The glass is half empty and half full: TEDGlobal 2012 Day 3 recap

Posted by:

There are two ways to see a glass of water—some view it as half full, others refer to it as half empty. During the third day of TEDGlobal, the speakers fell into one of the two camps. While many spoke about the ways in which new technology and increasing global openness can bring people together in unique and fascinating ways, another subset of talks delved into the ways these same phenomena can have terrifying applications.

Business innovator Rachel Botsman kicked off session 8, the first of the day, representing for Team Glass Full. Speaking on what she calls “collaborative consumption,” Botsman sang the praises of Airbnb (peer-to-peer vacation rentals), Kickstarter (crowd-sourcing of funds for projects) and TaskRabbit (a person-to-person errand service), suggesting that these websites make connections and foster a sense of trust.

“Instead of consuming to keep up with the Joneses, people are consuming to get to know the Joneses,” said Botsman. “Reputation is a currency that will become more powerful than our credit history. It will make the résumé seem like an archaic relic of the past.”

Following a dramatic block-wide blackout in the middle of her talk, video game designer Jane McGonigal asked an unusual question — can a video game help physical healing? She tells her own story: McGonigal recalled being bedridden for months after a severe concussion, in pain, depressed and suffering: “I thought, ‘I am either going to kill myself, or I’m going to turn this into a game.’”

McGonigal opted for glass-half-full approach and created the video game SuperBetter, designed with challenges to improve physical, mental, emotional and social resilience. “Within three days of playing the game, that fog of depression and anxiety vanished,” said McGonigal, who took the game public and received a flood of thanks from others, some with cancer and chronic pain. “These people were experiencing what scientists call post-traumatic growth.”

Soon after in session 9, “The Upside of Transparency,” Beth Noveck — the founder of the White House Open Government Initiative — spoke about the potential of technology to allow everyday citizens to participate in government. Noveck suggests we do more than simply release data; she wants members of the public to create new apps using government information. She also suggests crowd-sourcing in government decision-making — in more direct ways than voting.

“The smartest people always work for someone else. We know expertise and intelligence is widely distributed,” Noveck said. “The next great superpower will be one that combines the hierarchy of the institution — because we need to retain public values and coordinate flow — with diversity, chaos and the excitement of networks.”

But security advisor Marc Goodman brought a sobering message to the stage later in the same session. Goodman said that, while others see exciting potential in new technology, he sees something very different: new weapons for terrorists and criminals. Goodman gave several spine-chilling examples of how advances praised during TEDGlobal could be flipped to create absolute menace. While 3D printers could make life-saving medicine, they could also print guns. And while DNA-specific pharmaceuticals could be the future, Goodman says the technology could also mean “personalized bioweapons.”

“We continually underestimate what criminals and terrorists can do,” Goodman said. As an example: Did you know that Mexican drug cartels have built their own mobile phone networks? Or that the Mumbai terrorists had a full-scale operations center? “Whether we realize it or not, we are at the dawn of a technological arms race.”

Some look at new technology and see the exciting: some think about it and see the scary. Perhaps whether you view the glass as half full or half empty is determined by language. During session 10, “Reframing,” behavorial economist Keith Chen shared new research that shows an intriguing correlation about why some countries are good at saving for the future while others aren’t. Chen showed that while many languages are “futured” and require speakers to differentiate present and future, other languages are “futureless” and do not make this distinction. And interestingly, his data suggests that futured-language speakers may feel that the future is something very distant — and thus they save less. Countries speaking futureless languages save an average of 5% more of their gross domestic product than futured countries. Meanwhile, futureless language speakers not only retire with 25% more savings in the bank than their futured language-speaking peers, they are also 20% to 24% less likely to smoke.

Yes, there are two ways to view the same information. And yet both are true, flip sides to the same coin.