Embracing Blur

blakleyblurZ Holly, the former vice provost for innovation at USC and host of the first TEDx ever, sure knows me well. A newcomer to the prestigious TTI/Vanguard Board, Z thought I would be good fit for their next conference on Embracing Blur.

Um, she couldn’t have been more correct. I have long been fascinated by the interplay between representations and reality (my last TEDx talk dealt with this pretty directly). And I’d venture to say that the majority of my work at the Lear Center explores the cultural and commercial ramifications of this blur.

What Z didn’t know was that my dissertation was actually about “betweenness” – something I saw as a key formal and thematic characteristic of avant-garde modernism. Many of my friends and colleagues wondered how a high-theory English PhD ended up in a think tank studying the impact of media, but it all seems quite rational to me: isn’t the key formal and thematic characteristic of 21st century media the blur between representation and reality? What we considered avant-garde in literary Paris at the turn of the 20th century is the (often unacknowledged) cultural dominant of contemporary global pop culture.

And so the description of the TTI/Vanguard program couldn’t have been more appealing to me:

A flood of technologies is washing away traditional boundaries between work and play, companies and governments, war and peace, near and far, virtual and physical, society and the individual. In its wake, a global nervous system is emerging as we connect billions of people with each other and with billions of newly smart objects. This unbounded organism is developing an unsurpassable intelligence, resistant to human control. Where is it taking us? Can we hope to understand it, control it, contain it?

Z had to warn me though – there’s one thing about this conference that is very atypical: every attendee (and there’s over a 100 of them) has a mic and can interrupt you at any point during your presentation.

This wouldn’t be quite so nerve-wracking if you didn’t know that the crowd would be composed of carefully vetted C-Suite folks from Fortune 100 companies and an engaged board that includes Alan Kay, Eric Haseltine, Gordon Bell, Nicholas Negroponte and John Perry Barlow (never a guy to sit back and listen to anything he thinks is crap).

Of course I said yes, and I’m so happy I did. Not only were the other speakers amazing (more on that shortly), but the audience was filled with “Big Gets,” people you’d kill to get at your own event.

One of my favorite speakers at the event was Larry Hunter, a computational biologist at the University of Colorado, Denver, who also turned out to be a fantastic drinking buddy. Larry has a deep background in computer science and molecular biology, and this has led him to create some very smart open source software that allows us to move beyond the tragic errors that have plagued genetic research from the get-go. Our presumption that there’s a gene for everything just doesn’t fit with the evidence, and the complex network relations and interactions among genes continue to befuddle us. Genes are not destiny and Lord knows they do not respect disciplinary boundaries. (Talk about blur.) But Larry’s optimistic that the work that’s been done in molecular biology, where all the collected knowledge is explicit, will lend itself well to much more powerful artificial intelligence systems that can generate hypotheses (sometimes completely counter-intuitive ones) to explain why certain things are observed. He thinks AI should be used for hypothesis generation, and I’m thinking another Sergey Brin might agree.

Happily, the program incorporated speakers from the arts, as well, and I think everyone was taken by Joseph Malloch‘s work, which involved the creation of new musical instruments that might be mistaken for post-human prosthetics. One of his creations, which looked like an exo-skeletal secondary spine, is “played” by a dancer who wriggles and writhes in order to achieve a certain visual and auditory aesthetic. The conversation was as fascinating as the presentation for me, because our incredibly tech-oriented audience was focused on the materiality of these objects, their existence as interface, and their programmability (is it an instrument that can be mastered by a prodigy or a program that can be tweaked for a particular aesthetic purpose?)

Perhaps even more shocking: some attendees wanted to debate whether “this was really music or not.” Wow – some things never change ….

I felt very lucky to be able to hear from Frans de Waal about his fascinating and utterly groundbreaking work on ethics and empathy among primates. Many of us humans labor under the false illusion that our less selfish characteristics arose out of the luxurious excesses of human civilization – where we’re so insulated from primal, dog eat dog realities that we can afford to be gracious and kind to other people. But de Waal has designed ingenious experiments demonstrating the empathetic bonds among primates and these animal’s very deep convictions about just and ethical behavior. Be sure to check out his TED talk because the videos will blow your mind.

I was completely bummed that I had to present right after Vytas SunSpiral, the nicest darn robotics engineer you’ll ever meet. He gave a refreshingly clear and cogent talk about a real revolution that’s taking place in robotics. It turns out that we know more about the brain than the spine. While the brain builds models of the world, the spine manages the contact dynamic with the environment. Ever wonder why a chicken can run around with its head cut off? The coordination in the muscles is still there because the spine is a decentralized system – an emergent coordination machine, as it were, which is exactly the kind of thing we need crawling around on other planets. Oh – did I mention that Vytas makes landing gear for interplanetary travel for NASA? Yeah, that’s his day job.

Vytas argued that the strongest structures we might use for these landing devices might very well be tensile in nature – like the human body, whose strength is more a result of its soft tissue than its underlying bones. The human spine is not held together by the hinges you see in the skeleton in a doctor’s office. It’s the rubbery, bouncy, incredibly resilient fascia that provides our power and flexibility, and provides an ingenious model for future interplanetary space traveling robots – which might end up being “anthropomorphic” in ways we never imagined.

I’ve barely scratched the surface here, but I think you get the gist. Recognizing blur is not an acknowledgement of error, but often the first essential step in correcting a faulty taxonomy of knowledge. I was so fascinated by everyone else’s talks that I couldn’t wait to get off the stage so that I could hear more. (Mine, by the way, was about the future of audience segmentation and the blurring of traditional demographic categories, but I’ll leave that for another post.)

Check out a report on highlights from the conference, as well as the Storify. Unfortunately, video and transcripts are only available to TTI/Vanguard members.

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