Highlights from TED Global 2011, The Stuff of Life: Day One
What 86,000 neurons have to do with privacy, the Magna Carta, and the world’s fastest piano player.
By Maria Popova
After warming up with two sets of must-read books by this year’s speakers and a look at some amazing work by the TED Fellows, this year’s TED Global, titled The Stuff of Life, is officially underway. Gathered here are the essential highlights of Day One, in photos and soundbites.
SESSION 1: BEGINNINGS
Biologist Lee Cronin opened the day with a compelling look at the chemical origins of life, questioning our most fundamental assumptions about what constitutes living matter with a scientific lens underpinned by philosophical inquiry.
Life is flame in a bottle.” ~ Lee Cronin
Biology doesn’t care about the design unless it works.” ~ Lee Cronin
Author Annie Murphy Paul shared insights from her book, Origins: How the Nine Months Before Birth Shape the Rest of Our Lives. Fetuses, she argued, are learning about sounds, tastes and smells while still in the womb, and the meals a pregnant woman consumes constitute a kind of story that imparts information the fetus uses to organize its body and its systems.
We’re learning about the world before we even enter it.” ~ Annie Murphy Paul
Rebecca MacKinnon, co-founder of visionary citizen journalism portal Global Voices, explored private sovereignty in cyberspace, how digital laws can challenge or extend the sovereignty of nation-states, and what we can do to uphold sovereignty in a cultural context where most private CEOs focus on maximizing profit, not freedom.
What people can and cannot do with information has more effect than ever on the exercise of power in the physical world.” ~ Rebecca MacKinnon
MacKinnon drew on history, pointing to the Magna Carta — which recognized that even the king who claimed to have divine rule still had to abide by a basic set of rules, setting off a cycle of political innovation and eventually leading to “Consent of the governed” — and called for the need to build “Consent of the networked,” which would require innovation not only in politics and geopolitics, but also in business management, investment behavior, consumer choice and even software design.
Each and every one of us has a vital part to play in building a world in which government and technology serve the world’s people and not the other way around.” ~ Rebecca MacKinnon
Richard Wilkinson, author of The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger, spoke about improving the qualities of human life by reducing income differences, pointing out that the most important determinant of healthy community life is the scale of income differences between us.
If Americans want to live the American dream, they should go to Denmark.” ~ Richard Wilkinson
Political theorist Phillip Blond argued that, for the past 30 to 40 years, Western societies have run on extreme individualism, leading to social maladies like enormous disparity, a welfarist culture, and ultimate breakdown after which the state has to pick up the pieces.
The state has turned class into caste and the market has converted owners into serfs.” ~ Phillip Blond
Blond pointed to relationships as the real basis for society and asserted that the economic problem isn’t so much about income inequality as it is about asset inequality, which is far worse.
Assets are the great drive of modern inequality — who owns and who doesn’t own. The bottom half of the UK owns just 9% of the nation’s assets.” ~ Phillip Blond
SESSION 2: EVERYDAY REBELLIONS
Opening the second session, Everyday Rebellions, artist Hasan Elahi, who has been publicly tracking every detail of his life for the past several years after getting erroneously placed on the FBI’s watchlist and is the subject of the book Bursts: The Hidden Pattern Behind Everything We Do, spoke about privacy, arguing that the only way to protect our privacy in the digital age by taking full control of its transparency.
We’re all creating an archive of our own lives, whether we’re aware of it or not.” ~ Hasan Elahi
Quilliam Foundation founder and anti-extremism activist Maajid Nawaz, a former 13-year Islamic extremist himself, spoke about the “age of behavior” — a period when trans-national ideas and narratives are affecting allegiances and behavior — and argued that the people who have capitalized the most on this age of behavior have been extremists, using globally networked tools to disseminate their ideology. He identified four elements of social movements — ideas, narratives symbols and leaders — and pointed to an ultimate ideal where people vote in an existing democracy, not for democracy, a model in which democracy isn’t merely one of many political choices.
In history, identity was defined by religion and race. Now, in the age of behavior, it’s defined by ideas and narratives” ~ Maajid Nawaz
Israeli indie folk-rock musician Asaf Avidan, an absolutely remarkable voice channeling Janis Joplin, Cat Stevens and something else entirely, delivered an utterly spellbiding performance alongside cellist Hadas Kleinman. Their debut album, The Reckoning, is one of the finest indie records to come by in years.
Filmmaker Julia Bacha, who has dedicated her life to documenting how Israeli and Palestinians are finding ways for peaceful conflict resolution and emergence of nonviolent movements in the West Bank, Gaza and elsewhere, argued passionately for giving nonviolent behavior enough attention and exposure to shift the normative models for conflict resolution.
What’s missing is not for Palestinians to start adopting nonviolence but for us to start paying attention to those who already are.” ~ Julia Bacha
She noted that the one important characteristic violent and nonviolent resistance have in common is that they are both a form of theater, seeking an audience for their cause.
I believe at the core of ending the conflict in the Middle East and bringing peace is for us to transform nonviolence into a functional behavior by giving a lot more attention to nonviolent leaders today.” ~ Julia Bacha
SESSION 3: CODED PATTERNS
Physicist Geoffrey West, whose work on “turning the city into an equation” was profiled in The New York Times last winter, explored the economies of scale as they apply to cities and innovation, arguing that unbounded growth requites accelerating cycles of innovation to avoid collapse, but with the catch that it also necessitates a faster and faster pace of innovation.
Every week from now until 2050 more than a million people are being added to our cities.” ~ Geoffrey West
We are the city — it’s our interactions and the clustering of our interactions.” ~ Geoffrey West
Architect Shohei Shigematsu examined the box as a building block of architectural innovation.
In order to make an iconic place, shape doesn’t really matter.” ~ Shohei Shigematsu
Kevin Slavin explored how algorithms are shaping our understanding of markets, behaviors and the world at large, calling for rethinking the role of math in life and society. He noted that there are 2,000 physicists working on Wall Street, many working on “black box trading”, which, as Slavin facetiously pointed out, makes up “70% of the algorithm formerly known as your pension.”
We would have to understand algorithms as nature — and, in a way, they are.” ~ Kevin Slavin
Neuroscientist Allan Jones exposed the processes and practices of his lab, which has devised a way to glean 50 million data points from any given human brain. But despite advances in neuroscience, Jones noted, the brain, with its 86 million neurons whose distribution determine its function, remains largely a mystery.
The brain is truly an unexplored, undiscovered continent. It’s a new frontier, if you will.” ~ Allan Jones
Virtuoso pianist and composer Balazs Havasi, holder of the Guinness World Record for the Most Piano Keys in One Minute, closed the day with a riveting rock-classical duet with a master-drummer, rolled onstage in a glass box alongside the grand piano.
Come back tomorrow for highlights from Day Two, or follow along on Twitter between 8:30AM and 7PM GMT for the live feed.
Published July 12, 2011