Kid of the Year? Or Salve to Your Conscience?

By the time she was 1, Rao was already telling her parents that she wanted to research carbon nanotube sensor technology at the Denver Water quality research lab.”

Inquirer Technology

Erm, say what now 😂 That little tidbit above was supposed to make me ooh and ahhh with astonishment as to how amazing Rao is. But in fact, it did quite the opposite. The tidbit itself sounds farfetched at best, and is not at all verifiable. Same goes for the anecdote I read on her Wikipedia page where Rao asked how she could help sick people and then her mum told her to play the piano. Presumably she mastered it at age 3. I tried going to the cited link, but the video did not play, so again, I cannot verify this.

Anywho.

The reason I’m whinging about all this today is because I know that TIME naming an Indian-American girl as Kid of the Year should feel like a win for BIPOC, but it just kind of falls flat for me.

Here’s why:

Rao is an American, chosen from 5,000 other Americans, who applied technology to an American problem (specifically, lead detection in the water supply), in an American locale (Flint, Michigan). She’s already won awards for this in previous years, so it’s not like achievements were limited to what went down in 2020.

That’s not all she’s done, though.

I also found a research abstract of hers on the early detection of opioid addictions using gene receptors which, while amazing that a 15 year old can even do this, still kind of leaves me cold because it’s very much associated in my mind with an American problem once again. While the opioid epidemic is indeed spread across the globe, only the US seems to really be struggling with rehabilitation efforts for opioid addicts. Other countries in the West have switched gears from a “War on Drugs and Addicts” to policies of safe havens, rehabilitation, and therapy. The US still feeds dozens of addicts to the prison industrial complex by the minute. Don’t even get me started on the Drug War in the Philippines.

Moving on.

By hyping up this bit of research that I can only find one page of online, TIME seems to place American issues above other pressing matters out here in the Wilds (aka the developing world), like hunger, electricity, pandemic control, overpopulation, domestic abuse, marital rape, extrajudicial killings, and so on. But yeah, let’s all clap and nod for the early detection of addiction, because we really have no way of knowing if someone is addicted to opioids or not (/sarcasm).

Finally, TIME cited her work with Microsoft AI/Machine Learning as another great project she has brought forth. While Kindly is in and of itself fantastic, it doesn’t seem all that groundbreaking when you’re familiar with the sort of AI/ML work that Microsoft has done, especially over the past 8 months. The tech giant has made enormous strides in AI/ML because of it’s collaborations with luminaries in various fields. Truth be told, I don’t really know the extent of Rao’s involvement in the Kindly project, but it comes off to me as a Microsoft project with her as the “endorser”. Even though they won’t even pay for a domain name.

Now.

I’m not dismissing or diminishing Rao’s achievements in any way. Quite the opposite, in fact. She is an inspiration for all girls interested in STEM, and I hope she continues to do great things for humanity. I think she’s an extremely gifted person and I know I can’t do half the shit she does, so I’m not knocking her at all.

I am saying however that the selection criteria of TIME magazine is sorely lacking in inclusion and representation. 5000 Americans aged 8–16, rather than 5000 children aged 8–16. 5000 Americans with literally “first world problems” to solve, and they chose the one kid whose achievements they could hype for feel-good sound-bytes.

TIME’s choice of Gitanjali Rao as Kid of the Year seems like an attempt at blowing smoke up people’s asses, a performative display of “Look, we’re progressive! See, we picked a brown girl!”. Which is just too bad, because it excludes the work of other young inventors around the world who have actually lived with the problems they have tried to solve.

Take Ezedine Kamil of Ethiopian for example, whose inventions have gone leaps and bounds in helping protect the public against contracting COVID-19.

Or Haaziq Kazi of Pune, India, who designed a green ship last year to patrol the world’s oceans, cleaning up plastic pollution along the way that also replaces oily contaminated water with clean water . Rao also makes an appearance in that linked news feature, but she was reported to be just 12 years old (it was published last year, so maybe India Times made her younger by accident) and she’s talking about how her lead detection technology Tethys, which she developed in Colorado, can be applied in India. I really hope that comes to fruition, because so many more people in India rely on water that doesn’t come out of a treatment plant (unlike Flint, Michigan).

Hell, is Malala too old to be Kid of the Year? How about Greta? Emma Gonzalez? Melati and Isabel Wijsen who made Bali essentially single-use-plastic-free? Kelvin Doe, who powered people’s homes a mere five years after civil war ravaged his country of Sierra Leone? Bana al-Abed, the seven-year-old who made the world aware of what life on the ground in Syria was really like? Yash Gupta, who has helped the children of the world see?

There are so many amazing accomplishments by inspiring young people from around the world, and for TIME to limit their selection criteria to Americans seems like a slap in the face of the kids who are doing everything they can to improve the lives of people who have no choice but to make do with untenable situations.

I’m not sure why I expected more from TIME magazine as a media outfit likely run by straight white men, but given the absolute debacle that this past year has been, I think my bullshit meter is just filled to bursting.

Postscript:

If you’re going to come at me with a Violently American stance, staunchly defending the Red, White, and Blue then I need you to realize something: you need to stop making shit about you and your ego. I’m talking about how some people in developing countries deserve recognition, praise, and international acclaim too, and you’re only focused on a presumed slight towards a country that doesn’t even care about you enough to give you free healthcare. Is your country so weak that it needs you to stick up for it on the Internet? I really don’t think so. I know for a fact that your country is sinisterly powerful, and it really has no use for your rabid patriotism, apart from letting you make yourself feel like you belong to something. Shape up already, you’ve chugged enough of the Kool-Aid.