Notes from the TED Dinner Party

Thanks to my gracious hosts at Woodside Capital Partners, I was able to catch tonight’s “Dinner Party” session of TED. I was looking forward to Jonathan Haidt’s presentation, and he did not disappoint. Here are my notes from the event:

Guests: Seth Godin, Stewart Brand, Sir Ken Robinson (a very funny and insightful guy)

Steven Pinker, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein

  • The Debate on Reason
    • Reason vs. Character & Conscience
  • Reason + Self-Interest + Sociality = Morality
  • We seem to be getting more humane
    • Centuries ago, people burned cats alive for entertainment, kept slaves, and executed people for petty crimes
    • Why did this occur?
      • Our circle of empathy expanded (communications, transportation)
      • Thinkers used reason to change the perception of what was and wasn’t acceptable
        • Contradictions bother us
        • Reasoned arguments can, over time, change how people feel
          • E.g. The Constitution’s ban on “cruel and unusual punishments” stems from a pamphlet by Italian jurist Cesare Beccaria
        • Eventually, things just “feel wrong,” and the reasoned arguments are forgotten
      • Even in cases where emotional appeals helped to change the world (c.f. “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”), the intellectual underpinnings came from prior thinkers like John Locke
    • What are things that future ages will look back on as backwards and unthinkable?
      • The debate drifts. Today’s gay marriage opponents would be considered leftist 40 years ago, because they accept that homosexuality is not a crime
      • Slavery is illegal everywhere, but was legal in Saudi Arabia up to 1962 (on the other hand, there are more slaves today than at any other time in history…though the proportion of people living in slavery is at an all time low)

Julie Burstein

  • Author of Spark
  • Raku as a metaphor for the process of creativity
    • The tension between what you can control and what you have to let go
  • There are 4 aspects we must embrace to achieve creativity
    • 1) Pay attention to the world around you…and be open to the experience that might change you
    • 2) Embrace the challenging parts of your life
      • Richard Ford credits his dyslexia for giving him a greater appreciation for language
    • 3) Push up against the limits of what you can (and can’t) do
      • Richard Serra wanted to be a painter, but after seeing Las Meninas by Velazquez, he threw away his paints and began to explore. Eventually he became a sculptor.
    • 4) Embrace loss.
      • Joel Meyerowitz, after having photographed New York for years, returned to the city after 9/11, and decided to make a record of what had happened
      • He photographed at the 9/11 site for 9 months
      • “Nature, as time, was closing the wound. Time is unstoppable.”
  • Artists don’t talk about their art, they talk about their work.
  • SG: “Innovation is repeated failure until you get something that works.”

Atul Gawande

  • “How do I get good at what I’m trying to do?”
    • Skills
  • The cause of the healthcare crisis is the complexity of science
    • 1937 (pre-penicillin): Medicine was cheap and ineffective
      • The main benefits were warmth and care; doctors and medicine made no difference
      • Doctors would frantically run tests to see if a patient had one of the few problems that they could treat
      • A doctor could know it all and do it all–a life as a craftsman. Autonomy was the highest value
    • Today: Medicine is expensive and effective
      • We have treatments for almost every condition
        • 4,000 medical and surgical procedures
        • 6,000 prescription drugs
      • We can’t know it all or do it all by ourselves
        • 1970: A hospital visit required 2 clinicians
        • By 2000: 15 clinicians
        • “We’re all specialists now.”
    • “We trained and hired cowboys, when we need pit crews for our patients.”
      • There’s little sense that all these amazing components come together
      • The most expensive care isn’t the best care; the best care often turns out to be the least expensive
      • The healthcare institutions that look most like systems perform the best. Having great components isn’t enough.
  • Skills of a System
    • 1) The ability to recognize success and failure
      • This depends on the data
        • E.g. In Cedar Rapids, a population of 300,000 had undergone 52,000 CT scans that year
    • 2) The ability to devise solutions for failures
      • We looked at what other high-risk industries (skyscraper construction, airplane manufacturing) do that medicine does not…they had checklists
        • Pause points: Catch a problem before it’s a danger
        • A flight checklist isn’t a recipe on how to fly a plane; it’s a list of things that tend to get forgotten
      • We created a 19 item, 2 minute checklist
        • E.g. Make sure everyone introduced themselves to each other at the beginning of the day
        • Implemented in 8 hospitals around the world
        • In every hospital, complications fell 35%, death rates fell 47%
    • 3) The ability to implement solutions (and convince others to do the same)
      • New values: Humility, discipline, teamwork (vs. independence, self-sufficiency, autonomy)
      • As it turns out, real cowboys now use wireless communications and have checklists
  • In every field, knowledge has exploded, complexity has increased, and we need systems.
  • Technology isn’t the solution to complexity; technology has to fit into the system

Jonathan Haidt

  • Self-transcendence is a basic part of being human
    • The mind is like a house with many rooms. But sometimes, a doorway appears, and we climb a staircase and experience a state of altered consciousness
    • Uplifted, elevated: Better, nobler, and somehow uplifted
    • People become loving and forgiving
  • Means of self-transcendence
    • Song
    • Dance
    • Drugs
    • Nature
    • War
  • Durkheim wrote about the division of life into two realms: the sacred and the profane (“homo duplex”)
    • Durkheim believed that the function of religion was to unite people
      • Intense collective emotions
        • VE-Day: Joy
        • Tahrir Square: Anger
        • 9/11: Grief
  • Is the staircase a feature of evolutionary design? Or a bug?
    • Darwin noted that many of our characteristics are useless to us, but useful to the larger group
    • “Selfish and contentious people will not cohere, and without coherence, nothing can be effected.”
    • Group, or multi-level selection
      • Within a crew team, the individual rowers are in competition
      • The same competition is going on across boats…they have to cooperate because they’re all in the same boat
    • The main argument against group selection has always been the free-rider argument
      • Without other mechanisms, exploiters will dominate cooperators
      • Nature has solved this problem many times
        • By putting everyone in the same boat…a superorganism of cooperative components can outcompete a selfish unicellular creature
        • When wasps began to live in hives, they were forced to cooperate with hivemates…or be outcompeted by other hives
        • Human beings formed tribes (though they are not nearly as cohesive as beehives)
  • We evolved to be religious–to seek out sacredness
  • Modern secular society evolved to serve the profane…we want to find a staircase, and seek something noble to do at the top
  • Most people long to overcome pettiness and become part of something bigger
  • Haidt: This area of research has been overlooked because academic are repelled by tribalism and religion
  • Haidt: This got us into civilization, but civilization has been bloody–we’ve become less violent thanks to institutions

3 thoughts on “Notes from the TED Dinner Party

  1. Gabe K

    Good stuff. Great summaries.

  2. Really nice summary, thanks for sharing.

    I would like to get your thoughts to see if you agree with the line of "We seem to be getting more humane".

    I think I would phrase those same results as "We seem to be respecting people's freedom and personal property" It seems to me that depending upon which way you look at it we could have very different results going forward. Do you think there is a difference between those two views or just semantics?

  3. zgirod,

    There are definite differences between "humane" and "respecting freedom and personal property."

    The implicit definition of humane you've picked up on is libertarian–if you leave people alone, you're being humane.

    In contrast, being humane could certainly be taken as showing kindness and compassion to your fellow man (and beast).

    My own take is that there has never been a better time to be alive. People today have a lower probability of being killed or enslaved than at any time in history. (Those who wish to live in ancient Athens or Rennaissance Florence forget to add the codicil, "a life of luxury and privilege") That doesn't mean that there's no room for improvement though.

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