PosTED -- Good, Bad and Ugly

03/08/2011 12:41 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Bill Liao Diplomat, entrepreneur, philanthropist, journalist and author

Ugly is where we will begin and this part has nothing so far to do with TED (despite the conclusions one might draw from Bill Gates' talk on state budgets breaking schools)

Having travelled now by rail through New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Colorado, Utah, Nevada and California I can say three things definitively.

The great American Railways are an astounding window on this vast country, for it is truly vast and filled with heart wrenchingly beautiful sights such as the High Plains and the rocky mountains.

I can also say that American train drivers love the sounds of their own horns as they appear to be unable to go thirty seconds without using them.

Now to the ugliest third thing; while as a rail traveller, the train line is a window onto the American dream and often its back yard, apparently to the average United States householder the train line occurs as some form of invisible dumping ground for refuse both inert and human and this saddens me because of how frequently the beauty was marred by piles and piles of trash.

I can only hope that on my return journey where I will additionally take in the rail side sites of Virginia, both Carolina's, Georgia and Florida that these routes will be less marred.

From the ugly to the down right bad, simply put, avoid bus travel in America at all costs if you can. The train has its draw backs but the busses have been something special and I feel that I would have been more comfortable had I chosen a mode of transport that involved Oxen.

Also bad for me was the entire process leading up to speaking on the TED stage, which was fraught with personal abject terror. When you do a short talk you not rehearse your words on stage and you have no access to the full resources the longer speakers have.

I have to apologize and say that I missed out saying several key elements of my talk particularly as they related to the journey to TED and it would have been exponentially better had I been able to rehearse even once in front of any of the TED curators on the stage. (This is not to say that anyone is wrong, after all they are super busy, just that it would be been better had they provided rehearsals and checked my content to ensure that it was all fully what was agreed upon) Note to future TED three minute speakers it is very easy to get carried away so check you talk as much as you can with the TED guys.

Now to the good and I have to report that the talk went well and from it I have made many new and promising connections most especially for WeForest I even got a compliment from Al Gore. I also did not stumble or freeze and I was able to get across one of the most key points that had occurred to me on my trip as I passed through Toledo.

Behind me as I was speaking was footage I had recorded of an oil refinery fire that I passed on the train early in the dark morning arriving into Toledo. (Funny; when I say to people I went to Toledo, they always ask "Toledo, Ohio?" as if there could be some other Toledo in America) anyway as I was coming in to Toledo this oil refinery reminded me of all the doom and gloom that the environmental movement has bombarded me with in the last few years.

And you know what? I realized that I was so overwhelmed with the doom that I was on the verge of not caring any more. Now my good friend Mark Goulston told me that when we don't care we don't act so doomsaying is a pretty ineffective way to get people motivated.

As the refinery footage played behind me I made this very point and I could see people clicking and several tweets and re-tweets later I think the message has taken hold a bit. What we need is more optimism and practical opportunities to take action if we are going to bring out world back into balance. Another good bit was that we also launched our new WeForest clip on trees.

Despite its acronym of Technology, Entertainment and Design TED for me has come to represent a source of optimism. The TED curators walk a delicate balance between many fields of force; commercialism, activism, artistic sensitivities, coolness, humour, elitism, interestingness and fun and they get it right much more often than not.

The overall effect is one of openness and inspiration which other conferences do not match in either scope or style and then there are the technical wonders that are displayed and released such as the bubble viewer for your iPhone and all the things that can be done with self assembling silk proteins. My most enjoyable insight was on Being Wrong -- get a copy of the book and you will understand.

Yet is was an almost incidental line that caught my greatest interest. It appears that in an effort to better serve your interests Google et al are ever more targeting their search results so that they deliver you more of what they think you want instead of the one size fits all search results that say Wikipedia still produces.

So what you say? I like getting more relevant search results but here is the rub. You don't know what you are not seeing that day and what if Google or Facebook's opinion of you has been generated when you were interested in all things Republican and you have crossed over to the Democrats? What are you not seeing when you search for Limbaugh?

This leads me to an odd conclusion, which is perhaps futurist Ray Kurzweil has got it wrong and we are not heading for the singularity where technical change exceeds our ability to undertand it. What if we are already there? If the engines that make up the Internet are already deciding things for us and if they react to us automatically then perhaps we are no all just cells in a vast new consciousness that has developed its own (hopefully benign) agenda?

There have been artistic experiments before that have demonstrated that the Internet has moods of a sort what if there is more and we are just too close to it and too small to see it? Could we even understand a consciousness that had been generated in so strage a way?

Personally I would be happy if the Internet turned out to be oddly self aware as I figure that the general laws of the universe favor greater complexity (to serve the needs of entropy) and so if my brain is wired in (all be it slowly through my eyes and fingers) then I am serving as a kind of neuron for this new beastie and thus its as likely to want to see me survive as I am to want say my little toe to survive. I am part of it, so I probably have less to fear as a result.

BIzarre musings aside, I think that its probably a bad idea to not have search result optimization be an opt in choice so I call on Google, Facebook and Microsoft to add a little button that says so when I search I can see what I might be missing out on!