TED: Day One

Posted by: Helen Walters on February 5, 2009

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I honestly already can’t remember what happened this morning. But it’s safe to say that it was a lot, The second bout of TED University kicked off at 8.30 am, with philosopher Daniel Dennett challenging the audience’s perception of which came first: the idea or the reality. His examples (sweet, sexy, cute, funny) nodded to Darwin and the incredible importance of his teaching that so many apparently obvious assumptions were actually backwards.

Darwin (and Einstein) turned out to be occasional but regular references throughout the day. Juan Enriquez, the founding director of the HBS Life Sciences Project and the first official speaker of the conference, referred to the 150th anniversary of the publication of The Origin of Species, yet he also kicked things off with a deadpan opener referring to, you know, that “elephant in the room, the economy.” His talk took on economics, currency, the stimulus plan, mouse molars, stem cells and robots, culminating in a conclusion that not only will the present generation experience the move from homo sapiens to homo evolutis (hominids that take direct control), but our grandchildren will live it. Enriquez also came up with a quote that’s stayed in my brain all day (no mean feat given the competition): “as we worry about the flames of the present, keep an eye on the future.”

In fact, this idea also turned out to be something of a theme. Military writer, PW Singer, explained how robotics is not only changing the face of war, it’s changing the “who” of war, giving photographic examples of real robots really being used in the field. Singer drove home the flip side of the technological revolution we’ve been witnessing, and challenged the audience to consider the issue of applying twentieth century laws of war to twenty first century technologies. He claimed that more drone pilots suffer from PTSD than soldiers in the field in Iraq. That’s people working remotely from a military location who get to go home to their families at the end of the day. Nonetheless, the effect of their actions (operating robots that cause death, destruction, havoc) is very real, and that effect is not lost on the psyches of those executing the orders. Singer’s was a salient, powerful pointer to the new and yet strange reality in which we now live and work.

And yes, that new and strange reality was yet another theme of the day. It was almost unspoken, but the idea that the 20th century paradigm of life, work, business, etc, is broken seemed to be hovering in the wings at all times, be that through speeches or in conversations in the day’s few short breaks. But there was also an often spoken optimism that perhaps it might not be too late to fix things. Bill Gates repeatedly avowed his optimism that malaria can be eliminated, that education issues can be solved. Nandan Nilekani of Infosys gave a brilliant description of “the rise and fall and rise of India,” putting the vast subcontinent into a context that added nuance and poetry as well as facts and figures. Film makers/producers/photographers/directors/polymaths Jake Eberts and Yann Arthus-Bertrand both took on the demise of the world’s ecology and yet managed to spin a positive conclusion. Even Al Gore, taking the stage for a brief talk, and once again slamming “the oxymoron of clean coal” and the naked self-interest of oil companies, had a poetic lilt to his tone. “The Arctic ice is the beating heart of the global climate system,” he said, his own icy subtext clearly implying that we should really try hard not to melt the world’s heart.

Truthfully, though, I’ve been somewhat surprised at both how unpolitical and how optimistic the event has felt so far. People are certainly worried at the impact of the economy, and many profess to have no idea what will happen next. But still, there's a certain lurking suspicion that something is going to happen. In what many people I spoke to professed to be their favorite presentation of the day, the outspoken marketer and author Seth Godin issued a challenge to those gathered in Long Beach, watching remotely in Palm Beach or via the $1000 associate/live streaming program. “Who are you upsetting?” he asked. “Who are you connecting? Who are you leading?” And somehow it felt quite reasonable that these should be the new guiding principles of the new world.

 

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