Eight simple things you (might) have learned from TEDxKC 2012
The Kansas City Star
Last week, TED took over Kansas City.
TED, which stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design, is an upscale series of speaker conferences run by the California-based non-profit Sapling Foundation. They began in 1990, in Silicon Valley, as a retreat for forward-thinking billionaires, world leaders, and the occasional Nobel Prize-winning physicist to gather and decide the fate of the world. In the nicest possible way. Specifically, they gathered to hear the conference’s signature “TED talks” – extremely short speeches on potentially world-changing ideas. In 2006, the catalog of TED talks were made free to watch online. The videos have since become a global phenomenon, with a still-booming library of more than 1,000 videos registering something like 500 million total views.
Beautifully-branded, an odd mix of elitist and egalitarian, part-university, part-church, part-infomercial, TED encapsulates all the best and worst qualities of Silicon Valley. Whether an economist, choreographer, or ex-President, every TED talk somehow is an embrace of the valley’s signature vision; a more altruistic kind of capitalism, based on enlightened self-interest,and fueled by a burning if occasionally too-sunny faith in the power of human beings to overcome human problems.
In 2009, TED franchised. Kind of.
Acolytes were allowed to apply for a license to hold TED sanctioned events in their own city. The “TEDx” prefix was born. In the four years since, more than 600 cities in nearly 100 nations have adopted one. Google “TEDxOP” and you might, for example, get links to the event in Overland Park set for October 17. Or you might be taken to the site for Portugal’s TEDxOporto.
KCMO’s own version of TEDx has been meticulously cultivated by Mike Lundgren, a partner at locally-based advertising firm VML, who has nurtured the event, creating a dynamic platform for showcasing the city’s burgeoning arts scene. The first TEDxKC included a performance by Mark Sutherland’s Urban Noise Camp, for instance, and it’s certainly no coincidence that Quixotic Fusion was invited to perform at this year’s main TED event in California after performing at KC’s local version last year.
Last week, along with a half-dozen or so before- and after-parties around town, TEDxKC returned for 2012. Having outgrown its first home at the Nelson-Atkins Museum, the event was this year at the Kauffman Center – and sold out weeks in advance. All ten presenters, including the Nelson-Atkins director Julián Zugazagoitia, a walking paraplegic named Janine Shepherd, and the preternaturally calm writer Max Strom, were filmed by KCPT. The public television station plans to air a highly-condensed version in November. If you can’t wait, though, here’s a list of what we learned.
From educator Shai Reshef, president of the tuition-free University of the People, we learned the (literally) revolutionary implications of technology that make a university-level education available to all, but that it’s still probably more fun to go to college if there’s keggers and a football team.
We learned about the Earth Harp, a combination of stringed-instrument and art installation in which wires of up to a 1,000 feet are strung between a specially-designed tuning block and, basically, almost anything else. Like the top of the Space Needle in Seattle, for instance. In the case of TEDxKC, the wires were strung from the tuning block on stage to the back of Helzberg Hall.
We learned from author John Jantsch how the most earthshaking changes can come from the most apparently obvious revelations. Like what happened, for instance, when a husband and wife team running a janitorial service came to the seemingly simple, but life-changing realization that nobody ever grows up dreaming of scrubbing other people’s toilets for a living.
We learned about Dear World, a mix of art project, business venture, and sociological experiment where people use temporary markers to write on their bodies. Dear World’s creator Robert X. Fogarty then takes their pictures, creating galleries of images that are funny, profound, haunting, cool, or all of the above. The idea worked especially well at TEDxKC, paired with local tattoo artists from Old Souls parlor to handle the penmanship.
We learned about singer-songwriter Amber Rubarth, cellist Dave Eggar, and Max ZT, who NPR called “the Jimi Hendrix of the hammered dulcimer.” Presumably that’s because Max has mastered and in some ways redefined his instrument, not because he dropped tons of acid at Woodstock.
From Jeff Carter, an expert on identity verification, we learned how eye-scanning technology coupled with GPS tracking will soon transform society. It seems all our lives are about to become infinitely easier. Either that, or society is just months from becoming a techno-dystopia in which our every move is controlled by giant, faceless multinational corporations. It wasn’t clear which.
From Samuel Arbesman, we learned many things. An applied mathematician and network scientist, a senior scholar at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation and a fellow at Harvard’s Institute for Quantitative Social Science, Arbesman spoke on the evolution of ideas, demonstrating with charts and graphs how human knowledge follows a specific and knowable pattern. If you want to know more, by his book “The Half-Life of Facts,” which comes out this month. Yours truly got lost after the words “applied mathematician,” and spent most of Arbesman’s talk daydreaming about kittens.
From John Gerzema we learned yet another aspect of masculinity’s wane. Gerzema wrote a forthcoming book, “The Athena Doctrine,” which posits that tomorrow’s successful leaders, be they male or female, will be those who solve problems using the values traditionally associated with femininity. We also learned, at least judging from the conversations in the Brandmeyer Great Hall after all the presenters were done, that the women who attended TEDxKC 2012 find the Athena Doctrine to be an extraordinarily appealing idea.