TEDGLOBAL, LONDON, June 16th 2015: Beyond the Edge

Do you ever have those "Pinch me, this can't be for real" moments, when you are deeply engaged in what you are doing and suddenly realise you are privileged to be taking part? I was lucky enough to have one just this week at Beyond the Edge - the latest TEDGlobalLondon event at the Royal Institution of Great Britain, where TED’s European Director Bruno Giussani hosted an eclectic mix of scientists, artists, academics and journalists - and that was just the audience. I sat next to a Swiss professor of engineering in the first half, a TED-Ed organiser and serial tech entrepreneur from Surrey in the second, spoke to delegates from Turkey, Pakistan, South Africa and Germany in the break, and spotted speakers from previous TED events and WIRED conferences in the crowd.

What unites this group is curiosity, a thirst to understand how people and the world works now, and how it may work in the future. We gather to hear opinion across the broad spectra of technology, education and design, science and art, and for that rarest of commodities these days - insight. The anticipation in the theatre as the lights went down and the opening film started was palpable. The atmosphere at the end, when we had been taken Beyond the Edge by some fabulous thought-provoking speakers, was inspirational.

So how to share their stories? As an editor, I would interpret the content this way: it touched on the very best and worst of our human behaviour, how we have pioneered, succeeded, soared in our endeavours, and at the same time plummeted and failed ourselves and each other in almost equal measure. That we are the most successful species on earth with some fairly monstrous characteristics. That we deserve to be challenged and changed by the next generation of Millennials.

The most compelling breadcrumbs for me were scattered in the very first talk by academic and author Yuval Noah Harari, who presented his views on why we Homo sapiens have been the most successful species on planet Earth. Some reasons are well documented - for example, like ants or bees we are able to create efficient structures, but we win over them by being flexible enough to change the structures when we need to. Like our closest relative, the chimpanzee, we are able to live peacefully in communities and build a cooperation of sorts, but we surpass them too in our ability to do that in large numbers. But the unique ability that we humans have over all of the animal kingdom is our imagination, our ability to believe in fictional entities such as states, gods, politics or human rights. “The corporation is no more than a legal fiction,” Harari said, “a great story created by our wizards, the lawyers. And the biggest story ever told is money, because everyone believes it. But it has no objective reality. In the chimpanzee world only objective reality exists. A chimpanzee would never hand over 10 bananas for a piece of worthless paper, let alone for a place in chimpanzee heaven.”

While many of us would concede that cooperation, collaboration and imagination has brought us wealth and happiness, British journalist Johann Hari pointed out just how we have failed to apply that principle when things go wrong. Having started research for personal family reasons into the causes and meaning of drug addiction, the journalist in Hari took over and he began to challenge some of the traditional ways that society has of dealing with the problem. A poignant factor seen in addicts, he claimed, was not to be able to be present in the reality of their lives. To seek escape and eventually find isolation. The criminalisation of drug abuse, now in its 100th year in the UK and US, has added to this isolation and perpetuated their condition. Citing a number of scientific and social experiments, including Bruce Alexander's famous Rat Park and the Portuguese government's bold decision to decriminalise the use of drugs in 2001, he argued that the human condition thrives on group support, company, and a deeper purpose. And that the more effective way to deal with addiction was not to take addicts away from society and incarcerate them like Alexander’s rats but to invest in efforts to re-engage them with society and to help them rediscover purpose. “The opposite of addiction is not sobriety. It is connection.”

In the course of the evening, these positive characteristics of connection, mutuality and conscience were starkly balanced with other more dangerous aspects of the human condition: the desire to dominate, to humiliate others and a morbid fascination with atrocity. It left me feeling distinct discomfort that these are not only becoming more pervasive in society but they are being given a louder voice on the open forum that is the Internet.

At the institutional level, Jamie Bartlett – who is Director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media - spoke on the legal and illegal entities that are operating on the Dark Net and Security Researcher Rodrigo Bijou demonstrated how the opportunities of the digital landscape has been effectively grasped by terrorists for radicalisation and recruitment. Bringing the shame closer to the audience, documentary filmmaker Jon Ronson shared his thoughts on the new popular cult of public shaming on Twitter with examples of how this had destroyed lives. His position, defending the case of the foolish and inconsiderate PR executive, Justine Sacco, seemed to divide the audience for a while. But he brought us back with a compelling thought that while Twitter, in its infancy seemed to give the voiceless a voice, its users have become a group of “unpaid shaming interns”. His warning on social media: “We are now creating a surveillance society where the smartest way to survive is by being voiceless.”

For me, the most chilling story of the night by far came from anthropologist, Frances Larson, author of ‘Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found’. Using several historical references, she showed how the appeal of a public beheading, something I had thought of as both minority and macabre, had been fuelled and fed by modern terrorists, who have staged “a horrifying real-life drama, and a viral spectacle”. She cited the millions of Internet viewings of the beheadings of victims of Islamic State jihadists, including that of the journalist James Foley that had more than 1.2 million views in the UK in the first three days of its release. Why do we watch? Because the Internet creates some sense of detachment that provides invisibility for our complicity in the crime. “We should stop watching,” she concluded, “but we know we won’t. History tells us we won’t and the killers know it too.”

Amidst these stories of bleak hard-fact crimes against humanity, Beyond the Edge provided some lighter-touch moments from three performing artists. Lighter touch in delivery, but the content was just as significant. Street-singer Alice Phoebe Lou performed three songs, Society, Red and an as yet unnamed song of escape. She also gave her views on how to make an impact, one human interaction at a time, and diffuse isolated incidents of aggression. When I met her afterwards I asked her how she enjoyed the relative sanctuary of a theatre compared to the street, and she voiced her commitment to be true to her art and continue to perform where she started. You can see her at the Secret Garden Party 2015 or back in her home town Berlin in the autumn. Photographer Diana Markosian developed the themes of separation and connection through her study, Inventing My Father, a beautiful yet painful story of her separation from her father and, although they are reunited physically, her continued emotional search for him. Representing the voice of Millennials, Suli Breaks performed his Millennial Generation Manifesto, and through poetry called for less finger-pointing and more common action between generations. “The world is no longer yours, we became the Generation Y before you could ask it, so now it’s ours,” he stated.

The idea of cooperation between generations took a final, more optimistic turn towards the end of the evening, when Professor Tony Wyss-Coray took to the stage to share his unpublished research that indicates that the transfusion of young blood into old mice can improve organ function, opening a field of enquiry into the potential regenerative treatment of diseases affecting elderly humans. Early trials are being conducted with volunteers with mild Alzheimer’s being given the blood plasma from 20-year-olds. “It is a long journey to find if the positive affects seen in elderly mice can be evidenced in the elderly human brain, but,” in true TED style, he said: “I am going to go there.”

Followers of theblueballroom and our modest thinking space, thefuturestory, know that we seek inspiration for ourselves and our clients, so that we can find ways to do the very practical things such as communicating and working better together. And we don’t bandy around the word “insight” too often. But that’s what TED events manage to provide: inspiration, insight, and an opportunity to learn. 

What Beyond the Edge provided to me was more evidence that great things happen when people come together to explore and share, to listen and to learn. But, if we are to be better than chimpanzees, we have to make sure that we manage to scale that ability to collaborate - for example, on the massive and open platform that the Internet offers us - without giving in to our baser instincts of power-seeking and bullying. We also have to be more flexible than ants and bees, and work with Millennials on their issues and on their terms, rather than holding onto the controls, or what we see as the safer way of doing things. We have to be more imaginative than all other species and see the endless possibilities, and not only the objective reality.

I am grateful to the organisers of TEDGlobalLondon for inviting me to their events and urge any of you with curiosity like mine to seek out a space at the next one near you. Please share your thoughts below.