate glamorized non-productivity?
P.S. This is why I like computer programming. It’s all fun and games talking yourself up until someone says, “Show me the code.”
N.B. I ran this post through I Write Like and here are its results: