TEDCity: technology, emotion, drama
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, June 10, 2000)

Barth Netterfield, a brilliant young cosmologist at the University of Toronto, was one of the scientists who went to the South Pole in 1998 to send a balloon the size of a cathedral up into the Antarctic air. A telescope attached to the balloon then produced images of stars in a distant corner of the universe as they existed 15-billion years ago, when their light began its journey to earth. This week, Netterfield came to the TEDCity conference to explain his work to a wildly mixed bag of designers, programmers, entrepreneurs and all-purpose deep thinkers of the digital game.

Richard Wurman, the American impresario who successfully runs the annual TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) conferences in the United States, has been staging a lively and often intense Canadian version in Toronto at the St. Lawrence Centre, in partnership with Moses Znaimer and his TV empire.

In the beginning there was some doubt about whether this peculiarly spontaneous format would work in Canada: It's unhinged, unrehearsed and uncontrollable, in ways some would call un-Canadian. Under Wurman's influence it also sometimes involves blatant sentimentality of a kind that we usually associate more with Americans than Canadians.

Seen in one light, TED is a self-conscious display of the emotional side of the digital world. Speeches are sometimes separated by musical numbers, to keep the juices flowing, and before speakers go on they are told, "Don't forget to be vulnerable." One speaker, Norman Jewison, the filmmaker, regarded this notion as self-evidently absurd. Looking over the sleek computer millionaires and other legendary success stories on the program, he commented that "vulnerable" was precisely what these people weren't, ever.

But Barth Netterfield turned out to be vulnerable, sweetly so. He obviously didn't know how to address a group like this, so he simply collapsed into absent-minded-professor incompetence, which won every heart in the auditorium. Maybe half his listeners understood what he was talking about, maybe half the time. But everyone could feel his almost dizzy joy in discovering the universe.

The TED audience could identify with that: these people passionately love their work or passionately wish that they did. When Netterfield uttered the usual array of beyond-the-imagination facts (there are maybe 100-billion stars in our galaxy, and there are maybe 100-billion similar galaxies), the excitement never left his voice. The telescope on the huge balloon in the Antarctic brought back, he told us, a reassuring piece of news. The apparent design of the universe 15-billion years ago was no surprise to the physicists, astrologers, etc. who live on the planet Earth now. "Everything you learned in high school geometry," he said, "is still true."

Jewison himself, despite his disdain for vulnerability, proceeded to give a talk that left just about everyone overwhelmed by its emotional openness.

It was a remarkable dramatic performance by a speaker who mixes sentiment and cynicism in unpredictable proportions. Jewison was in turn inspiring and angry, defiant and wistful. As a Canadian who became a success directing some of the most American of American movies, he made it clear that at age 73 he still feels profound ambivalence about his place in U.S. culture.

He talked about Canadians being manipulated and programmed by American advertising, and confessed that he's discovered to his horror that he can't get through the morning without an overpriced and overhyped cup of Starbucks, whose advertising he regards as the ultimate in consumer manipulation. We are all programmed, he argued; he didn't seem to know or care that the feature film, the art form of which he's proud, does a better job of programming its audiences than any other form of mass media.

At times he dispensed specific advice ("Whatever you do in your life, timing is going to be the most important element"), but more often he directed toward the mostly young audience an old man's homespun wisdom. "All living things are precious," Jewison declared, and the older he gets, the more he believes that. He told us to cherish and celebrate the present.

"This is heaven. Life is so goddamn exciting. It's wonderful. It's a wonderful life, as Frank Capra said, and he made a wonderful picture." Later he declared, "We all do love each other and we are connected with each other. Don't forget that. Don't let them program you -- because the world is in desperate need of new ideas."

There was something in the urgency of his manner, something close to a valedictory tone, that moved this audience. "Love and death, that's what he knows all about," a young publisher remarked. At the end Jewison escaped a standing ovation only by hurrying up the aisle and into the lobby, jaw jutting out, baseball cap pulled down over his eyes.

TEDCity, where speeches are sometimes given to the accompaniment of cellphones gently trilling in the background, is less like a conference than a post-modern assembly of barely related elements. Sometimes it plays like an evangelical camp meeting. Part anthology, part all-purpose living magazine, it occasionally feels (at least for a little while) as if it's coming together. Jewison's optimism, his attempt to explain why his listeners should be grateful for the blessing of existence, infected a number of the people who followed him on the stage.

One performer who caught his mood was Haydain Neale, the lead singer with jacksoul, a spirited rock band that performed three numbers. At 29, Neale is two generations younger than Jewison, but he was preaching something similar. He paused after his first number to discuss the sour mood of the world he lives in. A disc jockey interviewing him had suggested that it was too bad a good musician like Neale had to write romantic songs about loving relationships with women, when obviously he, being a masculine guy, could hardly be interested in that sort of earnest sentiment.

Neale suggested that this attitude has become typical in his professional environment; it's an assumption that people are doing what they don't really feel like doing, professionally and personally. People expect each other to be unhappy. "I find that you are pushed to be miserable. It's got so that you can't be in a fulfilling relationship without being some kind of wuss."

He's decided that many people are brought up "to believe that you are going to get screwed and you have to make sure above all that you get yours." His belief, on the other hand, is that "there are experiences out there that transcend all that s---."

He stunned the audience with his unexpected eloquence on two subjects that hardly anyone expected to find on the agenda, love and writing love songs. Other speakers also felt called upon to respond to Jewison. Sandra Witelson, the McMaster University neuroscientist who measured Albert Einstein's brain and speculated that its unusual shape accounted for his genius, said that she agreed with Jewison's view of the world but that stroke patients and others with impaired brains were unable to share that joy. Arthur Kent, back from yet another trip to Afghanistan, said that in our society Jewison's words had meaning, but that kind of joy was not available to those in Afghanistan and other Third World countries.

Jewison had placed a touchingly simple-minded question ("Is life worth living -- and if so, why don't you appreciate it?") on the table. Almost everyone then felt compelled to push it around a little.

Lionel Tiger of Rutgers University in New Jersey, a one-time University of British Columbia anthropologist, now self-described as a member of "the Canadian Diaspora," turned out to be another optimist, which was no surprise -- 21 years ago he wrote Optimism: The Biology of Hope. He spoke of finding ways to turn the great scientific event of this period, the human genome project, into a vivacious and life-enlarging enterprise. He said that in his world "human nature" is a phrase that has come alive again, after being hidden for years by the multitude of theorists who argued that our personalities and impulses are all "socially constructed." (He also drew cheers from the cliché-averse by reporting that he tells his students there are only two sure ways to fail his course: "Cheat, or use the word 'lifestyle.' ")

TEDCity gave other speakers the chance to unfold their dreams, anxieties, and boasts. You could hear the beginnings of the wonderful autobiography Don McKellar will someday write when he talked, in a way he admitted was "embarrassingly solipsistic," about being a celebrity in Canada.

There's a tendency for people standing alone in the middle of the stage at a TED conference to fall into Woody Allen imitations, presenting themselves as flustered and anxious, not quite sure where they are going. Barbara Gowdy, the novelist, said toward the end of her talk -- "Oh, I remember what I wanted to talk about. I wanted to talk about memory." (Laughter.) At another point she admitted, "I never open my e-mail," because there are people she doesn't want to hear from. This proves that in the digital universe it's still possible to get away with outright heresy.

Douglas Coupland, who named Generation X (and can't stop talking about how his publisher hated that book and tried to reject it), predicted that in the future we will all grow so short of time that someone will create a psychotropic drug that will make time seem slower, so that at the end of a year we'll enjoy how long it took rather than wondering where all the time went.

The creator of the word "cyberspace" and the author of cyberspatial novels, William ("I don't do too many of these computer e-commerce media biz gigs") Gibson showed up to give us what he said was a rare look into his creative processes. He's developing a story that arises from free on-line music distribution. He hasn't got much farther than that, but he has finally decided what he thinks about computer chips being inserted in human brains. Despite what his novels might indicate, he doesn't see it happening, except in medical circumstances. The use of computers outside the brain will become so easy that people will neither need nor want surgically implanted chips for enhanced communication.

Gibson even suggested that infinitely enhanced communication may not in the end be quite as desirable, for everyone, as the people at TEDCity routinely assume: "It seems more likely that people will pay money for something that will make them believe for a while that they are not connected." Another heretic.

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