I had the great privilege of attending the TED conference again this year. TED stands for Technology Entertainment and Design. This singular event brings together great thinkers from all over the world…and me. The text is a three and a half day conference where charismatic speakers, artists and all sorts of optimists, skeptics, believers and off the chartists come to the stage all day long and tell about their passions.
Jill Bolter Taylor is a neurologist who, in the style of a research doctor crossed with a revival preacher, told us about her harrowing experience with a brain aneurism. She was both doctor and patient and her delivery was at once chilling and uplifting. She was a standout in an outstanding crowd.
The theme this year was Big Questions like What Is Life? Who better to discuss this than Craig Venter, the genome guy. Craig both thrilled and alarmed a good many of us. He is attempting to create artificial life and some feel that his alchemy may lead to chaotic outcomes that are the stuff of horror films. Myself, I feel his defense a bit dubious when asked how he would keep microbes under control. He more or less said, just to trust him. Some, though, see him as the possible savior of mankind by developing microbes that sequester carbon or offer beneficial pharmaceuticals or new biofuels. Look him up online and you will see why he is at the center of Big Ideas.
Thomas Kerns of the Guggenheim showed us ambitious plans to put a Guggenheim Museum in every garage, that is if it is a Middle Eastern garage. There are several new museums with that brand around the world and many more planned. Who would have imagined that? Where will all the art come from…hum I guess we will just have to make more art. That sounds like a good idea for all concerned.
Several physicists were displaying their wares. Garrett Lisi being one of them. He is working on a grand unified field theory while surfing the great beaches around the world. Since much of this work is thought experiments this is actually doable. In the April issue of Scientific American Lisi is alternately called a genius and a crackpot and that by biggies in the field. Much fun to play witness to. Well, someone is probably going to crack that Big Idea and it would be great if it is the surfing physicist.
Neil Turok is a physicist of a different stripe who holds the mathematical chair in physics at Cambridge. He’s a cosmologist concerned with the inflationary period after the Big Bang. Neil is a multiverse man. If I understand him correctly he postulates that the BB was a result of two universes colliding and instead of coming from nothing came from a whole lot of something. Neil was a TED prize winner for his promotion of science curriculum in Africa. The study of physicists (I think this would be called physicistology) who put forward these grand ideas about the nature of reality is a particular interest of mine. There are so many theories bumping into one another and we must not forget that of all the competing theories of reality only one, at most, can be right. I certainly can’t tell you which one but we have seen ideas nailed in place by Aristotle, Newton and Einstein come loose over time. As the quantum and celestial mechanics toil under the hood of the big machine we seem to lean toward righter then wronger though.
As you can see there was some pretty detailed science at TED. Robert Lang brought us back to earth then shattered our understating of a different kind of space-time continuum. He is an origami artist who, using a computer program, can take a simple sheet of paper and turn it into a near living piece of sculpture. I half imagined he was just using magic and I had to ice my brain to follow along with him. He was followed by John Knoll (the programmer of Photoshop) of Industrial Light and Magic. He showed how the marvelous special effects in the movies today are made possible using tools he is developing.
Isaac Mizrahi the clothing designer/lounge act gave a funny scattered talk about his funny scattered life. I heard one person comment that they found it strange that this fellow was at such a highbrow event. (I’ll bet they say that about me) but I find him very now, urban and highly amusing. He’s a sort of a Judy Garland crooked-smile talent but with less tragedy.
David Griffin and Wade Davis of National Geographic projected large images of this nifty planet we call home. When you see nature photography made big it has a lasting impact and brings home the fact that this is the planet, this one right under our feet, is the one we are all concerned with keeping clean.
Benjamin Zander is the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic but he is much more than a conductor. In fact, he is a force of nature. Here we are at TED where one of the mandates is to explore how to save the world while celebrating culture. Zander gave a riveting talk about the relevance of music and then tossed out handfuls of the words to Beethoven’s Ode to Joy from the 9th, to the audience. He insisted everyone sing along and, like a patient teacher, made us start over five times until, we got it right. This coincidently (perhaps) is the theme music from Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange which basically put paid to the modern world. A rich, rollicking and memorable experience.
Then Al Gore. Here is a towing figure of our time. Articulate, funny and looking like a central casting image of a world leader. We simultaneously celebrate him and lament what might have been had they been able to count the votes in Florida. He is a TED regular and his message sharpens every time he points out our clear folly with regard to our stewardship of the Big Blue Marble. Unlike some political figures Al Gore’s image seems to purify over time and hearing him is real pleasure.
Harvard astronomer Roy Gould and Microsoft’s Curtis Wong announced for the first time the World Wide Telescope. Fly through the galaxies and zoom to the edge of the universe. Bloglidite Robert Scoble said it made him cry when he first saw it. Hey, don’t get it on the keyboard, Bob! Now we have for the heavens what Google did for the Earth.
It isn’t all serious at TED although there are messages in everything. Nellie McKay is a singer who strolled onto the stage with an air of confusion, her tiny self dressed like a nice mom on her way to a baby shower. She stepped up to the grand piano and proceeded to thrash it within an inch of the wood pile as she belted, crooned, and purred her provocative, sexy and, to some, offensive lyrics (go Nellie). She wowed me but I know a couple of people who felt put upon when she skewered women’s lib. Sacred cows taste best. Well this is what makes TED what it is. Generally I am not fond of is being a fan. Bandwagons, team spirit and even yelling at kid’s soccer makes me feel uneasy but at TED I am a fan, a participant and I feel lucky to be able to be there.
Thomas Dolby heads up the house band and they play between the speakers. Other musicians and comedians are layered in as well. This offers a way to change direction and keep the synapses firing on all 8 cylinders or maybe four with battery back up.
Chris Jordan is a photographer who I first met at sea when he had the helm of a 120 foot schooner off the coast of Maine. We were sailing in the Penobscot Bay with a group of environmentalists and we were disheartened by the fact that the fisheries had been so devastated in that area. The Grand Banks had been the richest fishery in the world and now the only thing taken commercially is the lobster. Ironically this great delicacy is a kind of marine cockroach which subsists on garbage. Chris is a photographer who highlights the plight of the planet with his pictures of the material world. He takes a snippet of time, say an hour or a day and produces huge composite prints of how many plastic bags are used in a minute or how many airplane con trails would fill the skies in a given time. His work left a deep impression in my forehead.
The TED stage was decorated , festooned even with some of the cultural artifacts collected by Jay Walker (founder of Priceline). These included a page from a Gutenberg Bible, a real sputnik and various Paleolithic skulls. As you can see if you look around Buck’s I am a great believer in stuff. “Hey, Jay I’ll trade you a Soviet Space suit for your space toilet”.
The road to TED after 24 years will make a great movie one day. It was founded by a Richard Saul Wurman, a wild man who is reputedly both a loveable and an unrepentant rascal. After nearly 20 years he gave up the reigns and Chris Anderson (formerly of Woodside and founder of Business 2.0) became the curator of the event and it seems there was a falling out over some issue that left Richard feeling bruised. In a grand and heartfelt segment he came back and was warmly embraced in every respect by Chris and the gathering, including a few who had been there at the very beginning. TED is about inclusion and participation. One of the parts I found the most compelling was a simple question and answer segment about the shape of TED in the future. People had elaborate ideas on where they thought the conference should head and you could tell that the participants felt deeply connected.
After the long days with all the various breakout opportunities there is of course a party or ten each night. There were stars from The Valley as well as real movie stars (there goes the neighborhood). I was chatting with Forrest Whitaker about a new movie he is making and I think the Hollywood folk felt comfortable as no one had the bad taste to pose them for photos (much as I wanted to).
Bob Ballard the deep sea explorer (found the Titanic, PT 109 and many more) is the Galileo of underwater exploration and he took around the Big Below in his deep sea rovers. After diving to depth we spent some time in the trees with an arboreal explorer Richard Preston who spends days at a time in the tops of redwoods 40 stories in the air including climbing Hyperion the tallest living thing. He described to us the ancient ecology in these tress but he is really up in the branches because, like so many presenters at TED, he finds that his passion plugs him directly into the vibrant grid of life.
Nissim Taleb brought us his strangely compelling but annoying idea that cataclysmic events are solely the result of cataclysmic events beyond our ability to predict and that all people (except for himself) are …more or less, fools. I read his book the Black Swan and am not convinced but he persuades many and his bravado is fun to watch.
At one point there was a panel of luminaries assembled to discuss “the new media.” It was to be broadcast live by the BBC but there was a technical problem so the group just sat on the stage in front of about 1,000 people waiting for the uplink. Then someone started heckling from the audience in a heavy Scottish accent. Everyone turned to see Robin Williams giving the stage-bound panel a hard time. Up he sprung and filled the void with an buzzsaw of quick cuts that left us in tears like ‘we are here with a live debate that is not being televised, much like the last 6 years in this country”.
For me the most important presentation of the event was a surprise from the noted MIT musician/composer Tod Machover. Death and the Powers is an opera scheduled to premiere in Monaco in 2009 that Tod has composed about a rich guy who downloads himself into a computer with the idea of living forever. The staging of the opera includes a luminous library of moving, glowing books and robots running about the stage. It is a relevant topic about the near future. It is ironic that when Machover isn’t developing his opera he is working on communication tools with Dan Ellsey who is profoundly handicapped and is locked in a body with only a glowing light stick attached to his head for communication which he uses to point to his computer. With this tool he is able to compose and perform music which he did for the TED audience. So here is opera about downloading a person into a computer and in real life Tod is working on behalf of a man who he is up loading from a damaged body into life. Here they all were on stage with machinery and several people all to the benefit of a single man brought out with great difficulty by special airplane from the east. I have always wondered at the social ramifications of a great deal of effort to the benefit of a single handicapped person. Then it struck me that it wasn’t just about Dan. In fact it was about all those involved on stage, those back at home, others – who might dream about being freed from all sorts of limitations and even about me. It was a grand opera to see Dan enjoying his ability to perform for this group of interested people. So I have a new and much less judgmental view of this process.
Over the years I have been lucky enough to have been a participant in Love-ins in the 60’s and later antiwar marches, Burning Man, Esalen and TED. These are all hotbeds of learning and compassion and amazingly none of these offer any diplomas. So after attending 23 elementary schools, two high schools and five colleges and universities the only diploma I have is from Perfect Paws a dog training school. Heck I’ll never be able to get a job.
(In the pictures for search: Bill Joy, Pierre Omidyar, Larry page, Gino Yu, David Blaine, Max Levchin, Dean Kamen, Zem and James Joaquin)