Day 3 at TED – the day of criticism

So Day 3 at TED seemed to be the day of criticism, both the speakers and the listeners seemed to have embraced a slightly more cynical side than the usual exuberant optimism of the other days.

There was one notable exception, the response to a young guy from Sudan, Emmanuel Jal. Emmanuel was a child soldier, rescued by an aid worker Emma McCune. Emmanuel told us his story, and then sang/rapped about Emma and his plan to build her school in her honour. It was powerful stuff, and many people were moved to tears during the course of the standing ovation. Over lunch the National Postcode Lottery, offered a 10 grand prize for the audience to donate to a charity of their choice and Emmanuel’s school was the unanimous choice. This is typical of the TED experience, unbounded optimism and positivity and it is great to be wrapped up in it.

However there were a few strands of negativity and gloom throughout day’s talks.

The most light hearted of those negative strands was Rory Bremner, who, as is his wont took the piss out of everyone from the organiser of TED Chris Anderson to Gordon Brown. It was great to be reminded of Brown’s hypocritical side as Rory pointed out a few of the ways that he has failed to act to solve the world’s problems when he has had the chance which nicely punctured the two standing ovations he had received 2 days earlier. Seeing the other side of the story was a theme in many other of the days’ talks. We saw a range of photos from Taryn Simon that captured people who had suffered false imprisonment as a result of mistaken identity, where very often they had been indentified in a very suspect way cooked up by the police. We heard a story about stories from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, based on her upbringing in Nigeria. Chimamanda pointed out the importance of where you choose to start the story in how history gets remembered. And we heard from both an economist and a journalist about the unseen economics and organisations of crime and terrorism and their direct link to the global economic crisis.

There were also few strands of negativity and gloom from the listeners too.

We also heard from Jim Balog of the Extreme Ice Survey, a photographer who has captured, using time lapse cameras, the retreating of glacial ice around the world. His point was to try to visualise and make tangible the impact of climate change to convince people of how real the problem is. Jim didn’t get a standing ovation, which was nothing to do with his work which is obviously extremely valuable and relevant. My suspicion is that part of the reason is that most people accept that climate change is an issue and people are kind of fed up with having the problem thrust in their face with no attempt to suggest any solutions. It is a deep and complex problem, and simply raising awareness of it is too shallow a response. Or maybe that’s just me?

I spoke to a couple of other fellow audience members who voiced a little negativity as well. The rarefied atmosphere at TED can get a little cultish at times, and the negativity being voiced was a reaction against taking the ideas in the talks at face value rather than as a starting point for enquiry and debate. I think most people loved the exposure to such a wide variety of fascinating topics, but also felt the desire to go a little deeper into those topics.

For me that was the biggest lesson of the day, the pursuit and sharing of knowledge is obviously a good thing, but only when it is the start of something, not the end. You can never really know the whole story, and first impressions can be misleading. And while positivity and optimism must be good things, it mustn’t be mindless optimism, ignoring or sidestepping the challenges, trade offs or side effects of the actions we take. Finally, at the risk of seeming tenuous in the extreme, I think the lessons for marketing are clear too. We must always try to understand the situation as well as we can and work hard to develop deep consumer insight. If we don’t our work will appear shallow, vacuous and un-engaging, you only need to glance at a commercial break to see how easy a trap that is to fall into.

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