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@TED: Best of Day 3

The joke among TEDsters is that, around the third day, it becomes an endurance sport. It’s one thing to be in a room listening to spectacular insights for a few hours. It’s another to be doing so for half a week. Nonetheless, part of the experience you get from being at events like TED is that feeling of being overwhelmed: someone just said what feels like the smartest thing you ever heard — and then the next speaker says what feels like the smartest thing you ever heard — and then … well, you get the idea. It’s intellectually exhausting, but it’s also thrilling.

Here are some of the best moments of Day 3:

* The “What’s Out There” series of talks was pretty, er, out there. Particle physicist Brian Cox walked us non-particle-physicists confidently through the importance of the Large Hadron Collider, soon to open near Geneva. It was one of several talks in that section in which the enthusiasm of the speaker was so great that we all thought about dropping our careers and becoming particle physicists.

* The “What’s Out There” panel was especially strong, but there were two talks that knocked me out. Joshua Klein, an animal behaviorist, talked about species that have adapted to human behavior. In particular, he talked about crows. He described his project to build a vending machine for crows and he showed short films about ways crows can take advantage of civilization: for example, dropping nuts onto boulevards so cars can crack them open. And author Richard Preston reported on his (and others’) adventures high in the Redwoods, the unexpected ecosystems discovered up there, and the ecological threats they face. I don’t want to simplify his rich argument — his book The Wild Trees is a must-read — but he does a great job of connecting the fate of the Redwoods and the fate of us.

* During the “What Will Tomorrow Bring?” session, the other Chris Anderson spoke not about his provocative “Free” thesis (on the cover of the new Wired) but about his less-than-$100 blimp, which he showed off, the product of his desire to make a “minimum unmanned aerial vehicle.” Chris and the blimp will also be at ETech on Tuesday.

* Peter Schwartz argued that Wikipedia is a leader in the battle against poverty: it brings knowledge and possibility to places not getting them any other way.

The series of talks that most engaged me was the first one of the day, entitled “How Do We Create?”

* Designer Yves Behar urged us to question basic assumptions in out work. “Why do we have a CapsLk key on our computers”? he asked. “As a designer, I don’t want to just slapping a new skin over existing technology.” He certainly didn’t do that when he designed the XO Laptop, which, among other delights, doesn’t have a CapsLk key.

* Robert Lang, origami artist and mathematician, talked about how creativity depends on learning from those who came before us, even if we’re taking lessons in ways the originators never intended. His best of many aphorisms: “the secret to productivity is letting dead people do the work for you.”

* There was one particularly moving presentation during that session, from MIT’s Tod Machover, which I’ll give its own post after I have a bit more distance from it. (Benjamin Zander’s great climax last night will get a shout-out, too.)

About that that anti-TED meme flying around the blogosphere that I mentioned last time…

Some of it has been cranky (such as a high-profile tech blog publishing the attendee list and vetting it), but at least one post — from the usually very thoughtful Umair Haque, deserves to be addressed. His argument is that TED does more harm than good. I disagree. There are some things a reasonable person could argue against TED — the inevitable elitism that comes with the high entry fee and the occasional self-congratulatory tone come to mind — but by adopting a web-centric “ideas worth spreading” meme, I believe curator Chris Anderson has worked hard to make the ideas expressed at TED as available as possible. Most TED talks are available for free on the TED website. An official blog is reporting the events of the conference in near-real-time, as are a dozen or so unvetted ones. Haque’s argument seems to be that TED does more harm than good because it hasn’t saved the world (he denies that in the comments, but it seems to be his argument). Sure, it hasn’t. No mere conference can. (Indeed, the even more elite Davos conference this year seemed to be full of leaders just throwing up their hands.) But while I suspect Anderson’s goal is transformational change, the simple act of sharing transformational ideas — first to a room of elites and then to the growing percentage of the world with Internet access — lets them take root in unexpected places. That is definitely far more good than harm.

And now, off to the final day…

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  • http://brooksjordan.name Brooks Jordan

    I think Umair Haque perhaps didn’t just up and lose his thoughtfulness on his critique of TED.

    (Why would he?)

    Here’s what I got out of it:

    As individuals, the presenters at TED are (often) world-changing radicals. Bravo.

    But it’s not truly radical to bring them together, in fact it’s damaging because it creates the perception that this is how we should come together to solve real problems.

    Ultimately, it’s elitist . . . not as a value judgment, but based on the fact that so many continue to suffer.

    Can’t we do both? Well, a lot of energy goes into TED, Davos, and so on. And everyone watches in amazement.

    Sure, projects and partnerships come out of TED each year that help, but not that create change on a mass scale. What we need are gatherings that from the get-go are focused on just that.

  • http://tim.oreilly.com Tim O'Reilly

    Brooks –

    Umair’s critique just seems bizarre to me. By his measure, any effort that doesn’t move hundreds of millions of people is a failure. He should stop doing his blog, since it suggests that posting ideas that only a small number of people read is just not worth it.

    Chris Anderson has done an amazing job of democratizing TED — more than 30 million video views since they started putting the talks online. That’s a great job of spreading great ideas.

    TED is a national treasure.

  • http://tim.oreilly.com Tim O'Reilly

    Jimmy –

    I can’t believe you didn’t call out Ben Zander‘s inspirational presentation, which was the best presentation I’ve ever seen at TED, including Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth presentation. Truly stirring and insightful. It was about music, but even more compellingly, about the art of leadership. I rushed out to buy his book, The Art of Possibility. (In fact, I bought three copies.) And when the TED video comes out, it’s the one I’ll be requiring everyone in the company to watch! I’ll do a followup post when that is available!

    Paul Stamets‘ presentation on the hidden power of mushrooms was also an eye-opener.

    Another great presentation was Robert Ballard‘s argument for investing more in undersea exploration. I loved his love and enthusiasm for his work, and the case he made was compelling.

  • http://www.groovie.org/ Ben Bangert

    I think its a little odd nowadays to say something is “flying around the Blogosphere” when in fact, it isn’t. I’m aware of many hundreds of high-profile bloggers now, and thousands of very thoughtful slightly lower-profile bloggers, in addition to the tens or hundreds of thousands of ‘average’ bloggers.

    Just because some trend emerges in the blogs you read, doesn’t mean its “flying around the blogosphere” anymore than an anti-republican trend in some Democrat newspapers means its “flying around the worldwide newspapers”. The blogosphere is now too large, with too many prominent bloggers to make such generalizations.

    It’s great to hear about the happenings at TED, I’m a big fan as it seems like a physical smart idea aggregator. Being able to see the videos online is wonderful, and I hope that continues. But please, lets stop making it seem like a few people are the only bloggers worth listening to, which is exactly what it sounds like when you single out a few and declare it representative of the ‘blogosphere’ at large. :)

    On a side-note, holy crap the Captcha is tough on occasion, I’ve actually failed to be able to recognize the badly distorted characters multiple times!

  • http://r2.oreilly.com Jimmy Guterman

    Tim’s right about Zander’s talk last night. I’ll be writing about it in my wrapup post later today.

  • http://brooksjordan.name Brooks Jordan

    Tim,

    I don’t disagree with you. TED is doing so much good.

    But at what level? It’s one thing to eat a healthy diet, it’s another entirely to reprogram your bio-chemistry for the prevention of major diseases and to promote life extension along the lines of Kurzweil and de Grey.

    What if TED is the best approach to change at its level, but there’s another type of gathering (or set of gatherings) that would directly produce change for gobs of people – which is what we all want out of TED, ultimately – that we’ve never seen before?

    Umair’s points about TED and also Facebook and Etsy, and so on, are all rooted in some very sound insights regarding a new kind of economics.

    There’s a real foundation to his thinking, that not many yet share, that produces some really interesting, and, yes, provocative, insights. And on the subject of TED, I think he has a point . . .

  • http://charlieokeefe.blogspot.com Charlie

    I’m reminded of an article in The Onion’s book, “Our Dumb Century” commemorating the invention of the television.

    I don’t have it in front of me, and I didn’t manage to Google up a copy, but the gist was, “Amazing new device will usher in a new age of enlightenment as millions watch great thinkers, dreamers, scientists and artists share their creations, ideas, knowledge!” A pretty good piece of irony.

    So when I first discovered TED, I thought, finally a big step in that direction.

    ps
    I, on the other hand, am apparently too dumb to pass this captcha

  • http://www.rodolphoarruda.pro.br Rodolpho

    Tim, allow me to go a little further on your comment. TED is a global treasure, not only national as you have stated.
    I live in Brazil, which makes attending the conference even more cost prohibitive, but that’s ‘ok’ to me because TED has been and always will be a video experience to me. I like jumping from video to video, or watching a specific one several times in a row. When I send the link to a video to a friend, I have the chance to discuss the ideas, expand them, localize them, speculate on them like we had both attended the event. So I’m very thankful to Chris for making TED so democratic through the videos.

  • http://charlieokeefe.blogspot.com Charlie

    @Rodolpho:
    Agreed. And as Jimmy writes, it’s an endurance sport for those attending. For me, this is most of my evening TV. A couple 20 minute TED videos, a few times a week. Easier to spread them out that way, I would think.

    Not that it wouldn’t be awesome to be there, and be part of it.

    I’m guessing that the crazy rich have a lot of gatherings you will never hear about, and some are probably kinda like this. TED just happens to have decided to open up and let everyone else have a look inside. And they only did that less than a year ago!

  • http://www.cisco.com/go/etl Roger W. Farnsworth

    It would be a shame if some of the better ideas that were hatched at TED never saw the light of day, but the fact remains that TED has a stellar record of achievement. Just watching Eric Rasmussen talk about the progress that InSTEDD has made in the past year gave me the shivers.

    Any of you who saw me get up on stage and give a heartfelt thanks to Dean Kaman and TED know that in at least one case TED had a profound impact on someone’s life. A practical not theoretical impact.

    Even if it changes only one life for the better, isn’t the event worth it?

    It was for me.

  • http://www.mdvaden.com/grove_of_titans.shtml M. D. Vaden of ORegon

    Jimmy Gutterman wrote:

    “but he does a great job of connecting the fate of the Redwoods and the fate of us”

    I’d like to add that to get the most educational value from Preston, one needs another speaker who can bring Preston’s presentations down from Cloud Number 9, to Earth.

    Preston more or less writes factual, but he uses superlatives and connects the dots in a Preston kind of way. And Preston’s presentations are build upon Preston’s sources.

    Let me provide one example. Preston’s book leads the average reader to believe that nobody reached the upper redwood canopy until Steve Sillett climbed up there. But another author had already climbed up to the top redwood canopy by the early to mid-1970s.

    What’s enabled me to evaluate Preston’s writing and speaking, is being an arborist for one, but also having been to the redwoods he describes:

    http://www.mdvaden.com/grove_of_titans.shtml

    The conclusion, is that most of what Preston relays as facts are facts. But the addition of the “shock and awe” style of writing / presenting, coupled with superlatives, can make a case that is not a case.

    In short, believe most of the forest information facts you have heard from him, but do not draw any conclusions until you spend months, if not a couple of years reviewing, and gathering additional information from extra sources.

    Cheers,

    MDV

  • http://www.LBweeklyOnline.com KaRi from LBweekly

    I think bringing people together to share ideas is important. If those you bring together are Thinkers and Doers and they each know someone who can assist Another Speaker to whom they’ve given time, attention, respect but most of all CONSIDERATION to (and vice-versa and so on and so on), I can see TED for the greater good.

    Anyone who is down on it obviously was left off the invite list.

  • http://www.LBweeklyOnline.com KaRi from LBweekly

    I think bringing people together to share ideas is important. If those you bring together are Thinkers and Doers and they each know someone who can assist Another Speaker to whom they’ve given time, attention, respect but most of all CONSIDERATION to (and vice-versa and so on and so on), I can see TED for the greater good.

    Anyone who is down on it obviously was left off the invite list.