Entertainment TED Talks

The shoulders of giants: Joshua Klein, on The Link

What’s next for Joshua Klein, the man who built a vending machine for crows? The versatile hacker is the new host of the National Geographic show The Link, in which he travels the world to research and reveal the origins of some of history’s most important technological innovations, like Greek fire and the Chinese long sword. The show premiered two weeks ago and is on the National Geographic Channel Friday nights at 7pm EST/PST. The TED Blog caught up with Klein to talk about his new venture.

The Link looks like a lot of fun to shoot. Which episode was your favorite?

Each episode was different, and we didn’t shoot everything in order so it’d be hard to pick a single one. The fact that the show jumps around all over the world and through so many countries made it a little like the world’s best research vacation — especially when we got to visit the birthplace of so many major innovations!

There were highlights, like getting a backdoor tour of the Terra Cotta Warriors in China, or playing with an original Enigma machine or Gutenberg Bible, but the main thing for me was connecting the dots — with my own hands — between all those historic innovations. I’ve spent a lot of my time digging into modern inventions, particularly technology, and this gave me a great sense of how high we really do stand on the shoulders of giants. It changed how I think about innovation.

Tell us about a favorite moment.

There were so many! One of the things I enjoyed most was that having a TV crew got me access to all kinds of places, people and things that I couldn’t touch any other way. In particular I met with people who had expertise I could have never imaged; to help draw that out in a way that a camera could capture and share with the world, was a real pleasure.

One of the most enjoyable on-film conversations I had was with a bunch of sheep farmers in the highlands of England. This was a group of seven or eight men who’d been raising and shearing sheep for generations, and some of them had never traveled farther than a few towns away. But their approach to us was the most gracious, most honestly open-minded I’d experienced. We ended up in the pub talking about sheep genealogy and the similarities between Twitter and the parceling of farmland through marriage. The fact that we had almost nothing in common in terms of lifestyle was absolutely irrelevant. It was amazing.

So what’s next for you? Are you going to transition more fully to television, or are you going to skit and skat as you tend to do?

I think skitting and skatting is part of my DNA, but doing The Link really drove home what a significant reach television has. When we were traveling through the Midwestern United States, or even through many places in Asia and Europe, it became clear to me that most people still get the majority of their entertainment and education from television.

TV has its own challenges right now, and the Internet is definitely forcing it to adapt and change. To me that combination — of being able to reach such a significant percentage of the world’s population, and of being able to help shape the future of how media is used — is a pretty heady mix.

Ultimately I’d like to do more shows like The Link, because growing up, watching shows like Nova and Discovery had a huge influence on my own way of thinking. I think this sort of intelligent programming is a big part of what makes people become entrepreneurs and philanthropists and active participants in society. I think the world needs more of that.