The Arizona Desert Lamp

Defending Dean Kamen

Posted in Campus, Politics, Technology, Uncategorized by Connor Mendenhall on 6 April 2009

When the University of Arizona’s PR website quietly announced this year’s commencement speakers last week, I was a little underwhelmed. This May, our rivals up north at Arizona State will be graced by the President of the United States himself, while UA undergrads will hear from a guy known best for a goofy scooter: Segway inventor Dean Kamen.

If his previous commencement speeches are any indication, the President will give graduating Sun Devils advice gleaned from his personal background and his political career. He will tell them that “our individual salvation depends on collective salvation,” speak of “our collective future” as American citizens, and outline their obligation to serve the United States, as he did at Wesleyan in 2007 and the University of Massachusetts in 2006. His words will be crafted in advance by a brilliant speechwriter and delivered by the most talented presidential orator of my young life.

As Dean Kamen put it in his 2007 commencement speech at Bates College, speaking after “people world-renowned for their ability to communicate” isn’t his thing. Like his other public presentations, his sentences will be choppy, his delivery cerebral, and his speaking style humble–about as great a contrast from the soaring rhetoric of Barack Obama as a speech can get.

But it is the content of his message that matters–and this is where the contrast really counts.

President Obama’s past speeches are about how government can help Americans serve their country. Dean Kamen’s are on how entrepreneurs and innovators can serve humanity. It’s hard to make this argument without getting all Atlas Shruggy, but I sincerely believe that men like Kamen do far more for human progress than any politician ever will.

Dean Kamen is a college dropout. In the words of our President, he “quit on his country.” But ever since, he has been working for humanity. As an undergraduate, he invented an automatic insulin pump for diabetics. He made some money from the patent, and the device helped those who once required recurring drug dosages at a hospital move freely for the first time. Since then, he has been driven in part by an entrepreneurial spirit that has rewarded him with wealth, but also by an urge to solve human problems with new technology. He invented a portable dialysis machine and a wheelchair that climbs stairs. His Segway was an attempt to transform human transportation–and its failure is as important as Kamen’s score of other successes.

More recently, Kamen has focused on providing energy and clean water to the world’s poor, with an invention that combines a high-efficiency Stirling engine with a water purifier. His device is an huge technological achievement–a unit the size of two washing machines that can provide water and power for a small village.

But it’s also a force for further good through entrepreneurship: in a pilot program in rural Bangladesh, Kamen partnered with Grameen Phone, an innovator in microfinance, to distribute the generators. As one reporter put it, “Kamen’s Stirling machines created three entrepreneurs in each village: one to run the machine and sell the electricity, one to collect dung from local farmers and sell it to the first entrepreneur, and a third to lease out light bulbs.” And Kamen is clear on the advantages of innovation over intervention: “You don’t need any -ologists. You don’t need any building permits, bribery, or bureaucracies.” In short, you don’t need men like Barack Obama.

But to really grok Dean Kamen, watch this video (also embedded above), where he presents a prosthetic arm he’s been developing for soldiers maimed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Watch him quietly explain a terrible human problem. Watch him smile as he talks about his innovations. And watch the amazing thing that he has created in action. Kamen has spent his life pursuing wealth and happiness, while making real contributions to humanity. Not just to his government, or his country, or fellow citizens–but to the world as a whole.

Barack Obama pales in comparison. He is not a creator or an innovator, but a manager. When the President faces a problem like ensuring clean water and renewable energy, he calls on citizens to serve, on government to spend, and on Congress to make new laws. When Kamen faces it, he builds a generator.

In an interview last year, Popular Mechanics asked Kamen for his advice to the next president. “The next president should recognize the power of technology,” he replied. “Technology is how we create wealth, how we cure diseases, how we’ll build an environment that’s sustainable and also gives people the capacity to pull more out of this world and still leave it better than when they found it.”

UA students should recognize the power of men like Kamen who create technology–who create wealth and cure diseases and build a cleaner, healthier world for humans. So don’t be bummed about Barack at ASU. The President will give a good speech–but we Wildcats will hear from the real innovator.

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6 Responses

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  1. cem said, on 6 April 2009 at 7:46 pm

    True words, Connor. I hope those who read this will pass it on to others in the UofA family. Wave to the President in Turkey for us!

  2. gloreto said, on 7 April 2009 at 10:08 pm

    Awesome article! I’m glad to read such great words that are so true! Go Cats!

  3. Marea said, on 11 April 2009 at 4:39 pm

    Connor! You’ve always been a brilliant writer and I am so glad to see you are putting it to great use. Congratulations on all your accomplishments. I am definitely passing this article on to my friends, and fellow soon-to-be graduates, who are less than pleased with the speaker situation. You will surely enlighten them.

  4. Mike said, on 21 April 2009 at 4:55 pm

    Wow, its clear who you voted for in this past election. Why such a negative view on Obama. Pales in comparison? Take your C-average and go read “On Writing Well.”

  5. Juhyung said, on 23 April 2009 at 3:08 am

    Politics can thrive on hot air and words. But technology needs action. Great article, even if some people er…missed the point.

  6. […] us, ASU – you might want our party reputation or our commencement speaker, but you definitely want nothing to do with our elections code. (As a side note, this assertion […]


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