Seven Takeaways From TED

Last week I was in Vancouver for the TED Conference. For five days, I and 2,000 other people watched about seventy TED talks exploring new ideas in art, science, tech, and social issues. It was a lot to take in. By the end it was hard to even remember my own name. Here are the themes that stick with me a week later.

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1. The downsides of technology. The downsides of the internet, social media, and tech generally were a theme. No one went full philistine and suggested killing your phone, but the tone against social media was strong. An opening night talk by British journalist Caroline Cadwalladr called out Facebook for partial responsibility for Brexit, and even challenged their executives — some of whom were in the audience — for not taking accountability for their role. The talk got a standing ovation. (Watch online here.) There were also talks about the truly terrible things that the internet facilitates (a talk by Julia Cordua of Thorn on sexual abuse) and the attention that social media brings (Joseph Gordon-Levitt on the war for our attention and Jonny Sun on finding others in the eye of the storm). The pro-tech talks focused largely on gaming, reflecting the new Zeitgeist. It’s a certainty that talks calling out the downsides of gaming will appear on a future TED stage.

2. The crowd wanted heads. The morning after the journalist called out Facebook, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey took the same stage for a Q&A with TED’s Chris Anderson and Whitney Pennington Rodgers. The talk was… awkward, especially after the giant screens behind Dorsey were filled with live feeds of people on Twitter bullying him after a TED hashtag intended for audience interaction was hijacked (“eat a hamburger,” “what’s wrong with you,” etc). It was the perfect embodiment of Twitter in 2019. (Watch it here.)

Dorsey spoke extremely deliberately and showed little emotion. Twice he pointed out that he had been interrupted before he could fully answer the question. And his answers came back to similar themes: acknowledgment of the problems, and the need for long-term solutions and better incentives. This wasn’t what the crowd wanted to hear. People wanted emotion. They wanted Jack to get fired up. But what did they want him to do? Say he would strike down the accounts of their enemies? It was unclear. But you could feel a lurking buzz that corporate sacrifice of some kind was desired.

Among the people I talked to, most disliked how Dorsey came off. But I actually thought he did a good job. That was how the leader of a utility like Twitter should be: focused on the structure of the platform, seeing it as a tool, not obsessing over money or growth, and keeping emotion out of it. Even though it’s not in line with our current age of melodrama, I was a fan.

3. Inclusion pays dividends. Many standout talks this year were by African-American speakers. My absolute favorite talk of the conference was by Judith Jamison and the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater, which presented a kind of live mix-tape of her performances and life. It was breathtaking. Here she is performing one of those pieces in the 1970s.

Center for Policing Equity Co-Founder Phillip Atiba Goff presented convincing solutions for race-driven police violence. He showed how policing tools like Comstat can be used to lower police violence, that police chiefs want to be part of the solution, and suggested that these behaviors can end in a generation. This work is part of TED’s Kickstarter-like Audacious Project.

I also loved Jon Gray’s talk about Ghetto Gastro, bringing food to the Bronx and bringing the Bronx to kitchens around the world. Twenty-something Mayor Michael Tubbs of Stockton, California gave an inspiring account of his journey to leadership. Teacher Brittany Packnett spoke powerfully about confidence. And Baratunde Thurston gave a masterful talk combining gamification and police violence.

There was also a gesture towards conservative inclusion, with a talk by Republican pollster Frank Luntz, who gave a messaging lecture that ultimately sold a “pox on everyone in Washington” message. Also possibly in this category was Nasdaq President and CEO Adena Friedman, who defended the effectiveness of markets. In 2019, giving the status quo a chance to make its case is its own form of radicalism.

4. Derren Brown. The mentalist Derren Brown wowed. He invited the audience to write a question on a piece of paper, seal it in a black envelope, and write their initials on the outside. Brown then pulled out random envelopes, found the person in the audience who wrote it, and asked them just one or two startlingly specific yes or no questions before correctly guessing their question. He correctly guessed that a woman was from Virginia and that her question was about whether she should sell her farm. He correctly guessed that a man asked a question about a dislocated left toe. He correctly guessed that another man was thinking of his internet password and then told him his password, a string of gibberish. Incredible.

The next day I saw Brown walking the halls. I stopped him and asked whether he’d ever heard of the Ideaspace. I told him about this theory, created by Alan Moore, of a separate universe where ideas originate and the John Higgs book about the KLF that I read it in. The reason I was telling him this, I explained, was that when I watched him perform I’d thought, “this is a man who knows how to listen to the Ideaspace.” Brown had never heard of the idea, but seemed to enjoy it. He then said my name multiple times in a serious tone. Awesome.

5. Exciting architecture. The artist Sarah Sze presented her dream-like work of patchwork scaffolding and haunting reflections and projections wonderfully. She brought the audience into her process. Same goes for architect Bjarke Ingels, who showed designs for buildings around the world, including a soon-to-be-realized vision of floating, self-sustainable water pods that will anchor in the ocean. The most Italo Calvino-like talk came from architect Rahul Mehrotra on temporary cities in India. He made an inspiring call for urban impermanence.

6. New ideas for the climate. The work of plant molecular biologist Joanne Chory was exciting. She presented a way to radically increase the CO2-absorbing proteins in plant roots, enabling food crops to absorb more of the Carbon Dioxide in our atmosphere. This is also one of TED’s Audacious Projects.

7. Other favorite talks:

1. Es Devlin, a set designer who’s created stages for Kanye, Beyonce, U2, and others, and whose talk was a delicate piece of poetry.

2. Physicist David Deutsch, who used the size and sameness of the universe to make the case that we underrate human creativity as a unique force of change.

3. Yeonmi Park, a young woman who escaped from North Korea at age 13 and explained what it was like to see the world as a North Korean. She was especially affecting as she was not a planned speaker — she was an attendee invited on stage to speak, and who presented herself honestly and powerfully.

4. Eric Liu making the case for civics as religion, with a proposal for Civic Saturdays.

5. Roger Hanlon, a marine biologist, showing how differently squids and octopuses process information compared to other creatures on Earth.

As always, the people and the conversations between sessions and at dinners each night were the other highlight. Thanks to everyone at TED, the speakers for sharing their ideas, and the other attendees who made for a memorable experience.