A perfect space for TED

A perfect space for TED

On the last Thursday of every month a group of young professionals get together to screen TED talks and share ideas. Last week I was informally invited via Facebook by Ryan Hagen, a founding member of the group (and a Facebook friend from the NYU days). The other founder, Kyle Jaster provided the space (pictured above) in the TriBeCa offices of Rayogram, Mr. Jaster’s design and consulting business.

Though the party was listed as a public event on Facebook, the group consisted mostly of friends of the founders. Not knowing this, I was a bit surprised when I got to the front door of the building, and there was no sign indicating where the office was or which buzzer to push. But this is New York, right? So I pulled on the door, and the faulty latch granted me permission to enter. I walked down the stairs on instinct, poked my head around a couple of corners, heard some people talking, and figured I had read the invite wrong. Fortunately, going back up the stairs I met Mr. Hagen on the landing, and he reassured me I was in the right place.

Mr. Hagen and Mr. Jasper introduce the curatrix

Mr. Hagen and Mr. Jaster introduce the curatrix, Ms. Brockhouse

The topic for the evening was technology and humanity. The two lectures screened were by “technologist” Kevin Kelly and anthropologist Wade Davis, curated by Ms. Alison Brockhouse. In addition to screening two interesting talks, the group was also provided with a delicious lemon aid and gin punch, which gave just the right harmonic vibration to the speakers on screen.

For those who don’t know, TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design. It started out in the mid-80s as a conference held in Long Beach, CA. It is now a nonprofit organization “devoted to Ideas Worth Spreading” (see their about page here). It still hosts the lecture in Long Beach, and now you can see it in Oxford, England too. The website posts the videos of the lectures, which, I have to admit, are pretty awesome. This is the first video Ms. Brockhouse chose to screen:

Mr. Kelly takes an analogy, and through the magic of metaphor, makes the tendentious claim that technology is, in fact, the seventh “kingdom” of nature (the other six being the protozoa, chromista, fungi, plant, and animal). The foundation of this claim (pun intended) is the idea that each more evolved kingdom is built on the base of a “lower” order of biological life, and that technology, spinning out of human animals, is the latest, greatest development in evolution. But in my humble opinion there is a major flaw in this analogy, towit, that all the other kingdoms spontaneously organize themselves, whereas technology is completely dependent on human beings for its development. Could there be a time when technology organizes itself? Sure. And this is an example of what some folks think of that:

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And this is how other people see it:

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The folks who think technology is going to cure all ills like to refer to the moment when machines become cute, cuddly friends the Singularity. The other type call it Armageddon.

Mr. Davis is an anthropologist most famous for his 1985 book The Serpent and the Rainbow, which was made into a spooky thriller starring Bill Pullman. Mr Davis is a bit of an actor and poet himself, as you can see in his video. His topic is technology’s encroachments onto the natural world, both in physical and psychic space. Just as the modern day descendants of Incan shamans are forced to perform their ancient rites in the alienating landscape of concrete, high-modernist architecture, so we all are losing the number of plants and languages that make the Earth diverse and consequently our lives more rich.

Ms. Brockhouse’s genius in putting these two lectures back to back is to illustrate how deeply these two narratives run in our culture. Optimists like Tom Friedman say that we can and will innovate our way out of any trouble that comes our way, from more energy efficient technologies to a cure for cancer. Pessimists like Jim Kunstler, author of Clusterfuck Nation, think that technology has already led us to the brink of ecological and emotional collapse. Two hundred years ago Mary Shelley illustrated both sides of the argument in her classic novel Frankenstein. Technology is a trope, an imaginative device to solidify our floating anxiety that no matter what we do we may not be able to stave off disaster. (Think of the recent Nicholas Cage stinker Knowing.)  Defined broadly (following Lewis Mumford) technology is not only the gadgets we have, but the clever arts we cultivate to get what we want. And what we want is either positive (more food), or negative (less fear). Mumford’s broadened definition shows us exactly how fundamental the tension between Davis’s and Kelly’s viewpoints is.

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In the creation story of Genesis, Adam and Eve eat the fruit of knowledge. Unfortunately, the only knowledge they get is to know that they are naked. Before they ate the fruit they talked directly with God. Watch Wade Davis’s talk to the end. Notice he laments the West’s lack of mystical knowledge, saying it has been replaced by a degraded form of knowledge: rational, empirical, scientific knowledge. In other words, we no longer talk directly to (the) God(s), but use our mediating knowledge of cause and effect to cover our spiritual nakedness with metaphorical clothes; that is, art, technology, iPhones, flat screen TVs, and air conditioning. (New York in August gave me that last example.) Let me extend my reading of the ancient myth. The serpent in this garden is the idea of a technological “singularity”:  it is the promise of a future where we ourselves have become gods. Like Prospero and Ariel, we direct our servile ministers to do our bidding, as if we were divine. And as everyone knows, gods don’t grow old or die, they are never bored or unhappy, and they are never reduced to the menial labor of making their daily bread. But like the serpent, the singularity promises an impossibility. It can’t deliver what we really crave — an immediate connection with the infinite, a deification of humanity. It is only a tool, an instrument like any other, not an end.

It’s almost enough to make you a Buddhist.

Thanks to Ryan, Kyle, and Alison for providing a feast for thought. Just another example of the stuff you can find to do in Manhattan on a Thursday.

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