TED: Ideas Worth Spreading

The Surprising Big Idea at TED: Turn Off Technology

The most radical message at TED 2012: turn off your iPhone and make more room for human interaction

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James Duncan Davidson

Bryan Stevenson speaks about failures in the U.S. justice system at the TED2012 conference in Long Beach, Calif.

It’s a TED tradition: when the stage lights go up at the beginning of a talk, the little gadgets go away—iPhones, iPads, and Blackberries all have to be powered down, even by the tech big wigs who were in attendance, including Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Linked In’s Reed Hoffman, and Google’s Marissa Mayer. Fully listen without technological distraction. Though it sounds simple, it was the most radical message being spread at TED 2012.

A surprising number of this year’s wide variety of speakers seemed to be joining one another in a resounding chorus, a call really, for a renaissance in technological discernment. Technology is powerful, the thinking went, but it actually disempowers us when we use it addictively and indiscriminately. And further, what really matters is the ways in which our technological advancements allow us to connect more deeply and widely with real human beings.

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The leader of the pack was definitely MIT professor and author of Alone Together, Sherry Turkle. She described the bleak reality many of us live in, by which we stare into our screens—big and small—while our sensual, visceral lives pass us by. Our very emotional cores, she explains, are being altered by our inability to disconnect from the digital world. But it’s not too late, according to Turkle: “We grew up with digital technology so we see it as all grown up. It’s not.” In other words, we still have time to develop our capacity to be discerning when it comes to those glowing screens.

While one would expect thought leaders like Turkle to focus on technology, it was interesting to see the theme pop up in unexpected moments as well. Joshua Foer, who wrote Moonwalking with Einstein, spoke about the ways in which our memories have been eroded by sheer neglect in the age of Google searches and instantaneous results. As he trained for the U.S. Memory Championship, he learned about the ancient idea of building a “memory castle” by which the average human mind can expand its capacity to remember a flabbergasting number of names, faces, or digits. But the real takeaway wasn’t about freakish recall, it was about everyday meaning. Foer asked, “How much are we willing to lose by not leading a memorable life? Be a person who remembers to remember.”

Designer Chip Kidd spoke animatedly about the power of a well-designed book to relay a visual message about the story inside: “A book cover is a distillation: It is a haiku, if you will, of the story.” Reminiscing about the incredible smell of old books, he teased the audience, “I am all for the iPad, but trust me: smelling it will get you nowhere.”

Legal defender Bryan Stevenson warned that all the technological advances in the world don’t add up to justice: “No technology or design will allow us to being fully human until we also pay attention to suffering.” And Atul Gawande, beloved doctor and journalist, reminded the audience of the power of the simple intervention when speaking about the ways in which the use of a basic checklist has transformed public health: ““We have trained, hired and rewarded people to be cowboys. But it’s pit crews we need.”

These big thinkers, and many more over the course of last week, reminded us that, though they spoke at a conference renowned for its technological prowess, our tools are only virtuous when coupled with the Platonic ideal of the examined life. Our identities, relationships, and good work, may be fed, nurtured, and amplified by the gadgets at our fingertips, but they most vividly come to life in the precious, white spaces that punctuate our otherwise overscheduled, overconnected lives.

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