Best of TED 2010: A Response!
A different take on this year's best TED talks.Every year, TED brings together the world's most progressive thinkers and doers in technology, entertainment, design, and everything in between, packaging their "ideas worth spreading" into digestible 18-minute bursts of pure cerebral stimulation delivered with superb production value. And that formula is important, because what makes a great TED talk isn't merely a great idea. It's a great idea, delivered eloquently yet approachably, often using humor to ease the audience into a difficult subject and, ideally, staying focused enough to relay a central theme yet culturally relevant enough to celebrate the cross-pollination of disciplines.With all this in mind, here is my selection of the top 10 talks from TED 2010, themed What The World Needs Now, evaluated on (1) compelling content, (2) engaging presentation, and (3) wider cultural relevance.10. Esther DufloThough she calls herself a "development economist," Duflo is part field anthropologist, part health researcher, part economic theorist. Her talk, intense and focused, delved into the causes of poverty, offering examples of solutions that are not only technically feasible, but also informed by social psychology in a way that optimizes community adoption. For example, we intuitively think that giving away mosquito nets for free is the best way to get them into homes. But, it turns out, people see them as less valuable that way, so they are less likely to use them. The answer lies in a smarter architecture of value."In technology, we spend so much time experimenting to find the best way. Why don't we do that in social policy?"9. Adora SvitakDon't be fooled by her age-this 12-year-old firecracker, the youngest speaker in TED's 25-year history, schooled quite a few of her elder peers in how to deliver a talk with dynamite eloquence and cunning argumentation. And though her speech-because that's what it was-may have been a bit too rehearsed (the young lady is a professional presenter), it was full of gems."We kids love challenges. But when expectations are low, trust me-we'll sink to them."Svitak made some excellent points about the double standard with which we judge kid's irrationality and adult's, noting that age has nothing to do with irresponsibility (cue in joke at the expense of Bush, always a winner with the TED crowd), adult's continued failure to harness kid's unique thinking skills, and the sore need for opportunities for new young leaders with new ideas unburdened by history.8. Jamie OliverTEDPrize winner Jamie Oliver may not have offered any groundbreaking insight into school nutrition, at least not to anyone mildly informed about the atrocity of today's food policy, but his animated, passionate delivery and smart stuntsmanship-like dumping a cartful of sugar onto the TED stage, the amount a school child consumes just from sweetened milk over the course of a year, or showing a video in which elementary school children fail to name basic vegetables, calling tomatoes potatoes and broccoli beets-did draw attention to the dire straits of school lunches and child nutrition, which will hopefully help drum up support for this inspired young activist's desire to change a broken model."We've got to start teaching our kids about food in schools, period."More on how you can help Oliver's vision here.7. Sir Ken RobinsonSure, Sir Ken may be a performer first and an educator second. But with his lovable arrogance, British accent and neo-academic charm, he's able to command attention to one of society's biggest failures to innovate: The education system. And while his talks may be meticulously, calculatedly constructed into quotable soundbites, that doesn't have to be a bad thing. It shows an understanding of the "package design" part of TED, allowing his points-which, beneath the showmanship and wit, were indeed quite sobering-to reach a critical mass of people, which is always the only road to effecting change. There's a reason, after all, why his first talk is the most popular TED talk of all time. This sequel was a comparable blockbuster.6. Jane McGonigalGame designer Jane McGonigal showed that while games are escapism from reality, it doesn't have to end there, showing the potential of harnessing the power of the gaming crowd for social good in anything from crowdsourced knowledge (World of Warcraft is the world's second largest wiki, behind only Wikipedia) to virtual solutions applicable to real-world problems. She painted gamers-often misconceived as a screen-transfixed herd of zombie-drones-as zealous learners and diligent problem-solvers. And given the average kid today spends 10,000 hours gaming by the age of 21, compared to 10,800 hours in school if in perfect attendance, this parallel learning system is quite something to be reckoned with.5. Nicholas ChristakisTo think that our choice of friends is linked to our life-satisfaction isn't too big a leap of the imagination. But Christakis, an internist and social scientist, offered solid, research-based, scientific insight into how our social circles, online and off, affect our physical and emotional well-being, with remarkable findings of "social clustering" in everything from happiness to obesity.4. Philip K. HowardMost of us have collided with the red tape and mind-numbing bureaucracy of the legal system. And most of us have been on its rollercoaster cycle of frustration, raging anger, and inevitable, reluctant acceptance."We've been taught to believe that law is the foundation of freedom, but somehow in the last couple of decades 'The Land of The Free' has become a legal minefield."Common Good founder Philip K. Howard dove deep into the cause of our legal frustrations, offering evidence of the disconnect between trust and the law, and pointing to a wrong frame of reference at the root of the problem, resulting in people no longer being free to act on their own sound judgment. His call from simplifying the law was not only well-argued and insightful, it also offered a four-step prescriptive model for mending this fundamentally broken system.3. Natalie MerchantNatalie Merchant may technically fit into the E part of TED-her performance was not a talk per se-but she embodied a beautiful metaphor for the cross-pollination of creative inspiration across the arts. Merchant's latest album, her first studio recording in nine years, is based on children's poetry by Robert Graves, e.e. cummings, Christina Rossetti, and other early-20th-century icons. She adapted this poetry into songs, but in the process got inspired to write a book about the history and cultural context behind some of this literature. Poetry turned song turned prose, a century apart. Beautiful.2. Dan Barber A chef, an activist and a terrific performer, Barber delivered with wit and humor a holistic look at the connection between food and health, not just our own but also that of the ecosystem. He examined our relationship with food in its entirety, farmside to tableside, showing how smart, simple changes to the entire food system-from fish farming to restaurant menus-can have a powerful impact on its ecological health and sustainability.1. Temple GrandinGrandin-herself autistic-delivered a fascinating journey into the autism spectrum and its place in the sociocultural space. Dynamic and deeply insightful, her talk offered a rare look at the diversity of human minds as a rich array of skillsets rather than a mixed bag of polarized abilities and disabilities. She pointed out the urgency of finding better ways to harness these diverse talents that go stifled in the narrow and formulaic education system of today. Grandin's points, reminiscent of Howard Gardner's research on multiple intelligences, crossed disciplinary lines to demonstrate the necessity for such diverse minds in solving some of humanity's most pressing problems. "If you got rid of autism, there'd be no more Silicon Valley, and the energy crisis would not be solved."Not all these talks have been released. Keep an eye on TED.com as new talks are uploaded daily. Maria Popova is the editor of Brain Pickings, a curated inventory of miscellaneous interestingness. She writes for Wired U.K. and spends a shameful amount of time on Twitter.
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