Do you feel as if the world is one Wayne LaPierre catchphrase away from complete self-destruction? There's a TED Talk for that. Do you need to be reminded that somewhere a child is working to prevent cancer rather than sexting? There's a TED Talk for that. Do you ever wonder what, in the end, PowerPoint is actually good for? There are a lot of TED Talks for that.
I tend to hold conflicting ideas about the future simultaneously: Everything's going to be amazing because of the Singularity, nanorobots, and iPhone 9. And everything's going to be Mad Max because of peak oil and climate change, and because we still know who Donald Trump is.
In late February, I traveled to Long Beach, California, to attend the event behind all those inspiring web videos. It was my first time. TED's slogan, as you may know, is "Ideas worth spreading," and damn if it doesn't deliver. Some highlights from my experience:
The Children Are the Future, and I Am Old, Lazy, and Probably Stupid.
My faith in Generation Whatever-Comes-After-Y has been bolstered. Kenyan teenager Richard Turere built an automated security system to keep lions from devouring his family's livestock (#firstworldproblems #amiright!?). Thiel fellow Taylor Wilson, 18, said to himself, "I'm going to design a new, safer, more efficient nuclear reactor," and then did it. And Jack Andraka, 16, funneled his anger about pancreatic cancer (which took a family friend) into something positive: He bucked the prevailing wisdom to develop a protein-based blood test that is orders of magnitude faster, more effective, and less expensive than the current option—all while dealing with homework, parents, and puberty.
You Know How You Wished Undo Was a Command in Real Life? Well, It Is.
Whenever I get upset about the damage already done to our planet and our society (I really can't repeat the Donald Trump thing enough), I will remember Stewart Brand suggesting how DNA evidence can help us bring back extinct species. Luckily, he's wise enough to suggest first restoring passenger pigeons rather than velociraptors. Even more inspiring, land-use expert Allan Savory explained how to reverse the wide-scale environmental damage that so bums me out and return our planet to preindustrial levels of atmospheric carbon as if the past 200 years never happened.
Personally, I couldn't help but be transformed by the poetry and passion of urban farmer Ron Finley, who discussed how . "Drive-throughs are killing my people more than drive-bys," Finley says, ever quotably adding, "Gardening is the most therapeutic and defiant act you can do in the inner city. Plus, you get strawberries."
The Artists Will Save Us.
Or at least blow our minds trying. There are people changing how we think of the human body (choreographers Rich & Tone), yo-yos (thanks, Black!), and white people (making them laugh, says comedian Negin Farsad, could end racism). How will this amazing art be discovered and funded? There's a Kickstarter-powered Amanda Palmer for that.
As with many conferences, the full value is in the hallways. For me, that meant picking the brains of two personal heroes: game designer Jane McGonigal and television writer-producer Shonda Rhimes, creator of Scandal. Setting aside the hype, swag bags, and celebrity sightings, TED invigorated me about our chances of not only surviving but thriving in our fast-approaching future. Plus, we get strawberries.
[Illustration by Helen Friel]
A version of this article appeared in the May 2013 issue of Fast Company magazine.