Last week I was in Edinburgh Scotland for TEDGlobal 2011 along with Duncan Wilson and Stuart Smith of Arup and approximately 900 other visitors from around the world. It was my first time at TED and it became clear from quite early on and from the glossy promotional materials that the conference was going to be a very well produced and spectacular feast for the ears.
TED (technology, entertainment, design) features prolific intelligent individuals from a diverse set of industries which include economists, psychologists, biologists, technologists, politicans, historians and a few artists to keep the audience’s brains from over heating. This year’s theme was the Stuff of Life and what really impressed me was how Chris Andersen and his team curated the programme for the full four days so that there were life related themes for each of the daily 2 to 4 panels. Their curation is a clever way of ensuring that the talks travel and so do we as their listeners without ever physically having to leave the auditorium. My favorite talks included Tim Harford, the undercover economist, philosopher Alain de Botton, and Brazilian filmmaker Julia Bacha because of their unique and inspiring ways of encouraging us to look beyond the seductive and somewhat myopic entrapments of our mental models in order to embrace what can be learned through humility, randomness, and attentive listening. Here is my summary of those talks.
Tim Harford is an economist who studies complex systems and through his research he has found that the most successful complex systems are arrived at through trial and error. Unfortunately, we have a tendency to accept and believe the infallibility of our solutions and ideas, which Harford refers to as the God Complex. We retreat into this God Complex because it’s comforting to believe that we understand the complexity of the world and that through this understanding we can endeavor to solve complex problems.
What Harford goes on to show is how impossible it would be for any one of us to be able to fully conceive let alone understand the complexity of our world. He uses a consumer product project developed by Cesar Hidalgo which tracks the interconnections between 5000 products (Wal-Mart sells 100,000) to show the impossibility and naivety of the God Complex. And ultimately he goes on to demonstrate how the best complex systems, such as children, are born through trial and error.
Philospher Alain de Botton’s talk inspired me to buy a book by Sara Maitland on the pleasures and power of silence. In his talk the author makes the case for a new kind of atheism, Atheism 2.0, that spends less time on the science of disputing the existence of God and more time developing some life-affirming rituals. The starting principle of Atheism 2.0 is the assumption that there is no God, but just as I was starting to slip into a self-satisfied crouch in my seat he went on to chastize the audience for too readily dismissing religion entirely. He goes on to explain that you don’t need to believe in the doctrines, but what about the aspirations that religion imparts on its believers such as the pursuit of continued growth and the importance of being better, nobler human beings. Education helps us with these pursuits up to a certain point – graduation – but it somewhat falsely presumes that we are rationale beings who won’t need any help once we exit the ivy gates.
But the truth is we all need guidance at different points in our lives and if education is no longer there to teach us, and if we are not religious by nature, we atheists need another source for invaluable life coaching. To this point Alain de Botton makes the argument that there is a lot that can be learned from the richness of religion and that atheism should not cut itself off from a very time proven source and disseminator of ideas and meaning.
Brazilian filmmaker Julia Bacha surprised me with the simplicity of her message. As a documentary filmmaker she has spent a considerable amount of time in the Middle East tracking the relationships between Israel and Palestine. And yet rather than focus her work on the conflict, she has turned her lens on the peace movement which has received so little attention in international media. Her message was simple: the power of attention is exponential. We, in the West, have trained our attention on suicide bombing and the violence between Israel and Palestine. Julia Bacha suggests that if we could divert our focus and simply pay attention to the peace movements, the power of our attention would have a profound impact on the peace movement and hopefully a positive consequence on the lives its the affected people.
What inspired me about all of these talks was the power that we wield as individuals and as a society to shape our circumstances in an incredible way if we are willing to be humble, listen and accept the randomness of life. Here are a few other talks which are worth mentioning:
Annie Murphy Paul, a science author, for asking us to think about when our education begins. According to her research education begins early on in the womb.
Nadia Al-Sakkaf, Journalist and Editor-in-Chief of the Yemen Times, for her audacity, courage, and leadership when firing half of her male staff so that she could run the paper according to her principles.
Richard Wilkinson, social epidemiologist, for arguing that more equal societies are healthier, happier societies, and that if we want to live the American dream, we should move to Denmark.
Sanjit ‘Bunker’ Roy, educator, for proving that you can teach an old dog new tricks by training grandmothers in different communities of Africa and India to set up solar PV technologies and for observing that their men were untrainable.
Pavan Sukhdev, nature accountant, for trying to end the economic invisibility of nature, for advocating a valuation of biodiversity and for pointing out our inability to perceive differences between private profits and public losses.
Rebecca Mackinnon, media activist, for reminding us that there are sovereigns of cyberspace which are shaping what we can and cannot do in real life.