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Talkin’ with TED

Sunday, November 1st, 2009

November 1, 2009

I once thought that television would be the greatest educational tool ever created. Quaint, eh? But the Internet could be different. And nothing makes me more hopeful than the TED Talks.

TED stands for “Technology, Entertainment, Design,” and began in 1984 as a conference on those three themes. It now covers the whole world of ideas science, the arts, politics, education, culture, business, global issues, technology and development.

“We believe passionately in the power of ideas to change attitudes, lives and ultimately, the world,” declares the TED web site ( “So we’re building here a clearinghouse that offers free knowledge and inspiration from the world’s most inspired thinkers, and also a community of curious souls to engage with ideas and each other.”

Membership has its price — $6000 a year, which includes attendance at its annual conference. (The conference alone used to cost $4400, and it was by invitation only.) The speakers are a Who’s Who of movers and shakers James Watson (who discovered DNA), Bill Clinton, Stephen Hawking, Bill Gates, the Google guys, chimpanzee expert Jane Goodall, Billy Graham, novelist Isabel Allende, Al Gore, and dozens more. Scientists, inventors, political analysts, architects, peacemakers, authors, engineers, you name it, more than five hundred in all. Among the Canadian contributors is the current CBC’s Massey Lecturer, Wade Davis. The only Nova Scotian I identified was Natalie MacMaster, who spoke eloquently through her fiddle.

TED Talks are capped at 18 minutes, and more than 500 have now been posted on the Web. Among other things, they’re a free video library of the world’s great masters of the art of public speaking people like the astonishing Tony Robbins, who appeared in Halifax a few months ago. Robbins’ presentations often include teaching participants to firewalk, trotting barefoot across a bed of burning charcoal. He calls himself a “peak performance coach,” and is said to earn $30 million a year at it.

Much of what Robbins says consists of truisms, standard motivational exhortations about focussing on your goals, harnessing your emotions and so on but truisms are truisms because they contain a good deal of truth. Robbins’ TED Talk is absolutely compelling because he believes in his message so profoundly and has such an astonishing capacity to engage the audience. At one point he lists the typical excuses people give for failure. Didn’t have… the time, the money, the resources… Didn’t have…

“…the Supreme Court!” calls a voice from the audience. The camera swings around to reveal an impishly-grinning Al Gore. Robbins who is six-foot-seven bounces off the stage, high-fives Gore, bounces back up and cheerfully responds that in his opinion, if Gore had presented himself to the electorate with the passion and clarity he showed in An Inconvenient Truth, the election would never have gone to the Supreme Court in the first place.

The array of TED presenters is astonishing. Recently, roboticist David Hanson showed TED audiences the prototype of an “empathetic robot,”with leading-edge latex skin, tiny cameras in its eyes, sophisticated algorithms in its silicon brain, and a complex set of motors that mimic the muscles in a human face. The result is a realistic-looking “Einstein” that follows your face, frowns when you frown and smiles back when you smile.

At the other end of the spectrum is William Kamkwamba, a young Malawian who, at 14, read a library book that explained how electricity can be generated. Scavenging a car fan and a bicycle generator, he built a rudimentary wind-generator that produced enough electricity to power four light bulbs and two radios — the first electricity his family had ever had.

Among the all-time favourites among the TED speakers is British educator Sir Ken Robinson, very entertainingly making the case that creativity is our most valuable human quality and that our schools systematically mash creativity out of children. Almost all kids are endlessly creative, bold, imaginative and fearless, but such qualities rarely survive exposure to the educational system.

Robinson illustrates his point by describing a young girl concentrating ferociously on a picture she was creating. What, a teacher asked, was she drawing?

“A picture of God,” said the girl.

“But nobody knows what God looks like,” said the teacher.

“They will in a minute,” replied the girl.

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