Reflecting on TED, Preparing for TEDxGeorgeSchool

by Ralph Lelii, English department and TEDxGeorgeSchool coordinator

In preparation for, and anticipation of, our TEDxGeorgeSchool conference on June 13, I recently attended a TED Conference in Whistler, Canada, a skiing town about three hours north of Vancouver in British Columbia. Whistler was the site of the 2010 winter olympics, and it is about 8,000 feet above sea level, a lovely, distant locale populated mostly by serious skiers and snowboarders from all over the world. In the midst of this idyllic vacation resort, about 800 people gathered for a TED Conference.

I want to briefly note what this is like. I am a great believer in TED as a powerful adjunct and tool in education, but I also believe it serves us globally as well—as a force in our intellectual evolution. In the eighties and nineties, cutting edge research was usually three–five years ahead of the textbooks. With TED, there is almost real time communication. For example, one of the presenters, Dr. Joseph DeSimone, author of over 300 scientific papers, appeared on stage with his next generation 3-D printer, one which is up to 100 times faster than those currently in use. More to the point, his work in 3-D is on the cover of this months Journal of Science, perhaps the most prestigious journal in all of science. The video of his work and his radically new printer technology was uploaded and disseminated around the world the next day.

On day three of the conference, Monica Lewinski spoke powerfully about the cruelty of the virtual world, labeling the internet the “highway of the id.” I was deeply moved by the suffering she endured during years of self-righteous, vulgar, degrading online “commentary.” It was a courageous and timely speech, and it is worth watching.

In the 1970s and 1980s, when most of today’s senior educators were in college, 80-85 percent of all professors in the US were male. Currently, 46 percent of all professors in the US are female, and one feels the presence of women powerfully, particularly in neuroscience and technology, here at TED. There were sixty-four speakers last week, and thirty-four were women. Almost all of them are professors at major research universities and highly published. This represents a sea change, I think, in the quality and texture of academic discourse. It is also worth noting that many speakers were only in their late twenties.

The knowledge that was disseminated there was simply dazzling. Here are a few examples worth noting. Abe Davis is a doctoral student at MIT. He has created a “visual microphone,” an algorithm that samples vibrations from ordinary objects in high-speed video footage and then transduces them into an audio track. In essence, he has revealed that a bag of potato chips sitting on a table surrounded by people talking will vibrate sympathetically to what it “hears” and, when he plays back the video, the conversations that were around the bag, or plant, or pole, are embedded in the vibrations and can be saved like an mp3 file.

Dr. Laura Schulz is a cognitive scientist also at MIT. Her work has revealed that children at eighteen months of age can use statistical inference to make decisions. She made an impassioned appeal to have our culture recognize the mental capacity of toddlers and to reinforce and increase our study and support of those who teach them. Fei-Fei Li is the director of Stanford University’s Artificial Intelligence laboratory. She demonstrated her work on smart machines, computers that can recognize what is in a photograph with no verbal cues at all. She anticipates shortly smart machines which can scan the exterior and interior of patients with a thousand times the acuity of physicians to make recognition of elusive pathologies more accurate.

There were philosophers, artists, designers, historians, astronomers, and architects. I was surprised to learn that Dr. Sara Seager heads a team at MIT whose work is directed at finding a suitable planet like ours where we might send survivors to repopulate should we someday make this planet uninhabitable, thus insuring the survival of our species.

What I loved most about the experience was the dominant ethos of listening as a virtue. There were no debates, no rivalries between men establishing that they are the smartest person in the room. Rather, for five days, one listens to people narrate their life’s work and passion, and then reflects on the message. There is no competition. Talks are interspersed with artistic performances, and the process feels like an intellectually rigorous and spiritually expansive graduate school classroom. I must have heard twenty different languages, and I never heard a single conflict. The mission of TED, its core purpose, is the dissemination of research, of theory, of practice, of scholarship, free and unfettered to the world. Every talk is uploaded to the internet within three days, and exists forever in the public realm.

While some of the speakers can seem arrogant and even narcissistic in a social sense, in every case I have seen so far, what permeates the lessons is great humility in the face of the knowledge. There is little certainty here; largely, there are great questions about our future and genuine humility in the face of all that we do not know. It is a collaborative, world-wide vision of scientific and intellectual and artistic progress and exploration, one which makes a classroom of all the classrooms in the world. It is genuinely humbling to see what is being done, to face and internalize the reality of all that one does not know. It is comforting to see so many deeply engaged people all around the world taking responsibility for the planet, confronting the huge problems we face, and who are fortified with great idealism in the face of so many crises. It is a great tonic for the soul.

It is my sincere hope, that our TEDxGeorgeSchool, albeit on a more modest scale, will espouse the same virtues, the belief that intelligent discourse is a value in and of itself, that we can listen to hard and challenging and sometimes dazzling ideas and come to our own conclusion, working out their possible meanings in the sanctuary of the individual mind. It is a consummation devoutly to be wished.

Learn more about TEDxGeorgeSchool on our website.

2 Comments

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2 responses to “Reflecting on TED, Preparing for TEDxGeorgeSchool

  1. Thanks for bringing the GS audience along during the build up to TEDxGeorgeSchool! I take issue with Ralph’s claim that there was “no debate” at the TED conference he attended in Whistler. In fact there was massive debate on social media (esp. Twitter).

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