I’m currently in Banff at TEDSummit 2016. It’s only the third day, and already I feel intellectually and emotionally drained. The talks yesterday were fantastic, and I woke up still thinking about them and all the great discussions taking place outside the halls and during our excursions here into nature. A few that stand out:
A very brave woman from a certain middle eastern country stood on stage yesterday in complete darkness. The TED cameras were turned off, and the two thousand or so attendees were warned that any photographs could get her killed. This was repeated again so that we could really take it in. It’s sobering that this is the reality in more than a few corners of the globe, the danger of speaking one’s thoughts.
She came out on stage and explained how she has come out in the virtual world. She talked about being a woman and being gay in her home country. She is an activist through social media, but her family can not know she’s gay. She talked about her struggles and her strengths and the strength of the women and the LGBTQ community in her country. And the fact that they aren’t going away, that they refuse to give in, and that they are finding one another online and finding a power in their collective voices there.
Technology is having influences on individuals and groups alike. For some minority communities, it’s the only way to speak out safely and to find others in similar situations. It’s the only way to have a voice, both individually and collectively. But technology is having other influences. It’s a place to recruit extremists and to plan attacks. And more broadly, it can lead to misplaced anger. In a conversation with Rod Brooks, the founder of iRobot and Rethink Robotics, it was suggested that the employment effects of technology are now being blamed on immigration. Just as the Great Depression may have been caused as much by tractors and the displacement of agricultural workers, the tensions here in the States and abroad (like the UK) may be due to employment shifts that are much swifter than demographic shifts.
Another incredible talk came from a woman with myalgic encephalomyelitis, or chronic fatigue syndrome. It was one of the most powerful talks I’ve ever seen. Again, it came with a preamble and a warning. We were not to applaud at any time. Instead, we waved our hands above our heads like we would for someone who was deaf. Any kind of stimulation can be exhausting for someone with ME.
Watching Jennifer speak from her wheelchair, pausing to catch her breath now and then, laboring through both physical and emotional exhaustion, brought this disease to life. More people suffer from ME than MS, and the funding is sparse. A mere $5 spent per patient, compared to thousands per AIDS patient and hundreds per MS patient. Part of the problem with ME is that sufferers simply disappear from view. They crawl into darkness. It is an invisible but pernicious problem.
The other and more ruthless impediment is the shame and humiliation those with ME suffer as they are told there’s nothing wrong with them, that it’s all in their head, that they should just overcome the disease with a force of will. Because we do not yet fully understand ME, doctors look to psychological explanations. Jennifer tells us that it’s far better to say “We don’t know.” But the suffering is real. Jennifer will pay a heavy cost for traveling here from Boston, but she gives a face and a voice to the disease. It was a courageous display that brought me to tears.
There are themes that emerge with any conference like this. I’ve seen it before, and it arises organically from the issues boiling at the surface, that we bring together from all over the world. Brexit has been a regular topic, and AI has dominated many discussions. There are three talks this week on the blockchain, the technology behind Bitcoin, and the ways it can be used outside of currency. Some of these are going to be critical for artists, and I’ll devote an entire blog post to that. One speaker claimed that the blockchain is more important to the future of society than artificial intelligence, and he proceeded to make a decent case.
Beyond the ideas that percolate, and all the stories that are now begging me to be written, are the people. Friends I haven’t seen in a few years. Friends I bump into a few times a year and am able to pick up right where we left off. And then those personal heroes whose books have been brilliant guides, whose ideas have been sweet companion, and the chance to not just thank them but to hear what they’re working on now, what they think is next.
Possibly the best idea I’ve heard this week is the need to take conferences like this and get them further afield. The TEDx conferences are part of this effort. But last night, a thought occurred, one I want to work on or hope someone else would be interested in brainstorming with me. We wear these name tags here that reveal who we are, where we’re from, and a few topics we’re interested in. Even around town, outside of the conference, we tend to wear them. And they serve as constant invitation to join any conversation, mid-sentence, and listen or contribute.
Like a steakhouse where you turn up a token if you want more service, and flip it over if you would like to be left alone, I would love to see the use of these name tags in the wild. Open source them. Have them be more common. A signal that there’s an open mind here, one looking for debate, or an exchange of ideas, or just interested in hearing who you are, what you are thinking, how you are feeling.
I would wear one of these 80% of the time. Being able to walk up and introduce yourself to anyone at any time and commune is a recipe for expanding empathy, sharing ideas, pushing conversations upward and animosity downward. What do you think? Would you wear one? And what would your badge say?