Notes from TED

Here are some notes that I took at TED 2008.  I have a bunch more on each of the speakers individually which I may post as time permits.  Let me know if you want me to expand any of the notes below into a full post.

Themes

TED sessions have their own explicit themes, but I detected a few implicit themes based on the overlapping content of the talks.

Global Awakening: there is something afoot that is palpable that is more than a political or cultural movement.  Al Gore and Samantha Power talked explicitly about this referencing a “higher consciousness”.  See levels of organization and cultural agency.  Counterpoint theme: The Failure of the System to protect its individual constituents and serve their needs (see Sue Goldie).

Compassion / Cooperation: as juxtaposed to the mindset of the selfish gene, social Darwinism, “nature red in tooth and claw”, Libertarianism, Objectivism, free-market radicalism, etc.  See cooperation.

Breaking the Spell: scientific results and arguments that challenge deeply held myths and cognitive illusions about who we are and the nature of the universe.  See limits of knowledge.

Education Revolution: systematic primary, mandatory education is less than 200 years old, serves outdated needs and assumptions, adheres to outdated concepts, ignores mountains of data on effective and ineffective methods, and is thus in critical need of overhaul.  See Ken Robinson, Neil Turok and also Teaching as a Subversive Activity.  See also Larry and Sergey’s talk about how their educational background factors big into Google’s success.

Thoughts

• Whenever I start thinking pessimistically about the massive momentum in “the system”, I remind myself that we are only ever (at most) one generation away from potential total overhaul.  The keys are (1) cultural change precedes systemic change and (2) systemic change comes from working outside of, and on the margins of, the system that need changing.  Neil Turok has effectively redesigned the modern university — out of necessity.  His example has profound impact not only for Africa, but for education the world over.

• Sometimes developing societies (which is to say the simpler systems) can make change and innovate faster than more complex ones.  See Clinton’s wish for world-class healthcare for Rwanda.

• Language shapes/is conscious thought.  I’m increasingly aware of concepts I would like to express but the words I have at my disposal can only approximately and awkwardly convey the full meaning.  Coining new terms or co-opting old ones is problematic and ends up as jargon, creating a barrier between those who accept and “get” the meaning and those who feel alienated by the jargon.  How do we augment the lexicon with fidelity and without alienation?

• Visual processing/reasoning in brains is largely unconscious, and a ubiquitous part of human experience (even in the congenitally blind).  The majority of our language hinges on visual metaphor.  Every once in a while we will be shown examples and techniques for tapping into this incredibly powerful system of understanding and communication, like Hans Rosling’s data visualization and Chris Jordan’s art which gives unique insight into comparative scale.  How do we tap into this system on a much more regular, efficient and mass communicative basis?

• Whenever there’s a seeming paradox, question the assumptions.  You will always find that the statement of the paradox itself presupposes and creates it.

• The chatter in our brains, whether we are conscious of it or not, is incessant and integral to our sentience.  Yet there is no scientific study of this realm beyond what is done in psychotherapy.  Why is that?

• Terrorism = class of memes

Memetic evolution is a concept that has been around for over 30 years and a subject that has been talked about several times at TED as a real and powerful force, as real as biological evolution.  Yet, I get the sense that people don’t want to accept memetics as real and therefore ignore the implications.  It is unsettling to think that we as individuals are not fully in charge.  It’s why people don’t quite see organizational agency for what it is and fumble around in the dark when it comes to causality.

• Each level has its own form(s) of energy/information: ATP, money, fame, political power, will power, joules, pagerank, etc.

• Why does there have to be a Theory of Everything with universal laws, fundamental particles and cosmological constants?  Might there just be an infinite/fractal regress with “laws” as emergent properties, and no true constants?

• The smaller we go in scale in exploring the universe and the farther back in time we look, the more homogeneity and symmetry we find.  As structure unfolds in time and scale, the universe becomes more complex, symmetry is broken, heterogeneity arises, new levels of organization are created, new forms of value appear.

• How do we determine system boundaries, where one system ends and another begins?  Of course, no systems are truly independent of one another; independence and interdependence lay on a continuum.  In some sense, it’s all one system.  OTOH, the amount of informational feedback within and between subnets can be empirically discovered to a certain extent.  And in this way, we can talk about System A (me) as being a real thing, separate from System B (you), even though there is interdependence and information flowing between us.  Boundaries of systems at adjacent levels have a unique character owing to the special relationship of emergence.

• The brain is a simulator (of potential futures).  Computer simulations are extensions of the brain in this regard.

• It’s important to set priorities as a society, but tricky to add rationality to the mix in the face of media, financial incentives, political agendas.  Perhaps the truth market concept can be tweaked to create “urgency markets”.

• We humans love panaceas.  Assuming that all panaceas are (mostly) placebo effects, there is a danger in extrapolating too far.  Can Sri Sri Ravi Shankar‘s breathing and meditation bring about world peace?  It doesn’t hurt to try as long as we don’t exclude all of the other important work to be done because we are all too busy breathing.  But what would happen if everyone in the world actually practiced meditation for an hour a day?

Kaki King points out that music is one of the only acceptable “right brain” expansive activities left in our society.   It’s true; most other such activities (most arts, spiritual experiences, sexual experiences, et al) are marginalized and deemed either worthless or morally destructive by many.

• Given the inescapable truths revealed by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, are we making a huge mistake by messing with fundamentally unpredictable complex systems, as Craig Venter is doing and as CERN is doing with the Large Hadron Collider?  And by unpredictable complex systems I am referring not only to the systems of study, but the larger socio-technical systems in which the activity is embedded.  Neither Venter’s nor Brian Cox’s answers to these sorts of criticisims were very reassuring.

• How about that mushroom guy?!  Incredible.  (Paul Stamets)

• We are in the midst of the 6th great extinction period on Earth, and the only one for which we can take (partial) credit.  What would have happened had an omnipotent being intervened in the other extinction periods and saved all species?  How sustainable would that state of affairs been, and what downstream effects would it yield?  The problem today is how do we make good, rational choices in the face of such massive unpredictability.  Whether or not we are responsible for the extinction of [insert your favorite endangered species], what would happen if we propped that species up, and at what cost to the rest of the ecosystem?

• The sanctity of national sovereignty needs to be weakened and must play second fiddle to global priorities if we are to survive and get beyond the global challenges that face us.  See Paul Collier.

Jonathan Haidt had an eye-opening message for the overly Polyanna amongst us: there is strong bias in representation at TED of viewpoints on social issues.  Namely, social conservatives (“the other half” of America) were practically non-existent.  This is problematic if you want to make real and lasting change.  Everyone needs to participate in the discussion.

  • “Compassion / Cooperation: as juxtaposed to the mindset of the selfish gene, social Darwinism, “nature red in tooth and claw”, Libertarianism, Objectivism, free-market radicalism, etc.”

    Wow.

    I guess believing that we’re against “compassion” and “cooperation” makes it easier for you to sleep at night, huh?

    You are sick.

  • Francois, I’m sorry if I offended you. Who is the “we” that you identify with such that I am of a false belief? I will try to clarify my statement once I know which part is objectionable.

  • I am a free market libertarian Anarchist radical, who supports the concept of the “selfish gene,” “nature red in tooth and claw,” and used to be an Objectivist. And I find it very offensive that you associate my kind of thinking, and that of my friends, as something to be contrasted with compassion or cooperation. You obviously have no idea what any of these ideologies are about, or you’re just lying to yourself by pretending that we’re not human beings because we disagree with you.

  • Okay. But it sounds like you may be reading a lot into my statement and jumping to take offense. I’m not trying to demonize anyone, but my understanding of these philosophies of thought from what I have read and heard proponents expound is that we are all best off if everyone is entirely free to — and does — pursue their narrow self-interest. I’m happy to hear otherwise. Perhaps you can enlighten me.

  • And what does that have to do with not being compassionate or cooperative?

  • I didn’t say that followers of those philosophies were not compassionate or cooperative people. My point is this. Those philosophies themselves do not promote cooperation, rather they (unashamedly and explicitly) say that cooperation such as it exists is really an act of “enlightened self-interest”. And it would be a mistake as a rational actor to cooperate in situations where you will not get some benefit out of doing so — possibly far in the future or your offspring’s future. Furthermore, if you will never interact with someone again and the effects of not cooperating with them will never come back to you or your offspring, then it’s rational to not cooperate. Compassion is thought to be that evolutionary mechanism by which cooperation can occur (and be mutually beneficial) under circumstances where you don’t really have the time or ability to make a rational argument for the act. Of course, I am oversimplifying and lumping in different philosophies into one camp when they probably shouldn’t be, but I think you get the general point.

    My larger point in all this is that there seems to be a shift in thinking, even amongst those who used to quote Ayn Rand in Silicon Valley VC meetings, that maybe compassion and cooperation run deeper than being simply a means to a self-interested end. If you read the (highly mathematical) work of Martin Nowak, he argues that cooperation is a fundamental part of evolutionary dynamics. I have also made this argument in a number of posts on this blog, though in non-mathematical terms.

    I will also just point out something that often missed by free-market radicals, which is that a market system absolutely depends on cooperation and trust. So the idea that competition is they way in which to solve all problems is based on a misconception. I am a proponent of market systems, even going so far as to suggest that they be used to determine “truth” (see truthmarkets.org). But I also readily admit that there are many problems we face as a society that do not lend well (and are actually exacerbated by) a free market approach. The market is the coldest place on earth. And despite the fact that it requires cooperation and trust to even exist, those who participate in the markets are required to check their compassion at the door, lest they go broke.

  • “I will also just point out something that often missed by free-market radicals, which is that a market system absolutely depends on cooperation and trust.”

    If you acknowledge that, why do you persist in the belief that markets are not cooperative or compassionate?

    “But I also readily admit that there are many problems we face as a society that do not lend well (and are actually exacerbated by) a free market approach. ”

    Name one then.

    “The market is the coldest place on earth.”

    To someone warmed up by fantasy ideologies, maybe it sounds cold. But the market is nothing without love.

    “those who participate in the markets are required to check their compassion at the door, lest they go broke.”

    You seem to believe that compassion and cooperation are things that are done “on the side,” orthogonal to the market. For many people, it’s an integral part of what they do.

  • How about US markets creating economic pressure for child labor in developing nations? Or when large sources of capital overwhelm markets that are fragile? Even George Soros had regrets (if I remember correctly) about his role in the savaging of the Thai economy. It takes quite a bit of infrastructure and legal apparatus for markets to run fairly and effectively. There are many developing countries that have tried to run open markets like those in the wealthy nations, but often times such attempts backfire and end up causing more harm than good.

    I’m curious to hear your examples of love and harmony in the marketplace.

  • “How about US markets creating economic pressure for child labor in developing nations?”

    First of all, there are no markets right now, since you can’t have a “free market” if there’s no freedom. Secondly, child labour exist because poverty exists, not because markets existed, even if they did.

    “Even George Soros had regrets (if I remember correctly) about his role in the savaging of the Thai economy.”

    I thought Soros is some kind of raging socialist globalist? Or am I thinking of the wrong guy?

    “It takes quite a bit of infrastructure and legal apparatus for markets to run fairly and effectively. There are many developing countries that have tried to run open markets like those in the wealthy nations, but often times such attempts backfire and end up causing more harm than good.”

    Yes, that’s probably true. Same thing for ex-Soviet areas: the attempts have been hit and miss.

    “I’m curious to hear your examples of love and harmony in the marketplace.”

    Love itself is a great example, actually. Have you ever been in a relationship?

  • Right on cue to prove me wrong about markets being cold, here comes Bet2Give.com. Check it out!

    I expect you, Francois, to put your money where your heart is, and become the most active trader on the site ;-)

    Hopefully this diversion into market philosophy hasn’t distracted you too much from the larger message I was trying to convey in the original post. Thanks for the engaging discussion.

  • Francois, I'm sorry if I offended you. Who is the “we” that you identify with such that I am of a false belief? I will try to clarify my statement once I know which part is objectionable.