Beta-think and ending malaria

Amazon, Seth Godin’s Domino, and other good folks collaborated to come out with a book of essays whose proceeds go to buy mosquito nets to end malaria. My essay for End Malaria Day is actually the topic of the next book I was going to do until I got all hopped up on publicness and privacy and wrote Public Parts. The essay is on beta-think. Here’s a snippet from the start:

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Voltaire was half right. “Le mieux est l’ennemi du bien,” he said: The best is the enemy of the good. The best is also the enemy of the better. Striving for perfection complicates and delays getting things done. Worse, the myth of perfection can shut off the process of improvement and the possibility of collaboration.

That myth of perfection is a byproduct of the industrial revolution and the efficiencies of mass production, distribution, and marketing. A product that takes a long time to design and produce is sold to a large market with a claim of perfection. Its manufacturer can’t have customers think otherwise. The distribution chain invests in large quantities of the product and can’t afford for it to be flawed. Mass marketing is spent to convince customers it is the best it can be. Thus perfection becomes our standard or at least our presumption. But perfection is delusion. Nothing and no one is perfect.

The modern cure to Voltaire’s paradox—and a gift of the digital age—is the beta: the unfinished and imperfect product or process that is opened up so customers can offer advice and improvements. Releasing a beta is a public act, an invitation to customers to help complete and improve it. It is an act of transparency and an admission of humility. It is also an act of generosity and trust, handing over a measure of control to others.

  • None of that will end, or even really impact, malaria. You want a solution? It’s called DDT. It actually works, and won’t bankrupt poor countries while working.

  • Andy Freeman

    > None of that will end, or even really impact, malaria. You want a solution? It’s called DDT. It actually works, and won’t bankrupt poor countries while working.

    You don’t understand the problem. The problem is how to get rewarded from appearing to care. If you “solve” malaria, that’s the end of the rewards.

    Note that this is exactly what some of “those people” accuse drug companies of doing wrt chronic illnesses. Like most such accusations, it’s projection.

  • Opher Banarie

    Allow me to “project” the World Health Organization and the NY Times:

    • Andy Freeman

      The cited article is dated 2006. It’s 2011. Where is the massive use of DDT?

      Yes, they’ll talk about using DDT, but talk doesn’t kill bugs.

      To be fair, there are folks in the UN who would use DDT but they don’t call the shots.

  • MinnesotaR

    “Massive use of DDT” – is a ready-made recipe for futility – using a sledgehammer when a screwdriver is desperately needed.

    For one thing, DDT was MOSTLY used (and also wastefully abused) in places where the malaria/mosquito problem was nowhere near as tricky a problem [biologically] as many of the remaining problem areas. And many of the current problem areas have especially problematic infrastructure (bad roads/housing etc etc), poverty, poor population education, uber-corrupt unstable governments, regional wars & insurrections, especially unfavorable long breeding mosquitoes etc etc etc.

    Using DDT effectively and minimizing or avoiding the potential (large) problems of misuse (resistance, killing beneficial insects other species, toxic spills, diversion to uses that have long-term misuse) requires a lot more consistency, dedication, excellence, oversight and responsibility than a lot of the affected countries have demonstrated with their responses to TB. or HIV. or leprosy. or tetanus. or maternal mortality. or meningococcal meningitis. or yellow fever. or measles. or economic development, or road building, or air traffic control, or eradicating the widespread distribution of useless counterfeit (antimalaria and other) medicines. or mosquito bednet distribution.

    Some – quite a few – countries have made moderate or even major forward progress in at least a few of these areas – for a while and sometimes even in a sustained way. On the other hand, there are some major laggards.

    DDT has great potential BUT *O*N*L*Y* if used highly carefully, skillfully, selectively and in tandem with improved use of the (correct) effective treatments. DDT, misused like it nearly inevitably would be in “failed states” or nearly failing states, would be wasting money and a tool that – someday – could make a real difference.