TED Summit 2016

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?




32 responses to “TED Summit 2016”

  1. Mine would be for animal rights… Currently, my book, Brownstone, is available for PREORDER. A portion of my preorder proceeds is going to an animal rescue shelter. I hope to one day abolish ALL KILL SHELTERS. Imagine yourself in an animals position. You have every right to live, breathe & roam where you like. You get picked up one day while happily searching for food and thrown into a shelter. Your life was perfect before. You had a routine…but most of all, YOU HAD YOUR FREEDOM. THEN…after weeks/months of nobody adopting you, you’re put to sleep…

  2. I would most definitely wear such a name tag! What a great idea, being open and seeing who is open for talking, discussing, brainstorming. I think my tag would say “Tell me how I can help you?” Truly. I’m all about making life easier for people-one at a time-if I possibly can. Empathy is strong in this one ;) Thanks so much for sharing, Hugh.

  3. One warning about TEDx. It’s an interesting idea, but it’s execution overall is poor. They’ve exported the TED Talk format, but the quality-control is lacking and the speakers are not vetted particularly well. You might hear something fascinating, only to get home and discover the speaker is either exaggerating, unqualified, or simply a complete loon.

    1. Not necessarily true. The TedX are organized locally. So, if you have poor organizers, you receive poor results. TedX Fargo (yes, Fargo), has been a hugely successful program with quality speakers. No, not every speaker, but the experience as a whole has been fantastic.

  4. Your name tag idea is amazing and happening at the right time. We need to be more connected to see how we’re not alone, how others have similar ideas, and connection is possible. When we connect we are stronger than we are alone, better able to affect change for better in this world. We need to connect all the genuinely compassionate and caring people together to drown out the choruses of hate. We can’t allow evil to take over the planet. Too many souls are swept up by religions that spawn hate and superiority over certain groups, and these groups are gaining too much ground. All people are entitled to live and love free. (Hint – if your religion teaches you that other groups are wrong, or inferior, or should be annihilated, your religion doesn’t care about humanity, just self-perpetuating). Violence against humanity is violence. Unfortunately many countries are so repressive and disconnected from the real world, using propaganda to warp the perceptions of innocents who don’t even know there are alternative realities. I still believe change is possible. If not, humanity is in danger of extinction.

  5. This sounds like a mindblowing experience!! I could spend days watching the Ted talks (and often fall down that rabbit hole!!).

    The name tag idea is fantastic. Will you start this!? Make a printable on your site. I’ll put up a post on my blog, we’ll make it go viral. Topics for mine would be: Nikola Tesla, innovative education, and… probably a bunch more that would take up all the space on my name tag.

    1. Why not have a tag with a slot to hold a removable card (like a convention badge) with 3-4 topics on it? Interests evolve, as do priorities. Why not make the tags/cards flexible, too?

  6. Jennifer Daydreamer Avatar
    Jennifer Daydreamer

    I am interested in how you will circulate your badge idea. For starters, you can give a TedTalk on your idea. I think the general populace needs a common theme or excuse to wear the badge, so you can call the badge “The TedTalk fan club.” Maybe the organizers of TedTalk can sell these badges. The proceeds can go to promoting TedTalks or to help people in need. A website can be the TedTalk fan club and you get a badge that you can get updated with information whenever you want – the topics you enjoy talking about with strangers. They should make an effort to have the badges designed well, they should be cool, more like a long necklace chain than wearing a typical conference badge. Remember the rule: if its cool enough looking for teens, it might catch on. (I just made up that rule)

  7. Fascinating adventures you get to experience, Hugh. Thanks for sharing them with those of us who may not have the opportunity to enjoy such things firsthand.
    Your idea of tags is great! Not sure what label mine would have because there are so many living within me. We need to learn that we humans are all more connected than disconnected no matter what others try to tell us.

  8. I would not.
    Anonymity is wallflower power. Guilt by association is repellent to me and I therefore resist broad associations as a knee jerk reaction (probably has something to do with me being displaced a dozen times between the ages of 5 and 16). That isn’t to say that I am unwilling to insert myself into conversations with Jesse-salt-of the-earth-redneck or Hugh-boaty-mcboatface-author-man-millionaire. I’d just rather leave my pre-labelled baggage on the doorstep. I enjoy observing humans in their native habitats before presenting them with a challenge.

    1. I’d wear one, which surprises me. It would say something like “Dilatant. Interested in: Writing. Foster Care. Architecture. Gun Control, please. What’s the view like from your house? Tell me the truth. Tell me a good lie. Recent road trips? Cool bag. Do you know any poems by heart? Youth prison reform. Why did you choose sneakers in that color?

      I’m thinking I’d need something with a screen I can change… although dog tags would be way cooler.

  9. Absolutely brilliant idea! This could help so many shy and introverted people who long to connect with others, but simply don’t know how or can’t. You’d also know who doesn’t want to be bothered. I talk to strangers all the time and you can quickly get a sense of who isn’t in the mood to chat. That’s fine, with a badge that says, “I’m off now”, it would give a nice signal not to bother them.
    I wonder how many people would feel as though they are just too busy to be bothered by people to wear them. When I’m out and about, people seem to be scurrying from place to place in their own worlds trying to get as many items checked of the list as possible. And if you wear it infrequently, would you even remember to put it on, when you do have some extra time to connect with strangers?
    For me, I’d like a blank one to be filled in daily. Some days, I’d wear this:
    Talk to me about:
    People, places, things (nouns)
    Reading, writing, growing, etc. (action verbs)
    Feeling, being, desiring, expressing, etc. (non-action verbs)
    But other days, I would wear this one:
    If you need to talk about the latest _________ (shooting, bombing, rape, etc. – fill in the blank) or if you just need a shoulder to cry on, lay it on me.
    And some days:
    If I hear one more person say, ____________(it is what it is, think outside the box, etc.), I’m going to scream. High-five me if you agree.
    And at the end of each one, I’d add: Go Terps!

    1. We were discussing this here, and I said the same thing. I’d have a dozen different tags, probably. :)

    2. Another Terps fan! Go Terps! BTW I think the name tag idea is neat too. :)

  10. The tag idea is great, but instead of words to identify interests, how about using symbols? They overcome possible language barriers, and can be easily identifiable and understandable.

  11. Mine would say science.

  12. Mine would say Mom.
    It’s the majority of my identity, the name I answer to most often. It’s also the person every single one of my patients asked for before dying, and the saving grace my foster “siblings” and I ached for every night.

    I’d add a wave emoji, too. My 17 yr old has ME/POTS/dysautonomia. Some days that wave is something I’ve learned to ride, some days that wave is a tsunami.

  13. I’d do it. My tag would say “Tell me your story.” I love love love learning about the particulars of a persons past, the things they find most interesting about themselves, and the heavier the accent the better. And I love how the US is full of diverse people with all sorts of backgrounds. The way people tell their own story is something special.

  14. I like the idea of an identifier that indicates the holder of said identifier has an open mind and wants to engage with other such people.

    Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia has program called RevQuest. The thrust of the program is that participants act as secret agents during the American Revolution. Each participant is given a piece of dyed cloth to wear; it is by this cloth that participants are identified by CW staff (who are playing the role of spies and go-betweens) as well as by other participants. Many times I’ve seen people catch sight of my RevQuest cloth, and had them come up asking whether I’d figured out some aspect of the mission. It was a great icebreaker, and more than once I’ve met other folks that have wanted to spend time with people interested in all things Colonial.

    If something similar could become popular, it would be a fantastic way for open, inquiring people to find each other and make connections where there had previously been none. In my mind, it needn’t even been all that fancy; an eye-catching logo that could be on buttons, tags, t-shirts, etc. would be enough. I’d even forego having any additional information with the logo–leave the finding of common ground to the people making the connection. Serendipity has value.

  15. I want to share stories from our backgrounds–the stories told around kitchen tables and campfires, and on front porches. I love oral tradition and I believe in passing on the stories that are part of our families. All the way back to stories the first humans told in the cave that night after a hard day on the veldt.

  16. So, the take-away, Hugh, from a talk by a woman who can’t even be seen or she’ll receive deadly retribution for being gay, and a woman suffering from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, is to promote wearing name tags?

    You aren’t the first to think of such revolutionary things.

  17. Not sure I agree, I suffer from CRPS and I really don’t see how wearing a name tag that states I have this hidden condition would truly change anything… Seeing a name tag is much different than seeing a limb missing. People will believe something’s wrong when they see the limb missing and simply can’t fathom the unimaginable pain from simply seeing a nametag or hearing me say I suffer from the condition.

  18. I think the name badge idea would be quite alarming…as it would then cause many people to become curious;like when we were children. How many conversations did we have as kids, not concerned with our egos? I like the possibilities. There is such a need for dialogue among us all. My tag would say, “Yes?”

  19. The name tag idea is awesome! I’d love to have a virtual tag and an app that could ping those around me with my info while receiving theirs as well.

  20. Hugh, you once told me a story about a writer who had given up, and 5 years later, he became a sensation when his book spread like wildfire through book clubs. It’s that story that keeps me going.

  21. I like the nametag idea–especially if combined with an app where users could see what topics are open for discussion nearby. Seems similar to Meetup but with spontaneity so I searched and found the app PeopleHunt http://thenextweb.com/apps/2013/01/09/peoplehunt-this-new-iphone-app-is-like-meetup-for-spontaneous-get-togethers/#gref

  22. I always enjoy you well written thoughts. I’ve read most of your stuff. You’re an inspiration and have made a positive difference in my life. I’m 64, been a writer for over 40 years and plan to publish my first apocalyptic as a Christmas present to myself. Your work got my word motor running ☺ Thank you very, very much, Hugh.

    1. Pat, you just made my day! I’ve thought about when it would be time to give up. I’ve only been writing for 17 years and I’m 56 and still not published. So seeing someone persevere for 40 years – you have inspired me and given me an answer.

  23. Existence! let’s talk.

  24. I might, part of the time anyway. I am in a rural setting and no use to wear a name tag for the chickens and dogs.
    Mine would say:
    Vibrational energy
    Vibrational Universe

  25. I’m glad you were able to learn about CFS at the TED conference.

    I’m doing my best to make CFS better understood – but from the emotional side. I believe fiction has the power to break through the barriers people set up against having the outside world impinge on their consciousness to an undesirable level: we can’t exist if we worry continuously about every problem in our world.

    My novel Pride’s Children: PURGATORY has a CFS main character.

    I also believe that the harder a concept is going to be, the better the level of entertainment around it will need to be – I’ve tried to provide that. It’s on Amazon.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *