These days, much of my time is spent online. I love reading the travel blogs of my friends and living vicariously through their adventures. I’ve become an avid reader of the online edition of the New York Times and various other news sources. I comb Facebook for interesting links and status updates–I’d estimate I watch about fifteen YouTube videos a day, and repost the stories and videos that I think are especially funny or interesting. Grooveshark, a free music site similar to Pandora, has allowed me to build an online library of music that includes old favorites and new discoveries.
Some of my favorite videos are silly, like the one that features a sloth orphanage in Costa Rica, or the playful new sport called “Liquid Mountaineering,” which is essentially men running from shore onto water, where they remain on the surface of the lake like water-spiders for just a few glorious steps. There are the cute ones, like the preview for the recently-released documentary Babies! and the sweet love story of Tan Hong Ming. Some are inspiring, like the story of Nick Vujicic or the ‘Where the Hell is Matt?’ video. Everyone knows about hilarious blogs like Failblog and Texts From Last Night. When it comes to journalistic pieces, I find myself drawn to stories of Africa, like the Vanity Fair piece on a Christian vigilante in Uganda or the New Yorker story on American conservationists in Zambia. One of my new favorites is the Six Billion Others site, where you can browse hundreds of video interviews with people all over the world– these are portraits of humanity that remind us of the diversity of cultures but the universality of human toil and triumph.
It is truly amazing how infinite a place the internet is–I am all over the world every day, and yet more removed from it than I would be if I just stepped outside. I am everywhere and nowhere at once. I learn about things I would never have known but also waste ungodly amounts of time on stupid websites that do nothing but numb my senses. It’s the ultimate paradox of technology– it helps and hinders us from realizing our full potential as human beings. I’m no neo-Luddite, but I do believe that the defining question of our time is not whether we should use technology, but how we should use it and for what cause. But I digress.
In my humble opinion, the internet’s power to educate, innovate and unite is epitomized by TED: Ideas Worth Spreading, and their online TED Talks. Their website explains the concept best: “Riveting talks by remarkable people, free to the world.” TED hosts conferences where the most fascinating and inspired ‘thinkers and doers’ in the world share their ideas in short speeches. Those speeches are then put on the TED website, where the online community can engage with those ideas and with each other. I’ve already watched a few dozen of these talks. The nerd in me purrs with intellectual delight whenever a speaker makes an especially profound point or reveals her key insight on the matter at hand, on topics that run the gamut from happiness or hallucination. I couldn’t tell you my favorite talk so far–they’re all riveting–but the one on my mind at the moment is the talk given by William Kamkwamba, a young Malawian man who, when he was just 14, built a windmill from junk metal to power his family’s failing farm during famine.
I’m not sure where this long preamble came from. Maybe I just wanted to see how many links I could pack into one blog post. Anyway, what I originally set out to write about was my excitement that Dar es Salaam will soon be hosting its own independently organized TED Conference. Among the speakers are musicians, poets, entrepreneurs, activists and scholars, some of them Tanzanian nationals, and others expatriates living and working in Dar. One speaker in latter group is a friend of mine, Jamie Yang, whom I met at the famous rooftop party in Kariakoo last October. I had just recovered from a miserable bout with malaria and I didn’t know anyone at the party, but Jamie made me feel welcome. We commiserated a little (he had gotten malaria a few months before) and he told me about his work in Tanzania while we enjoyed Konyagi drinks and Kilimanjaro beers.
Jamie is the co-founder and CEO of EGG-energy, a for-profit business with the social mission of making electricity services convenient and affordable to communities in the developing world. Jamie’s speaker profile on the TEDxDar website describes the company’s product: ‘EGG-energy takes power at its source – a grid connection or an off-grid power generating station – and packages it in an inventory of portable, rechargeable batteries. EGG-energy customers can power lights, mobile phones, and radios for less than they currently spend on kerosene, disposable batteries, and charging services.’ According to the TEDxDar program, Jamie will be speaking on the topic ‘Development from the Ground Up.’ I laughed when I read this, recalling his stories about flat tires and awful dala-dala rides in the field, the bureaucratic nightmare of registering and licensing a business in Tanzania, and the frustrations and humor inherent in navigating a new business venture in broken Swahili. ‘Development from the Ground Up: It Sure Ain’t Easy’ would be–if not a better–a more accurate title, I thought. But knowing Jamie, his talk will be extremely intelligent, heartfelt, and inspiring, like the speaker himself.