Follow This


[by Kendra Hovey]

At the TEDGlobal live viewing event earlier this summer, I learned that product piracy is cheap market research; amazing technology and glitches are a paired set (i.e., live streams will be interrupted); the First Minister of Scotland is a likeable guy; and Loth’s meeting room chairs are really quite comfortable. I also picked up stuff on “System D” (aka, the informal economy) and Scottish inventiveness, as well as the ingredient list for making a high-performing school. But before getting deeper into any of this, I’d first like to share some advice about these TED viewing events—for the benefit of my future self, if no one else.

Helpful Piece of Advice #1: Clear your schedule. Unless you shell out the $6,000 admission fee or $995 for a TED Live membership, these live viewing events (free, with snacks!) are the only way to see the TED Conferences. From TED.comFAQ: “While some of the Talks do end up online, many of them don’t. Moreover, the timing of the talks coming online are not pre-determined, so some Talks may go online but not for a few months to a year.” In other words, if, like me, you have to leave early, don’t think, “Oh, I’ll just watch it online,” because you will be disappointed.

Neil Harbisson, sonochromatic cyborg artist, speaks during Session 5: Shades of Openness, at TEDGlobal 2012 on Wednesday, June 27, in Edinburgh, Scotland. Photo: James Duncan Davidson

Helpful Piece of Advice #2: Clear your head. To maximize the experience, schedule in a post-event buffer. Don’t, for instance, step out of Loth straight into the tyranny of the day’s errands and emails, helpless as the swirl of thoughts, ideas and energy are shoved further and further to the back recesses of the mind where, you can only hope, they’ll be able to find enough nutrients to someday regrow.

And if from this helpful advice you have extrapolated that everything I have to say is based on only about 10 talks (total=75) and also filtered by a trip to the grocery store, 300+ emails, a chat with my mother-in-law, the movie Chimpanzee, and a post-blackout refrigerator cleanout, then you would be correct.

So then, some thoughts:

Open Season. Overall, TED organizers should be pretty happy: their speakers were good about sticking to the event’s theme—“Radical Openness”—both rooting out and dreaming big about what it is to be living in this increasingly open and ultra-connected world, generating reactions that range from unbridled excitement to panic now.

On the unbridled side, there is futurist Dan Tapscott who says openness is not up for debate. The information leak is sprung; it will not be plugged. And this has unleashed an opportunity for empowerment and freedom, bar none. It’s also gonna make us way, way smarter. Why? Because of “networked intelligence.” Although, a bunch of brains working to solve a problem will require a few things: collaboration, sharing, transparency and integrity. Checks on the latter are, Tapscott suggests, built into the open world: “You need to have integrity as part of your bones and your DNA as an organization, because if you don’t, you’ll be unable to build trust, and trust is a sine qua non of this new network world.”

More on the alarm bell side of things is public intellectual Ivan Krastev from Bulgaria—also known as “the most pessimistic country” on earth (Krastev quotes a study titled, “The Happy, the Happy and the Bulgarians”). What went right in recent history, says Krastev, is also what went wrong. 1960s-era human rights allowed for a culture of dissent and non-conformity (+), but left us without a collective purpose (–). The 1980s market revolution and spread of democracy (+) coincided with a huge increase in inequality (–). Krastev repeats the call for transparency, though he strips the word of all its bright, happy sheen, defining it as, essentially, “the management of mistrust.” And where the optimistic Tapscott says, “sunlight is the best disinfectant,” the Bulgarian leaves us with this parting thought: “There is a big shadow where there is much light.”

Makers Mark. With openness comes alternatives and innovations, as well as fun toys and celebrity muting devices. “You don’t need anyone’s permission to make something great,” says Massimo Banzi, who in his talk shares some of what the “turbo-charged” DIY maker movement can, well, make (and, if you’re thinking pencil caddy, think harder).

Massimo Banzi at TEDGlobal 2012. Photo: James Duncan Davidson

Not just objects, this also applies to systems, suggests, Robert Neuwirth who talks about the workings, currencies and values of “System D”—the informal economy of flea markets, pirated products, corner kiosks, etc.—reminding us that even the most monolithic seeming institution is an option, to which there are alternatives.

Data Stream. Whether it was questions, examples or warnings, the topic of data access, ownership and use was ever-present. There was Malte Spitz who asked, then sued, for all the personal data his mobile company had on him. A settlement yielded 35,800 lines of data, or 6 months of his life, which you can relive here. It’s kinda cool, but it tells Spitz that “you have to fight for self-determination in the digital age.”

Andreas Schleicher’s work demonstrates what data can accomplish when you have a meaningful measure. First, his team tested students worldwide for the ability to extrapolate and apply existing knowledge to a new situation; then they examined the school systems that educated the students. Correlating the two sets of results, they asked what qualities tend to churn out thinking students and then they shared this list of qualities with the world, for folks to do with it what they will. The qualities include: a learner-centered rather than curriculum-centered approach; an embracing of diversity; high-quality teachers that are supported; high standards combined with teacher autonomy to best decide how to help students get there; and a bunch more.

Cool Stuff. What’s TED without gadgets? At this TED there was the “eyeborg.” The device (part of which is embedded in the skull) allows Neil Harbisson, born with total color blindness, to hear color. What’s interesting is not just what he can do (such as, create songs out of the color landscape on a dinner plate, “so…we can have, like, Lady Gaga salads”) but how it changes how he thinks (what is beauty when someone looks attractive and sounds ugly?). This one is short, fun and online, but beware it might make you want to cyborg yourself.


Kendra Hovey is editor and head writer at Follow This. On Twitter @KendraHovey, she blogs at