TED Global, the substance of things unseen

Well as promised here is a little report from Day 1 at TEDGlobal…..if you don’t know about TED then visit TED.com to find out more and watch videos of the talks.

It was a cracking opening afternoon, there were talks from a guy planning the worlds highest skydive (120k feet !) a black hole specialist, a guy who loves aphorisms, and an artist who constructs models on the head of a pin….

But I am going to write about three of the first speakers of the day, Alain de Botton, Stephen Fry and Gordon Brown. All of whom surpassed my expectations with wide ranging and gripping talks. The venue is the Oxford Playhouse which is an intimate theatre that seats about 600, the result is that you really feel close to the speakers and engaged by them.

Both Botton and Fry had a dualism at the heart of their talks, Botton’s was the dualism of aspiring to equality and actual inequality in society, Fry’s the dualism of passion and intellect. Botton described a crisis of anxiety in modern society that resonated with me personally and suggests an insight that can inform marketing. This is the anxiety that is created by a society that places supreme value on equality of opportunity but that is deeply unequal in reality. A society where the explanation for success or failure is merit encourages people to believe that they can never be doing enough to achieve success and to constantly question their abilities, status and progress. And at the bottom of society, people facing a tough time are judged to be entirely responsible for their situation. Botton compared the mediaeval practice of referring to the bottom rungs of society as “unfortunates”, recognising the inescapable role that accidents of birth and fate have on life compared to our modern day description of “losers”. Lots of marketing plays to this anxiety, products are positioned as a part of or a route to success or as essential to prevent social failure. But imagine instead a marketing campaign that helps consumers feel comfortable with their lot and celebrates valuing life’s simple gifts. A campaign, “You are really rich” by the We are what we do team is trying to raise awareness of this type of philosophy.

Stephen Fry talked about the differences between Oxford and Cambridge as a metaphor for the constant tension in all aspects of life. Tensions between the radical and the conformist, the outer public self and the true inner self that seeks expression, between a sense of the numinous vs the phenomenal. And the tension between passion and intellect. In his view art is an expression of that tension, an attempt by the true inner self to escape the body. Again it made me think about the relevance to marketing if viewed as the commercial end of the spectrum of art. If we treat marketing as a means for people to explore and celebrate their inner selves then how much more rewarding and engaging would that be? It also reminded me of a post on Dave Trott’s blog recently decrying a logical and rational response to the world’s problems, and championing instead a passionate emotional response. At the time I commented that of course the two can exist happily together. Fry closed his speech with the same point emphasising that indeed passion and intellect must work together if anything great is to be achieved.

Finally, Gordon Brown talked about the world’s problems, climate change, finance, poverty and terrorism. He talked not of a dualism but of an opportunity for synthesis. His rousing and inspirational speech talked about the unique opportunity the human race faces. Where a global ethic present in all religious and secular world views can be empowered by modern technology and communication to solve these problems. He used the example of iconic images from the last 25 years that have changed how people reacted to humanitarian crises from Vietnam to Ethiopia. The challenge is to create or modify global institutions so that they can make a difference when given a popular mandate to act as a result of the connected people from around the world giving voice to their moral outrage. It was a passionate and inspiring speech, and was encouraging to hear a positive vision of the future that few could disagree with. Some of the other members of the audience commented afterwards that Brown should give up his day job and become a true global leader!

So all in all an incredibly rich and thought provoking afternoon, don’t forget to visit TED.com to see the talks when they are released and stay tuned for more updates during the week….

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