Tony Delamothe: TED Day One: The Return of the Human

The night before the TED conference began, “The King’s Speech” beat “The Social Network,” four Oscars to three. A friend with a stake in the outcome had argued that a story revolving around  21st century technology (Facebook) should have had an advantage over a story revolving around a 20th century one (radio).

Paradoxically, the TED conference made considerations about the primacy of this or that technology beside the point. Paradoxically – because the T of TED stands for Technology and since the inception of these now legendary conferences their focus has been relentlessly forward looking. (How else could you attract the founders of Microsoft, Google, Amazon, eBay, and Twitter among this year’s attendees?) But everywhere I looked, at least on Day One, I saw the human, with technology (merely) the enabler.

This primacy was evident in the presentation of New York Times columnist, David Brooks (hint: his latest book is called “The Social Animal.”) Brooks argues that mankind is in its current sorry state because we’ve allowed reason to suppress our emotions. It’s resulted in an impoverished view of human nature. He wants a new humanism, a new enchantment. We need to develop empathy, equipoise (which he defined as the ability to recognise the biases in our own thinking), and sympathy (the ability to work in groups).

Next up was Eric Whitacre, whose life was changed when a 16 year old sent him a YouTube clip of her singing part of a piece of music he’d composed, “Lux Aurumque.” What if you made the music avalable to anyone who wanted to sing it – and then spliced their YouTube contributions together? Hear the result on YouTube: Eric Whitacre’s Virtual Choir Lux Aurumque. He’s now taken his virtual choir idea one step further, and unveiled the first few minutes of his latest project.

TEDsters have a low threshold for standing ovations, and conference curator, Chris Anderson, counselled the audience against leaping to their feet too readily. Whitacre’s was the first of three standing ovations I joined on this first day.

The second was for Wadah Khanfar, director general of Al-Jazeera. Speaking of Arab countries, he said “for ages we’ve lived under authoritarian regimes.” The ingrained notion that only foreign intervention would produce worthwhile change further undermined people’s dignity.

“And then the future arrived.”

The internet, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Al-Jazeera: it’s hard to imagine Khanfar’s “magnificent moment” arriving without these enablers.

Technology wasn’t the main story of two of the other presentations that impressed me. In the first, the founders of  Handspring Puppets demonstrated how they created the life size puppet horses used in the play, “War Horse” (currently on the London stage and soon to open on Broadway). But it wasn’t just about the horses. The technology was there to serve the dramatic function. It made the seemingly banal story of boy gets horse, boy loses horse, boy gets horse back strikingly real – and emotionally wrenching, as I can attest from seeing the play at the National Theatre.

The second example of undeniably cool technology serving some higher function occurred in the presentation of British architect, Thomas Heatherwick. His work seemed to fit the subtitle of the conference, The Rediscovery of Wonder.

His Rolling Bridge, at London’s Paddington Basin, allows boats to pass by curling up until its two ends join. His UK pavilion for last year’s Shanghai Expo featured 60 000 acrylic rods, embedding seeds from Kew Garden’s Millennium Seed Bank. The rods acted like fibreoptic structures so that passing clouds registered inside the pavilion.

My third standing ovation went to musician Bobby McFerrin, who improvised sounds and rhythms from the most minimal of cues. No technology there at all; just human.

The day’s triumphing of the human put me in mind of a passage from the Argentinian writer, Jorge Luis Borges: “Through the years, a man peoples a space with images of provinces, kingdoms, mountains, bays, ships, islands, fishes, rooms, tools, stars,  horses, and people. Shortly before his death, he discovers that the patient labyrinth of lines traces the image of his own face.”

Roll on Day 2.

Tony Delamothe is deputy editor, BMJ.