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7 fascinating things I learned at the TEDSalon Berlin

Thomas Piketty talks to the TEDSalon Berlin audience about economic inequality. Photo: James Duncan Davidson

Thomas Piketty talks to the TEDSalon Berlin audience about economic inequality. Photo: James Duncan Davidson

Yesterday, nearly every seat of the theatre at the Admiralspalast was filled for the TEDBerlin Salon, the first official TED event in Germany (and, with TEDGlobal’s move to Rio in October, the only one taking place in Europe this year). In two sessions hosted by Bruno Giussani, 15 speakers and performers covered an eclectic array of topics, whizzing from tech-driven social change to photography, flying cameras and the astonishing intelligence of single-celled organisms. Thomas Piketty, of Capital in the Twenty-First Century fame, stepped to the stage to talk economic inequality; Hans Rosling made us question what we do and don’t know. Here are just a few of the amazing facts, ideas, discoveries and epiphanies shared during the event.

The Stasi collected the smell of people, keeping scraps of clothing stored in jars. In a powerful and chilling talk, historian Hubertus Knabe shared this tactic, part of the East German secret police force’s campaign to collect as much intelligence on its citizens as possible. He detailed the methods they used, including wiretaps, secret cameras, opening private letters — and detailed guidelines for recruiting people to betray their fellow human beings. The goal was to paralyze people psychologically, destroying people’s self confidence by damaging reputations, organizing career failures and destroying personal relationships.

It is possible to capture the unfolding of time with a single still photograph. Photographer Adam Magyar creates images by capturing single vertical lines of information, one after the other—each line representing a fraction of a second. When put together, the lines form an image that looks like a single moment, but what we’re actually seeing is time passing. Working in the world’s biggest cities, Magyar also captures high-resolution, high-speed video images of passing subway trains — or of people waiting on platforms shot from the train itself — then presents the final 12 seconds of footage stretched out across 12 minutes. A seemingly inconsequential moment in time is preserved and magnified with nearly three-dimensional precision, commanding viewers to acknowledge each unique individual human being. They often appear relaxed and lost in thought as they go by on screen.

Heather Barnett captures slime mold. Photo: James Duncan Davidson

Heather Barnett creates art by letting slime mold do its thing. Photo: James Duncan Davidson

Brainless, blobby slime mold is smart enough to replicate Tokyo’s transport network. Artist Heather Barnett is fascinated by these single-celled organisms, which join with millions of others to form a single-entity supercell with primitive intelligence. It can learn the most efficient path through a maze in search of food, anticipate when to slow down growth in response to blasts of cold air, and decide when to leave the petri dish to go exploring. And when researchers placed porridge oats (one of the slime mold’s favorite foods) in the pattern of cities around Tokyo, slime molds created networks that echo the region’s public transport system — a testament to their intelligence and efficiency. Researchers are now hacking this slime mold’s biological principles to understand how it works, hoping to apply its computational intelligence to everything from robotics to networks. See her work.

One of the largest coordinated actions in human history was conducted by having people hang up the phone. In a talk about political activism, Jeremy Heimans directs us to what he calls “new power.” We’re in the midst of a fundamental shift in the balance of power in the world, he says, where values like transparency, speed, collaboration, participation, and a DIY ethos are displacing slow-moving, closed, secretive structures. Apple? Old power. Airbnb? New. No one yet knows how new power will end up working with or against old power structures — we’re only on the cusp of changing how we relate to authority, institutions and each other, says Heimans. As the fizzling of the Occupy Movement proved, new power models are only as powerful as the state of their networks. So what makes for a strong network? He gives the example of Indian anti-corruption activist Anna Hazare, who built an enormous campaign via “missed calls.” He asked his supporters to call a phone number, let it ring and and then hang up. They avoided charges, and he was able to convert 35 million responses into petition signatures.

If you look for Kibera on the Kenyan government map, you’ll find it labeled as a forest. Worse still, if you look for it on any publicly available map, it’s blank — obscuring the fact that Kibera is home to 250,000 people within 2.5 square kilometers. Erica Hagen, cofounder of Map Kibera, shares how equipping young people with GPS technology and computer training let them start delineating the contours of their own complex and vibrant community — schools, public toilet blocks, vegetable farms, phone charging stations, makeshift movie theatres. The project has evolved to map include citizen-generated news, a powerful way to proclaim “We are here, and this is who we are” to a world that doesn’t recognize you.

Piano. Photo: James Duncan Davidson

Daria van den Bercken plays piano on the TED stage, but she’s also played flying through the air on a crane. Photo: James Duncan Davidson

An effective way to evoke childlike wonder is by playing Handel on a flying piano. In her quest to share her love of music, Daria van den Bercken observed that young children absorb music entirely without prejudice. So when she discovered and fell in love with Handel’s works for the keyboard, she performed them in unusual places: hauled on a trailer behind a car, in her living room to complete strangers gathered off the street, and flung through the air by a crane, upending expectations of how music should be experienced and dropping more than a few jaws.

The country doing the most good for the world is … Ireland. According to independent policy advisor Simon Anholt, creator of the Good Country Index, “goodness” is measured by how much a particular country contributes to the world at large in terms of science and technology, culture, international peace and security, world order, climate, prosperity, equality, and the health and well-being of humanity. The Index is a way of countering the long-held tradition of nation-states that look after their own interests above all else, with devastating consequences for society and the environment. Anholt hopes to turn this around by convincing governments that contribution and collaboration are key, and for citizens to hold them accountable to this truth. Meanwhile, says Anholt, every night as we drift off to sleep, our last thought should be, “Goddammit, I’m glad that Ireland exists!”