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The Conscience of Television

What Lucille Ball has to do with the dot-com bubble, or why 2001 was the beginning of the end for TV comedy.

I may have given away my TV set in 2004 and fully endorse Clay Shirky’s theory of cognitive surplus but, as a devoted Marshall McLuhan groupie, I’d be the last to renounce the medium as culturally inconsequential. Television, for all its ills and follies, still commands a remarkable portion of our collective conscience — and, it turns out, it has an implicit conscience of its own, as TV executive Lauren Zalaznick demonstrates in this eye-opening, stride-stopping TED talk, using GapMinder, the statistical visualization software made famous by TED rockstar Hans Rosling.

From the intricate balance of moral ambiguity and inspiration, humor and judgement, to the normative shifts scripted television can ignite, to the evolving ideals of motherhood, Zalaznick illustrates not only how history has shaped the medium, but also how the medium itself is shaping cultural history.

Moral ambiguity becomes the dominant meme in television from 1990 for the next twenty years.”

For a related treasure trove of fascination, you won’t go wrong with Marshall McLuhan: You Know Nothing of My Work!, the fantastic McLuhan almost-biography by beloved novelist and cultural critic Douglas Coupland.

BP

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.

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

Historian Niall Ferguson
Image credit: James Duncan Davidson / TED

The biggest story of our lifetime is the end of Western predominance.” ~ Niall Ferguson

Political economist Yasheng Huang
Image credit: James Duncan Davidson / TED

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.)

Undercover economist Tim Harford
Image credit: James Duncan Davidson / TED

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.

Comedian Robin Ince
Image credit: James Duncan Davidson / TED

The universe is pointless. Brilliant, that means you can come up with your own purpose!” ~ Robin Ince

Street artist JR stopped by for a quick update on his wonderful Inside Out Project, the product of the $100,000 TEDPrize he won last fall.

Street artist JR
Image credit: James Duncan Davidson / TED

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.

Anti-hunger leader Josette Sheeran
Image credit: James Duncan Davidson / TED

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.

Geneticist Svante Pääbo
Image credit: James Duncan Davidson / TED

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.

Evolutionary biologist Mark Pagel
Image credit: James Duncan Davidson / TED

Language is the voice of our genes.” ~ Mark Pagel

Sand artist Joe Castillo
Image credit: James Duncan Davidson / TED

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
Cyberworld investigator Misha Glenny
Image credit: James Duncan Davidson / TED

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

Glenny’s forthcoming book, DarkMarket: Cyberthieves, Cybercops and You, is already on pre-order and a clear must-read addition to these 7 essential books on the future of the Internet.

Cybersecurity expert Mikko Hypponen
Image credit: James Duncan Davidson / TED

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
Image credit: James Duncan Davidson / TED

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.

Movement expert Daniel Wolpert
Image credit: James Duncan Davidson / TED

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?)

Biologist and writer Sheril Kirshenbaum
Image credit: James Duncan Davidson / TED

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.

TED Fellow Jae Rhim Lee
Image credit: James Duncan Davidson / TED

By trying to preserve our dead bodies, we deny death, poison the living and further damage the environment.” ~ Jae Rhim Lee

Introducing UP from Jawbone
Image credit: James Duncan Davidson / TED

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.

Singer Alice Russell
Image credit: James Duncan Davidson / TED

Musician extraordinaire Alice Russel closed the evening with her utterly magnificent voice, best described as Adele meets Ella. Her most recent album, Pot of Gold, is an absolute gem.

For highlights from the final two days of TEDGlobal 2011, keep an eye on our friends at the TED Blog, or follow along on Twitter between 8:30AM and 7PM GMT for the live feed.

BP

5 Must-See Talks from Google Zeitgeist

What the resilience of books has to do with the media arts and recasting the political limelight.

It’s no secret that we’re big fans of meetings of the mind here at Brain Pickings. Not included in our two lists from last year of cross-disciplinary conferences, however, was Google’s Zeitgeist series. These invitation-only events gather global thought-leaders to describe the current moment — a kind of Weltanschauung according to Google — and now the online giant has created a deep library of talks from three years of its elite twice-annual get-togethers. Served by YouTube, natch, the Zeitgeist videos have been handily broken down into chapters so that viewers can drop in on specific sections.

Plenty of TEDsters are among the offerings, including Cameron Sinclair, Hans Rosling, and Rives; often the speakers share the stage in interview-style format and panel discussions. Since the conference is hosted by a NASDAQ behemoth, multinational CEOs and heads of state make up much of the list of 231 speakers to date. The result is a kind of behind-the-scenes view of the inner architectures of power — what author William Gibson termed the world’s “order flow” in his latest book.

Running from eight minutes to an hour in length, we’ve waded through the library to pick our five favorites. (In our number-one choice wait for the priceless story about Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin punking their current CEO Eric Schmidt.) We hope you enjoy these perspectives on how the zeitgeist looks from Mountain View.

ERIC SCHMIDT WITH LARRY PAGE

Perspective from Google 2009, former Google CEO Eric Schmidt in conversation with Google Co-Founder Larry Page:

So to give you all sense of how we work together. So Larry and Sergei called me into their office, they have one office together. And they said, we’re depressed And I said, like, why. They said, well, we’re bored. Well what do you want to do? They said, we want to get into the appliance business. And I said, oh, computer appliances, notebooks, that sort of stuff. And they said, no, no, no, no, refrigerators. And so we had this ten minute conversation about the economics and capital structure of managing refrigerators, which of course, as you know can be computer controlled and managed by Google for your benefit, before I realized that they were completely fooling me, and that we are NOT getting into the refrigerator business at the moment. Remember that? He won’t admit it. It’s true, trust me.”

THE GREGORY BROTHERS

Auto-Tune the News, The Gregory Brothers:

“We wanted to release shorter videos more frequently, and we wanted to shift the limelight from the already famous newscasters and politicians and sort of pick out everyday people who we thought had that amazing unintentional star singing quality that we’re sort of always on the hunt for.”

LEE CLOW & ALEX BOGUSKY

Advertising: Stories or Games, Lee Clow and Alex Bogusky:

I call what we do– I hate the word advertising, but unfortunately it is the name of my business. But I like to believe that we’re in the media arts business. We try and take every media that a brand uses, and try and make it artful, smart, and lovable.”

SEBASTIAN JUNGER

Human Connection, Sebastian Junger:

There are social and political factors that cause wars that can simmer for decades and be ignited literally in an afternoon. One of my jobs — one of the things I do in my job is to explain how that catalyst worked or try to predict when it’s going to happen again. It happens all the time.”

CRYSTIA FREELAND & SALMAN RUSHDIE

Literary Thought in the Information Age, Crystia Freeland and Salman Rushdie:

I don’t know, I think you know the death of the book has been forecast almost since the birth of the book. And it’s an oddly resilient technology.”

Kirstin Butler is writing an adaptation of Gogol for the Google era called Dead SULs. She currently lives in Cambridge, MA.

BP

The Best Books of 2010: Art, Design & Photography

Analog interactivity, or what flowcharts have to do with the history of street art.

We reviewed a lot of books this year and after curating the best in Business, Life & Mind yesterday, we’re back with our 10 favorites in Art, Design & Photography — a continuation of our end-of-year best-of series. (Earlier this week, we covered the best albums and the most compelling long reads published online this year.)

TREE OF CODES

Without a shadow of a doubt, Jonathan Safran Foer‘s Tree of Codes is the most ambitious book project of the year. So ambitious, in fact, nearly all bookbinders Foer approached deemed it unmakable. But when Belgian publishing house Die Keure eventually approached the problem with a make-it-work mindset, what came out was a brilliant piece of “analog interactive storytelling” — a book created by cutting out chunks of text from Foer’s favorite novel, The Street of Crocodiles by Polish author Bruno Schulz, rearranging the text to form an entirely different story. The die-cut narrative hangs in an aura of negative space for a beautiful blend of sculpture and storytelling, adding a layer of physicality to the reading experience in a way that completely reshapes your relationship with text and the printed page.

We reviewed it in full here, complete with a sneak peek of the pages and remarkable making-of footage.

I WONDER

Marian Bantjes, a remarkably diverse creator, she calls herself a ‘graphic artist’ and is an avid advocate for self-education and self-reinvention. Stefan Sagmeister, a longtime Brain Pickings favorite, calls her “one of the most innovative typographers working today” — with no exaggeration. (So innovative, in fact, that Sean “P. Diddy” Combs felt compelled to shamelessly, blatantly rip her off recently.) Her latest book, I Wonder, is a remarkable journey of visual joy and conceptual fascination, intersecting logic, beauty and quirk in an utterly breathtaking way.

Our full review, alongside stunning spreads from the book and Bantjes’ fantastic TED talk, can be found here.

EVERYTHING EXPLAINED THROUGH FLOWCHARTS

Flowcharts have risen to pop culture notoriety with their delightful intersection of geekery, design and humor. Everything Explained Through Flowcharts by standup comedian and book designer Doogie Horner is the absolute pinnacle of the hipster meme. It goes by the tagline “All of Life’s Mysteries Unraveled” and flowcharts the way to everything from world domination to getting laid to the religion that offers the best afterlife in over 200 illustrations, 40 gargantuan flowcharts and various supporting materials — essays, graphs, annotations — bound to fill your semi-secret inner geek with glee.

Our full review features a sneak peek of the quirky goodness inside, including a flowchart guide to psychoanalyzing Facebook portraits.

ALPHABETS

Our obsession with visual storytelling around the alphabet is selfevident. And nothing fuels that obsession more richly than Alphabets: A Miscellany of Letters — an ambitious exploration of the pervasiveness of letters in everyday life, tracing our visual vocabulary to its roots in Egyptian hieroglyphs, Kanji characters and other ancient alphabets with rich illustrations, beautiful graphic design and typography, found objects, graffiti and more.

X from Pin Ups
From a provocative book shaping letters out of women’s bodies represented by negative space

The full review, complete with beautiful artwork from the book, was one of our most-tweeted articles this year.

DESIGNING MEDIA

Design titan Bill Moggridge has formidable credentials — director of the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, co-founder of design innovation powerhouse IDEO, and considered a pioneer of interaction design. IN Designing Media, he explores the evolution of mainstream media, both mass and personal, looking closely at the points of friction between old and new media models and the social norms they have sprouted.

From design to civic engagement to the real-time web, Moggridge offers a faceted and layered survey of how our media habits came to be, where they’re going, and what it all means for how we relate to the world and each other — all through 37 fascinating interviews with some of today’s greatest media innovators, including This American Life‘s Ira Glass, Pandora founder Tim Westergren, prominent New York Times design critic Alice Rawsthorn, Twitter founder @Ev, statistical stuntsman Hans Rosling, and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. The book comes with a companion DVD, featuring the video interviews and other media content.

Our full review, complete with sample pages, quotes, and a video interview of Ira Glass, can be found here.

TRESSPASS

We have a soft spot for both Taschen books and street art, so it’s no surprise that Trespass: A History Of Uncommissioned Urban Art — the fantastic new book by WoosterCollective founders Marc and Sara Schiller — made us swoon. From Guatemalan guerrilla gardeners to icons like Banksy and Barry McGee, the visually astounding anthology is as much an exhaustive compendium of compelling artwork as it is a modern manifesto for activism, democracy and freedom of speech.

On a related note, Exit Through the Gift Shop, the controversial and critically acclaimed Banksy documentary, is out on DVD this week and we’re giving away 10 copies!

MAD MEN ILLUSTRATED

Two years ago, we featured the wonderful work of NYC-based illustrator, designer and comedian Dyna Moe, whose Mad Men illustrations eventually charmed AMC into launching the popular Mad Men Yourself app, which has since populated countless Twitter streams with Mad-Menified avatars. This fall, Dyna Moe released her dynamite work in Mad Men: The Illustrated World — a truly, truly fantastic book that captures not only everything we love about Mad Men, but also the broader cultural landscape of the era, from fashion and style to office culture to lifehacks like hangover workarounds and secretary etiquette.

Mad Men Illustrated

We reviewed it in full here. (And for a fitting companion, try Sterling’s Gold — Roger Sterling’s priceless fictional memoir.)

THE EXQUISITE BOOK

In the 1920s, a collective of Surrealists invented exquisite corpse, a game-like collaborative creation process wherein each contributor tacks on to a composition either by following a strict rule or by being only shown what the last person has contributed. This year, a collective of Brooklyn-based designers replicated the exquisite corpse idea in The Exquisite Book: 100 Artists Play a Collaborative Game — a brilliant collaborative illustration project, two years in the making, that enlisted 100 of today’s most talented visual artist and designers to co-create a book by building on each other’s work.

Sample this gem of a book with a few wonderful spreads in our full review.

DATA FLOW 2

You didn’t think we’d go without a data visualization book, did you? And nothing hit the sweet spot this year better than Data Flow 2: Visualizing Information in Graphic Design — the brilliant sequel 2008’s now-iconic Data Flow, a compelling anthology of work in all of data visualization as a broad and cross-disciplinary creative medium, from static infographics to dynamic interactive visualizations to physical data sculptures and beyond. The book is equal parts visual indulgence and conceptual intelligence, with artwork from and interviews of the leading creators in this field of increasing cultural relevance, as information continues to proliferate and overwhelm.

Our full review features juicy spreads from the book and an exclusive quote from data viz superstar Aaron Koblin.

BARK

Tree bark may not sound like the most exciting or relatable of subjects but, in fact, it is both. Not only do we come in contact with it constantly in our daily lives, from cinnamon to cork to chewing gum to rubber, but it’s also a hauntingly beautiful, textured piece of living matter that looks like the skin of some magnificent mythical dragon. French photographer Cedric Pollet travels the world to capture this beauty and has documented it in his gorgeous new book, Bark: An Intimate Look at the World’s Trees. The book is as much a stunning visual treat for color and photography lovers alike as it is a visceral manifesto for biodiversity and reforestation, two of today’s most pressing issues in preserving the amazing world we inherited.

Silk floss tree (Ceiba speciosa), a flowering deciduous tree native to South America’s tropical forests
Image by Cedric Pollet

The full review, which features a gallery of stunning images from the book, is one our most-shared articles on Facebook this year.

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