By Lucie Greene
There have been whispers among more cynical types that TED has reached a tipping point – that its global success has undermined its insider cool. But after visiting TEDx Houses of Parliament here in London last week, frankly I don’t care. Yes, I have officially drunk the Kool-Aid, and I wasn’t even at the big official TED event in Edinburgh.
We live in a relatively agnostic society and sometimes that inherent day-to-day cynicism can be draining. That is why it was so refreshing to go to such an inspiring, interesting, illuminating (what other words beginning with ‘i’ can I stick in here?) event. I came away genuinely inspired by people and their ability to do things, challenge and create.
The beauty of TED for me is the sense of curation. Speaker-led industry conferences have become sponsor-driven, the speeches are often self-serving, and the focus and insights are few and far between. How nice then, to go to something where each speech was 10 minutes long and, as a rule, not too branded. Brands did creep in here and there, but the aim – and the endeavour – of the whole day was to educate and inspire.
Democracy was the starting point for each speaker, but this worked in several different angles – the main overarching theme was digital technology and social networks in our lives as a force for good or evil.
These were the highlights:
Deyan Sudjic, director of the Design Museum, addressed the idea of future technologies making current cultural stalwarts in our society defunct – and used the move from Kodak to Instagram and digital photography as an example. He also spoke about the Third Revolution with 3D Printing. He said that we cannot stop the future happening, but we must understand where it is going. 3D printing, he pointed out, if widely adopted in the home, poses a host of environmental, legal and ethical issues, and asked: ‘Should it be regulated by the government?’
Jamal Edwards, founder of SBTV, the YouTube tv channel, was also very impressive. He highlighted the pervasive role of YouTube and its global reach, arguing that maybe the next politicians will be found on the medium. YouTube is, he said, democratic, international, without borders and intimate – you can’t hide. People have to like you and rate you, and you are instantly answerable to your fans. Jamal is 22 and has amassed 150m YouTube views since 2006.
Jack Andraka was incredible. An American 15-year old from Maryland, he had invented a paper strip, costing just three cents, to detect the early stages of cancer. What started as a small science project turned into a product that won him the Smithsonian American Ingenuity Award. Andraka took to the stage, complete with teen blemishes and a set of braces, and told the audience how he did it with complete humility – before raising the issue of online medical journal subscription costs. These, which are now even testing the budgets of American institutions such as Harvard, were holding back innovation in medicine, he said, adding that access to medical information should be more democratic.
There were performances and music too. Spoken word artist Suli Breaks performed a piece that said human nature was stopping true democracy. Democracy already exists in nature and the animal kingdom – it is us humans who can’t achieve it.
Jeremy Silver, founder of entertainment and digital company Semetric, explored the issue of intellectual property, taking the simple journey of an American spiritualist from The Staple Singers to The Rolling Stones to The Verve. He showed how each referenced the other, talking about who were paid song rights – and it turns out that The Rolling Stones were the top beneficiaries.
Tomas Rawlings, design and production director at Auroch Digital and its acclaimed news gaming project GameTheNews.net, talked about gaming and hacking as a way to implement democracy. In lead games, he said, many hackers had started staging their own virtual protests to events or features they don’t like. Now some games are installing virtual governments, with representatives answerable to the players and fans about how they are run. Games, he said, were like new democracies.
Beeban Kidron, OBE, and director of Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason and future feature-length documentary In Real Life, offered the most dystopian vision of social media and social networks. In Real Life is an exploration of how social networks are affecting the way in which young people relate, behave and evolve. Kidron argued that teenagers now exist in a mediated, fragmented state of constant meaningless communication. She said it had affected how they relate and that adults – by allowing these companies to have such a pervasive role in young people’s lives – had brought about something that they did not fully understand. She pointed out that, from an early age, young people would create a digital footprint or complex information, which brands are using. In other words, by being on Facebook all the time, teenagers are essentially working for Mark Zuckerberg for free.