Fixing our broken systems: TEDGlobal 2012 Day 2 recap


Photo: James Duncan Davidson

The old adage goes: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. However, speakers during Day 2 of TEDGlobal 2012—the annual conference where thinkers in a variety of fields present their ideas—made it clear that there’s a lot out there in need of fixing. Giving a range of examples — from the data that telephone companies collect about customers to the way we as a culture think about mental illness to the existing barriers to stem cell research — today’s speakers investigated the gray areas that emerge in a more wired, connected society.

Pankaj Ghemawat, the author of World 3.0, coined the term “Globaloney” as he opened Session 4, first thing in the morning. Ghemawat examined the commonly held belief that the world is flat and that national borders are becoming irrelevant. The data doesn’t fit: Guess how many voice-calling minutes are international. The number is lower than you think: 2%. How much of the world’s population are first-generation immigrants? Only 3%. Sharing stats like this, Ghemawat shot down the idea we are just one uninterrupted world. Ghemawat explained that the perception of flatness not only exacerbates fears, but also lets countries off the hook. Ghemawat shared that while Americans guess that foreign aid accounts for more than 30% of the U.S. federal budget, the real number is only 1%.

“Radical openness is great,” said Ghemawat, referencing TEDGlobal’s theme this year. “But given how closed we are, even incremental openness could make things dramatically better.”

Session 5, “Shades of Openness,” took an ominous turn. German politician and activist Malte Spitz revealed that it’s irrelevant whether or not Big Brother is watching—because your cell phone company definitely is. In 2006, Spitz queried Deutsche Telekom, asking the company to reveal information kept on him. His requests went unanswered, eventually taking legal action. In the end, he received a brown envelope with six months of his life contained in 35,830 lines of code. He reconstructed the information—which showed not only who he called, but where he was at almost all times—in visual form, so others could see the invasiveness of this data.

”A mobile phone can change your life and give you individual freedom,” Spitz said. “[But] If you have access to this information, you can control your society.”

Soon after, journalist Leslie T. Chang shared her research on the young, often female workers who populate Chinese factories. She mentioned the poor working conditions—unforgiving schedules and 15 workers per room. But while hearing such things often makes Westerners feel guilty, Chang pointed out that this view is inescapably self-centered and renders themselves workers invisible. Instead, Chang focused on the experience of the workers themselves.

“I try not to sugarcoat it. It’s not somewhere you or I would want to work,” Chang said. “But where they’re coming from is much worse, and where they’re going is hopefully much better.”

During Session 6, “Misbehaving Beautifully,” the focus shifted inwards—to what happens when a system is broken in the human brain. Elyn Saks, a mental health law expert who has schizophrenia herself, and comedian Ruby Wax, who has been institutionalized for depression, gave highly personal talks about the stigmatization of those with mental illnesses.

“In another time, I would have ended up in the back ward of a hospital,” said Saks. “Everything about this illness says I shouldn’t be here. But I am.”

Wax joked about the buildup of adrenaline, which once allowed humans to escape danger but now stays in our bodies making us miserable. “I hate to be the bearer of bad news: Your pets are happier than you are.”

Later in the day, Susan Solomon—founder of the New York Stem Cell Foundation—spoke about the pharmaceutical industry, explaining that it currently takes 13 years, $4 billion, and a 99% failure rate to make a new drug. She described a not-often-discussed potential use of stem cells—creating medicines tailored to specific bodies.

Speaking of the way drugs work now, Solomon said, “It’s like going into a shoe store and no one asks you what size you are. They say, ‘You have feet? Well, here are shoes.’” Solomon imagined a future where drugs—including the ones currently in existence—are tested on a wide array of stem cell lines, allowing for personalization and side effect avoidance.

Finally, also speaking during Session 7, TED’s own Chris Anderson and Lara Stein announced that the TED Prize—an award given annually to a visionary thinker with a wish to inspire the world—had been increased to $1 million. Imagine a huge wish — or a visionary who could make it come true — and submit your nominations at