TEDGlobal Highlights: Day One

Posted by Maria Popova and Len Kendall

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Text by Maria Popova; artwork by Len Kendall

"The world craves good news. It is not in good shape, and we all know it. Even those who don't tend toward pessimism have a hard time not registering the headlines that remind us, minute after minute, of the spolitical, social, economic and environmental woes facing the planet." 

Inscribed on the first page of the TEDGlobal program guide is this reminder of just why "good news" – reframing the world as its potential for the positive, not its pathology for the negative – is not merely a good addition to our cultural dialogue, but a necessary one. 

Opening the Session 1, titled Global Century, former assistant secretary of defense Joseph Nye offered a basic definition: "Power is simply the ability to affect others to get the outcomes we want." But in emphasizing the complexities of modern power struggles, particularly in international conflict, Nye pointed out the need to create a new narrative for understanding power in the 21st century.

"It's not just whose army wins, but whose story wins."

Nye argued that traditionally, stories of rise and fall – of nations, of political powers, of ideologies – frame power as a zero-sum game of gains and losses. But in smarter conception of national interests, one combining hard power and soft power, could offer global positive sum by harnessing symbiotic gains for all parties through cooperation and dimplomatic method.

Women's rights crusader Sheryl WuDunn, author of the compelling Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, followed with a bold opening statement: "The central moral challenge of this century is gender inequality."

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Sheryl WuDunn, Women’s rights advocate, during TEDGlobal 2010 Session 1: Global Century, July 2010 in Oxford, England. Credit: James Duncan Davidson / TED

WuDunn backed up this seemingly overzealous contention with a deluge of stride-stopping, eye-opening facts and insights about the politics of gender, particularly in the developing world – for instance, the fact that in the past half-century, more girls were discriminated to death than all war casualties in the 20th century combined. Which isn't hard to believe once aware of the 800,000 annual victims of human trafficking and sex slavery. But investing in girls, WuDunn argued, doesn't merely alleviate human suffering, it also ties into the environmental dialogue by alleviating the overpopulation problem – while educated men tend to have only slightly fewer children, educated women have dramatically fewer.

Naif Al-Mutawa, creator of Ilamic superhero series The 99 in which the characters derive their powers from the 99 attributes of Allah, garnered the first standing ovation with his entertaining yet insightful journey into the intricacies of belief, identity and group self-identification. 

Happiness researcher Nic Marks offered a keen quote from Robert Kennedy – "The Gross National Product measures everything except that which makes life worthwhile." – as an eloquent reflection of the disconnect between economic prosperity and social well-being. He offered five research-based guidelines for true well-being:

Connect – sustain your social circle.

Be active – don't underestimate the revitalizing power of physical activity.

Take notice – practice mindfulness and presence in the moment.

Keep learning – curious people, research indicates, have better health outcomes. (Another case for the power of intellectual and creative curiosity.)

Give – a fitting allusion to reseach Sheryl WuDun cited, showing that once your basic needs are met, very few things can elevate your level of happiness and contributing to something bigger than you are is chief among them. 

Editorial cartoonist Patrick Chappatte delivered a winning combination of talent and humor with his witty cartoons and cultural commentary. "We used to have to go to stores to steal music," he joked in describing how the web has fundamentally changed the music industry.

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Patrick Chappatte, Editorial cartoonist, during TEDGlobal 2010 Session 1: Global Century, July 2010 in Oxford, England. Credit: James Duncan Davidson / TED

A sampler of Chappatte's fantastic work can be found in the anthology Partly Cloudy: Cartoons from the International Herald Tribune.

Session 2, titled Human Systems, opened Matt Ridley's provocatively framed talk on how ideas "have sex" – which was simply, though brilliantly, a homage to the cross-pollination of ideas as a breeding ground for innovation and creativity. The author of The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves made a case for the power of collective intelligence over individual IQ. He gave the computer mouse as an example, pointing out that no single person in the world knows how to make a mouse. A designer knows one aspect, an engineer another, a polymer chemist yet another, and so forth, illustrating the division of labor required for creating increasingly complex technologies.

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Matt Ridley, Rational optimist, during TEDGlobal 2010 Session 2: Human Systems, July 2010 in Oxford, England. Credit: James Duncan Davidson / TED

"Specialization has given us the ability to do things we don't fully understand."

The always-sharp Steven Johnson followed with a compelling investigation of where good ideas come from. He opened with a curious historical factoid – before coffeehouses, alcohol was the beverage of choice and people practically drank all day, which interfered with their ideation process. Once the coffeehouse took hold as a social space, alcohol consumption significantly delined and ideas got better. Johnson has been exploring such environments and spaces unusually full of ideas for shared patterns.

"An idea is not a single thing. An idea is a network."

Johnson went on to assert that an idea is merely a network of new connections that were never there before, connections between existing pieces of information, knowledge and insight.

"This is how innovation happens: Chance favors the connected mind."

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Steven Berlin Johnson, Writer, during TEDGlobal 2010 Session 2: Human Systems, July 2010 in Oxford, England. Credit: James Duncan Davidson / TED

Steven Johnson's remarkably promising new book, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, comes out on October 5 and is now available for pre-order.

Chris Wild, creator of the wonderful blog How To Be a Retronaut made a quick case for the value of looking into the past, which can be uncomfortable as we become increasingly fixated on the future. But the past, Wild argued, offers drafts of existence, of being alive, and is important to explore so we can make new drafts.

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Chris Wild, Retronaut, during TEDGlobal 2010 Session 2: Human Systems, July 2010 in Oxford, England. Credit: James Duncan Davidson / TED

Peter Molyneux demoed the fascinating Milo artifical intelligence system developed by Microsoft's Project Natal.

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Annie Lennox, Activist, singer-songwriter, during TEDGlobal 2010 Session 2: Human Systems, July 2010 in Oxford, England.TEDGlobal 2010. Oxford, UK, July 12-16, 2010. Credit: Robert Leslie / TED

For a perfect finish of the day, the astounding Annie Lennox – whose voice, like good whiskey, seems to only get better with time and never fails to intoxicate – delivered a performance both paralyzingly beautiful and crowd-rousing. And getting 700 brainiacs on their feet, singing and clapping to the beat of iconic music, is no small feat. Sweet dreams are made of this, indeed.

Maria Popova is the editor of Brain Pickings, a curated inventory of miscellaneous interestingness. She writes for Wired UK, Big Think and Huffington Post, and spends a shameful amount of time on Twitter.