The 2011 TEDxPeachtree was my first live TED experience, and based on it, I would urge you to seek out a TED experience if you can.
If you're curious, the X in TEDx signifies that it's not an official TED conference but it's licensed by TED, and organized locally around the "Ideas Worth Sharing" theme that TED promotes. Most of the presenters had Atlanta connections, which made it feel both local and international -- especially with the tweets that seemed to be coming in from everywhere.
Our day started with Dr. Frans de Waal, a primatologist at Emory University, who has explored morality in the primate world. The two pillars needed for morality, he said, are reciprocity and empathy, and he showed us examples of primates displaying those pillars in various experimental scenarios. He suggested that morality is based not on religion because primates display an evolved morality. He was funny and the primate videos worth both funny and thought-provoking, and it was a fabulous way to kick off the day. The second speaker, Ekaterina Walter, talked about her journey as an immigrant from Russia and inspired us to keep the American dream alive -- not in terms of striking it rich or becoming President, as we sometimes think, but in realizing that we live in a place that gives people a chance to maintain dignity, which is simply not possible for individuals in other parts of the world. It makes you appreciate something we take for granted.
Next we watched a TED talk on video, and it's one I strongly recommend for people interested in communication research. It starts by talking about language acquisition, but toward the end you'll see the implications for mass media. Please watch Deb Roy's Birth of a Word:
The next presentation, Michael Horn's Toward Student Centric Learning, focused on K-12 but has implications for all teachers. Horn started with the concept of Disruptive Innovation, which he argues is more predictable and more successful than we think. He suggested that the computer has brought this sort of dramatic change to every sector, except education, pointing out that someone from a hundred years ago would probably still feel comfortable in a school, with its rows of desks pointing to a teacher speaking in the front of the room. He said that rather than looking at budget cuts and teacher shortages as a crisis, we should consider them an opportunity to rethink online (not distance, but blended) education. Computers can allow use to use competency-based learning, where students continue to work on a concept or process until they understand it, whether that's a day or two weeks, rather than standardizing everyone on the same page at the same time. Teachers would still be critical, but their jobs would be different. One person might focus on developing virtual content as a job, whereas another person might serve as a facilitator or mentor in the classroom. I had a fabulous discussion at lunch with two people affilitiated with schools (one was a kindergarten teacher) about how this might be implemented and what impact it would have on college students and college teaching 15 years from now: I can't really picture someone taught in a school like Horn envisions being satisfied with the old lecture-discussion format.
The next set of talks didn't have as much direct impact on me except that they were just interesting in the way TED talks usually are. We watched Markus Fischer's TED talk, A Robot That Flies Like a Bird; listened to Kennesaw State University's Dr. Adriane Randolph on Your Brain, a talk which described her research on brain-computer interface, which is often being developed for commercial purposes but which can also help people who have no other way to communicate; and Dr. Ami Klein, of Atlanta's (Bernie) Marcus Autism Center, who described his efforts to develop a way to test for autism using eye tracking very, very early in order to allow early intervention which could attenuate the negative effects of autism. "Autism creates itself," he argued, meaning that an autistic child's actions also determine her development, so if her actions can be changed the way her brain develops can also be changed. He said the purpose is not to "cure" autism --pointing out that autistic people have strengths that we can benefit from-- but to free individuals from its negative consequences like poor language development and isolation.
One of the really fun things about the conference was that interspersed throughout the day were art performances, including music, poetry, and dance, which not only added some variety but also engaged the audience in a different way. And, just watching/listening to people with so much talent is inspiring in itself.
Two more afternoon talks had particular relevance to communications people. John Copenhaver talked about our need for a better kind of crisis management. He began with the premise that the old disaster paradigm is failing, pointing out that disasters are worse than they used to be and that governments (worldwide) have a diminishing capacity to respond to them. He suggested that the private sector is unlikely to bail out the government, so help will have to come through communities. "All disasters are local," he argued. Communities need to be more resiliant, and one way they can do that is to use new technology to communicate and collaborate during a time of disaster. He suggested that communities look at their hazard risks, the resources of the community (including technological resources), and community stakeholders (both formal and informal-- everything from government, police, hospitals,water/gas, grocery stores, etc.) to create plans about how to respond to disasters. We should not rely on "someone else" but think in terms of the old civil defense model to solve our own problems. He asked us to look at our own communities and think about, if their survival depended on us, what would we do, who would we talk to, what would need to get done?
Last, Courtney Spence talked about the Transformative Power of Multimedia Storytelling, describing her work through Students of the World to help people document positive stories that are not covered in the media. "Life lessons don't happen in the moment but when we pause to reflect upon them," she argued. She showed three examples from Uganda, New Orleans, and Haiti, where the media stopped showing "disaster" stories and thus failed to adequately portray the more positive recovery stories that are still taking place. She urged us to seek out the good stories and demand them from the media and in our personal lives. Jeremy Gilley's TED talk, One Day of Peace, rounded out this session.
Sadly, I had to miss the last two talks but I'm sure they were just as amazing as the others. Videos from 2010 are posted on the TEDxPeachtree site, so I'm hoping 2011 will be up, too. If so, I'll definitely provide links to the most relevant talks for communications scholars.