Brenda Cooper

FiRE (Future in Review) Day 4: Africa, the Oceans, Language, and Whales

The morning started with the most explicit of the conversations on philanthropy: a look at the work Pearson Learning has done in Africa, and a brief discussion of project Inkwell. The first project we saw, the Sara Communication Initiative, helps girls in Africa tell their stories, and actually brought me to tears for a moment. Project Inkwell is working to get more technology into schools. After seeing our resident household twelve-year-old who attends an essentially paperless school, I can see the value of technology-based training and the need to get it into more places around the world. In particular, the project is hooking children in the US up with children in Africa. A follow-up conversation that happened offline to the conference was the question, “Will we ever stop seeing videos of children in Africa thanking us?” and I think these projects will help make that go away.

The second presentation I want to comment on was by Roger Payne, Founder and President, Ocean Alliance, who gave a thoroughly gloomy commentary on the state of ocean wildlife. This was a sub-plot that ran throughout the conference and I found it perhaps the most worrisome discussion overall. FiRE was largely about applying technology to real problems and finding real ways to develop excellent business models in the process. But I’m not sure we know enough about the oceans to apply technology solutions to them as easily as we can address, say, world hunger. The problems and possible solutions seem to be on a bigger scale. It drove home that we have rather a lot to get done if we want to survive well into the next century.

We heard from Jay Miller, who has spent his life’s work on recording and helping to save the Lushootseed language. I was lucky enough to sit beside him on the bus returning from the Calit2 trip, and hear a number of details about the difficulty inherent in saving a language where all but two of the native speakers are dead (and now it is all but one). This seems like a small thing in context to the topics we generally discussed at the conference, but I think it was very symbolic of the history that technology and change are taking from us. As we have lost some of the native understanding and wisdom that lived in the Pacific Northwest Indian tribes, we may have lost some of the wisdom we could use now as we try to save the Earth from our own excesses.

And then, just in case the hero of modern commercial rocketry and alternative energy (Elon Musk), and the CEO of HP (Mark Hurd), and the man behind Calit2 (Larry Smarr) wasn’t enough heroes, we got to hear from a man on the front line of activism, Paul Watson, President and Founder, Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. With his fleet of three boats, he spends much of his time on the high seas coming between Japanese whalers and their prey. Literally. His stories made me grateful he was alive for the sake of the whales. To top it off, he has a great sense of humor and kept us in stitches.

For closing comments, FiRE was a truly phenomenal collection of thinkers across a broad spectrum. I remember when I was finishing college, the schools were just then promoting the concept of “interdisciplinary studies.” This conference, while centering squarely on technology, was the grown up version of interdisciplinary study in the real world. I was truly honored to be invited.

Surprisingly, although I am a tech professional, I found the economics and the environmental discussions the most fascinating, and have pages of notes on those while I only have sentences on most of the tech topics.  Perhaps they are not as new to me though – I’ve had high-level discussions about Cloud Computing for a year or so now.

At some point in the future I’ll imagine I’ll be able to link to some of the video taken there or to other blogs. In the meantime, I’m home after seven days of traveling, and quite happy to be in my own place surrounded by my dogs and people and books.