Themes & Refrains at TED 2011


I had the great pleasure of attending TED last week – not in Long Beach but in Palm Springs, where a very international crew of 600 fired-up TEDsters watched a simulcast of TED on monitors so large and numerous that I kept thinking I was going to bump into the TED speakers during the breaks.

It was a very intense week (attendees tend to talk about being exhausTED and having TEDaches), filled with a tremendous range of topics and resurging themes. TED is an excellent opportunity — an unprecedented one, actually — to take the temperature of the academy and Silicon Valley and every imaginable media and design industry and that cross-cutting world of energetic do-gooders who are trying to improve one thing or another in the universe.

I was a little surprised by the theme that emerged most profoundly for me this year. If I had to give it a title, I might call it this:

Personal Perspective: A Blessing & A Curse

There were several moving talks that addressed the necessity of, on the one hand, recognizing and celebrating your own unique and often imperfect perspective on the world, and accepting the fact that not only are other perspectives out there, but they are probably more valid than you would care to think. Now this may sound like just another postmodern plea for moral relativity, but that was certainly not the spirit with which these ideas were offered.

Early on in the program, New York Times columnist David Brooks, who is certainly no moral relativist, spoke about “epistemological modesty,” the ability to constructively engage with opposing views and ideas, as a crucial dimension of a new humanism based on state of the art research on how humans function, communicate and learn. Brooks had based much of his thinking on the work of neuroscientist extraordinaire Antonio Damassio, who spoke the following day about the surprisingly constructive role that emotion plays in decision making: far from undermining rationality, emotions are essential to high-functioning cognition. Brooks seemed a bit stunned by his discoveries and he’s admitted elsewhere that this research has forced him to re-evaluate several policy perspectives that he’s held dear for decades.

Kathryn Shulz gave a laconic talk about her most recent book, Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, that added further weight to this notion that our own personal prism warps our interactions in the world in even more profound ways than we ever suspected. Brooks was clearly disturbed to discover what a powerful role the unconscious plays in our lives, and Schulz revealed how amazed she was by the warm reception to her book, which presents troubling evidence that we don’t know what we’re talking about, especially when we’re convinced that we do.

I thought that Eli Pariser (founder of MoveOn) gave one of the most important talks of the week. After giving an overview of the invisible, customized data filters that are shaping everything from our Google results to our Facebook feeds, Pariser delivered a call for transparency and a set of ethical guidelines that might prevent us from living in our own online “bubbles,” comfortably insulated from dissenting voices and stuff we just don’t want to worry about.

The previous day, Terrence McArdle and Ben Newhouse provided a demo of their “bubble” technology, which can be embedded into interactive media, providing 3D views that transcend the boundary of the original picture. Imagine being able to click on a particularly heart-wrenching news photo in order to see a 360 degree perspective that contextualizes the subject of that photo and allows you to see from that point of view. McArdle and Newhouse actually described their technology as an “engine for empathy,” applicable not only to images of the real world, but to fictional worlds as well.

At that point, my mind took a U-turn back to David Brooks who also discussed the powerful empathetic and sympathetic connections that humans make with one another in the “real” world, and with the characters and issues depicted in fictional entertainment. The impact of entertainment on society is an area we study quite intensively at the Norman Lear Center, and I gave a short presentation at TED this year about a new research project of ours which analyzes depictions of the “War on Terror” and the “War on Drugs” in the most popular shows on U.S. television. Why would we bother doing this? Because decades of research demonstrates that people develop very deep emotional connections with serialized TV shows and, whether we like it or not, people often believe what they see on the screen and apply it to their real lives.

Needless to say, it was refreshing to see such a wide range of speakers grapple with the emotional, irrational and often unconscious drives that shape human perspectives of the world. Trying to understand how these deeply flawed beings operate in a media saturated environment is one aspect of my research at the Lear Center and, I believe, one of the more profound research questions of the 21st century.

So, when the artist JR took the stage on Wednesday evening, I thought the audience was already well-primed to answer his big question: Can art change the world? Actually, we don’t have the power to stop it.

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