Day One of TED is finished. I'll try my best to wrap up concisely.
First of all, I had a reallllllly lousy trip out here, missing three flights (!), arriving in Monterey at 3:00 AM body time this morning, sans luggage.
Ah, travel in America.
But, I was scheduled to do a TED University session on "Video Blogging On YouTube" this morning and needed to be at the "professor" orientation at 9:00, so I needed to sleep fast.
The presentation went off went pretty well (12 minutes is a really short period of time to talk about something you're passionate about). We were each scheduled to present two sessions and about 2 minutes into my second one YouTube founders Chad Hurley and Steve Chen walked it and sat down. It was fun watching them listen to my take on their site and we had a good chat about things afterwards.
Then the real TED began.
Project Cassini researcher Carolyn Porco kicked things off. I've seen Carolyn twice before at Pop!Tech. She's terrific. Passionate, informative and inspiring. In a theme that would emerge (no pun intended) several times throughout the day, Carolyn knows how to speak to lay audiences about complex matters. Perhaps her subject matter lends itself to comprehension by general audiences (I really don't think so) or perhaps she's just good. But her description of Titan, Saturn's largest moon, was vivid: "the surface is dark and cold with large lakes of paint thinner." Technical problems rattled her just a tad but curator Chris Anderson leaped to her side to give the techies a chance to wrestle Windows into reluctant submission. Very good start.
Late addition David Berlinski presented medical images rich in what he called "truth and beauty," including this dramatically rendered video of kinesins, hard-working little intra-cellular protein delivery systems. Very effective presentation which I can sum up with this evocative Berlinski quote: "the cell is a huge bustling city populated by micro-machines."
Phillipe Starck followed. Starck is a hugely prolific designer, a veritable rock star in the world of architecture, home decor and fashion. I've never heard him speak before and I was taken aback by the depth of his talk. Starck's heavily-accented English may have made him difficult for some to completely understand but I think perhaps some TEDsters didn't completely follow his line of thought. What I heard was a master designer describing what he called the utter "uselessness" of his job. "I feel like shit," he said, following Porco and Berlinski. He then proceeded to describe a creative process that takes the human being who will use the object he designs, be it that citrus juicer over there, a toilet brush or a fancy toilet seat. The point, he said, is that someone, the product of billions of years of human evolution, a "super monkey" (whose evolutionary path Starck acted out with great glee and comic force!). The object will become part of the story, the poetry, of our species, which is now halfway in its nine billion year journey before the sun goes out. (This is not what people expected from this guy in a red football jacket, I'll bet.) Furthermore, while nobody is "obliged to be a genius," Starck said, we are all obliged to participate in the development of our species; to take up the duty of vision to raise ourselves toward civilization and away from barbarism. (Whew! What the hell, Phillipe? Tell us about shoes or something, will ya?) No, he kept on. The point is, that at different points in our evolutionary cycle the task of humanity differs. At some moments (like now) "people like me, or like artists, are acceptable" because of the luxury of having barbarism at bay (foreshadowing Steven Pinker's talk about the relative calm of the current moment when compared with any other point in human history). At other moments, it's not. "We are almost gods now," he said and soon we will be able to hand our children a world in which they can take advantage of all the progress which we've made and say to them, "now, write a new poetry, a new story," the only requirement being that their story be different from ours. "And this," he concluded, "is why I work, if only on toilet brushes."
Steven Pinker concluded the first session with another brilliantly counter-intuitive talk. While it's common for we 20th/21st century citizens to decry the barbaric atrocities of our age, Pinker effectively demonstrated that we are living in the most non-violent, civilized age in history. This phenomenon is "fractally" demonstrable, meaning it is true across orders of magnitude of time and space. As hunter-gatherers 10,000 years ago up to 60% of humans died due to warfare. Today, less than 1% do. There is also significantly less torture, one-on-one murder and violence of all kinds. Well, then, why don't we feel better about ourselves? Pinker cited several reasons, including better reporting (the damned media really is to blame!), the psychological phenomenon of "cognitive illusion" (things that are easy to recall are assigned higher probabilities of occurrence than those that aren't) and, what he called the "opinion and advocacy market" ("it's hard to make the news by saying things are getting better.") He then cited four reasons for the decline in violence: the deterrent element of civilization (you will go to jail, after all), the decline of the notion that life is cheap (read the Bible lately? lots of smiting), the non-zero sum effects of cooperation and the idea of the "expanding circle" of empathy (here he cited one of my favorite themes, "there but for fortune.") He concluded by asking these provocative questions: "why is there peace?"; "what have we been doing right?"
And with that, the first session ended. And so will my recount of Day One.