@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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