‘We spend money we don’t have on things we don’t need to impress people we don’t care about.’
Fresh from Oxford, Contagious’ co-founder Paul Kemp-Robertson offers his perspective on the world’s most intense conference experience…
It’s not always easy being an Adland native in the crowd at a TED conference. If you haven’t saved the world or don’t own enough liquid capital to die trying, then the whoops that greeted this jibe from economist Tim Jackson can make you feel like a dumb jock who’s accidentally stumbled into the Chess Club Christmas party.
But maybe that’s just my insecurity and the nagging suspicion that my soul has been stress-fractured thanks to 20 years of commentating on the mechanics of mass consumption. When the biggest task you’ve recently completed is a speech on ‘advertising as a conversation’ and you’re suddenly surrounded by AIDS activists, women’s rights campaigners, MIT brainboxes and people who’ve spent their retirement fund building an eco-school in the middle of a jungle, it’s hard not to feel just a teeny bit marginalised and shallow. But then, I guess, such abrupt introspection is actually part of the value of TED. The compressed intellectual energy of the 18-minute speeches certainly dragged this editor out of his corporate cocoon and berated and beguiled him in equal measure.
Don’t get me wrong, I love my job and I’m proud to have played a role in building the Contagious brand during a period of intense change and fragmentation. But commenting on the ad business as it confronts the challenges of a new century feels like reading road signs in the fast lane. What TED is good at is dragging you away from the rut of routine and forcing you to confront concepts and issues that hover on your peripheral vision. AA Milne put it much better than I ever could (and props to Arup’s Chris Luebkeman for reminding me of this quote): ‘Here is Edward Bear, coming downstairs now, bump, bump, bump, on the back of his head, behind Christopher Robin. It is, as far as he knows, the only way of coming downstairs, but sometimes he feels that there really is another way, if only he could stop bumping for a moment and think of it.’
To paraphrase another speaker – rational optimist Matt Ridley – TEDGlobal is where ideas have sex. (It’s also the kind of event that introduces people with job titles like ‘rational optimist’ or ‘retronaut’ without a snigger.) There’s an excellent overview of the conference here and a round-up of the handiest quotes here.
But for what it’s worth, my favourites were:
Who’s The Teacher? / Indian-born, Newcastle-based educational researcher Sugata Mitra got a standing ovation for his remarkable experiments in rural India that demonstrate the power of self-organized learning environments: ‘If children have interest, then education happens.’
Turkish author Elif Shafak on the politics of fiction.
Sheryl WuDunn, womens rights advocate and co-author of Half the Sky on how to eke opportunity out of oppression.
Matt Ridley / Trade is ten times older than farming.
Pyscho-economist, Sheena Iyengar on ‘The Art of Choosing‘. I will definitely appropriate her slide of the Monstromart in the Simpsons, ‘Where Shopping is a Baffling Ordeal.’
Tan Le, head of Emotiv Systems, unveiled a next-gen human-machine interface – a headset that takes input directly from the brain in order to move, for example, a wheelchair or objects inside a computer game.
Surprise visit by Wikileaks founder, Julian Assange ‘Capable, generous men do not create victims, they nurture them … I’m combative. There is another way to nurture victims and that is to police the perpetrators of crime.’
From the marketing universe, Google‘s Dan Cobley ran a session at a fringe (TED ‘University’) event, ingeniously linking the laws of physics to the needs of modern marketing. Alex Kelleher, ceo of Cognitive Match used brain tracking data to show that consumers subconsciously prefer circular logos and rounded product design because of an innate fear of objects that are predominantly formed of straight lines.
TED manages to be both elite and egalitarian at the same time. The high price-point restricts the crowd to clusters of high net worth Boomers, corporate high fliers, NGO champions, speech circuit academics and inquisitive venture capitalists. However, for those who can’t stump up $4,500 + accommodation for a week of high octane speeches and nightly bouts of power networking inside museums, abandoned churches and former prisons, TED.com generously presents eavesdroppers with a fast-flowing stream of free content and commentary.
As Elif Shafak pointed out, imagination is a suitcase. I’m glad mine got to travel for four precious days.
Photo credit / James Duncan Davidson / TED