Saturday, December 03, 2011

TEDxBrussels 2011 Commentary

I've been caught up in Occupy commentary for a while and although Occupy is the most interesting and important thing happening in Sustainable Human Flourishing today, I have 20 posts in draft and dozens more flying around in my head. Many, such as this one, are starting to lose the moment so please bear with me while I try refocus slightly and hammer them out.

This post is a synopsis of the TEDxBrussels event that I attended last week, brutally cut to only those talks obviously and directly relevant to Sustainable Human Flourishing. Occupiers please stick around though - TED is billed as "Riveting Talks by Remarkable People" talking about "Ideas Worth Spreading", "Free to the World" - It might as well be an OWS GA, only without the People's Mic, so there are plenty of important Occupy ideas here ;-)

First though, for anyone who's just flown in from planet ZooBar and doesn't know what I'm talking about, TED is one of the most wonderful resources on the WWW. Please do yourself a favour Go! Now! I'll see you back here in a few weeks, if you ever manage to extract yourself :-)

TEDx events are testing grounds for the main event, so they can be a bit hit and miss, and on occasion encourage a little self-indulgent navel gazing. The TEDxBrussels talks were loosely tied together with a theme "A Day in the Deep Future" which didn't really help in that regard, but on the whole it was a mind-blowing day as I expected.

There were 27 speakers spread over almost 11 hours, so I'll cherry-pick the best talks as they relate to the theme of this blog - Rather than try to make a subjective assessment of which are the best, I'll list them in the order that they happened on the day.

Strangely, the first one that I'm including was actually not such a great talk, so instead of watching it I suggest that you look into David Cuartielles's important work on the Arduino Open Source Hardware platform. "Huh? Open source hardware?" I hear you ask... Sure, we've all heard of Open Source Software. Many of us also appreciate that the world is a better place because software is freely accessible to everyone, everywhere. The idea of Open Source Hardware is a bit tougher to grasp though and David's 9 minute talk was not sufficient to get his message across (Note: I also got the impression that David was only told as he was walking on stage that he had 9 minutes instead of 18. AFAIK, this was the first TEDx to experiment with a new 9 minute format and the decision came quite late. This limit was applied to most of the speakers, but David didn't seem to get the memo.)

There were two other SHF-related talks in the first morning session, both presenting very different views on digital identity and privacy. In particular they differed in how we can protect our privacy in an increasingly digital future where our online lives are more pervasively regulated and surveilled.

The first, by Hasan Elahi was thought provoking, and the content itself was humorous at times, but left me unconvinced. Hasan is engaged in a valid and quite novel protest against harassment by the FBI and US Department of Homeland security, but I'm concerned that his protest has turned into an unhealthy obsession.

At the end of the presentation I was left with the uncomfortable feeling that his protest helps the "Y'all got nuthin' to worry about if y'aint got nuthin' t' hide" morons running US border control, more than it helps those of us who genuinely wish to maintain our privacy. (I am going to give him the benefit of the doubt though and do some more research because I suspect that he also suffered from the 9 minute format)

I've already blogged my reaction to the second digital identity-related talk, by Kaliya Hamlin. In my opinion, Kaliya's "OccupyYourIdentity" approach is far more interesting and fruitful in SHF terms than Hasan's. Kaliya also gets bonus points for being the first speaker to seriously attempt to weave the "Day in the Deep Future" theme into her talk, although with such a massive and important topic, she would have been better off if she didn't waste precious time on that.

From an SHF perspective, one of the most powerful and chilling talks of the day came from Paddy Ashdown straight after the first break. Paddy is a consummate storyteller - he has such a stage presence and he can say "I believe ..." and "My guess is ..." with such gravitas that you are left utterly convinced that he's right. Paddy is well qualified to have such beliefs and to make such guesses though. The way he breaks down the existing global power structures and shifting dynamics in this talk presents some serious challenges for those of us seeking a better future.

Next was Julie Meyer - I felt sorry for her following on from Paddy because the audience was a little shell-shocked. Nonetheless, she quickly got my attention with some excellent observations about the nature of entrepreneurship. She noted in particular that a new business should always be about the idea, not about the money.

As a venture capitalist, it is in Julie's interest to support idealistic, non-financially savvy startups, of course, but she went on to make some particularly apposite observations about the nature of finance and capital in respect to industry generally. I liked how she followed this thread to make the excellent observation that there is an inversion of the idea/money relationship at the core of the current global economic crisis. She observed that
"financiers think that they start the party. They've forgotten the basics, that financiers are there to back the industry of the day." 
"Finance is not industry - Finance is a support industry. It is a service industry - to industry"
This core idea that Capital follows ideas and not the other way around rings very true to me - This and other nice tips on entrepreneurship and innovation mean that Julie's talk gets the thumbs up on SHF terms.

The next talk, by Mikko Hypponen on digital security was also good and had some relevant content. I learned a couple of things - including, interestingly that my laser printer is spying on me.

It is Mikko's job to help business and law enforcement to defend the Internet against "illegal" activity - He didn't have much time for nuance, but it is clear that he includes real cyber-criminals, governments, and also hacktivists such as Anonymous. A tough job, and he talks about some excellent recent examples where lives have been profoundly affected and even lost due to cyber-crime. Again, worth watching.

The next two, by Leila Janah and Kushal Chakrabarti introduced two very different but novel charity ideas that break the traditional "Charity Industrial Complex" mould. They both have great ideas to help give people opportunities - Leila is gorgeous and a great speaker, so is definitely worth watching (also for the quirky experiment with simultaneous signing.)

Kushal, to his credit tried hard to tie into the "Day in the Deep Future" theme, but IMHO confused his core message a little in the process. His idea of micro-loans to support education is well worth exploring but you might have more luck following some of the links in his bio than by watching the talk itself (it is worth watching if you have 10 mins though)

Just before the lunch break, there was an excellent short video that summarised TEDxKids@Brussels which looks like it was an utterly awesome day. It seems to have been a bit exclusive, but I'll be trying to get my kids onto it somehow in future.

After lunch was an awesome session with three world class SciFi writers giving their thoughts. These guys were given the usual TED 18 minutes instead of the reduced time that most got - this length exception was explained by the organising team as follows:
Why this exception? Because if somebody is right about the deep future, it will be them. If you believe in a vision of the future, it probably won't happen, the real future remains unfathomable for us today. My bet is on them. And listen carefully: most science fiction stories are business plans in disguise.
David Brin had an ambitious theme of entirely reinventing civilisation by 2061 - and his presentation is well worth watching because of its focus on Positive Sum Games, which are core to SHF. Another of his key messages that I violently agree with is how important it is to kill bad ideas if we are to keep moving forward. In light of expected developments in transhumanism, David made some excellent observations about how individual humans are simply not trustworthy as "super humans". We are naturally too prone to self-delusion and ego.

He also made the classic observation that we shouldn't be afraid of any kind of artificial intelligence escaping from the military (à la Terminator) because that kind of intelligence would have been programmed to think any situation through, and to obey orders. We should, however, be scared as hell that the kind of AI that is built into Wall Street software might ever develop its own consciousness one day - that shit is seriously predatory! I'm sure you'll enjoy this talk as much as I did:

John Shirley was brilliant. This was another very dark and chilling talk that deserves an entire SHF Greenrant to itself, but I don't have the time to do it now. Although he is a science fiction futurist, his core messages did not feel at all far off... One of his core messages was that "every piece of technology has a dark side" and he encouraged us to find ways to assess technology that accepts this fact, but which does not reject the technology itself - my favourite quotable quote was "A machine which pollutes is only half invented!" Watch this talk...

Rudy Rucker was 939 years more ambitious than most, reaching forward to the year 3000 - beyond machines, when everything is natural. "In the city of the future, there won't be any machines, everything will be grown". "We don't need nanotech - biology is nanotechnology"

Although this talk started slowly and went off on a few trippy tangents, I enjoyed it, not least because it resonated with a favourite idea that will soon become a post of its own - that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from nature...

I debated over whether to include this talk because it may not be for everyone. It was also a bit further out than most of us need to think to solve the key problems of today, but I'm glad that we've got guys like Rudy taking the long view. Rudy seems like a lovely, genuine kinda guy, who despite the trippy side (or perhaps because of it) would be right up there as my favourite kind of dinner guest.

Peter Fenwick's research into death and dying was fascinating. It is necessary to face our mortality, and listening to this lovely old chap talk about "The Art of Dying Well" made it a far less uncomfortable experience than one might expect.

John Bohannon and Black Label Movement performed a very clever and beautiful piece of interpretive dance that explores and underscores, among other things the importance of spending on the arts...

David Deutsch is a legendary physicist who joined by video link. Unfortunately, his presentation on "The Unknowable & How to Prepare for it" seems to have been removed for some reason? Look into his stuff and get his new book - he's a brilliant example of the kind of scientist that the world needs.

Eileen Bartholomew gave an excellent talk on behalf of The XPrize Foundation which seems to be onto something very big. I suspect that I love this idea, but there is so much money involved that I need to think it through properly...

My last recommendation on SHF terms is Peter Hinssen, who was the third-last speaker (out of 27!) Peter spoke to an all but burnt out crowd at about the ten and a half hour mark, yet he received a standing ovation! (From memory, this may have been the only standing ovation given to a speaker all day! - The performance artists all deserved theirs.)

Despite my exhaustion, I was captivated by Peter's energy, and I loved his clever theatrics with the 'S' that he stole from the end of BRUSSELS. This greatly endeared him to the many Flemish in the crowd and helped emphasize one of his key points about the importance of thinking in terms of 'S'-curves instead of exponentials. It also reminded me of a brilliant SHF-related quote that is widely attributed to Nobel Prize winner Dennis Gabor:
"In today's world all curves are exponential. Exponential curves grow to infinity only in mathematics. In real life they either saturate gently or break down catastrophically. It is our duty as thinking people to strive toward a gentle saturation."
I feel certain that Peter would agree with that quote.

I'm not even going to tell you what Peter's talk was about - you'll have to watch it yourself - Enjoy:

Finally, it would be unfair if I didn't also recommend "The Paraorchestra of Great Britian". I almost skipped their inspirational world premiere because it is only indirectly related to the theme of this blog, and because Charles Hazelwood stole a little more limelight that he probably needed to. Yet they justifiably received the first standing ovation of the day for their unique and courageous performance - go and see for yourself why.

Almost every other talk is worth watching, and most have an SHF aspect. I have been brutal here though because I'm tired and need to get this published so I can move on - I'll try revisit when I get a moment, but let me know if you disagree with any of my thoughts, or think I should include others.

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