TED2008: And The Point?

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(Unedited running notes from the TED2008 conference in Monterey, California. Session twelve – closing session.)

The session opens with the projection of will.i.am’s "Yes We Can" viral video based on Barack Obama’s speech. The two producers are in the audience. The video has been seen millions of times, a demonstration of the power of individuals to inflect the political debate:

John Francis calls himself a "planetwalker". From 1983 to 2005, he
walked around North and Nouth America carrying a message of respect for
the Earth — and for 17 of those years, he did so without speaking
while learning a degree in environmental studies and a PhD in land
resources). (A profile of him in Sierra magazine).
I’ve been silent for 17 years. When I first spoke, I turned around to hear my own voice. I want to take you on this journey, even though this one is kind of unusual I want you to think of your own. My journey begain in 1971 when I witnessed two oil tankers collide under the Golden Gate bridge and half a million gallons of oil spilled out. It so disturbed me that I decided to give up driving cars — and that’s quite a big thing in California. People would ask me "What are you doing" and as I said that I was "walking for the environment" they said: "No, you’re just doing that to make us look bad, feel bad". I argued so much about that that on my 27th birthday I decided I would give it a rest, and stop talking for one day. It was very moving, because I began truly listening, and it was very sad for me because I realized that until then I had not really been learning. So I decided to do it for another day, and another day, until finally I promised myself that for one year I would keep quiet, and then on my birthday reassess what I had learned. That lasted 17 years. During that time I walked and played the banjo and wrote my journal and tried to study the environment by reading books and go to school. So I did, I walked to Oregon — 500 miles — and went into the registrar office and in two years I graduated with my first degree. And then I started walking again, to Washington, then to Montana. I’d written to the University of Montana two years earlier telling them that I would like to go to school there and I would be there in two years. They helped me, figuring out ways for me to get grades despite I didn’t have the money and I didn’t speak. I went on to the University of Wisconsin, and spent two years there writing about oil spills. And something happened: I was the only one in the US writing about oil spills. I went on, it took me 17 years and 1 day to walk around the US. My journey kept going on. I wrote for the US Coast Guard, I wrote oil spills regulations.
I started talking because I had studied environment at a formal level, but there was an informal level, about people, and what we do and how we are. And environment changed from being about species and trees to be about how we treat ourselves and each other. So I had to spread that message. I still didn’t ride motorized vehicles. In my heart I had become a prisoner. The prison I was in was the fact that I did not drive or use motorized vehicles. When I started it seemed very appropriate to me. But at every birthday I asked myself about silence, but I never asked myself about my decision to use my feet. I realized that I had a responsibility to more than just me, and I was gonna have to change — and was afraid to change, because I was so used to the guy who just walked, that I didn’t know who I would be. But I knew I needed to change. Alot of times we find ourselves in this wonderful place where we’ve gotten to, but there is another place we have to go to, and we have to leave behind the security of who we have become and go go the place of who we are becoming.

Designer Stefan Sagmeister gives a 3-minutes talk about  "Things I Have Learned in My Life So Far".

Psychologist Jonathan Haidt has written possibly one of the most
insightful books of the recent years. In "The Happiness Hypothesis", he
brings neuroscience and evolutionary psychology together with some of
the biggest ideas of philosophers and religious thinkers of the past,
trying to over come the idea that today we know better, and that those
great teachers had already discovered some of the true secrets of
happiness and of the meaning of life — and that they are quite
coherent with modern science.
He studies morality and emotion in the
context of culture: why did we evolve to have morals, and to have
different morals? And what about the moral foundations of politics?
Ideology and openness to experience is a discriminant of the way people behave.
What is morality and where does it come from? The worst idea in all psychology is that the mind is a blank slate at birth. Truth is that we come to life already knowing alot. Nature provides a first draft, which then experience revises. Five foundations of morality:

  • Harm/care, that makes really bond with ohers, care for others
  • Fairness/reciprocity
  • Ingroup/loyalty, only among humans very large groups can join together and collaborate
  • Authority/respect
  • Purity/sanctity

If these are the five best candidates for what’s written in the first draft of our moral mind But as kids grow up, how is this first draft being modified? We’ve put a questionnaire online asking how people (conservatives and liberals) relate to these foundations of morality. Turns out that conservatives consider them very similarly; liberals are more attentive to the first two, less to the other three.
What makes Ingroup, Authority and Purity moral? Order tends to decay. Loyalty is not enough, you need some sort of punishment to get people to cooperate in large group. Traditional morality uses every tool in the toolbox (including suppressing carnality etc) to make people collaborate, seek a higher end. Liberal morality rejects I/A/P. Liberals want change and justice even at risk of chaos; conservatives speak for institutions and traditions, and want order even at some cost for those at the bottom. So both liberals and conservatives have something to offer. Are conservatives and liberals like Yin and Yang? "If you want the truth to stand clear before you, never be for or against. The struggle between for and against is the mind’s worst disease" (Sent-ts’an, c. 700 CE). Compare that to George Bush "with us or against us".
Our righteous minds were "designed" by evolution to unite us into teams, to divide us against other teams, and to blind us to the truth. As we heard from Samantha Power and her story of Sergio Vieira de Mello, we can’t just charge in. Alot of problems we have to solve require that we change other people, and if we want to change them, we need to understand our design, cultivate moral humility, and turn our understanding into a better future for us all.

British rockstar Bob Geldof is the closing speaker. In the late 1970s, Geldof was the leader of the Boomtown Rats, a British punk band. In the 1980s, he became a global activist, organizing Band Aid (to raise funds for the famine in Ethiopia), then, later, LiveAid. In 2005, he threw another giant global concert, Live8, trying to raise awareness for debt relief and poverty reduction. Since, he’s become active in alternative fuels and hybrid vehicles, and sees a link between fuel dependency and poverty-creating regimes. He calls TED "the Olympics of unreasonable people".
There can’t be evolution of thought without differences, without challenges. Society needs to constantly test itself in order to get that change. Science can take us only so far. In the modern age, people are made a fetish of progress almost as an antidote of nihilism; we must believe that we’re moving forward, but sometimes science only adds a twist to a normal madness. I encountered that normal madness back in 1984, millions of people dying of poverty and hunger. In Europe, we paid taxes to produce food that we would never eat, and to destroy it. Eight miles south of Europe lied Africa, and 30 million people were dying of want, most very young. I was shocked, and I just thought that it wasn’t enough to do the usual dollar-in-the-box- I travelled around Africa and then went on TV and said that dying of want in a world of surplus was morally repulsive and also economically illiterate.  The lingua franca of the planet is not English, it’s rock and roll, so we began that dialog in 1985. If the impulse of one human being to help another is not critical to the human spirit, then what is? The act of putting a dollar in the save-the-children box is a political act. It’s almost the political equivalent of the butterfly effect. If there are enough dollars, policy changes. If we are de-sensitized to the suffering of others something withers, something’s gone, some part of humanity is lost. But it drove me mad, there was no need for this to happen; poverty is an empirical condition.
Africa will transform itself through technology, and the tech that will do it is the mobile phone.
All of these things that happened to me are wrapped up in this idea: back in 1985 I trawled across the misery of others. I was in Niger. A politician told me: there were 300 separate languages here, and they’re gone. We can’t let that continue (see also Wade Davis’ speech). There is a great mapping of mankind to be undertaken, and that’s what I’m gonna do, with photos, music, film, text, and then we’re going to map the unfolding narrative of us, and we will watch ourselves unfold. Culture is the narrative of man, not politics. Human cultural diversity is as important to the life of the intellect as biological diversity is to nature. I want to build a Dictionary of Man, I want you to help me do so.

This is the last TED in Monterey. Final show of TED2008, live from TED@Aspen, with singer Jill Sobule and comedians Rives, Zé Frank and the Raspyni Brothers.

The next TEDs:

TEDAfrica: Cape Town, South Africa, 29 September – 1 October 2008. Theme: "What If?" Information and registration here.

TED2009: Long Beach, California, 4-7 February 2009. Theme: "The Great Unveiling". It’s already sold out.

TEDEurope: Oxford, UK, 22-24 July 2009. Theme: "The Substance of Things Not Seen". Registrations will open soon. The first TEDGlobal was held in Oxford in 2005.

TEDGlobal: Mumbai, India, November 2009. Details will follow.

What a week! Time to pack and off to SFO. Find all my posts from TED2008 here — and of course those of the other TED bloggers. Bye!