TedX Uchicago… Ideas (Possibly) Worth Spreading

This post is a kind of “Cliff Notes” to the TEDx Uchicago held this past April 17th… and a little more.

This past January I was invited to be the MC for the TEDx Uchicago. I accepted the offer as a good-willing alumna and with hopes of supporting the enterprising undergrads who decided to sink their teeth into the TED “movement.”

If you aren’t familiar with TED, the official version runs along the lines of the following:  TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) is a nonprofit effort devoted to “ideas worth spreading.” It originated as a single, four-day conference in Monterrey, California 25 years ago. Now an annual event, the conference invites the “world’s leading thinkers and doers” to speak for 18 minutes. Since 2006 many talks have made it online, where they can be viewed for free. And viewed they are.  In July 2010 290 million global viewers were watching, (bringing an interesting perspective to the phrase “the whole world is watching” but more on that later).

TED speakers are usually extremely effective and charismatic, they have bitten off an unusual or urgent problem and are wrassling with it full force; they look at the world through unique lenses, or they’re just extremely good communicators and help bridge the gap between the technical and the wonderful. (Plus they get pulled off the stage just about the time you’d need a commercial break.)

“TEDx” is the way TED is going “to scale.” You may not get accepted for the California conference. You may not have the bucks (reported at $6,000) it will take to get in the door if you’re lucky enough to be invited after you apply. But you CAN organize your own event.

And so, back to TEDx Uchicago 2011.

After getting the schedule two days before the event I sat down to actually script the program. Naturally any event hosted at the University of Chicago needs to be grounded appropriately. Of course I indulged in the expected happy slights: “You know the University of Chicago:  The place where fun comes to die.”  “Where the most popular shirt says ‘Because I was waitlisted at Hogwarts.'” “It’s 9am on Sunday. Welcome to the church of the mind – or did some of you stop at Crerar Library on the way over?” “Myth-busters alert: The size of the dorm rooms at Pierce Dormitory do NOT violate U.S. Prison Codes.” (And so on.)

When it came time for closing remarks I tried to summarize what the audience of 600+ heard from speakers throughout the day through the filter of the conference theme, “Reinventing the Life of the Mind”  – with acknowledgements to speakers along the way.  (*Cue: This is the Cliff Notes portion of this post).

Reinventing the life of the mind may require we keep the following in mind: Legalize marijuana and license vice (Leitzel); visualize sound in terms of symmetry (Cabral); see the shape and form in science, visualize what can’t be seen (Sereno); and keep in mind that you don’t need to see to believe or to build (Downey).

We cannot reinvent ourselves without others. 

The way we communicate is pathetic – it’s so “coded” and oblique. If we could crack the code through cybernetic transplants we could get REALLY personal (Warwick). We become our best selves through challenge. (Csikszentmihaly)  If Facebook were a country it would be the third largest in the world (Katz) – but collectively we are – and MUST – be about so much more than Farmville.  The revolution of reinvention can, it must, begin with a constitution conceived in liberty for ALL. (Sanchez de Lozada) Considering the needs of others does not have to mean that we can’t make financial profits. If anything, financial investing can be smart, non-exploitative, preserve the environment and do good, all at the same time. (Greenblatt)

So let us be intentional and explicit – in word AND gesture – about our purposes, our ends. (Goldin-Meadow) In fact, if we choose “a new gold standard” we will discover the resources in ourselves to be change makers. (Inglis)

We are in control of our destinies. We must invent the future we see in our minds’ eye. But if that future is to be for all people, rich AND poor, we must leave the 19th Century model of education in the past. (Strong) The future is about questions (Wolcott) – and asking questions leads to liberation.

As we think of the future, we have learned today that we may predict with some degree of certainty that we can look forward to TEDx Uchicago 2012. (Frey)

TEDx Uchicago was a blast, was Tweeted, was LinkedIn, covered in the school newspaper, the Maroon  and was livestreamed. I like doing stage production; writing under duress and delivering the speech before the ink is dry is fun. And, for a Battlestar Galactica fan, how uncanny and cool is it to get to meet and introduce Kevin Warwick  – someone who is actually trying to become a Cylon? (Sure, he calls it “Cyborg” but we know what’s really frackin’ going on.)

TEDx Uchicago is not the only TEDx I’m involved with. Through Project Exploration I’m involved with TEDx Midwest and TEDxMidwest Youth efforts.

But I’m not a believer. I am not a “TED-Head.” I am suspicious. I had someone tell me that TED the ‘contribution of our generation’ under the impression that my involvement meant that I, too, was on board with the movement.

Critiques of TED are not rampant, though there are a few. For the most part complaints target the elitist nature of “getting in.” Event organizers try to create an environment of intimacy and exchange;  a chance for audience members to mix easily with presenters and for ideas to flow like wine (or is it honey?). Who wouldn’t want to be picked?

But as the TEDx Youth event approaches this fall I am trying to work through what, exactly, my issues are, with the endeavor, particularly given how many teachers,  colleagues and friends I know who love the TED videos.

The well-produced videos of TED presenters are manna from heaven for teachers who are in need of concise, compelling explanations and inspirations from passionate experts to use in classrooms. The presentations are free online – really free – you can just watch them. Talk about public education for the 21st Century.

These are good things.

But if it takes work to pry open the doors of auditorium to get in as an attendee (which is what’s at the heart of my efforts with the TEDx Midwest Youth event – leveraging this opportunity for my students to get in the door, get front row seats and have a chance to be affirmed as well as inspired in their own endeavors), it remains to be seen what can possibly be done with the speakers.

Candice Katz and Gabrielle Lyon at TedX Uchicago - April 17, 2011

We can hope the line-up at the UChicago event is not par for the course for TED or TEDx in general. Of the 15 speakers on the program 2 were women. One of these, however, was a last-minute fill-in. Which means that if Candice Katz  – cupcake afficionado, gamer and geek extraordinaire –  and had not shown up to fill in for Adi Sideman on behalf of Oddcast there would have been 14 men and 1 woman.  (I am not counting myself, though my time on stage probably added up to 18 minutes when all was said and done). Furthermore presenters were 75%  Caucasian; not particularly representative of the population of Chicago, and not representative of the current student population of the University of Chicago either.

How is this possible? Part of the issue stems probably stems from who is in the room when planning begins, who knows who, who has connections to whom, and who thinks what is cool.

Another way of thinking about it is “like begets like.” It’s something I’ve been thinking of as the “Groupon Effect.”

The bodega in my neighborhood will never be listed on Groupon. No-one who works at Groupon will ever go into the bodega or consider what it might have to offer. And so my neighborhood bodega, which makes the best tamales in the city of Chicago, will never be overrun by people who have discovered it through Groupon. Because Groupon will never discover it.

Which brings us back to the title of this blog.

What ideas are worth spreading? It depends on who you ask. Or, in the case of TED, who you know or who you’ve heard of.  The origins of TED are rooted in the idea that the convenings should be designed to feed, inspire and expand people’s minds and imaginations (as opposed to drifting into current events, or the political.) I get the power of origins and I appreciate the founders’ intents on this front.

But herein, perhaps, lies the root of the struggle ahead in my blossoming relationship with my new friend TED. Life is not apolitical. The issues affecting WHO has a chance to “explore and discover” are rooted in classism and racism. And while TED as an endeavor may not be racist or classist, the active goal is to bring together the “best,” the “most,” “world-class,” “remarkable” “extraordinary” people. The antonyms of these words include “common,” “low-class,” “ordinary,” “poor,” and, of course, “worst.”

So, the crux of the issue may become (when it comes to the audience members for the youth event,) who is the “best?” In upcoming months, as recruitment for the audience of the  TEDx Midwest Youth event takes shape, we have a chance to define this -and this is the area I’m chewing on. I’ll continue to do what I can to encourage the “higher-ups” who make the decisions about these things, that in their drive to surface “the best and brightest” students we should be look for students who may not be that shiny yet; that the “most deserving students” may not be that driven or extraordinary yet; that the students who ought to get in as audience members may not have heard of TED yet. 

Because if there is one idea that may be worth spreading, it may be one that was put into place in the early days of the University of Chicago: the youngest, greenest students (aka “first-years”), if they are to be inspired to be scholars in earnest, need to be taught by the best teachers.

This may be an idea  worth spreading… Now we just have to get the “right people” in the room.

Project Exploration at TedX Midwest 2010

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