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Vol. 18 No. 9 — November 2010
FEATURE
TED and Others Like Him
Computer Video for and From Exciting Minds
Paul S. Piper
Librarian for Colleges/Departments/Programs, Instruction & Research Services
Western Washington University Libraries
The world of the internet allows people from all walks of life and nearly every location on Earth to share vast arrays of knowledge. I have a retired friend living in rural Washington who dedicates several hours a day to online learning. He is currently learning Spanish and recently became aware of the plethora of online lectures and presentations. He has added one of these to his daily palette, which has, in turn, sparked his interest in a number of subjects he hadn’t known or had only the haziest knowledge about. His video viewing has led to book purchases, online discussions, and the accumulation of copious notes. For this friend, who is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, these lectures and presentations have been a godsend — a way of engaging the mind that would have been impossible only 20 years ago.

In this article, I will detail a number of websites that offer, free of charge, videos that explore nearly every aspect of human knowledge, including future challenges and issues. It is a world of exciting thinkers and doers, a gold mine for anyone looking to break into the world of ideas.

TED

I’m staring at my computer screen, watching Stephen Hawking asking big questions: “Where did we come from? How did the universe come into being? Are we alone in the universe? How long will the universe last?” To be honest, I now have no interest in the report my boss wants me to write. How can this report, on Reference Desk statistics, compare to matters of cosmology? It’s like choosing lime Jell-O when standing at a smorgasbord of haute Mediterranean cuisine.

After Hawking. I think I’ll dabble a bit in Richard Dawking’s explanation of memes, then move on, like a grazing gourmet, to Malcom Gladwell’s insights from ordinary events, or Tim Berners-Lee’s views on the future evolution of the web, or maybe Bill Gates on eradicating malaria, or around 700 other equally stimulating videos.

I confess I’m becoming an addict. A few months ago I had no idea this quality and level of content was readily available from a single website.

I’d heard a few college students, including my son, mention TEDTalks, and sure, I said I’d check it out, along with a couple hundred other “hot tips” I’ve jotted down. Now all I can say is, “What took me so long?!”

TED [http://www.ted.com] is an acronym for Technology, Entertainment and Design, which began in 1984 as a conference but has grown into something far greater in scope and design.

TED originated in 1984 at Monterey, Calif., as a one-shot conference, capitalizing on the radical thinking and imagination flagrant in the mid-’80s around Silicon Valley. The original conference was planned and presented by Richard Wurman, a prolific author, architect, and graphic designer, and Harry Marks, a graphic designer. With presenters such as Nicholas Negroponte, it was a powerful and unforgettable conference. So unforgettable that it resurrected itself, with Wurman’s assistance, in 1990 and has been held every year since. Wurman continued to host the conference through 2002, when it was taken over by the entrepreneur and humanitarian Chris Anderson (he refers to himself as TED’s curator). It is now owned by his nonprofit organization, the Sapling Foundation. TED’s current mission is “leveraging the power of ideas to change the world” — not a modest goal. To this end, TED has expanded its reach far beyond the annual conferences and built a web-based clearinghouse that offers free knowledge and inspiration from some of the world’s most inspired people.

Ideas are at the forefront of TED and the Sapling Foundation, as well as, it seems, films such as the Matrix and Inception. Ideas are hot. Consider this quote from a TED webpage regarding the Sapling Foundation:

The goal of the foundation is to foster the spread of great ideas. It aims to provide a platform for the world’s smartest thinkers, greatest visionaries and most-inspiring teachers, so that millions of people can gain a better understanding of the biggest issues faced by the world, and a desire to help create a better future. Core to this goal is a belief that there is no greater force for changing the world than a powerful idea. Consider:

An idea can be created out of nothing except an inspired imagination.

An idea weighs nothing.

It can be transferred across the world at the speed of light for virtually zero cost.

And yet an idea, when received by a prepared mind, can have extraordinary impact.

It can reshape that mind’s view of the world.

It can dramatically alter the behavior of the mind’s owner.

It can cause the mind to pass on the idea to others.

TEDsters are people with ideas, people receptive to ideas, and people who respect the power of ideas.

Who are these TEDsters anyway? Bill Clinton, Jared Diamond, Jeff Bezos, Isabelle Allende, Jimmy Wales, Jane Goodall, and Douglas Adams, to name a few. But there are hundreds of others, comprising all disciplines of study and exploration, ranging the sciences, social sciences, and humanities, as well as entertainment and technology.

The TED Conference, held annually in Long Beach, Calif., is still the heart of TED. More than a thousand people attend and the content has expanded over the years to include science, business, the arts, and global issues. During the 4 conference days, 50 speakers each take an 18-minute slot, with numerous shorter presentations including music, performance, and comedy. There are no simultaneous sessions and no breakout groups. Everyone has the same experience. Speakers are kept to a strict 18-minute presentation for the same reason haiku are 17 syllables — any extraneous content is stripped out; any posturing, throat-clearing, dependence on devices (PowerPoint, etc.) and sideline anecdotes are minimized.

Attending the conferences is a pricey endeavor; in 2007, pricing shifted to an annual membership fee of $6,000, which includes attendance at the conference, club mailings, networking tools, and conference DVDs. However, to offset the claims of elitism and to actually initiate the dissemination of TED ideas, in June 2007 under a Creative Commons license, the conference talks were made freely available online on the TED website, YouTube, and iTunes. So while the TED conference is the heart of TED, the website is now its primary organ of communication. At the time of this article, more than 700 talks were available, with more being added daily. TEDTalks have been viewed globally more than 290 million times. That’s a hell of a lot of ideas floating around out there.

TEDTalks are also transcribed and translated into a number of languages (currently around 40) as part of the TED Open-Translation Project. The talks are particularly constructed for our age given their length and level of intensity and clarity. Operating as genes of ideas, the talks are meant to develop further and grow in the minds of listeners. Some of these ideas are so interesting, so compelling, you can’t get them out of your mind. They operate like memes, viruses, or ear-worms.

TED has obviously hit a nerve. Its fervor has grown the organization into a hydra, with headquarters in New York City and Vancouver, two major conferences, TEDTalks and TEDGlobal (similar to TEDTalks but with a more global focus), as well as a host of splinter groups with their own conferences and get-togethers: TEDActive, TEDWomen, TEDIndia, and others. And there is, of course a Facebook page and a blog that disseminate information and allow discussions to proceed nonstop. There are currently 69,756 members of TED’s community. Searchable by occupation and interest, this allows people within and outside the community to make connections based on interest.

TEDx [http://www.ted.com/pages/view?id=343] is a new concept emerging out of the TED universe. These are independently hosted, and often local, gatherings held in the spirit of sharing and discussing ideas.

The TED Fellows [http://www.ted.com/fellows] fellowship program brings together young people who have demonstrated unusual accomplishment and/or “exceptional courage” in the face of adversity.

The TED website is a bit convoluted, given the almost exponential number of new programs, but the TEDTalks, the core of the site, are easily searchable by a number of fields, including name, nationality, date, subject, and various socially determined ratings. Many of them are subtitled.

Criticism of TED, while not nearly as rampant as praise, is certainly out there. TED has been accused of snobbery and elitism, largely due to its membership rates. Since the Talks have been freely released, this is less of an issue. Another attack is that the Talks are often superficial and don’t really engage the ideas being produced. While this claim has some merit depending on the speaker, that is in some ways TED’s mission — the dissemination of ideas. There are few places on the web where one can encounter so many fascinating and far-ranging ideas so quickly.

DLD

It would be difficult to say that DLD (Digital Life Design) [http://www.dld-conference.com] was not patterned after TED, since it has the same conference/video approach as TED and its currency is also ideas. However, there are subtle and not-so-subtle differences. DLD was founded in 2005 by German media baron Hubert Burda. It is decidedly more world-centric and business-oriented and does not have the same “save the world” altruistic mission as TED. DLD conferences also utilize an algorithm of sorts to assure that trends and ideas are mapped and disseminated in specific ways. This seems more organized and purposeful than TED.

Given the DLD mission as “a platform for progression in times of transition for global thinkers, CEO’s, futurists, entrepreneurs, investors, scientists, opinion formers and creative talents,” DLD has done quite well in bringing some very profound thinkers together. Speakers and guests of previous DLD conferences include James Murdoch, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, YouTube founder Chad Hurley, Deutsche Telekom CEO René Obermann, biologist Craig Venter, designers Yves Behar and Ross Lovegrove, curator Paola Antonelli (Museum of Modern Art, aka MoMA), Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman, architect Rem Koolhaas, Abigail Disney, Edwin Moses, director Luc Besson, and media entrepreneurs Martha Stewart and Arianna Huffington.

The DLD videos, unlike TED’s, are not 18 minutes long; lengths can range from 3 minutes to several hours. This allows certain speakers to treat a number of topics, while others may cover unique topics in great depth and detail.

The primary search feature on this site is flawed; for 2 days it would not accept search terms and returned results for the term “search.” Finding videos is best done not through Search, but through the menu tab for videos. Once there, you’ll see tabs for Conference Sessions, Interviews, News & Views, and All Speakers. Use the Alphabetical tab to move between speaker’s last names. Of course if you don’t know a speaker’s name or want to search by subject, you are out of luck. The smaller search box on the right is ineffectual.

GEL

While TED may use gel on bad hair days, this GEL is a different beast. An acronym for Good Experience Live [http://www.gelconference.com], GEL is also a yearly conference that has been held annually in New York City since 2003. In 2006, a European counterpart called euroGEL took place in Copenhagen. Both euroGEL and HealthGEL (2009) were one-time events. Similar to TED, videos of the presentations are available online.GEL was founded by Mark Hurst, an entrepreneur and writer, who began it with a spring event in New York City. While there is no one subject emphasis in the GEL conferences or videos and speakers span all subject areas (with possibly a bit more emphasis on the arts than other groups mentioned here), the key theme is Hurst’s concept of a “good experience.” Good experience is, in his words, “what enables or detracts from meaningful experiences of creativity, technology, community, and life.” Speakers seem to be more focused on the experiential rather than pure ideas.

GEL videos are not searchable but must be browsed by conference dates or tags (subjects). Since there are not that many of them, this is not too onerous; still, it would be handy to have a search feature. Videos typically run 15 to 20 minutes in length.

While there are no Al Gores presenting here, GEL does seem to draw heavily from the New York scene, with author/teacher/thinkers such as Clay Shirky and Seth Godin, New York artists, and NYU professors prominent.

Big Think

Big Think [http://bigthink.com] is an online think tank that presents interviews with major intellectuals, or at least those the founders consider major intellectuals. Founded in 2007 by two PBS employees, Peter Hopkins and Victoria Brown, the site has grown to more than 1,000 interviews. The video presentation has similarities in presentation to TED with the exception that these are interviews, there is (usually) no audience, and the interviewer is off-camera. One very nice feature: The video of each interview carries the text.

Big Think is a well-ordered site: open, accessible, and easy-to-navigate. Searches are simple and can be limited by two criteria: speaker status and format (blog, video, etc.). For those who prefer browsing, the interviews are well-ordered and divided into the following categories: Special Series (Life in 2050, The Mystery of Memory, and many others), Topics, Experts, Blogs, and IdeaFeed. Both the Special Topics site and the Experts site can be limited by subject using a convenient right-hand list with check boxes. For example, if you wanted interviews with experts on the topic of Futurism. you would check the Future subject box and the site automatically filters the results. The Special Topics area alone currently offers 34 topics.

Big Think “Thinkers” range the subject gamut, but a representative smattering can be found at Wikipedia’s Big Think page [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Big_Think] and includes Isabel Allende, Paul Auster, Carol Gilligan, Noam Chomsky, Deepak Chopra, Arianna Huffington, Peter Singer, George Church, Jagdish Bhagwati, Michio Kaku, and many, many others.

PopTech

PopTech [http://www.Poptech.org] was founded in 1996 as the Camden Technology Conference, named for its location in Camden, Maine, where its annual conference occurs. PopTech was founded by a group of Camden residents including Robert Metcalfe (co-inventor of the Ethernet) and John Sculley (former CEO of Apple). Although PopTech initially focused on the social impact of information technology, it has substantially broadened its focus in recent years to include events, media, and social innovation projects aimed at accelerating the impact of world-changing people and ideas. This is very similar to TED’s mission. PopTech is now overseen by its curator and executive director, Andrew Zolli, who joined the organization in 2003.

PopTech uses a conference as its base, sharing videos of presenters freely on its website, featuring a blog to further discussion and social networking, and, like TED, using field-based initiatives to assure that at least some of the ideas hatched at the conference begin to achieve fruition.

The first of these is the Social Innovations Fellows program, which selects people working in critical areas such as healthcare to participate in a training program. This program equips them with the tools, insights, visibility, and social network to help them scale their impacts to higher levels of success. Another is the PopTech Labs. A PopTech Lab is a yearlong collaborative investigation of a critical area of innovation in an area of vital importance to business, society, and the planet, such as water, energy, and health. Each PopTech Lab brings together a network of innovators and decision makers to explore new ideas, identify areas for collaboration, and find new ways to accelerate change.

That’s where the Accelerator Initiative comes in. Notable projects from the above are given a boost.

Videos on the website, called PopCasts, are very similar to TED videos in design but are somewhat difficult to search. The general search feature returns all formats, and there is no way to limit to videos. Even when one selects the Video tab and searches, the results still include all formats. Once on the Video page, you can select one of the categories (or tags), which will limit the videos returned to a specific subject area. There does not seem to be a way to search for videos of specific people, however. Once a video is located, there are many options for sharing and/or saving, as well as related tags, which break subjects down into finer categories. Videos vary greatly in length and content.

While the “star power” of this site is not nearly as potent as some of the others covered here, it is a fascinating collection.

Stanford Entrepreneurship Corner

While the Stanford Entrepreneurship Corner [http://ecorner.stanford.edu/about.html] is much narrower in scope than the previously covered efforts, it is a prestigious program hosted by Stanford’s Management Science and Engineering. The speakers (around 300 of the talks have been archived) are largely drawn from the technology business (Facebook, eBay, Google, etc.); lectures and presentations vary in length, though many are quite short. Simple search works well on this site for both people and subjects. One can search within results or limit further by selecting Advanced Search (which only surfaces after an initial search). This allows one to limit by date, media type, and topics.

VideoLectures.Net

Since this article has focused on intellectually stimulating online videos, what better source of intellectual stimulation than the online lectures and classes sponsored by Videolectures.net?

VideoLectures.NET [http://www.videolectures.net] is a free and open access educational video lectures repository. It has a decidedly European and scientific flavor, but that said, there are 11,302 videos to choose from (by 7,237 authors), so there is something for everyone. The lectures vary from “An Introduction to the Romans to Convergence Rate in the Prokhorov Metric for Illposed Problems” to readings by the poet Seamus Heaney. The lectures are all given by chosen experts in the field. They vary in length from several minutes to more than 2 hours.

The training materials are developed within European standards and research programs and borrow as well from the OpenCourseWare Consortium, MIT OpenCourseWare, Open Yale Courses, and other scientific institutions such as CERN.

The search mechanism and limit features of this site are quite good, and results can be limited by socially determined categories (hot), as well as format, language, date, and subject content, among others.

YouTube

I know researchers who will not use YouTube [http://www.youtube.com] because they claim it deliberately defies intelligent searching. While YouTube is an immense godless universe (sorry, the Hawkings talk got to me), crammed with unbelievable trivia, there are ways of using it more effectively as a research and educational tool. The easiest method is to search for very exact terms and then incorporate the relatively weak Search Options feature, which does allow one to filter by date, relevance, categories (subjects), and duration among a few other fields. For example if I wanted to search for a Michael Pollan video on food, I would search for “Michael Pollan” food, then limit by video, education, and a time limit of more than 4 minutes. That should retrieve something with a bit more depth than an Oprah interview.

There is also a Browse feature that will take one to rough categories (Science and Technology, Education, etc.), but since there is no apparent way to search within categories, this is relatively useless. And needless to say, YouTube is another labyrinth that one can easily get lost within, emerging hours later after having listened to endless bad recordings of the band that played your prom.

Conclusion

There are so many ways that the internet can bring knowledge to any person and geographic location that it gets redundant mentioning it, but this bountiful array of high-quality free videos is simply amazing. But don’t stop with the videos. Most of the aforementioned sites encourage social networking and discussion of video content. Like my retired friend in rural Washington, you might find yourself discussing the idea of memes with the clerk at the local market, or just as likely be chatting with people in Kenya, China, and Belarus. If these websites can enhance thinking; encourage social connections, sharing, and discussion; and, in many cases, actually create positive change, then they have certainly succeeded in their mission. Now if only we didn’t have so many reports to write.

Paul S. Piper is the Librarian for Colleges/Departments/Programs, Instruction & Research Services, at Western Washington University Libraries in Bellingham, Wash. His e-mail address is paul.piper@wwu.edu.

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