(ON TOPIC) TED Talks (and What They’ve Got Me Thinking About the World We Live In)

It’s my ever-strengthening belief that college students should quit school and instead carry out their own educational curriculum centered upon TED Talks. Seriously.

Founded in 1984, TED is a nonprofit devoted to spreading ideas from the worlds of technology, entertainment, and design. Watching the videos for yourself will be far more entertaining than simply reading about them, so instead I want to write about what the TED Talks I’ve seen over the past year have taught me.

One memorable talk featured New York Times columnist David Brooks in a discussion on “new humanism” and the impulsive decisions we make as social animals. During the week I watched this particular talk, I was reading Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, in which he addresses the very idea of impulsive decision making—or “thin-slicing”—noting a case in which Hollywood producer Brian Grazer casted Tom Hanks in Splash off a gut feeling. Incidentally, I was also working on a Hollywood movie produced by Brian Grazer while reading Blink and watching David Brooks’ TED Talk. Everything came full circle, and, in this moment, I believed how incredibly connected everyone and everything is.

A few days later I watched MIT researcher Deb Roy talk about early infant speech and language acquisition. This got me thinking about how “I” is the most used word, which—in light of my thoughts on the Brooks talk—is ironic considering how connected our world is. This isn’t entirely surprising considering we’re all the centers of our own universes, but it led me to an idea that stuck with me as I continued to watch more TED Talks and to formulate this post about what TED has taught me. And so, what TED has taught me is the following:

We don’t fully understand human nature. We just don’t.

At the core of our issues—social, political, cultural—is a failure to connect, to truly communicate. There are myriad examples to prove how we seem to totally get material things, but I’m struggling to find evidence that we grasp the emotional life behind it all.

In the social sphere, I observed this failure every morning when living in Manhattan and relying on the subway to get around. I always remember wondering how many people were actually going somewhere they wanted to go. Here, thin-slicing illuminated every slouch, sigh, and glare, but also the less frequent smile and “Thank you” when someone offered someone else their seat. But I wish the latter wasn’t so surprising to me. I hate when I hold the door for someone and I get a confused look in return, as if the person is saying, “What the heck are you doing? Are you trying to be…kind?”

Let’s get political. Brooks cites several wars as evidence of America’s failure to acknowledge the importance of viewing rationality as inextricably linked to emotional decision-making. When the Soviet Union fell, for one, economists remained blind to the void of social trust as federal political structures disintegrated. Similarly, throughout the war with Iraq, our leaders seem to have been unprepared to address the cultural complexities in the shadow of 9/11. Brooks also discusses how we’ve attempted to restructure our educational system over the past 30 years, resorting to smaller schools and charters without hitting the core issue: the relationship between a teacher and a student.

So why do we suck at communicating? It’s easy to target Technology as the culprit. But here lies more irony, as technology enabling communication simultaneously seems to hinder it. I think the issue here is that, in short, technology seems to only move in one direction: Forward. The second we wrap our paws around a new Apple product, they’re already unveiling the next smaller and faster product from their proverbial belts.

I see this demonstrated clearly when looking at trends in movies and TV. The 1950s saw the rise of TV and subsequently spectacles like 3-D and Smell-O-Vision. Today, we choose reality TV over cinema verite because, not unlike the aforementioned spectacles, it’s easy, quick, and accessible. As a result, things like pay-per-view and DVDs get added to our nation’s growing piles of stuff not made available quick enough to iPhone and other smartphone users. They become rejects, tucked away even before they’ve had a chance to leave a mark behind. As things change, they also stay the same.

I always hate talking about problems without giving solutions, but I’m unsure if I’m able to offer remedies to a gap in our nation’s consciousness as a little 22-year-old. An article in the New York Times this week, however, illuminates one solution in a new process being used in medical school applications. It’s called multiple mini interview, or “M.M.I.,” which tests applicant’s social skills in a speed dating-like interview. Good communication is critical in the health care system, so what better way to achieve this than by filling the system with good communicators. Easy, eh?

I’ll conclude by once again citing Malcolm Gladwell, because he is a very smart dude and knows lots and lots of things. In Blink, Gladwell discusses the Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE), which involves psychology research on differences in cultural sensitivities. For example, while East Asians are more attentive to context in light of their interdependent relationships, Americans remain more individualistic and independent.

With that in mind, I encourage you to unplug yourself from technology, look up every now and again, and connect. While we’re all the center of our own universes, interdependent creatures functioning through the relationships we have with others. Conscious gravitation toward the easy and material needs to be replaced by a greater awareness of the power of the unconscious. Then, and only then, will people be able to connect with one another on a deeper, more meaningful level and to truly be able to feel things.

Now go watch Roger Ebert’s TED Talk and cry.

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