Kant Would Approve

Gathering speakers is challenging and rewarding—like forming a guest list for a dynamic mealtime discussion.

To my knowledge, Immanuel Kant hasn’t been evoked much at TED conferences. But in many ways the 18th-century German philosopher’s spirit is always present—in a context that might seem surprising. Aside from his timeless philosophical writings, Kant also penned a humorous, even whimsical (by Kantian standards), essay titled “Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View,” which contained detailed guidance on how to host a virtuous and sociable dinner party. Of course, no food or drink is allowed in the auditorium during TED sessions, but Kant’s emphasis on curating insightful conversation is the very essence of TED.

At the Hybrid Reality Institute, the research group I run with my wife, Ayesha, we host dinner salons all over the world, convening the brightest, most relevant minds to debate critical and timely issues about emerging technologies. Much like TED, we never know the precise lineup (or seating chart) until the curtain goes up. Yet we can always count on amazing performances and contributions.

That was certainly the case during the session I curated for TEDGlobal this year, with such brilliant and disparate talks by Sanjay Pradhan of the World Bank, New York University and MIT’s Beth Noveck (former Deputy Chief Technology Officer of the United States), investigative journalist and author of the book Your Right to Know Heather Brooke, Future Crimes expert Marc Goodman, and London Design Museum director Deyan Sudjic. Kant would be pleased to know that TED sessions always feature the number of speakers he prescribed: no fewer than the Graces (three) and no more than the Muses (nine).

How and why did I bring these particular—and very different—voices together for about two hours on stage, the rough time span of an evening meal? To begin with, TEDGlobal’s 2012 theme, Radical Openness, was a truly open canvas. And within that guiding concept, Bruno Giussani, TEDGlobal’s curator, and I settled on the political twist implied by a session focused on transparency. While many assume that transparency is generally a good thing, I emphasized at the outset of the session that transparency is “the most powerful, the most dangerous and the most incomplete political ideal of the 21st century.” I believe transparency, and the struggle for it, precedes (and even supersedes) democracy. You cannot have good governance of any kind—democratic or otherwise—without transparency and its corollary: accountability. At the same time, transparency brings exposure and even shame, and may inspire stronger efforts to hide, suppress, and evade further scrutiny. So this session was really about the upside and downside of transparency. Each of the speakers I chose addressed these ideas from very specific, and divergent, points of view.

With such accomplished yet varied thinkers and doers, the only real challenge was to determine and distill their experiences and visions to the requisite duration of about 15 minutes. My personal way of encouraging this was the academic one: Focus on arguments and evidence, ideally just two or three main messages. It is more than helpful, of course, that Chris Anderson, TED’s curator, and Giussani are the masters of this craft, seeing like artists and hearing like composers to tease out the most meaningful, provocative, and educational ideas.

The balance of nourishment and sociability was essential for Kant as it is for TED. Kant felt that dining alone is bad for philosophers because they might (figuratively) gnaw on themselves rather than exchange and refine ideas. Regularly absorbing fresh material is itself a form of nutrition. I can only think of Nutrimentum spiritus, the Latin phrase “food for the soul,” as inscribed on Berlin’s grandest library.

At TED, the sociability is palpable in the buzz that one hears in and out of sessions as participants engage in concentrated discussion about the talks. The debates seem to conform to Kant’s strict desire for self-discipline and restraint, and moderation of tone, always inclusive of diverse views rather than alienating those who are skeptical.

In the context of TED, and any great dinner party, sociability can also have a different, and equally valuable, meaning and purpose when understood as socialization: The quality of talks rises as speakers watch and learn from each other. Also, a natural and organic flow emerges as one talk picks up from the previous one. One rarely hears anyone repeat ideas or arguments; they are always complementary. Call it intellectual peer pressure, but it is magical to witness as a week at TED progresses.

Not all aspects of TED quite so coincidentally conform to Kant’s maxims. While Kant detested extended silences, he was dismissive of music being played during a dinner as he believed it would be distracting. By contrast, TED’s musical interludes are among the memorable highlights, always enticing hundreds of people on their feet to dance and start the juices flowing. Also, Kant presumed that women would factor into weighty intellectual conversations only in the final phase, at which point they could demonstrate their cleverness through teasing and wit. Of course, there was no TEDxWomen being organized in the late 18th century.

Still, the fundamental elements of a pleasurable intellectual experience seem to have changed little from Kant’s day to TED in the 21st century: stories, argument, reason, and laughter. It’s a formula for the ages.

Photography by James Duncan Davidson, courtesy of TED

Parag Khanna spoke on “invisible maps” at TEDGlobal in 2009, guest-hosted a session at TEDGlobal 2012, and is the co-author of Hybrid Reality: Thriving in the Emerging Human-Technology Civilization (TED Books, 2012).

Radical Openness

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