What is it when your mind is whirling with ideas from many gorgeous passionate performances on stage, you meet wonderful people at every turn, you are in a beautiful location, the sun is shining and your heart says thank you – It’s TED in Aspen Colorado, end of February early March 2008.

As you see it has taken me a while to write about my experience and my take aways. There are many reasons for that, some rather mundane and others emotional and then just that nagging feeling that I would not do it justice unless I processed it a bit. I am not sure I can anyway cause hey these are just flat language signs and what we experienced was a multi-sensory fiesta. This is an account of how I felt, things I knew would fit in my world mental models and conceptual mapping of what goes on, hence enabling me to add my extensions and experiences from other areas of my life. The piece is long!

First I’d like to say thank you Chris [ Anderson , curator of TED]. I found your approach on stage a key to the tone of the conference. Everything came across as a ‘as I feel right now’ and ‘if I can find the right words great’, heartfelt and honest, and yet clearly deeply woven into the lives and pursuits of those on the stage.

You told us that the gang over in Aspen was strangely good looking. We thank you for that too, we think :-). For those who weren’t there. There were 300 people in Aspen sharing the Monterey conference as it was happening. We got to sleep a bit longer, thank goodness. It was rather amusing as we clapped, cheered, gave standing ovations, sang ‘Ode to Joy’ from the top of our lungs all that to the large number of screens surrounding us at the home of the Aspen Institute, the Doerr-Hosier Center. Of course we were getting each other into a mood of sharing our views by doing that. Imagine 300 people not reacting in any way for 3.5 days. That would have been really strange. We did have the pleasure of having our ‘host’ Walter Isaacson and some of the key artists, sharing their views on the trials and tribulations of humanity on stage in Aspen, like for example the Raspyni brothers, one of whom was not shy with language and the other was not shy about the bare human, thanks guys I finally know what it was….

The stage darkened….a severe man appeared….and gently reminded us of the mortal coil.

….and we were rolling. Not down the inviting powdery hills of Aspen but up and down our own emotions. Awe, fear, disgust, horror, love, romance, passion, joy, sadness, compassion, care, delight, wonder……

Who are we?

We are our collective intelligence, our ability to write things down [ Louise Leakey ] – and now through semantic web among other things able to make better sense of all the writings.

A pattern in the clouds [Jay Walker from the Library on stage], making connections where other people don’t see them and many connections were made during the 3.5 days between the people attending and speaking ….sniff we did not get to mingle with many of the speakers from Aspen. Bob Geldof I do need to speak with you :-).

And remember that transferring 1M of data equals one lump of coal [ Walker ]. There is no such thing as a free lunch. So have your carbon off-sets been calculated right?

As we look into human existence through the ages and think how cool we are in this particular era/or not, remember that those hunting images in the caves are ‘Postcards of Nostalgia’ [ Wade Davis on Wayne Clayton? ], just like we might draw and write when we feel that way, just the same.

From the different visions of life we have drawn many cultures and created many memories, sharing in the larger human experience. We keep re-creating ourselves as we learn and understand ourselves, gosh that’s hard enough, and others. The Buddhist are seeking to understand existence, practicing in an ongoing empirical observation of the mind, without, mind you, getting stuck with a looped tape.

What we have is a rich tapestry of human imagination of what it means to be alive [ Davis ], expressed in 6000 languages (50% of which are not taught to children anymore), including several meaning systems and dialects and contexts. I mean you do the math. What chances do we have of truly understanding each other? I am hopeful despite the cousin of hope, despair. I learnt many languages at school and Lapp language is still taught at schools and universities in Finland. It was not one of the choices for me though. We did all learn Swedish as our second official language in Finland, rusty, very rusty, I digress.

……”I am just a guy and if I could just corner you with or without pony tail” [ Rives ; poet and ‘just a guy’]. Sorry, my memory fails on those details. Loved it! ….and what’s more it was performed locally by one of us in Aspen.

What does an artist make of millions of cans rubbished, zillions of sheets of paper used, barbie dolls thrown out, cigarette packets, statistics on cosmetic surgeries done to young adults to augment their breasts – as a 21st birthday gift from no doubt well meaning family……art of course and a message that sticks. A must see in an art gallery to get a good sense of the enormity of the issues we’re dealing with. Thank you Chris Jordan for those tiny people to provide us with a sense of scale, we were visually overpowered.

Have you ever been in space? Do you wish to go to space? I would love to go as far as to see Earth in its splendor and then later I’d like to visit another civilization, but I am told there may not be much hope of that. Who says? Well Stephen Hawking did, on screen from Cambridge, to the TED audience. But he had fun nonetheless on all of the 8 zero G trips of weightlessness as we witnessed.

I remember my lovely but firm teacher Mrs Soveri telling us at school that we’d be foolish and naive to believe that of all the galaxies etc out there we’d be the only ones so lucky to have life. Now it seems that it does really look like the chances of everything being just right for life as we know it are rather small [ Peter Ward – Astrobiologist ].

It seems one problem for that exotic holiday with aliens for me is distance. It was one thing to fly from Sydney to LA and then Denver and drive to Aspen than to go from Earth to a far away galaxy. So there you have it. Just need to work on it some more…..but as aging is a thing of the past, that people living now could perhaps live to be a 1000 years old (earlier TED promise), I might just get lucky about the space travel to another civilization and until then I’ll keep planning my tour of the ancient civilizations on Earth.

But who are we really? Are we what our left brain keeps hammering us about or are we the trip that our right brain would rather have us on? It was one of the most emotional experiences of TED to watch Jill share her experience of a stroke. Imagine she was able to observe and analyze a stroke as a neuroanatomist and then be like a child in wonder about the pixellated and beautiful world, struggling between the left and right brain extremes and moving from one to the other while thinking, I might not survive to tell this story and trying to get help. This is the journey that Jill Bolte Taylor took us on. We were in tears with you Jill. See the full presentation here.

What is our place in the universe?

For Patricia Burchat the trip is to the smallest of the smallest to understand the darkest of the darkest, namely dark matter and energy, to answer the biggest of the biggest of questions and the smallest. And I haven’t got a clue but boy did I listen intently and I really did think I got some of it but to try and put my spin on it, ouch. But wait until I speak about the other particle physicist.

After we dove into the insides of our brain we took another kind of trip to the space through the WorldWideTelescope, a project at Microsoft research lab, which got some noise even before the event in the blogosphere. Roy Gould, a Harvard University astrophysicist and Curtis Wong from Microsoft presented mesmerizing images of space and showed different ways we can leverage the free access to the compiled feed from the world’s telescopes. The tour we were shown was created by a 6-year old space enthusiast from Canada I believe. Let me know if I got the country wrong.

At the end of a day one we were entertained by “the guitar god(dess)” Kaki King. And the guy next to me, yes I know you know I know who you are, was immediately in love.

What is life?

If we are to believe the media, it is all about ‘Britney Spears’. We heard Alisa Miller talk to us about the media and the financial imperative and the fact that covering ‘Britney’ is cheaper, so these are the reasons which shape the way those ‘non existent but worth dreaming about’ aliens view us. Very odd indeed.

Not so in Craig Venter’s opinion. It is not about Britney at all. It is about a new phase in biology. We are at the point of synthesizing life and having biological software capable of building its own hardware, to put into a 21st century language, as Craig did. And by the way, he has a modest goal of replacing the current petrochemical industry with designer fuels. The ones in the industry which have chosen to work with Craig are the lucky ones.

Beware of what you let lose and the repercussions when culture evolves after taking notice of what you let lose. The warning came from Susan Blackmore the author of “The Meme Machine”. Meme = that which is imitated. Machine = that which imitates, us. We are the machine playing havoc with the cultural constructs, like languages. And now we’re getting to the third replicator the ‘Temes’ = copying by machines [with variation, selection, heredity]. The first replicator is the genes, which oh by the way Craig Venter mapped for us, and what a genius, modest and patient man.

Over the Xmas period I read two books on Thomas Jefferson. I had somehow come across quotes and other things by him and decided it was time to understand this American president better. A fascinating character with paradoxes in what his ideals were and what he had to live with. I was rather excited to hear from Doris Kearns Goodwin talk about the presidents on whom she has written: Johnson, Kennedy, Roosevelt and Lincoln. Her story on stage had personal life intimacy with at least one of the interviewees weaved in with her other life experiences.

Is beauty truth?

Learn to enjoy it and temper it. It, what it? Ah the enjoyment….why on earth do we always have to curb the beautiful, the fun, the joy…what’s with that?

I had high hopes for this segment. Unfortunately we missed out on Nancy Etcoff as she could not be there due to illness.

Although I am really tired of human behavior all coming down to a basic biological drive to find fertile partners and for the species to survive, very tired, however ‘true and important’ that might be.

Beauty as complexity shown in a simple model was the message in Garrett ‘the surfer dude’ Lisi’s theory of mathematical shape called E8. That went over my head, but it does translate to beautiful images, so it must be true :-). Some scientists seem to think that he is really onto a unifying theory. Lucky we’re getting those tapings so I can go over that one again.

What is beauty for a fashion designer? For the first time in TED’s 24 years a fashion designer – Isaac Mizrahi – got on stage to take us through ‘the process’ of his creativity. How likely is that? One thing is for sure, he takes observation very seriously and has an eye for things the rest of us would miss completely. So if you have a man strangely interested in a fold in your blouse it is probably a fashion designer, probably Isaac himself, doing research. No but seriously he uses his understanding of the tricks our eyes play on us as fodder for design ideas and has a keen eye for detail and a very low threshold for boredom driving him to look for new things.

Did you know that we were not sure what painting depicts Leonardo da Vinci, if any, until Sigfried Woldhe showed us in one of the 3 minute segments and through a very convincing argument, which pictures from history are Leonardo and at what age. Neat!

…..and then the question; is truth beautiful? I don’t think it is always very pretty, no, but always worth striving for cause everything else gets very convoluted, confusing and hard to live with. It seems that Richard [ Saul Wurman: founder of TED ] and Chris [ Anderson ] had that conversation and decided it was time to make life easier for them and others and get it all out…..and out it came. Good mates now!

Will evil prevail?

Oh boy. This is where the audience was warned of difficult to view images and given a chance to leave. We got to witness images well beyond those shown at the time of the Iraq US military torture breaking out as a story in the news. The reason we saw those images is that Philip Zimbardo was part of the investigation into what happened and why happened. He says that many of us are capable of atrocities if the system is geared that way. What is needed is to make us more aware of that possibility and to nurture the hero side of us more. He’d like turn us all into heros! So what is your response when someone tells you not to get involved, turn a blind eye to something which is not right? He says, “Humanity is my business” and gets involved.

How can we change the world?

This was a segment where three very hard working individuals got to talk to us about how they plan to change the world. These were the TED Prize winners. Dave Eggers is putting learning and fun into cities around the US – at the moment – but perhaps through the TED community he is now well on his way to many other places too. Karen Armstrong wants to bring different religions around the same table and stop fragmenting the society due to beliefs. She wants to bring about a movement of compassion. Neil Turok, a cosmologist, wishes to bring science to many parts of Africa through AIMS [ African Institute for Mathematical Sciences ]. There is more information on these winners on the TED site so if you are inspired by what these wonderful people are doing you can pitch in.

How do we create?

From an inner confusion which does not match the outer order we see things differently. I think it is true that many TEDsters are somehow a little lost in the world we live in as the world as we see it is a miss match due to its slow moving institutions and poorly conceivable realities of the politically or financially driven discourse.

Yves Behar designed the Jawbone, bluetooth ear piece, ‘one laptop per child’ laptop, leaf lamp, NYC condom [launched Feb 14th]. Yves’s is driven to work on the whole human experience. “The values the designer brings to a project create the value”. “Design is never done”. “Designing from the inside out, no more slapping skins on”. Unlike what the poor designers had to contend with at Nokia at least in the mid 90s….

For Amy Tan it all starts in moral ambiguity. She does not believe in absolute truths she believes in the specifics in the situation and then she also says that beliefs is where the story lies:

….find particles of truths

….not complete answers

….there is uncertainty

….then there is that something, new, different

….there is an answer – of imagination

….imagination is the closest thing to feeling compassion

….then she becomes that story

How about some brain opera? ….and how about producing not the just music but visual images of the music too? Future of an instrument is a compilation of all instruments in one. I saw a great example of this on stage in Melbourne last year when James Morrison composed and played jazz with his electronic “I don’t know what to call it”. At TED we saw Dan Ellsey, a quadriplegic, express his musical genius through the new approaches being developed at MIT in programs led by Tod Machover. Brilliant stuff! The little bit of piano that I play – and want to dive into it more and more – certainly gives me great pleasure. Tod says that music is better if you make it and he is working hard to make it accessible to many. Music is a form of communication and speaks plenty about me and others, it transforms mind, body and our communication. According to the programs on their way at MIT we will soon all be able to create our own personal operas.

What’s out there?

Some unknowns still to be uncovered. Brian Cox, a particle physicist, stepped on stage and with his smiling rock star demeanor charmed us all into the Hadron Collider [ CERN ] looking for Higgs, the ‘missing link’ of the particle world. He quoted, not that Brian seemed to fully subscribe to this, Ernest Rutherford, who said “All science is either physics or stamp collecting” 🙂

Robert Ballard, noted for many achievements in our gorgeous guide book and ‘oh, and he found the Titanic’. The ocean explorer presentations given were a beautiful journey into an unknown so very close to where we play and work and yet so little has been really duly mapped or understood of oceans. There are lakes inside the oceans and waterfalls. Don’t believe me? Watch the presentations on TED when they come out. In Aspen in fact we were lucky as we had two top ocean explorers in the audience who gave us a 3 minute look into the wonders of the water world.

Imagine this, mushrooms may just be our saviour [ Paul Stamets ], crows can start to be much more than a pest cause they are rather clever, with some enticements [ Joshua Klein ], there is a whole new world up the top of the Redwood Sequoia trees, which reiterate life of their dying trunks [ Richard Preston].

What will tomorrow bring?

Mediocristan versus Extremistan? Average means nothing, so respect the under served. We need to get the economists feeling again beyond the representation of the graphs. Do you live in the winner takes all world? This is where major upheavals and exception dominates the socioeconomic variables and it is getting worse, says Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

Peter Schwartz reminded us that, “Future isn’t what it used to be”, by Paul Valery did not mean to be a pessimistic outlook on the future but rather that the pace of change is faster and multifaceted.

What stirs us?

Love is in the air…. Always and always. Love is a bummer of a thing and don’t we all know it [ Jill Sobule thank you for those gorgeous songs ]. Helen Fisher told us that no we’re not alone and yes she does go through all the same stuff the rest of us do. She is able to spot it in our brains too. My question is, can she make the pain go away? “The less my hope the harder my love”, is the human tragedy.

“The only way for me to be human is for you to reflect me back to me”, says Chris Sabani. Chris is a novelist who has had to ensure torture in his home land Nigeria when he published his first novel depicting a, too realistic I guess, Nigerian coup. He taught us about optimism through his life story and relationship with mum who among other things said “Anything a man can do I can fix”. Cute!

I have written earlier about Martin Luther King’s motto “I have a dream” – he did not say “I have a problem”, Ben Zander gave another view to the same motto. What if he’d said/thought “I have a dream, but I am not sure they’re up to it”. As a conductor of an orchestra and as a leader of TEDsters into singing “Ode to Joy” at the top of our lungs he believes that the essence of leadership is to believe in the people. He may not always like what he hears, but he orchestrated us all into our best performance yet. Well done!

Go see Johnny Lee show how a wii can be used in amazing and at fraction of the cost for collaboration environments.

How dare we be optimistic?

We need compassion to get started and then we need to be enlightened to get serious is the recipe from Paul Collier who has worked on alleviation of poverty for a long time. The question for him is, “How to give credible hope to the bottom billion?”

Eric Kuhne is working on, among other buildings, the “House of Humanity” in a not to be mentioned nation in the Middle East. He wishes to restore the storytelling qualities of cities that have been stripped bare by modernism.

“To solve the climate crisis we have to solve the democracy crisis” Al Gore.

And the point?

“If you were happy you would not have to say it”, John Francis’s mother

Jonathan Haidt, check out your moral position here

“TED is the Olympics of unreasonable people”, Bob Geldof

To conclude I’ve picked one appropriate quote from the book of wonders which contained everything we needed to know and did not dare ask about our speakers and TED, in fact the quotes in it are a treasure I’ve just uncovered:

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you could not live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions.” Rainer Maria Rilke

PS: Thank you for the TED team who, exhausted from the event, either hung around some more or took the trip from Monterey to meet with us in Aspen for the apresTED skiing and party.

I have added a few links to the talks to make it quick to get there but for the rest please go to the www.ted.com site direct. All the videos are being uploaded as production cranks them through.

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5 Responses to TED@Aspen 2008

  1. Andy Hines says:

    Very inspiring!

  2. Thanks, Dominique. Wonderful piece.
    Do I understand you were at the Aspen Institute, getting Ted by satellite?

  3. Jan Amkreutz says:

    I wasn’t there, but now I was. What a joy to read, Dominique

    Jan Amkreutz

  4. dj says:

    Hi Jennifer, yes we got TED via satellite, live. It was a very high quality set-up which meant that the experience was ‘immersive’.

  5. Janine Cahill says:

    Hi Dominique
    This is a beautiful piece. Thank you for sharing it. I hope you will speak at a foresight and innovation hothouse on this. Its so rich and insightful. i will sort out dates soon and check with you. Thanks again

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