Meditations on the Enigma of Genius

When wireless is perfectly applied the whole earth will be converted into a huge brain, which in fact it is, all things being particles of a real and rhythmic whole. We shall be able to communicate with one another instantly, irrespective of distance. Not only this, but through television and telephony we shall see and hear one another as perfectly as though we were face to face, despite intervening distances of thousands of miles; and the instruments through which we shall be able to do this will be amazingly simple compared with our present telephone. A man will be able to carry one in his vest pocket.

This quote, though interesting, is attributed to Nicola Tesla. Yet, we have no evidence in any biographical source that he said this. I would caution readers from publishing what is one of many unsourced quotes about the elusive geniuses we tend to worship as of late.

To provide further perspective, consider the following.

Can you, or I or anyone make similar predictions about what might exist in 3026 by looking at what exists today? I think we can. Nothing Tesla said wasn't something that can be deduced from existing technologies. In light of this, technology has been miniaturized, and the speed at which we communicate accelerated and expanded; yet we still grapple with the very fundamental problems of human living, namely food supply, resource allocation, and wage equity.

Before you call me a Luddite or a Communist, consider the comparison I am making. Regardless of to whom we attribute the above quote--we have indeed come very far in the last 90 years, and we do indeed possess many amazing technologies. We have achieved much of what was once considered idle fantasy or the impossible. 

However, does in not befuddle the reader that we cannot solve much simpler problems on a grander scale that benefit the species, or all species, or even the whole planet as whole?

Let me make my point clearly.  I needn’t remind the Peace Corps types among you that diarrhea, (it is a disease) is the second leading cause of death in children under five years old. It is both preventable and treatable. A significant proportion of diarrheal disease can be prevented through safe drinking water and adequate sanitation and hygiene. That's it. Clean water, improved sanitation infrastructure and teaching people better hygienic practices. 

Globally, there are nearly 1.7 billion cases of diarrhea disease every year. Diarrhea is a leading cause of malnutrition in children under five years old. I chose diarrhea disease to make my point, and I think it must work. Now consider that Honest Co., the baby-products retailer co-founded by movie star Jessica Alba, has raised $100 million in a new round of funding, valuing it at about $1.7 billion. The very idea of children dying of the runs while is bound to make us feel uncomfortable when you consider Ms. Alba can raise 100mm to profit from infant needs, but we cannot seem to redirect that energy away from the profit motive and towards solving a simple health issue.

Imagine that the one case of intestinal discomfort you had over the holiday weekend from stuffing your face is chronic, and you are undernourished living amongst other hungry people, with water that is barely drinkable. Poor water quality continues to pose a major threat to human health. Diarrhoeal disease alone amounts to an estimated 3.6 % of the total DALY global burden of disease and is responsible for the deaths of 1.5 million people every year (WHO 2012). It is estimated that 58% of that burden, or 842 000 deaths per year, is attributable to unsafe water supply, sanitation, and hygiene and includes 361 000 deaths of children under age five, mostly in developing countries (WHO 2014).

A significant amount of disease could be prevented especially in developing countries through better access to safe water supply, adequate sanitation facilities, and better hygiene practices. Imagine if informed decision-making on interventions aimed at disease prevention and control, crucial to carry out a sound economic evaluation of the various options available in particular settings were a global priority that trumped geopolitical warfare. What genius is required to solve for this, and why is this not an urgent priority? What have we been able to reduce technology to the size of a waistcoat pocket, and made it available to almost anyone and not yet figured out how to provide clean water to the entire global population?

Personally speaking, I am immensely uncomfortable with ultra-innovation for the digerati while children die of preventable disease and wage inequity spirals out of control. In light of this, I could say perhaps that having tens of thousands of followers, or smart appliances that tell us the room is too hot or goofy glasses that whisper things to us are somewhat paltry, poor examples of innovation.


Our world demands something entirely different and just slightly more impressive from the so-called advanced or developed economies like solutions to global poverty and underlying disease. The world demands energy solutions that impact the growing urban community and the issue of population density, not one hundred ways to invade the private lives of citizens. The world demands us to prevent children from dying of the runs. I wish to ask the reader to consider one central question as they read further. 

Is all of this endless banter about innovation really about what a tiny group of humans is creating for people like them, or about what humanity actually needs?

The notion of genius has grown stale. Hasn't it? I say enough worship of technology and technologists. Perhaps, after another five or ten years of economic irrationality and massively out-of-whack valuations for technology, people, ordinary people, not the elite and their digerati minions, will insist on building, facilitating and demanding an improving the basics of the independent life. I think we have enough technologies that can fit into and line the pockets of the ultra-wealthy. Perhaps we will witness the advent of the right-sized, globalized share economy, a resurgence in public works--like water, mass transportation, sustainable and livable housing and the wiring of it.

I certainly hope so.

Louis D. Lo PraesteComment