So here’s a story: A few months ago, I wrote a column talking about the creativity crisis in Washington. In it, I took some potshots at what I saw as the factors leading to the dumbing down of America. In the midst of all this was a crack that the TED talks phenomenon was playing a role in this. I called TED talks “chicken nuggets for the brain.”
Shortly after I got an email from the man who runs the TED organization, Chris Anderson, inviting me to be a speaker at the next TED event. Given the snark I had spewed in their direction, I thought this was a gag or some kind of trick.
When I subsequently spoke to Chris on the phone, I raised my concern. “Did you read what I wrote?” I asked. He said he hadn’t, so I sent him the column and suggested he should read it and see if he still wanted to invite me. He did and responded with an email saying that he understood where I was coming from, but he felt that one of the roles TED plays is to offer its signature 18-minute presentations on different topics as “appetizers” that will ideally make their very engaged audiences curious to dig deeper.
The response was so gracious, so undefensive, and so reasonable that I could not resist. So I agreed to give a talk this year at TED’s big annual event in Vancouver.
Now, I spend far too much of my life at conferences. Most of them are soul-crushingly boring. I went into the TED experience warily. Was I heading off into some hipster version of Davos? (As it turns out, no. Because that’s SXSW.)
Well, not only did I find TED to be an exceptional event attended by remarkable people and far and away the best-run, best-conceived program of its kind I have ever had the privilege to participate in, but it actually affected me far more deeply than that. On several occasions, listening to some of the scientists and technologists who were presenting talks about their work, I was actually moved to near tears. Actually it was more like an existential gut punch. I felt like I was wasting my life in the bullshit factory of Washington while these people were really working at changing the world. Or maybe it was that they provided glimpses of the worlds of artificial intelligence, space exploration, and neuroscience that were full of such hope that I was actually inspired. Likely it was both, but it was that rare occasion that impacted all those I spoke to on both an intellectual and a visceral level.
So let me be direct about this: I was wrong about TED. In a big way. And after considerable introspection, I am as certain as I can be that I’m not just saying that because the organizers were kind enough to have invited me to attend.
TED is not really about technology or even just the technology, entertainment, and design that its acronym title implies. What it really is about is creativity. Interwoven among the sessions is the work of musicians, performance artists, dancers, photographers, videographers, animators, and others as essential to its gestalt as are the legions from MIT, Caltech, and Silicon Valley. At one point, the very first night, despite the fact that was when I was speaking, the penny dropped. What the event and the 18-minute capsule speeches are about is, in fact, inspiration — seeing it, finding it, understanding it. Chicken nuggets for the brain they’re not. Ideally and often they’re more akin to the kind of swift shot to the head that transformed one TED speaker, Jason Padgett, from an indifferent student into a geometry genius overnight after he sustained a head injury during a mugging.
I should add a word about the 18-minute speeches. As you no doubt know — I’m under no illusion about it, I am late to this party — the organizers are incredibly attentive to detail. It is where much of the special genius of the event lies. And so not only does one submit a draft of one’s remarks in advance, but they then ask speakers to present the remarks once to them via video before the speakers get to Vancouver and once again live onstage in rehearsal. It actually imposes a real intellectual discipline and a constant search for focus. Further, the advice of Chris and his team of curators, organizers, and speech coaches is not only helpful, but crisp, direct, and uncanny. They up your game.
Not every talk is a winner, of course. Not every talk over the five days of the event strikes a resonant chord with every member of the audience. And for an event that is so enlightened and at times brilliant and for one that clearly focuses on offering a diverse array of speakers, it still suffers from one notable flaw that the organizers can still do more to address: It is too male-dominated. That’s a problem in an area like tech where gender imbalances and rampant sexism are such an issue. What’s more, some of the very best presentations I heard were by really remarkable women, including notably MIT cognitive scientist Laura Schulz talking about what we can learn from the amazing minds of very young children; Elora Hardy, an architect creating remarkable sustainable designs using bamboo; and Fei-Fei Li, a Stanford computer scientist blazing new trails in machine learning, a critical foundation of artificial intelligence. Others were also extraordinary, including performance artist Marina Abramovic and a noteworthy and courageous performance by Monica Lewinsky, who is drawing from her own experience to help combat bullying and other forms of social violence on the Internet.
That’s not to say that the guys did not hold up their end. I was particularly struck by the presentations of MIT computer scientist Abe Davis, who is doing awe-inspiring things using video technologies to perceive and record microvibrations in objects that can do everything from turning them into microphones to helping understand their structural properties; David Eagleman, a neuroscientist who is using sensors and computers to extend human senses and provide them to those whose senses are impaired; and Dave Isay, a story collector. I didn’t see everything. But I wanted to. It is the first conference I’ve been to in memory at which I rearranged my schedule to be able to see more, not fewer, of the program elements.
The attendees were as much a part of the event’s appeal as the speakers. Accomplished in their own right, they ensured that the sidebar discussions and discussions over meals were as energized and enlightening as the panels. I think it was because for all who came, the trip to TED was at least in part a search for new ideas and an antidote to the kind of rote thinking that is a pitfall of going to work in the same place in the same industry day in and day out.
Certainly, that was the feeling I had. My modest contribution to the proceedings was a talk about how we have been so focused for the past decade and a half on combating extremists who seek to reject the future that we have actually ignored the much bigger risks and opportunities that are coming with that future they are trying to reject. Further, because so many of those new trends are tied to scientific and technological developments, and because our leaders are undereducated in these areas, and because the historical technology-government partnership that helped build America has broken down, we are ill-prepared to cope with this new era. (It is an era marked by the impending moment in the near future in which essentially everyone on the planet will be part of a man-made system for the first time — thus reweaving the very fabric of global society and changing the character of everything from warfare to governance to education to health care to money and finance.) And it’s not made any easier by the seeming objections to basic science of certain political factions (intellectual cousins of the future-fearing enemies we are fighting overseas). We can take comfort however, I pointed out, in the fact that throughout history, whenever anyone has waged a war on science, science has always won.
With that as my viewpoint, being in a place where people were devoting themselves to the larger trends — from climate change to worldview-shattering breakthroughs in neuroscience to society-redefining leaps forward in the information age — instead of throwing rhetorical cream pies in each other’s faces (as typically happens in Washington) was more than refreshing. It was a compelling case that the real people reshaping global affairs and more broadly the world in which we and our children shall live are the kind of folks who were in Vancouver this week and not the ones with the flags in their offices or the ones being covered by the Washington press corps.
Nothing drove this home like the pettiness and self-serving antics that marked the Israeli election and the American reaction to it this week. Bibi Netanyahu won a victory by appealing to the worst instincts of his countrymen, fear-mongering about the impact of Arab voters, and then, for a convenient 48 hours or so, rejecting the idea of a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli problem. Once effectively returned to office, he spun around on this so fast he resembled the Tasmanian Devil from the old Looney Tunes cartoons and thus vaporized whatever remaining credibility he might have had as a leader (not much). Meanwhile, the White House was so miffed that a man it hates and who tweaked the president with his recent speech to Congress was re-elected that it withheld the traditional congratulations to the leader of a key ally, offered critiques instead, threatened to change fundamental policies, and then when it did offer congratulations, did so with language so tortured it was clear it was uttered through clenched teeth. National interests were tossed aside. This was about small people with big egos and certainly not about big ideas or solving problems. Further, it is clearly not going to get better anytime soon. The new mood will lead the Palestinians to redouble efforts to gain status within the multilateral world, like they have within the International Criminal Court. Israel will react badly by withholding funds. A crisis will ensue for the Palestinian leadership. And watch the United States take an ambivalent stance toward Israel more laden with hesitation and qualifications in support of that country than any you have seen in the past. The U.S.-Israel relationship has shaken off its moorings, and the more demagogic, obstructionist, and, frankly, vile Netanyahu becomes and the more the White House lets personal feelings get ahead of national interests, the more likely further deterioration is.
Is this a major development? Not really. Because it is almost certain that whoever is elected the next U.S. president will work to repair the relationship. It may not be easy — and frankly, a more even hand between Israel and the Palestinians is long overdue — but it is more likely we are flying through turbulence than we are headed to any new destination.
This is just one among many frustrating foreign-policy issues we face at the moment, a microcosm for the consequences of the inability of our leaders to keep their eyes on the ball when it comes to world affairs. At a dinner discussion in Vancouver, I sat with a group of business leaders discussing the past six years. The group, mostly Democrats I’d guess, for what it’s worth, was wondering about Barack Obama’s legacy. I asked, as I often do at parties, that they name the countries with which the United States has better relations today than it did when Obama took office. The only answer they, or any of the many other groups I have played this party game with, came up with was Myanmar.
Is it any wonder that I was so invigorated by spending the week with people who are searching for and actually creating solutions for the world’s most important problems rather than those who just seem to be intent on exacerbating them and using them to extend their already far-too-long turns on the world stage?