Your Cerebral Leanings – Which Way Do You List?3 min read
I started out today with the task of posting a short note about a cool new use for one’s mobile phone. As Sarah Perez recently wrote at ReadWriteWeb, STAR Analytical Services received a Grand Challenges Explorations grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to develop software that can make a diagnosis based on the sound of a cough on a mobile phone. This will be especially useful in countries where mobile phones are rampant but doctors are not.
I thought I would make a quick connection between this mobile application and our posts on the Fitbit Tracker (and here) and telehealth, something vague about the intersection of technology and health care and the exciting new ways our lives will be affected by all this.
However, one twist led to another, and before I knew it, the kernel of an entirely new essay had developed. As Paul Graham said in an essay titled The List of N Things:
“The main point of essay writing, when done right, is the new ideas you have while doing it. A real essay, as the name implies, is dynamic: you don’t know what you’re going to write when you start. It will be about whatever you discover in the course of writing it. “
It may be more than coincidental, but this essay turns out to be about lists. The Grand Challenges grant is part of a program that has funded over 300 projects, all focused on a list of 14 major global health challenges. This list is modeled after the famous list of 23 unsolved mathematical problems that David Hilbert posed back in 1900. Just as Hilbert’s list encouraged innovation in mathematics research, the Grand Challenges is aimed at “engaging creative minds across scientific disciplines — including those who have not traditionally taken part in health research — to work on solutions that could lead to breakthrough advances for those in the developing world.”
These “unsolved problems” lists are diametric to what Umberto Eco recently wrote about in The Vertigo of Lists: mankind’s desire to catalog and list in an attempt to create order and understanding. Or are they? While one consists of questions (Hilbert et. al) and the other of answers (Eco), they mirror each other. What is implied in a list of unsolved problems are the solved ones. On the other hand, a “catalog” list is supposed to be all-encompassing, but can it ever be? Its ostensible completeness is inherently incomplete.
Where is this going? I have strayed from a relatively concrete concept (analyze the sound of a cough on a cell phone) to an abstract discussion that for me yields a simple conclusion: great things can be achieved through the simple use of lists. By developing a list of 14 challenges focused on seven goals, the Gates Foundation has succeeded in catalyzing hundreds of projects with contributions from creative minds that had previously never worked on global health issues.
How can we solve the U.S. health care problem today? Create a list of challenges or objectives, and let creative minds come together to solve them. These problems will not be solved through legislation in a combative, political arena. How can we clean up our planet and end war? Make a list.