2013: The Year in Ideas

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Below, 15 themes that ran through TED Talks in 2013. Photo: Ryan Lash

Below, 15 themes that ran through TED Talks in 2013. Photo: Ryan Lash

In 2013, TED published more than 250 talks, each with an idea worth spreading. And yet, certain ideas seemed to resonate throughout the year, as if speakers at different events were singing parts of the same choral symphony. As 2013 draws to a close, here is a look at some of the big ideas we parsed this year. Consider it the rousing finale to the year.

Humans and machines can work together to supersize growth.
At TED2013, Robert Gordon asked: Could it be that humanity’s greatest innovations are behind us? Economist Erik Brynjolfsson quickly countered, suggesting that if human beings can learn to “race with the machines” in the workplace, a major period of economic growth could be right in front of us. This idea ricocheted throughout the year: just this week, Marco Annunziata welcomed us to the age of the industrial internet, where smart machines that are able to see, feel, sense and react could greatly enhance the work lives of those who operate them. Meanwhile, Rodney Brooks introduced us to a smart robot—Baxter—who could help older workers remain vital in the workplace longer.

Identity can’t be as simple as ‘this’ or ‘that.’
“Human beings start putting each other into boxes the second they see each other,” iO Tillett Wright said in her talk back in January. She made the case that labels such as “gay” or “straight” are far too narrow and that for most people there’s a gray area. Others later picked up on this theme of broadening our perception of identity: At TEDGlobal 2013 in Edinburgh, Pico Iyer described his identity as like stained glass — comprising fragments of India, England, the United States and Japan. For him, that makes the question, “Where is home?” incredibly complex. At the same event, Hetain Patel played on the idea with his performance “Who am I? Think again.” Meanwhile, artist Sue Austin showed how, while people may look at her and assume she is “disabled,” she actually feels incredibly free in her wheelchair. Free enough to dive underwater and dance amidst coral, in fact.

DeExtinction is a real thing. Maybe.
Stewart Brand wondered aloud at TED2013: Could we bring extinct species back to life? He posited that, as things stand, we not only have the technology to do so, but also have a moral imperative to try, considering that we have been responsible for the end of so many species. Months later, Brand held TEDxDeExtinction, an event to explore this sci-fi tinged idea further. (Read 10 things we learned at the event.) From there, Michael Archer explained how we might revive the gastric brooding frog and the Tasmanian tiger. But the talk everyone seemed to be waiting for: geneticist Hendrik Poinar’s call to bring back the wooly mammoth.

The US government is broken.
2013 began with the United States confronting the fiscal cliff, and partisan head-butting only seemed get worse from there. In January, Jonathan Haidt offered a way that Democrats and Republicans could get on the same page – suggesting that we face up to our problems rather than retreat to yelling at each other. In the wake of the government shutdown months later, Sally Kohn — then of Fox News (read our Q&A with her about leaving)– proposed another way for people on different sides of the aisle to talk to each other, by adhering to the principles of “emotional correctness.” Meanwhile, Larry Lessig questioned the US’ entire electoral system, arguing that it gives far too much influence to the small percent of people who are big donors. Soon after, as news of the NSA’s surveillance became one of the biggest stories of the year, Mikko Hypponen offered an outraged voice from abroad in his blistering talk at TEDxBrussels, “How the NSA betrayed the world’s trust — time to act.”

Drones will destroy us – or maybe save us.
On many minds this year: unmanned aerial vehicles. At TEDGlobal 2013, Daniel Suarez gave a terrifying vision of what drones and automated weapons could mean for warfare — a vision that seemed prescient this week with news that a drone strike in Yemen killed a wedding party of 17 people. But do these flying machines also have the potential for good? Yes, said several other TED speakers. Lian Pin Koh shared how drones can be used for conservation; Andreas Raptopoulos revealed how they could bring medical supplies to those in disaster areas, and Henry Evans and Chad Jenkins showed how they could provide an extension of the body for the severely disabled. In our “Drone Week”  coverage, speaker P.W. Singer summed it up perfectly: “Whether it is a stone or a drone, technology is merely a tool that you can use for both good and bad purposes.”

Technology makes the ways we communicate even more layered.
So many bemoan the impact of text messaging on diction and grammar. But at TED2013, linguist John McWhorter highlighted the complexity of texts and showed that, in many ways, this is a written form that should be admired in its own right. Meanwhile, Andrew Fitzgerald revealed the literary possibilities of 140 characters, taking us on an adventure through the experiments in storytelling happening on Twitter. But perhaps the most striking description of technology’s effect on communication came from Google founder Sergey Brin, as he noted that the very nature of cell phones requires users to hunch over and disconnect from everything around them. He made the case that Google Glass — released in 2013 and which he demoed at TED2014 – might be a way for people to exist in both the online world and the real world at the same time.

Something has to change in healthcare.
TED speakers’ critiques of healthcare this year were bigger than bemoaning the debacle of Intel Fellow, Eric Dishman gave a fascinating talk called “Health care should be a team sport” that questioned the current design of our medical system. At TEDMed in April, Peter Attia challenged us not to assume we know what we think we know, and posited that it’s completely possible we have completely misunderstood the relationship between obesity and diabetes. Meanwhile, Geraldine Hamilton called for us to rethink how we test new treatments, demonstrating a way to put body parts on a chip and create custom cures that could work for the individual.

North Korea is infinitely complex.
In the final days of the year, Kim Jung-Un shocked the world with the execution of his uncle, Jang Song-Thaek, prompting much commentary and soul-searching from observers desperate to understand what this might mean – and portend for other nations around the world. On the TED stage this year, we got two very personal testimonies about what life has been like for ordinary people in North Korea. At TED2013, Hyeonseo Lee shared how she grew up thinking her country was the “best on the planet,” only to have that faith rocked by the famine of the ’90s. She told of her harrowing escape, and her journey to get her family out of the country years later. Then this summer, at TEDGlobal 2013, Joseph Kim told the story of the family he lost in North Korea, and revealed a wish: to find his sister again someday.

What’s the next frontier of 3D printing?
3D printing has been around since the 1980s, but has really begun to capture the public imagination in recent years, as the technology became more accessible and notably cheaper. In 2013, TED speakers began pushing at what might be next for the tech. Designer Bastian Schaefer wondered if we might 3D print a jumbo jet, while tissue engineering entrepreneur Andras Forgacs advanced an idea that confused many vegetarians: how about printing leather? Could we do the same for meat?

Is there such a thing as a good end of life?
2013 had a few morbid moments, as TED speakers focused on death. But it wasn’t all doom and gloom. At TED2013, Judy MacDonald Johnston shared five practices to help people plan for a better end of life, rather than putting off the questions that matter. Meanwhile Amanda Bennett asked us to create new narratives for death — ones that fit better with those we tell about our lives. Kelli Swazey introduced us to a place where people keep their dead relatives with them, literally, for years — while Jared Diamond looked at how many different societies treat their elderly. Most recently, philosopher Stephen Cave took a look at the four stories people have told themselves across cultures and times to escape the ever-present fear of death.

Memory is entirely fallible.
In the TEDxBoston talk “A mouse. A laser beam. A manipulated memory,” scientists Steve Ramirez and Xu Liu managed to create a hilarious talk out of an unsettling study: essentially, they planted a memory of fear in a mouse’s brain. The idea that memory is not above manipulation came up again and again this year, perhaps most strongly in Elizbeth Loftus’ talk at TEDGlobal 2013. In it, she ran through decades of research that shows how memories can be morphed, created and changed. In other words, memory is in some ways fiction.

Girls’ education still sadly isn’t a given.
Shabana Basij-Rasikh has a school for girls. Not such a big deal, you might think. Only hers is in Afghanistan, where not everyone supports girls’ education. One student’s father was even threatened by terrorists for choosing to send his daughter to the school. In a moving talk published in February, Basij-Rasikh gave her take on why educating girls is worth the risk. In a talk posted in March, Kakenya Ntaiya told her story of opening a school for girls in Kenya. While hers is not under direct threat, she still had to get both her own father and her village elders on board. Both these women’s talks resonated deeply in a year when Malala Yousafzai was named on Time magazine’s list of the 100 Most Influential People.

Rethink violence to combat it.
In a brave talk posted in January, writer Leslie Morgan Steiner revealed that she was in an abusive relationship, and answered the question so many ask — “why did you stay?” — with surprising answers. In May, Jackson Katz urged us to stop focusing only on women in cases of domestic violence and sexual assault. Thinking of these as “women’s issues” masks the fact that they are intrinsically men’s issues, he argued. Later in the year, two speakers challenged us to think of violence as systemic, rather than unexplainable: Gary Slutkin shared what happened when he started to look at gang violence like a contagious disease, and how it gave him powerful tools to treat it and Rodrigo Canales took a deeper look at Mexican drug cartels, showing how they operate as sophisticated businesses.

It’s time to get personal about mental illness.
1 in 4 people in the world lives with some form of mental illness, and yet, the stigma remains. In 2013, several speakers stepped to the TED stage to share their personal stories of mental illness. Eleanor Longden explained what it’s like to have voices in her head. (Read her TED Book, Learning from the Voices in my Head.) Kevin Breel took us inside his world, giving “confessions of a depressed comic.” Just this week, Andrew Solomon spoke poetically about his experience with depression, and how he sees it a secret many people share. Punctuating it all — a talk from Thomas Insel, the director of the National Institute of Mental Health, on how moving from the term “mental disorders” to “brain disorders” could open up research possibilities.

The best ways to get around cities may not be new-fangled.
Janette Sadik-Khan — New York City’s transportation commissioner — will leave her post at the beginning of 2014. At TEDCity2.0 in September, she took some time to reflect on how and why she made it her goal to make New York’s streets safer for pedestrians and bikers. Enrique Peñalosa — the former mayor of Bogota, Colombia — echoed this theme, sharing why bus and bike lanes represent democracy in action. Meanwhile, Jeff Speck shared an idea for city planning — if we make our cities walkable, we can also make them healthier and more pleasant. And at TED2013, Sanjay Dastoor demoed a skateboard with a boost that could be perfect for commuters in cities.

There were other ideas that felt especially salient this year. Oh, so many other ideas. Meg Jay caused an uproar by challenging millennials not to waste their 20s. Dambisa Moyo issued a warning to the West by arguing that maybe China has the economic model to follow. And May El-Khalil’s tale of staging the Beirut marathon was well-timed for those still reeling from the Boston bombing.

Yes, it’s been quite a year… And we are ready to share many more ideas in 2014.