May 9th, 2010

Who is TED, and Why Can’t I Talk for More Than 18 Minutes at a Time?

By Thatcher Bohrman

It’s still an exhilarating surprise when I get to share TED with someone new, though it’s an increasingly rarer thrill. It seemed to be genuinely obscure two years ago when I stumbled upon the TED site looking for podcasts about alternative energy to fill my bicycling commute. What I found blew my mind, and racheted up my hope for humanity. Instead of pop stars, there were videos featuring scientists, inventors and economists, interspersed with design world hipsters and avant garde musicians, all given 18 minutes to give the talk of their life. That philosophy fit right in to my short ride, the rendering of large thoughts into delicious morsels being just what my helter-skelter schedule required, and that much time spent listening to Ken Robinson was enough to get me completely hooked. Now my every conversation seems to lead me inevitably toward a reference to one of their talks, “Have you seen the TED talk about .. (fill in any possible subject here)”? While all the names might be known only to someone with exceedingly cross-disciplinary depth, by listening to TED, you can quickly become just that. Famous or not, each is a star in their universe of expertise. You can find Leakey, Goodall, Dawkins and Hawking alongside Gates and Bono – the “E” in TED stands for Entertainment, after all. The other letters stand for Technology and Design, the three elements together somehow managing to delineate an intricately carved network of intelligence and wonder. If I sound overly effusive, see if you can find another single website with the power to educate like MIT and entertain like Pixar. Looking into TED is like seeing the world’s brilliant minds cross-pollinating, and the sheer breadth of subject matter is breathtaking, covering political, scientific and artistic ground with equally facinating diligence and curiosity. With austerely tasteful presentation, the TED ¬†website offers up to the world the talks given at its live conferences via a kinetic collage of videos touting “Ideas worth spreading”, as many have. Al Gore gave his nobel-winning presentation at TED, and his old sidekick Bill Clinton is also a TEDster, as the exclusive invitees to the TED event are known, though speakers are instructed not to air political views. While the conferences are exclusive, the videos are public and often made more accessible through captioning in English and beyond by devoted TED translators; the most popular talks, such as Dan Ariely’s enlightenly excrutiating talk on “our buggy moral code”, generating up to 13 different translations – Bulgarian included. Educators will find that the site is well organized and allows downloading of videos, and embed code is usually provided just below each video. While there are great talks about education itself, see the above mentioned and hilarious Robinson

or this talk by author Dave Eggers

Behind every talk is the purpose to educate, inform, and often, to pursuade. Whether it’s Burt Rutan talking about space exploration or Hans Rosling demonstrating the joy of statistical visualization, their discourse usually leads to a passionate call to better educate and inspire the next generation.

Swedish researcher and doctor Hans Rosling

shows, by animating publically available statistics, how health and economic changes have reshaped the world. As colorful shapes morph across the graph, Rossling tells the story of socio-political factors which took place in different countries, as the data in motion shows the affect that events and decisions have had over time in people’s life-expectancy and the wealth of nations – remaining charmingly glib throughout. He has developed a website, gapminder.com, that allows anyone to use this same data-mapping software in creative ways. Another of the engaging data-driven talks is by Jamie Heywood

whose brother’s battle with ALS helped create a new way to use crowdsourcing to look at health and diagnosis. Inspired by adversity, they built a website that invites patients to enter their symptoms, conditions, and treatments into a database that can be adjusted in myriad configurations, opening new possibilities for understanding a complex data milieu. It’s more than a facinating and deeply touching story, it’s the impact of people coming together to construct a new and hopeful reality, and there are many such stories, from every point of the globe. With an expansive interest in global community, TED has staged conferences in Africa and India, forcing to light their unique complexities and connections with Western worldviews. It still holds it’s main event in Monterrey, California, but is riding a crest of popularity, and inviting anyone to hold their own “TED-like” event in communities anywhere, called “TEDx”. Search TED for “creativity” and get lost for a few hours. Among the gems is Stuart Brown’s talk

about play and it’s meaning for the human animal. Red Sox fans may appreciate the his pointing out the effect play has on one’s survival and longevity. Speakers like Brown and others use the latest brain science to contrast our knowledge with our behavior and beliefs, yielding oft-amazing evidence of compassionate instincts within our cunning beast. The images of animal play are unforgettable, and “a marvelous example of how a differential in power can be overridden by (play)”. The ideas TEDsters spin can sound simply profound, but they seldom make a pitch without a firm hold on scientific method, grounding their sometimes iconoclastic glee in the roots of a petri dish. Between astrophysicists making their cool debut, find adventurers swimming the artic and taking leaps from the edge of space, circus performers royale, and musicians who dazzle the soul. It’s not all head-candy. Almost any educator can find material here that could touch upon their discipline at many levels, with language aimed squarely at the wider audience – because TED truly aims to change the world. These are, at heart, the innovators in their fields, who sow their seeds of reasoned imagination in order to dislodge ideas they believe threaten to destroy the world. At their 2009 event, TED India, one speaker talked about the “TED Era”, which their urgency for innovation and change seeks to create. If it has a central theme it may be this: how seeing the world in new ways will, and must, steer our future from its present course. There are over 600 talks conglomerated on the site, some drawn from non-TED sources, such as J.K. Rowling’s sly commencement speech to Harvard graduates. Her’s is the kind of story that you hear on TED: personal events leading to amazing discoveries – the speaker seemingly sharing a secret treasure with close friends in a darkened room. By the way, the talks actually range in length from 2 minutes on up, so you can pop into TED like I just did, watch a fun little talk on, in this case, the way perspectives between rational people can be radically different, and walk away a bit more refreshed than I was 3 minutes ago

The success of TED is a whole-brainer, but how successfully they reach out to the world comes from an understanding that great ideas will go farther wrapped in entertaining, high quality, and smartly sized packages.

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