Attending TEDGlobal 2009 was like re-discovering TED for the first time two years after I originally “discovered” it on the Web. Knowing the quality of past TED conferences and seeing the videos does not quite prepare you for the million neurons that simultaneously fire in your brain when you are actually at the event. While many speakers are well-known, they still make you sit up, and although others are not-so-well-known outside their sphere of expertise, each of them lit up a dot that helped me imagine a path — a trajectory for humanity.
Arguments are at their most persuasive when they are the simplest. Elaine Morgan nearly convinced everyone that the real reason why so many of us want to have a swimming pool is because of our aquatic origin, and she did this with a lot of grace and a touch of humor.
What was the key difference between attending TED in person and watching the talks on the Web site? For one, the enthusiasm and the passion coming from the stage were contagious. One can feel the passion in the videos, but it’s difficult, if not impossible, to gauge audience reaction. The speakers in Oxford spoke from the heart and from their experience, and never tried to dumb down any of the concepts and ideas for those of us in the theater — and almost always, the audience “caught on.”
For another, the variety of conversations that each talk generated among the TED attendees was impressive. The willingness of strangers to opine and challenge me was a refreshing change from the cynicism that’s all too common at some conferences.
A third difference was the richness of backgrounds. The other TEDsters were from such a diverse set of fields that they thought of and articulated the issues or the solutions from an entirely different perspective. The attendees contributed as much to the event as the speakers did, and I couldn’t have this experience while watching the videos online.
The four days at Oxford for me were also a roller coaster of emotions. One was shock at the pain and suffering some of us have to go through in life, sometimes caused by nature and sometimes by man: a teenager in Malawi living in abject poverty, or a young boy seeing his mother killed and becoming a child soldier.
But happily, the closing emotion was always one of awe and hope. Awe at our capability as humans to pull ourselves out of a hole, as William Kamkwamba did with moving windmills; hope at the wronged child Emmanuel Jal rising above hate and giving back to his native village in Sudan.
I found out about an organization in Australia that is trying to care for children with cerebral palsy, and how technological advances have increased their life span from a mere 10 to 15 years a few decades back to almost 40 or 50 today. There were so many people who were offering their skills to improve humanity. It gave things a meaning, and it gave work and action a cause.
One thing that intrigued me was the number of people at TEDGlobal who had met or were avid followers of the Dalai Lama — and all of these were people from far-off lands, people who had no connection with the Tibetan cause.
I asked them what attracted them to His Holiness, and the answers were worth noting. One said she found something so basic and human in his appeal. Another said that there is something universal about it. Another found real peace in a belief system that transcends languages, cultures, and religions. This was truly “substance of things not seen,” but it was felt and understood.
TEDGlobal, like the videos on TED.com, proved again to me that it provides the highway on which imagination can take a drive. If the imagination and the ideas that abound at TED can meet an entrepreneurial spirit, then we can transform lives in scale. The TEDx events and the TED Fellows program are good starts, but if the concept of TED can somehow be taken to the generation that is now in schools, it can influence the career choices of young people. We have to find a way to do this, and only then can we be sure that through TED we have effected a significant shift in thinking, where technology, entertainment, and design are a means to connect us all, and a way to give us a sense of purpose, and our lives, professionally and personally, a meaning.