Of moonshots and dreadlocks
February 27, 2016
For years I have had the good fortune to attend the TEDActive conference, a gathering mostly simulcast that ran in conjunction with the other event, affectionately known as Big TED. Last May, TEDActive was dissolved. This year, I was invited to attend BigTED. It turned out to be radically different to be IN THE ROOM where the talks were being delivered as opposed to watching them on a screen.
The attendees in Vancouver were from 52 countries and included mere mortals and titans of industries who care about Technology, Entertainment and Design, the very core of TED created more than 30 years ago, first in secret, by a handful of creative left- and right-brained folks, at the MIT media lab.
This year’s theme was Dream — a broad umbrella covering a myriad of topics from astrophysics to the powerful planet saving measures undertaken by the tiny country of Buthan. It was, in a word, dizzying. All the attendees from founders/legends in the tech industry to Oscar-winning directors, actors and screenwriters to social justice advocates to musicians who are also philanthropists. Each talk required us to reconsider some tightly held belief or journey down a rabbit hole we never knew existed.
There were so many speakers and performers (over 100 in five days) you forget who was who and said what. Luckily for me, I have spent most of adult life taking notes. I am home now and looking at the scribbles in my journal filled with sideways writing in a variety of colors with underlines and bubbles and stars and goofy messages to self.
There was young girl, a published writer,10 years old, from India who spoke in the opening session and she said, "Instead of asking children what they want to be when they grow up … ask them what they want to be now." And when talking about educating children, she wisely said, "a hungry child cannot think about anything else but the desire to eat."
Astro Teller spoke-from Google X and kept talking about audacious ideas he called "moon shots" and throughout the week, other speakers used the same reference. It meant something so globally changing and far reaching and stretching, where everybody was on board and wanted to see the impossible happen.
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Dan Pallotta talked about the dark side of success when he felt "estranged from my dreams and my country." He declared (and had the crowd cheering in agreement) "the world could use more of the courage of astronauts and drag queens."
There was an entertaining psychologist who talked about "a**hole-ic" behaviors and we all knew exactly his clientele. Then a guy who designs programs for drones demonstrated them flying all around the theater and "performing" together, the dance of the drones, all lit up, like a dozen fireflies in formation.
The legendary comma queen copy editor from The New Yorker magazine made us laugh in grammar giggles at egregious misuse of all kinds of punctuation from well-known authors she would not reveal.
There was young black man with beautiful dreads curled down his back, like a coat with tails who explained his father had been a Marine, a police officer and, with a flip of his dreads "a hairdresser." He then went on to talk about being a public prosecutor and how he was trying to keep young men, mostly black, out of prison. And his work was so inspiring at the end of his talk, John Legend appeared on stage to sing and share his philanthropic work with incarcerated young men, which led to a live remote of a man soon to be released from San Quentin State Prison who was out in the yard, delivering a rap poem about hope for us by some kind of Skype set-up. Which led John Legend to sing "Redemption Song" and then embrace the prosecutor.
You cry at TED. And laugh. A lot. And listen to astrophysicists that stretch your understanding along with tech guys and medical explorers. The virtual reality experience from award-winning, music video creator, Chris Milk, suddenly seemed purposeful when he explained the funny cardboard box we were using, was really "an empathy machine."
When I get in the elevator late one night and I see the kid with his guitar case who is so shy and awkward he cannot make eye contact, I recognize him as one of the TED Fellows who just appeared on the TED stage with Amanda Palmer in a tribute to David Bowie and played the bridge of his guitar like a piano. He is from a South American country and very tall, thin, with dark, wild, curly hair and horn-rimmed glasses and a skinny tie with his dark suit. I want to say, "You are a god on that guitar" but I also recognize a fellow introvert and say nothing when he reaches his floor.
On the final day, at the final lunch, there are full-chested hugs and yes, still the archaic card exchange along with the TED Connect app we have been using. And a kind of joyful exhaustion, held at bay for a full week of early mornings and late nights and rapt all-day attention, finally creeps in.
I am home now with what attendees affectionately call the TEDache setting in and I realize, for a moment in time, I existed in the rarified air of possibilities and good news. It is dizzying what all that hope and dopamine can do. It will take some time to process, starting this very Sunday in the Park …
Teri Orr is a former editor of The Park Record. She is the director of the Park City Institute, which provides programming for the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Center for the Performing Arts.