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Some thoughts on TED 2009

Last week I attended TED 2009, the world-renowned confab of the wealthy, smarty pants, Makers and Doers of Things, and ne’er-do-wells such as myself. I don’t have as much to say as I did last year, if only because the content wasn’t as dynamic (nothing matched the sublime heights of Jill Bolte Taylor’s talk), and the conversations between the sessions were more meaningful. Still, some things I’m thinking about:

  • Please please please keep the VC away from me
  • This very much seems like a legacy from an earlier TED time, when VCs would meet interesting technology folks at TED and fund ideas, etc. Now it just feels blandly mercenary. VCs add nothing to the texture of the conversation, and, really, their presence only detracts from the noble mission of the event. I wish Chris had the cojones to uninvite these folks.

  • New interaction design opportunities galore
  • Perhaps ironic given that Interaction09 was taking place at the same time, but some of the best-received talks were on work done at the Media Lab. My favorite was Siftables, a technology platform for little computer-chipped blocks with 128×128 screens and teeny speakers that interact with one another. What this technology affords very much reminded me of the Wand in the World work we did with mobile technologies last year.

    Also shown was SIXth Sense (or Wear Ur World), a system that involves the user wearing a camera, a small projector, and having a cell phone nearby to handle processing and communications. The projector beams images on anything, and, through the camera, the user can this interact on any surface. It’s very much proof-of-concept now, but suggests some interesting futures.

    And cannot forget Golan Levin, who is perhaps more a media artist than interaction designer.

  • Willie Smits is your new favorite hero
  • Dr. Smits told his story of protecting orangutans, and how his desire to do so lead him to regrow forests, develop new agricultural opportunities, and support impoverished local communities in Indonesia. It’s an amazing tale, and the TED talk most worth watching.

  • Challenge, don’t coddle me
  • By the end of the conference, I tweeted a realization: “Where are TED’s dangerous ideas? I want to be challenged, not validated.” There was pretty much nothing controversial presented, and much of what was discussed (oceans need saving! sustainable architecture! liberal arts education is important!) were subjects of easy back-patting on the audience’s part. I realized that I’m suspicious of this complacency, and, that I want to be made uncomfortable, to be challenged, because only then can our ideas progress.

  1. Do you think it a real challenge would go over well at TED? My sense is that it probably wouldn’t, and that actual challenge is reserved for contexts where decisions get made or grievances are aired. My sense of TED from following your tweets and Ethan Zuckerman’s blog posts is that it’s quite stage-managed, intentionally drained of challenge.

  2. Completely agree on the last point. And I also fear that without a productive means of incorporating criticism into the conference it will devolve into a convention of secular missionaries. Indeed, as TED has moved from conference to cause and from community to media palaver, we already see signs of that happening…

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