Yes, it's elitist. Yes, sometimes the presenters and their audience can be too full of themselves. But I've yet to attend a day of TED when something hasn't made me rethink something. We had all of that today.
I am disappointed to report that, unlike yesterday, no one on the stage destroyed any mosquitoes with a bright green laser. But, except for one very wrong move (inviting the far more unfunny than uncomfortable Sarah Silverman) and the occasional dud (people: don't read papers and call them speeches!), the long day was full of delights both profound (George Church's investigations into synthetic biology) and ridiculous (you have not lived a full life until you've seen a tattoo of Maury Povich and Bigfoot shaking hands).
One of the day's strongest talks was by Bill Gates. He's spoken at TED previously on a variety of topics, among them education and malaria (last year he set free some mosquitoes from the stage to make a point about the latter). Today he directed his mind toward energy and climate; in particular how to get CO2 levels to zero. He builds that on what has become conventional wisdom among sustainability scientists: that the temperature will keep going up until we cut CO2 almost down to nothing. He presented an equation in which
Total CO2 = People x Services Per Person x Energy Per Service x CO2 per unit of energy.
So, if he's right, one of the variables on the right of the equal sign has to go down to zero. He argued why it won't be any of the first three and focused on the last one, CO2 per unit of energy. I suspect TED will post Gates' talk soon; we'll point to it and let the man speak for himself. But he looked at what needed to be done -- reducing and converting fossil fuels, managing nuclear energy in ways that are safe and don't promote proliferation -- and concluded we still need "an incredible miracle." He's investing in these areas and he was clear that he's early on in thinking about his problem, but one hopes he uses the same precision of vision he used for everything from organizing his foundation to vanquishing the Netscape browser.
One last note on Gates' talk: when he used the term "innovating to zero," it reminded me of Valerie Plame Wilson's talk yesterday about nuclear disarmament, in which she advocated getting nuclear weapons to zero, too. Those are laudable sentiments, of course, but especially in a room filled with technology executives, it's hard to imagine a world in which an entire technology stops being used. The world only spins forward, of course. The challenge may be one of managing what exists, rather than eliminating what won't go away.
Provocative in another way was Temple Grandin, whose known for being an expert in animal behavior, a designer in more humane storage and slaughter facilities, an advocate for the autistic, and an autistic person herself. She had a big point she wanted to make -- "The world needs different kinds of minds to work together" -- but she also had precise, deeply considered stories about how to treat animals and autistic children in much more helpful ways. When this talk is posted, it might make the same sort of impact Jill Bolte Taylor's talk in 2008 about experiencing her own stroke; Grandin's talk brought the audience into an unfamiliar world and made it, for 18 minutes at least, coherent.
Quickly (because there's another event about to begin): John Underkoffler, who invented the Minority Report screens that have led to such real-world gestural-interface systems as the Wii and the iPhone, showed some incremental advances in his work, often turning away from the audience like a conductor to summon images out of his giant screens; Wired's Chris Anderson showed a demo of his magazine in tablet form that (a) seems fluid and promising (b) crashed midway, which offers a neat metaphor for print publishing. Font designer Marian Bantjes delivered a very similar talk to the one she delivered at Pop!Tech in 2008, but once you got past the repetition you hear a fascinating message true for both artists and managers. When she does a work of art, she asks: Who is it for? What does it say? What does it do? She didn't say this, but if you don't have good answers to those three questions, you might want to ask a fourth: Why am I doing this?
As with yesterday, I wrote a longish post but left out most of the day's entertainment. One of many highlights today: David Byrne joined Thomas Dolby and the string quartet Ethel for a run at Talking Heads' "(Nothing But) Flowers." More on that later, because it is time for the next event ...