2012 Tech Awards

The true power of money is the ability to give it away

—N.R. Narayana Murthy

If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.

—JFK’s Inaugural Address

HIGGINS: About you, not about me. If you come back I shall treat you just as I have always treated you. I can’t change my nature; and I don’t intend to change my manners. My manners are exactly the same as Colonel Pickering’s.

LIZA: That’s not true. He treats a flower girl as if she was a duchess.

HIGGINS: And I treat a duchess as if she was a flower girl.

Pygmalion by G.B. Shaw

I was lucky enough to be go to the 2012 Tech Awards last Thursday. One of my previous jobs always printed the collateral for these and I’ve been going to The Tech ever since it was known as The Garage. Attending their big gala event looked like something that would be an interesting experience—provided that I didn’t get hives from the corporate backslapping which these charity dinners always risk becoming.

Toward the end of N.R. Narayana Murthy’s acceptance of the James C. Morgan Global Humanitarian Award, it became pretty clear that we wouldn’t experience that. Murthy ended up discussing how technology brings people together, provides opportunity to the poor, and levels the playing field for the classes. Technology treats everyone the same and does not discriminate.* Technology in this case is not about the cutting edge either. The Tech Awards are really about the innovations of appropriate technology and solving big problems with simple ideas.

*I’m not sure if technology is Pickering or Higgins.

The two best examples of this this year were the BioLite stove and the Embrace infant warmer. Neither is cutting-edge technology but both are hugely innovative in terms of the problems they solve and the way the solve them. It’s not enough to have a good idea, it has to be applied in a way which encourages adoption. Both of those products don’t force people to do anything truly different—they’re both pretty obvious in how they’re working and what they’re doing—but will make huge differences in lives.

But there is also some heavy research on hand too. This year, Pamela Ronald won an award for her GMO submergence-resistent rice and, in the process, helped open the discussion about what’s good and bad about GMO foods. It’s clear that we’ll need more flood-resitant crops in order to feed the world. Anything which improves this is welcome. It’s easy to hate on GMO food because it’s new technology that seems odd. The real danger is that it locks farmers into a seeds-as-service scenario where they’re no longer allowed to save seeds since those are now intellectual property. If the GMO food is distributed without licensing? I’ve got no real problems with it. After all, we’ve been genetically modifying our food for centuries.

Changing topics

Another aspect of this year’s awards was a recognition of photography and photojournalism—in particular, Steve McCurry, Frans Lanting, George Steinmetz, and Doug Menuez. I had mixed feelings about this part. These are all great photographers and their photographs are both good and often beautiful. But they were used in this event as decoration only. Aside from Afghan Girl, none of the other images received any mention or context. Which is too bad since the intent of all of the images is to educate and inform the viewers.

These aren’t supposed to just be pretty pictures. They’re supposed to inspire and inform us. The event program even acknowledged as much. While it’s fantastic to see the images and, for the ones I recognized and remembered the context, quite wonderful to see them projected large. Turning the rest into wallpaper minimizes the impact.

As much as National Geographic has been a fantastic proponent of good photography to everyone, its photojournalistic travel photos have inspired too many travelers who think that travel photography is all about taking photos of the locals without regard to them as humans.

—My aside to Un surtido de fotos mexicanos

I know the Tech’s intent with picking these photos was mostly good. I’m just worried when the execution encourages lazy photography and people traveling with the goal of getting pretty pictures rather having experiences. I don’t have the same aversion to travel photography as other people do but I sensitive to the issue. McCurry, Lanting, Steinmetz, Menuez, etc. all immerse themselves in their subjects and try to present images which tell us about them and inspire us to action. Most of the rest of us just try and mimic their visual results without thinking about the rest of the process.

Still, a good event with good food and a lot of stuff to think about. I’d like to go again too.

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2 responses to “2012 Tech Awards

  1. Pingback: Human Zoo | n j w v

  2. Pingback: By Rail Across the Indian Subcontinent | n j w v

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