People have been asking me which TED talks I’d recommend from this year, so here’s a quick rundown. I’ll start with the predictably excellent, and work my way towards the lesser-known but equally wonderful.
Larry Lessig was rousing, talking about the corrupting influence of money on American politics, which he characterizes as the root of many other problems. The talk was essentially a distillation of Republic Lost (and maybe also One Way Forward, which I haven’t yet read). Great at laying out the problem and rallying people to want to help fix it, but if you’re expecting solutions you might be disappointed — he doesn’t really chart a specific path forward, but instead points towards existing groups he says are doing good work. His talk isn’t up yet, but here’s the TED blog post.
Sugata Mitra is the “hole in the wall” guy who famously set up computers for kids to use in nooks and crannies of Delhi slums — and in so doing, proved that kids with internet access could teach themselves difficult subjects, even if they didn’t know English. This year he won the TED prize, which he’s going to use to build a virtual school staffed by volunteer “grannies” — retired schoolteachers around the world whose job is to “ask good questions and then admire the answers.” Here’s his talk.
I’d never seen Peter Singer before, and I enjoyed his thoughtful, logical talk about how to practice altruism effectively. There are lots of people who believe it’s important that public service be a significant part of everyone’s life, not just a sideline. (Like, uh, me.) So I was surprised when Singer argued that rather than taking a public service job, it might be more effective/better for a smart young person to take a highly-paid corporate job and earmark a substantial part of their salary for charity. Not a new idea, but unexpected, at least for me, from Singer. No video yet but here’s the blog post.
Dan Pallotta, who I’ve been reading for years, gave a gorgeous, measured, elegant talk about popular beliefs that inhibit the effectiveness of the non-profit sector. I don’t agree with everything he says, but his debunking of the usefulness of “overhead ratios” is dead-on and so necessary. When Erik Moeller and I were new to the non-profit sector back in about 2007, we learned about overhead ratios together and were horrified by how self-evidently useless (and obviously gameable) they are: Pallotta was one of the first sources we found that made any sense on the topic. I’ve been gratified to see his ideas get more broadly accepted over time, and I hope this talk is influential. Video’s not up yet; here’s the blog post.
The standout performance at TED this year for me was Amanda Palmer, who was spectacular. I’d loved her Kickstarter video pre-TED, and her TED talk didn’t disappoint. I know she’s controversial (she was criticized for continuing to ask local musicians to join her tour dates for free, even after making 1.2 million dollars through Kickstarter), but her message is solid regardless of the controversy. “The question isn’t how to make people pay for music: it’s how to let them pay for music.” Lots of joy and love and affirmation in her talk.
Pre-TED, I hadn’t seen Vancouver poet Shane Koyczan‘s YouTube version of his spoken-word poem To This Day, about poverty and bullying and class and the shaming of little kids. The YouTube version was animated by more than 80 volunteers and has been watched more than six million times since being posted in February — I watched it post-TED, and to be honest I prefer the TED version. (Maybe for the same reason I like books and radio better than TV — I’d rather make up my own pictures than watch somebody else’s.) The TED video’s not up yet, but the blog post about it is here.
OLPC co-founder Mary Lou Jepsen gave a great talk. Even though it was only an aside, I loved when she said, about self-medicating post-brain-surgery to become hormonally equivalent to a man in his early twenties: “I was angry all the time. I thought about sex all the time. I thought I was the smartest person in the entire world. It gave me a new appreciation for men.”[*] Her talk’s not up yet, but here’s the blog post.
Beijing artist Liu Bolin, also known as the Invisible Man, showed slides of his work while speaking through through a translator. Liu goes to places like supermarkets and city exteriors, where he poses against the scenes and is painted in a painstaking process by his assistants, so that he fades into the background. He describes the resulting photographs as a silent protest, meant to critique the social problems accompanying China’s economic development.
I’d never heard of British architect Alistair Parvin before TED, which surprises me now that I’ve seen his talk. As a young architect Parvin wanted to democratize architecture. His talk was about what’s called WikiHouse, an open-source construction set you can use to build your own house. No video yet, but here’s the blog post.
I’d never heard of Eleanor Longden before TED either. A British research psychologist who was diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic at the age of 17 and who describes herself as someone who’s “been harmed by many people and remembers all their names” (I loved that phrase), she’s heard voices in her head for years, which she characterizes as not an “abstract symptom of illness to be endured, but a complex, significant and meaningful experience to be explored” and “a creative and ingenious survival strategy.” Video’s not up, but here’s the TED blog post.
Hyeonseo Lee, like 24,000 North Koreans before her, escaped to South Korea via China. In her TED talk she describes her own escape and that, a few years later, of her family members. I had just read Barbara Demick’s Nothing To Envy and Melanie Kirkpatrick’s Escape From North Korea, so I found this low-key talk fascinating. The TED video’s not up yet, but here is her video from TEDx Seoul.
Dutch ornithologist Kees Moeliker gave a very funny deadpan talk on his experience observing and documenting the first scientifically-documented case of homosexual necrophilia in ducks, for which he was awarded the 2003 Ig Nobel prize. Here’s the TED blog post.
[*] I edited the Mary-Lou Jepsen quote to add her final sentence, because it was pointed out to me that otherwise it might sound dismissive. Unintentional!