TED conference 2004: the pursuit of happiness
What country, friends, is this?
Immigration doesn’t like the look of my visa, the one that entailed queuing twice at the US Embassy in Grosvenor Square, the second time in a blizzard. I’m sent to a room where they look backwards and forwards at me, my passport, and the supporting documentation regarding the conference and my employers. My first thought, that the officials can’t read, is replaced by another more charitable one: they’re more interested in how I behave than what the documents say. Finally, I’m waved through. How could I avoid a similar problem when next I attempt to enter America? "There’s nothing you can do," I’m told, "it was a random check. Officer discretion." Two very ordinary looking British Airways cabin crew are next in line for the third degree.
Driving my hire car from San Francisco airport to Monterey I listen to a news station on the radio. The talk is all of Guantanamo Bay, Al Queda, and a robust defence of the US’s intelligence services.
I arrive in Monterey to find the street in front of my hotel blocked by a weekly farmers’ market. After checking in, I go for a wander. London’s Borough Market specialises in meat from rare breeds, Monterey’s in rare (to me) varieties of fruit and vegetables. I stock up on apples and oranges – that’s breakfasts sorted out. I also buy a few bunches of poppies for my room – I’m going to be four days in this hotel.
I’ve finally made it to TED - 830 participants, including the founders of Amazon, Google, AOL, ebay, Ask Jeeves, Paypal.. and probably the Next Big Thing on the Web. Only 8% of the participants come from outside the US; the biggest foreign contingent from the BBC.
TED conferences (the acronym stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design) were started years ago by information expert, Richard Saul Wurman. He once visited BMA House and gave what I thought was the best hour I’ve heard on design in general and web design in particular. The fact that his presentation was interrupted several times by tears for his dog, which he was missing dreadfully, coloured some of my colleagues’ reactions. Wurman sold the annual conferences on to Chris Anderson, whose father had worked as a missionary eye surgeon in Pakistan, India, and Afghanistan. My attempt to get a reduction on the conference fee on the basis that his father had probably been a BMJ reader was unsuccessful…
Before the conference kicks off proper there’s a debate about cosmology. A proponent of the inflationary universe (a theory about 20 years old) is pitted against a proponent of a much more recent theory of the cyclical universe. Readers of Philip Pullman’s trilogy His dark materials, with its parallel universes, would have no trouble finding their way around this latest theory.
The debate was inconclusive as presumably debates about cosmology usually are. However, trendspotters will want to know that gravity’s moment has just about arrived and that dark energy, which makes up 65% of the universe, could be up for a supporting role.
What was more interesting to me than the content of the debate was the way it was set up. The moderator (John Brockman) believes that the best way to assess where the world’s thinking has reached is not to go to the library but to have the 100 smartest people in the world ask each other the questions they are asking themselves. He puts this into practice on his website: http://www.edge.org
The conference proper began with William McDonough "guru of green design" and Time magazine’s Hero for the Planet in 1999. He’s trying to eliminate waste, by design. It followed his epiphany that on earth there’s no "away" to throw things away to. In a recent project his company installed the world’s largest green roof on Ford’s main factories. So impressed were they by his methods that they’ve commissioned him to come up with a new car (the Model U Ford). The book setting out his thesis, Cradle to Cradle, is printed on a polymer rather than paper (and had sold out by the time I reached the bookshop next to the conference hall). He quoted Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood’s response to hearing the acreage of Canadian forests consumed by the New York Times each year: "we are now writing our history on the skin of fish, with the blood of bears."
Nancy Etcoff, Harvard evolutionary psychologist, was next [the first of several speakers from the "positive psychology" movement.] Her recipe for happiness: forget about yourself. Poets who go on to commit suicide use "I," "me," "my," "mine" etc more often than poets who don’t. Days given over to introspection are generally not happy days.
Patrick Whitney, professor of design at the Illinois Institute of Technology, said that the dilemma facing many companies today is that while the knowhow exists to make just about anything they don’t know what to make.
He found it illuminating to go to the slums of Mumbai, apparently to build to a better brick, only to discovery a host of problems that a better brick wouldn’t solve. In Hong Kong, assumptions about what were most important to people in their houses (eg security and entertainment) were turned on their heads once they watched how they lived.
This struck a chord with a man from the BBC, who told me they were trying to find out what people really wanted from a news service. The process they were going through was far more "immersive" than focus groups, which seem to have had their day.
Susan Savage-Rumbaugh, primate researcher, enthralled the audience with her research on the bonobo. Living and working with the bonobo, she said "we’re learning to become like them, and they’re learning to become like us." Bonobos had learnt to draw meaningfully, to light fires, and to make music (improvising with Peter Gabriel and Paul MacCartney.) It’s culture not biology that’s important in some species differences, she said. She compared the now extinct Tasmanian aborigine (no fire, no music making) unfavourably with the bonobo, which bothered me. Mixing hierarchies with value judgments can lead you astray.
Dean Ornish, professor of medicine at UCSF, is famous in America for showing that heart disease is reversible with changes in diet and lifestyle. He will be soon be reporting that prostate cancer is similarly sensitive to such changes. For Ornish, "happiness is not to be pursued; it’s there already until we disturb it." He was once in the presence of a guru who was asked the difference between illness and wellness. The guru wrote the two words down and circled the first letter of illness and the first two letters of wellness.
The message on happiness is turning out to be very consistent.
An odd mix. Gee-whiz inventions – focussing sound, a car that flies; an internet comedian (Ze Frank), an Irish magician (Keith Barry), a Indian woman who at 24 is a master sommelier (Alpana Singh), and a poetry reading from Felix Dennis (Schoolkids Oz to publishing billionaire on the proceeds of Maxim).
Eva Harris, assistant professor of infectious diseases at UC Berkeley, spoke of how she had adapted PCR for countries with intermittent electricity and no running water, improving the possibility of diagnosing of malaria, HIV, and dengue in these countries. Might this fit into our forthcoming theme issue on "Learning from the developing world" (due in November), I wonder. Eva reminds me that she’s already contributed to a previous theme issue of ours, "Global health research" (Sep 2000).
Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, had formed the basis of one of our editorial board’s sessions at its annual meeting a few years ago. For his talk, Gladwell concentrated on the man who had done most, in his opinion, to increase the happiness of Americans: an advisor to the food industry (whose name I didn’t catch). It all began when this advisor had to work out what amount of glutamate to add to diet Pepsi. The range lay between 8-12 units, and he thought that nothing would be simpler than to arrive at the most popular concentration in this range.
The experimental data showed that there wasn’t a perfect Pepsi, but a range of perfect Pepsis. Bothered, the same man went on to look at ragout sauces. He took some 30 different recipes out on to the road to test. It turned out that customers clustered in three groups, and one of the groups liked "extra chunky" - which didn’t exist as a variety of ragout sauce, because no focus group had ever mentioned it. People have to experience something to know what they like.(It’s why Starbucks doesn’t spend much on advertising.)
From there food markets underwent "horizontal segmentation," and the notion of the platonic perfect anything was abandoned. There’s no one perfect mustard for the market, but a range of mustards deemed perfect, or the best available, by different individuals. Gladwell’s message: "Embracing the diversity of human beings is the way to true happiness."
Michael Merzenich, a physiology professor at UCSF and founder of Neuroscience Solutions Corp, spoke about brain plasticity and what it could mean for children with learning disabilities and older people heading for dementia.
A conference attendee I spoke to later said that there was widespread scepticism about whether Merzenich’s results with children with learning difficulties were really much better than other techniques and particular concern at how his research had been commercialised. Last year, an issue of a scientific journal devoted to the field was filled by dissenters.
It pointed up one of the anomalies of TED: no questions from the audience (unless there was a gap to fill). This is not how science gets done.
As they leave each session most people have their mobile phones pressed to their ears, checking for any missed messages. It was a slight shock to see a Buddhist monk doing the same. In the breaks most people are on their mobile phones or their laptops, answering their email. Communicating with people who are in front of you seems to be on the way out.
The deal with myself is that if I wake in time I will go on the 5km run I’ve signed up for. (It starts at 6.15am.) After having been awake for an hour I check the clock and it’s 5 something, so I have no choice. I’m only doing it because being among the first 100 to sign up, I get a pair of Nike running shoes and I thought I could pass these on to one of my sons.
Great camaraderie among the 60 runners at the starting line as it starts to rain. The course is down Cannery Row to the Monterey Aquarium and back. Steinbeck famously wrote of Cannery Row as "a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream." For me it marked the route of my first run this far in 25 years. Slightly irresponsible? Well, I’m swimming a mile most days, cycling 10 miles, including one big hill, on the days I go into work, and last week was spent skiing pretty strenuously.
I finish in 27 and a half minutes - running all the way, despite the siren calls in my head to walk for a while - and collect my running shoes (made in China). They are too comfortable to consider handing over to anyone. At least that will avoid any Cinderella-style squabbles over whose foot best fits the shoes when I get home.
Economist Stephen Levitt asks, "Is the thug life a happy life?" (subtitle: "If being a drug dealer is such a great job why do so many of them live with their mothers?")
It started with his research colleague stumbling into a crack house in Chicago as part of a sociological inquiry. The first question on the clipboard really was "How do you feel about being poor and black in America" and the answer that was given, "Fuck you," didn’t appear among the four available options (which for the record were "very good, "good," "bad," "very bad").
The colleague wasn’t shot on sight, as might have been expected, but was detained against his will over night, to be released next day. Intrigued, he returned and stayed with the crack dealers for the next few years, detailing the crack economy. He likened the organisational chart and reward structure to McDonalds. The footsoldiers, selling crack cocaine on the streets, made $3.50 per hour. But unlike their opposite numbers at McDonalds their annual death rate was 7%. At the same time the annual death rate on death row from all causes was 2% - what hope deterrence? Black inner city teens experience twice the mortality of US soldiers serving in Iraq.
Daniel Gilbert, Harvard psychologist and another member of the positive psychology movement, reported on research that shows that the human mind has a tendency to look on the bright side of life, which long predates the Monty Python song. Quoting from Thomas Browne’s Religio Medici (1643) Gilbert argued that we "synthesised" happiness in our heads. Yet we think it needs to be found outside ourselves.
What about the epidemic of depressed people who seem unable to put a happy gloss on things? Once again, some time for questions would have been good.
Artist Vik Muniz provided me with the reason why I’ve given up on photography, without knowing why: "You relinquish the experience in order to record it." Maybe it’s like Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle—either you’re in the world, just being, or outside the world, recording it." Or doing your email.
One of the highlight of the afternoon is Eve Ensler, who wrote The Vagina Monologues several years ago and has had it performed around the world ever since. She said that after her shows women would queue up to tell her their stories – not of wonderful vaginal experiences but of rape, incest, and other forms of violence. So she’s started an international movement to address this (http://www.vday.com). She’s coined the term Vagina Warriors for the women who are leading this mission.
She admits the importance of her early experience as the child of an alcoholic, abusive father to the subsequent direction her life has taken. As a young child she invented an imaginary character called Mr Alligator, who would rescue her from her plight. Recently in Kenya, she saw a house set up for Kenyan woman by one of her Vagina Wariors, for girls who wanted to escape genital mutilation. Mr Alligator made flesh. She equated happiness with giving the world what you most wanted to find in it.
Later that night at a party at the Aquarium I join the cluster of people around her. A man asks the obvious question: if it’s men who have to change what work is being done to change their attitudes and behaviours? The movement will fail if it ends with raising women’s consciousness.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi was another person whose early painful experiences had set the course of his life’s work. As a young child in the second world war he witnessed the dissolution of the culture he grew up in. He was struck by "how few of the grownups could withstand the tragedies that the war had thrown at them." A chance attendance at a lecture by Carl Jung in Zurich set him on his path at looking of happiness and what contributed to a life worth living.
By studying poets, artists, and business people Csikszentmihalyi has popularised the notion of "flow," the happy state where skills and challenges are just about balanced. Happiness comes from being immersed in this "flow" and has little to do with material possessions.
Way off anybody’s map was 14 year old Jennifer Lin at the piano. She started with a fiendishly difficult work by Polish composer Hoffman and followed this with Robert Schumann’s Abegg Variations. Dedicated to his wife, the piece takes the notes for its theme from the name of one of Schumann’s woman friends. So far, so good, and then Lin uses this as the basis of her own improvisation. Providing cards, she asks someone from the audience to select five notes from the seven notes of the scale. Goldie Hawn steps forward and picks C G B A E. Lin thinks for about 15 seconds and then improvises a piece of transcendent beauty. Lasting about 10 minutes, it seems as if it is in sonata form and has the memorability of a movie score by Henry Mancini or John Williams. The standing ovation became a whooping ovation- screams of joy and astonishment, mixed with tears. It’s a pretty clever audience, but now it knows how different genius is.
If yesterday morning began with the flesh, today begins with the spirit: meditation with Matthieu Ricard, who is a Buddhist monk, ex-scientist from the Pasteur Institute, photographer, and son of a French philosopher.
The formal programme began with a session called "Near future." The first speaker was the editor of the Wired magazine, Chris Anderson (who shares the name of the conference organiser). He talked about the stages of the hype cycle of new technology and the crucial stages things go through if they are to "take off."
He identified four:
- it has to fall below a critical price
- it has to achieve critical mass (say 20%)
- it has to displace another technology
- its price falls to nearly zero as it becomes a commodity.
DVD players’ entry price into the market was about $400; some "no name" company (actually Apex Digital) is now offering them for $40.
He said; "Free is something which comes with digital; ‘free’ is Silicon Valley’s gift to the world." In 1990 a telephone call from the US to India cost $2/minute; it’s now 7cents/minute.
Digitally induced changes have all sorts of unpredictable consequences. For example, virtually free communication with India allows massive outsourcing there - the cover story on half a dozen US magazines in the week of the conference.
Next on were Sergey Brin and Larry Page, the soon to be multi-billionare founders of Google. They looked and acted like medical students.("Please stay that way," pleaded the conference organiser.) They explained that they fostered innovation by encouraging employees to spend 20% of their time working on personal projects. The successful Google news grew out of one such project. There are now >100 projects on the go; interestingly, there’s a reasonable consensus when it comes to ordering them in importance. In general, "people like to work on things that are important."
Two features recently begun by Google are a paid answering service and orkut, "an online community that connects people through a network of trusted friends."
Writing up this account, I discover I’ve accessed Google about a dozen times.
Genomics pioneer, Craig Venter, followed the Google boys. Running on ambition and adrenaline (his admission), he sketched out the progress that had been made in sequencing various genomes, with the costs falling by an order of magnitude almost annually. Some ponderous jokes about the location of the shopping gene (not on the X chromosome) and the differences between the Y chromosomes of the human male and other primates (hardly discernible) fell a bit flat. But not so the quip from comedian Tom Rielly, wrapping up the day, "If humans share 99% of their DNA with dogs [as Venter had said], why can’t I lick my balls?"
Following him, Juan Enriquez, director of the Harvard Business School Life Sciences Project, speculated on how knowledge of individual genomes will change medicine and the insurance industry.
The last speech of the meeting was by Martin Seligman, another member of the positive psychology movement. He said he was proud of psychology’s achievements in making unhappy people less unhappy, but it had paid little attention so far to making the lives of ordinarily happy people happier.
He described three sorts of happy lives:
- The pleasant life (a succession of transient pleasures, which lose their effect with repetition)
- The good life (where you play to your strengths and are "engaged")
- The meaningful life (where you put your strengths in the service of something higher than yourself)
- the blog on http://www.redherring.com
Life satisfaction was found to correlate with engagement and meaningfulness but not with pleasure.
The meeting over, I left for the Aquarium to look at the jellyfish.
Other accounts of the meeting can be found on
(see TED entries for 27 and 29 February)
2 March 2004