Highlights from TED Global 2011, The Stuff of Life: Day Two
How to get eaten by mushrooms, why we’re all African, and what language has to do with genetics.
By Maria Popova
It is Day Two in our ongoing coverage of TED Global 2011, titled The Stuff of Life. (Previously: highlights from Day One; two sets of must-read books by this year’s speakers; remarkable work TED Fellow Nathalie Miebach.) Gathered here are the most noteworthy highlights of Day Two, in photos and soundbites.
SESSION 4: FUTURE BILLIONS
Historian Niall Ferguson, author of The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World and presenter of the excellent six-part BBC series of the same name, which is now available online in its entirety, opened with some striking insights on wealth and the global economy. Most of the world’s wealth was made after the year 1800 and is currently owned by people we might call “Westerners” — economic historians call this The Great Divergence, and it reached its zenith in the 1970s. But, Ferguson argued, it’s not geography or national character: it’s ideas and institutions.
There are six killer apps that set the West apart from the rest: competition, the scientific revolution, property rights, modern medicine, the consumer society, and work ethic. These killer apps can be ‘downloaded” — they’re open-source. Any society can adopt these institutions.” ~ Niall Ferguson
The biggest story of our lifetime is the end of Western predominance.” ~ Niall Ferguson
Political economist Yasheng Huang explored the parallel economic growth of China and India, examining why China has grown twice as fast as India in the past 30 years. He pointed out the difference between the statics of a political system and the dynamics of a political system — statically, China is strictly authoritarian, but dynamically, it has shifted from more authoritarian to more democratic. Women, Huang argued, play a significant role in strong societies, with 60-80% of China’s workforce being female.
In a surprise visit, economist Tim Harford — whom everyone should follow on Twitter and who authored the excellent new book, Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure — delivered one of the most striking and captivating talks of the day. (Bonus points for calling Hans Rosling “the Mick Jagger of TED,” which couldn’t be more accurate.)
Harford explored the mind-boggling scale of consumer choices we face daily and juxtaposed it with the conditions under which our brains evolved.
If you wanted to count every product and service available in New York, all 10 billion of them, it would take you 317 years. The society in which our brains evolved had about 300 products and services.” ~ Tim Harford
Perhaps most importantly and urgently, Harford argued for repeated trial-and-error as the only way to eradicate our culture’s God complex, insisting — much like Isaac Asimov did some three decades ago — that schools need to start teaching children that there are some problems with no correct answer, encouraging trial-and-error as the vehicle of learning.
The universe is pointless. Brilliant, that means you can come up with your own purpose!” ~ Robin Ince
Anti-hunger activist and UN World Food Programme director Josette Sheeran opened with a striking statistic: This morning, 1 out of 7 people on earth didn’t know how to find breakfast. Most of us, she pointed out, don’t have to go too far back in our own lineage to find an experience of hunger, usually a mere two or three generations away.
Every 10 seconds we lose a child to hunger.” ~ Josette Sheeran
Sheeran focused on the central disconnect of these devastating statistics: We know how to fix this. A child can be saved every 22 seconds if there was breastfeeding in the first 6 months of life. In countries where girls don’t go to schools and meals are offered in schools, there’s a 50/50 enrollment rate for girls and boys, a transformation in attendance that shows food not only helps keep a girl in school, but also enables her to eventually give birth to a healthier child because malnutrition is set generation to generation.
We shouldn’t look at the hungry as victims, but as the solution — as the value chain to fight hunger.” ~ Josette Sheeran
SESSION 5: EMERGING ORDER
Session 5, Emerging Order, was curated by The Rational Optimist author Matt Ridley and opened with geneticist Svante Pääbo, who explored our ancestral origins.
From a genomic perspective, we are all African.” ~ Svante Pääbo
As former Brain Pickings contributor Brian W. Jones keenly pointed out, Pääbo echoes this fantastic print by Milton Glaser produced for the SVA and benefitting the One Campaign for improving conditions in Africa and eradicating poverty.
Evolutionary biologist Mark Pagel spoke about social learning as a springboard to cumulative cultural evolution, calling it “visual theft” that enables us to learn from the mistakes of others by observing their behavior and stealing their ideas for problem-solving. Language, Pagel argued, evolved to solve the crisis of visual theft as a piece of social technology for enhancing the benefits of cooperation. Since the love of language is a standby here, his point that language is the most potent and valuable trait that ever evolved resonates deeply.
Language is the voice of our genes.” ~ Mark Pagel
Sand artist Joe Castillo, despite the tragically non-ironic beret, delivered an absolutely mesmerizing live performance of an evolving sand-painted narrative, shape-shifting into faces from different ethnicities and culminating in a global vision for world peace. Here’s some of his prior work, to scratch the itch until his TED talk goes live:
SESSION 6: THE DARK SIDE
There are two types of companies in the world — those that know they’ve been hacked, and those that don’t.” ~ Misha Glenny
Underworld investigator Misha Glenny delivered a message of urgency: We are at the beginning of a mighty struggle for control of the Internet. He suggested that many hackers either exhibit characteristics consistent with Asperger’s syndrome or developed their hacking skills during their teenage years, before their moral compass had fully developed, but concluded with the slightly ambivalent message — perhaps honed for the highly pro-hacker TED crowd — that we need to embrace hacker culture rather than condemn it.
The Internet embodies a complex dilemma that pits the demands of security with the desire for freedom.” ~ Misha Glenny
Cybersecurity expert Mikko Hypponen produced a brief history of computer viruses — with many of the early ones bearing a striking visual similarity to some of today’s generative art — and exposed some today’s stealthiest virus techniques, such as “keyloaders” that silently sit on your computer, recording everything you type, including credit card information and personal data.
I see beauty in the future of the Internet, but I’m worried that we might not see that because of online crime. I’ve spent my life defending the net and I believe that if we don’t fight online crime, we run the risk of losing it all. We have to do this globally, and we have to do it now.” ~ Mikko Hypponen
In what was part comic relief, part powerful illustration of his central point, Hypponen whipped out an old-timey overhead projector for a part of his presentation, to better illustrate our options for when we do lose the things we take for granted. He concluded by proposing and “Internetpol” — Interpol for the Internet, a bastion of cyber security and investigator of cyber crime.
Lie detector Pamela Meyer shared some insights from her book, Liespotting: Proven Techniques to Detect Deception, including hands-on tips for telling a fake smile from a real one, the body language of a lie from the body language of truthfulness, and more.
Lying is our attempt to bridge the gap between how we wish we could be and what we’re really like.” ~ Pamela Meyer
SESSION 7: BODIES
Movement expert Daniel Wolpert argued that the only reason we have a brain is to produce adaptable and complex movement, since movement — from the contractions that underpin our speech and facial mimicry to the actions that allow us to exert force — is the only way to affect the world around us.
Biologist Sheril Kirshenbaum, author of the fascinating The Science of Kissing: What Our Lips Are Telling Us, revealed some fascinating theories and statistics behind why and how we kiss. (Did you know, for instance, that two thirds of people tilt their head to the right when they kiss, and it has no correlation with righthandedness?)
We’re interpreting the world through our mouths more than we realize. Our lips are packed with nerves and signals.” ~ Sheril Kirshenbaum
TED Fellow Jae Rhim Lee delivered what was positively one of the wildest yet most thought-provoking talks to date. With her Infinity Burial Project, she is advocating for a movement she calls “decompiculture” — environmentally friendly, gentle ways of disposing of our dead bodies, an antidote to the chemical-laden, highly toxic burial and cremation processes of how we handle the dead today. Lee is training a unique strain of mushroom to decompose and remediate toxins in human tissue in a process that’s equal parts scientific exploration and philosophical quest to come to terms with her own mortality.
By trying to preserve our dead bodies, we deny death, poison the living and further damage the environment.” ~ Jae Rhim Lee
The makers of Jawbone revealed an exclusive first look at UP, a jaw-dropping sensor-based wristband that tracks your sleep patterns and eating habits to deliver data that optimizes your everyday life for greater well-being — a promising new personal data tracking tool in the arsenal of the quantified self.
Published July 13, 2011