Doing the TED conference thing (and using Bon Jovi to try and explain it)

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Is Bon Jovi an idea worth spreading? Not sure, but it seemed to do wonders with a certain amount of context at a conference I recently attended. This being the TEDactive conference: a satellite event where attendees viewed and immersed themselves in the TED universe at an “off site” locale, all the while taking in an HD video version of the big show that was occurring only 2 hours away in Long Beach.

This mention of Bon Jovi is in reference to a bus ride that occurred during the conference, where karaoke was suggested and quickly adopted with great enthusiasm. A great idea right? Well, sort of – because karaoke is one of those things that thrives only after reaching a kind of “tipping point.” More often than not, this tends to be about song choice, and it’s here that Bon Jovi’s “Living on a Prayer” seemed to do the trick.

What does this have to do with the TED phenomenon? Well, only to say that it’s not easy to mix and match event logistics so that something of a “tipping point” happens, a place where you hope that a sense of the special becomes part of the proceedings. You can have a great idea, but whether this comes to pass is squarely dependent on the context around the idea.

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This is where TED, I think, gets it right – certainly at the TEDactive event and I’m sure also at the main TED conference. Here, you had a roster of speakers (many outstanding, mostly great, and all interesting to some degree) as purveyors of ideas and passion, deliberately mixed in with an audience that I often felt would burst if they didn’t engage in discussion and debate (never mind the fact that these were also folks doing remarkable things, small and large, in their own right).

All told, this recipe reminded me of the karaoke + Bon Jovi effect, albeit to a much greater and hopefully more profound degree. At its heart, this was a conference that seeded ideas, and provided a setting populated with participants that cared enough to engage in them, work on them, and possibly even enliven them.

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I actually came into the conference with a fair degree of skepticism (I’m a scientist so I guess it’s in my nature). It is a very expensive conference, enough for an academic like myself to step back a little and constantly evaluate the “utility” of attending. Whilst it’s obvious that the high production value was embedded in this cost, it is a little disconcerting to those of us not use to that sort of thing. I even found at certain moments during the conference, I felt like I had to make sure that I had “worked” enough to promote projects, or network appropriately, etc to justify the cost. Seriously, I should be sending out apologies to all those TEDsters I cornered to talk about genetics, biodiversity, pokemon (i.e. our phylomon project), or science culture in general!

Still, despite this criticism (this being the notion of elitism), the fact of the matter is that the conference really does seem to work on many levels. Ideas were, indeed, being shared, and during the TEDprize part where Jamie Oliver made his plea, you actually saw a crowdsourcing of help, and action items being checked off – it was truly fascinating.

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As well, I’m sure the folks behind TED are aware of the caveats in their program, and seem to be constantly open to feedback to make it work better. This is presumably why pieces such as TEDtalks on the web, the TEDfellows and the remarkable TEDx events were spawned – all doing their part to address this issue of accessibility.

Anyway, suffice to say that overall, I was pretty impressed with my experience. It’s certainly a movement that I can easily get behind. Hopefully, folks like me can do their small part to contribute, or at the very least, suggest “Living on a Prayer” next time there is karaoke on a bus.

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And since I did actually watch “every” talk at TED2010, here is my list, in temporal order, of the top twelve talks to watch (only one of which is currently up on the site right now).

Jake Shimabukuro: Ukulele virtuoso. In my notes, all I wrote was “HOLY SHIT!” His rendition of Bohemian Rhapsody was something else.

Dan Barber: Chef. A talk about sustainable farming, complete with great narrative arc and generally both very entertaining and with a strong message. My fish friends will love this one when this comes out. Choice quote: “What’s so sustainable about feeding chicken to fish?”

Frank Drake: Astronomer. When he put up that slide near the end, and said “Intergalactic Internet…” I swear my head went “pop!” My eureka moment for the conference. Choice quote: “Why haven’t they (aliens) visited us yet – it’s very expensive!” It was also amusing to see Chris Anderson constantly remind him of the time (sort of like telling Yoda he has to wrap things up).

Sam Harris: Neuroscientist and philosopher. I thought this was the most eloquent of the talks. Very compelling. Choice quotes: “Separation of science and human values is an illusion.” “I am the Ted Bundy of string theory.”

The LXD: Dance adventures. Also, with the brevity in note taking. This one I simply wrote “whoa.”

Blaise Aguera y Arcas: Software architect. You just gotta see the video. I believe this was the moment in the conference with the loudest “ooh aah…” response.

Gary Lauder: Venture capitalist. A perfect 3 minute PSA, packed with information, wonderful narrative, and a clever and funny ending. I won’t give it away though.

Sebastian Wernicke: Bioinformatician. This was at TEDactive, and was brilliant – basically a informatic analysis of “What makes a great TED talk.” Including talk duration, key word analysis, and appropriate length of hair – you can even download a helpful cheatsheet here. I hope he gets to do it again at the main stage one day.

Temple Grandin: Livestock handling designer and autism activist. This talk was simply awesome: and she was a great advocate of, in her own words, “the world needing different kinds of minds to work together.” Choice quote (whilst addressing the audience): “There’s a lot of autism genetics here.”

Philip K. Howard: Legal activist. If wanting to immediately “buy and read the book” was the rubric, then this talk would definitely make my list. How is it, that I’ve never heard of him before? Choice quote: “The land of the free has become a legal minefield.”

Sir Ken Robinson: Author/educator. Sir Ken did it again. Man, I wish he hosted a documentary on genetics or something – would make my life a lot easier. Choice quote: “What the world needs now… obviously… is millions and millions of videos of me.”

Glenna Fraumeni: student. This was at TEDactive, but also made it onto the main stage as a video for all to see. A very powerful talk on the question of what one should do with their life. Great job Glenna!

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terryman

David (@ng_dave) is Faculty at the Michael Smith Labs. His writing has appeared in places such as McSweeney's, The Walrus, and boingboing.net. He plans on using Terry as another place to highlight the mostly science-y links he appreciates.In fact, if you liked this one, you might also like his main site generally - this can be found at popperfont.net.

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