Entertainment Gathering 6 : A Relaxed Version of TED

Recently Elizabeth and I spent two days at a telecast of the EG6 (Entertainment Gathering): Rebooting Tomorrow conference broadcast from Monterey, CA to Chicago, IL. The event is the brainchild of concert pianist and MIT Media Lab fellow Michael Hawley. Previously unaware of either the event or Hawley, we had no preconceived ideas of what the experience would be like.

We were a little unnerved that there were so few attendees and that half of them seemed to be Field employees who were encouraged to attend (seeing as they disappeared in droves when the lights went down). We became increasing more so when it became apparent that this was going to be a truly eclectic and interesting experience. Both avid conference attendees — as budgets allow — we are usually disappointed in the local fare. Chicago seems to slower to embrace or grasp crowd sourcing of information and the idea of conferences as the new concert, book club, coffee house, etc. The notable exception to that being Chicago Ideas Week.

Rather than boil this down to the essence, to prove my point we are instead giving in-depth descriptions of some of the speakers. Some presenters were less effective because their egos and personalities focused more on their own accomplishments with little empathy about packaging their experience in a way that would be valuable to others. Other presenters were wonderful at packaging their ideas and connecting with participants. Large segments of the California conference were not shown. Elizabeth was a bit bugged that the simulcast didn’t include Neil Stephenson’s segment, but we are both glad it happened at all. Overall, should this event happen be held again next year, we suggest you check it out.

This is the first year that EG6 has been simulcast. The venue was the James Simpson Theatre in the Field Museum, due to a personal relationship between Michael and the current Field president, John McCarter. Cisco provided the infrastructure, which — for the most part — worked, but there were some delivery and fidelity issues. It seems that EG6 is also in the process of learning through trial and error where to focus the cameras to provide viewers with the most understandable story. When it became frustratingly clear that was not happening, some presentations fell flat.

The initial impression of the conference is one of an intimate gathering of a few hundred really smart people in Monterey — one imagines what TED was like before it grew to the mega-event it is today. Michael seems to be the ringleader of a personally curated series of diverse presenters who shared their personal visions and passions. Every one of them had non-linear career paths, during which at some point they were able to merge their vocations with their avocations.

Hawley seems genuine in his enthusiasm about the power of the internet and the creation of online communities. He also believes that people need to start making things again, getting in touch with inspiration through creation. EG6 is therefore about percolating energies and gaining new ideas through contrast. These messages came across in a sort of pleasant, low key hippie, southern California style. For example, he launched the conference playing a piano concerto while a Yamaha grand piano with digital motors at the Field played along.

The first presenter was Jonathan Harris, founder of Cowbird, an online story telling community. He was very passionate about online communities and believes that there are four primarily cultural forces driving community building:

Compression : every new medium makes the documentation of events shorter and shorter;
Disposability : ideas will be swallowed up and drown out by the digital flood
Curation Replacing Creation : that high quality thought-out content will be more important than creating content
Self-Promotion : sharing your life like an advertisement

Using the Occupy Movement as an example of these forces in action, Harris became personally involved with the Berkeley chapter. A story teller who uses media to enhance the meaning of the story, he believes that collecting stories will build libraries of human experience and create teachable moments. That was the driving thesis for the creation of Cowbird: stories provide the longevity for personal experience. He is also concerned that a small group of designers and developers — all under the age of thirty-five — are having a disproportional impact on contemporary society and that software engineers are becoming social engineers. Current creative talent needs to be brought under a set of ethical principles of how digital experiences are architected and changed over time.

Sheril Kirshenbaum from the University of Texas/Austin presented from her book The Science of Kissing. She covered the evolutionary and cultural history of the kiss, the chemistry of kissing, and the future of kissing (thankfully — in this increasingly digital age — she believes there will be one). Kirshenbaum covered a variety of topics on the subject, such as: When was the first documented kiss (Indian texts record kissing about 3,500 years ago)?

Acknowledging that the act of kissing is a strange behavior with both cultural and cognitive dimensions (Charles Darwin studied why lips are so attractive), she also covered the brain chemistry of kissing, and why kissing creates memories related to this brain processing. Her driving model is to look at human behavior through a trans-disciplinary lens make and to make science more accessible to the public.

In the Chicago venue a few presenters gave live presentations (not telecast back to Monterey). Tasha Seitz from Spark Ventures covered her desire to merge business investing with social capital. This is part of a trend of the private sector and the new wealthy to take business principles and overly them on social issues to create sustainable social capital. She highlighted her work with Hope Ministries in Africa to develop chicken farms that can pay for schooling for children. The amplification effect taking a core issue like chickens and connecting this activity to education, medical, fresh water, and meal programs is core to social investing.

Adam Savage from Myth Busters presented on learning from failure. Seemingly very affable, Savage used humor to make the point that we live in a success-driven culture of which everyone is desperate to be a part. When asked about their faults, most people usually disingenuously iterate self-aggrandizing faux faults, such as I’m a workaholic, or I just care too much. He then shared a cringe-inducing description of an early project that went seriously and expensively awry due to his own youthful hubris. I was reminded of Ira Glass’ sharing his early interviews, which were quite sophomoric and even embarrassing.

Roz Savage presented her ocean-rowing prowess. She is the only woman to have rowed the Pacific Ocean on a solo mission. The level of stamina and monotony was very telling. She explored how simplicity, courage and reducing consumption connected with sheer will can overcome adversity. The discordant aspect was that while she repeatedly mentioned how driven she was by her environmental issues, she never specified what the issues are or what her rowing had to do with them. Ironically, this made her presentation seem more about selfish self-reflection and degraded the wider message she never quite got to.

Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute presented a very powerful topic on Reinventing Fire. Amory is a renaissance man, who has taken his professional career in physics and systems thinking and has deconstructed the very complex subject of energy and the role of non-renewables and renewables. Instead of harping on cliché, he methodically cleared the messy table of discourse on energy independence and created a very compelling foundation through a new model and language. His central question was could we get energy security by 2050 without destroying the planet?

Adam found Amory’s presentation disciplined, compelling and inspiring because he created a model that makes sense. For Adam, it was the most interesting and well thought-out of all the presentations (my wife also noted that he had the best graphic presentation). Interestingly, we later spoke with a sculptor who found Amory’s presentation the least relevant because he felt it dealt exclusively with science and not passion, which goes to show how subjective these conferences can be.

Another local speaker, Howard Tullman, serial entrepreneur and president and CEO of Tribeca Flashpoint Media Arts Academy presented issues around hyper personalization. He stated that this concept will change how companies interact with customers by tailoring messages and discussed how 90% of people will exchange information for something of value in return. More specifically, that “engagement” is the new mantra on the web, in the belief it should encourage additional consumer spends through more meaningful and efficient transactions.

One of the most powerful presentations was by Brian Selznick, author of The Invention of Hugo. He has a great stage presence, perhaps due to his lineage from the Hollywood Selznick family? A compelling advocate for the printed book due to their sensuality as sensory, tangible objects, he stated that his books could never be e-books. They are conceived and designed as three-dimensional objects to be experienced in real-time. One amazing insight into his process was an image of a wall filled with hundreds of his hand rendered storyboards. (Yes, we have since bought two of his books — in hard cover.)

Jim Marggraff, the inventor of the Leap Technologies, presented a technology called LiveScribe. He elaborated on his desire to connect the act of physically writing to digital technology. LiveScribe is a pen that writes and can record comments as you write and also has software that can turn written marks into musical annotation, scientific notation and even a language translator. Users can export their writing into interactive PDFs to share with others. This will require new behaviors and redefines the act of writing as a process of creation. LiveScribe is a niche product and has several very dedicated communities that are using the technology. His word view of creating humanistic experiences enhanced by digital technology was impressive.

Donald Jackson, a British calligrapher was telecast from London. He discussed the newly created illuminated Saint John’s Bible commissioned by the Benedictine monastery of Saint John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota. The monastery wanted to create a contemporary bible using ancient techniques. While his descriptions bordered on inaccessible personal visions, the passion of his world view dedicated to the art of calligraphy and illustration was a compelling experience and the visuals took an ancient text into previously unimagined territories.

Peter Norvig from Stanford University presented his work on creating the first online course on Artificial Intelligence anyone can take online (for more information, check out this article from Wired. This came from his frustration with traditional book publishing and that AI books are niche markets and not very compelling as texts while trying to describe a very rich subject. He delved through trial-and-error to create an immersive online course and the success of the Khan Academy on YouTube. This essentially has meant rethinking how educational experiences are structured and communicated to students. In order to do this, he wanted to disrupt the current model but also create an online model with great flexibility, few deadlines for quizzes and tests and integrating social platforms (over 160,000 people enrolled). This is one of the best new ideas from an educational and technological perspective we have seen.

Locally, Nate Shapiro and Susan Pollack discussed their work to save the Ethiopian Jews and their eventual immigration to the State of Israel. This process took twenty-five years and was a home grown labor of humanitarian commitment. Their thesis was basically that if you believe something should be done and is not getting done by the people who can and should – but don’t – then do it yourself and how it can be done. The community overcame incredible odds through disciplined determination and got the United States, Ethiopia and Israel to recognize the problem and solve it.

Locally, Stephen Schapiro, a photographer for Life Magazine and other syndicated newspapers, discussed his life capturing the moments of Mohammad Ali, Andy Warhol, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. It made us nostalgic for the power of real film and powerful images. He spoke of the irony of how difficult it is for young photographers to gain a following in an age flooded with cheap stock images.

Magician Simon Coronel discussed the art of deception through illusion. While not divulging any trade secrets, he described how magic works by taking advantage of our own limitations — what our minds think is going on isn’t necessarily. The combination of sleight of hand through dexterity and misdirection using distraction for critical moments seemingly created the impossible. No matter how many times he repeated an illusion and cautioned us not to look at what you think is going on, but all around it, we still couldn’t see how the act was done. He also proved that language provides no barrier to magic by presenting one illusion in fluent Mandarin (see for yourself).

Maria Spiropulu, a physicist from CERN – the European Organization for Nuclear Research discussed the drive of contemporary physics to understand natural forces through inference. Much of what modern physics is trying to solve with dark matter and dark energy has to be done through inference since we cannot experience these forces directly. CERN is using collisions to find the Higgs Boson particle that will either prove the standard model is right, or it will need to be rethought. The level of complexity to do this through 40 factors that define one collision using 100 million channels creating one petabyte of data each second completed in 25 nanoseconds feels beyond any human comprehension.

Some of the most esoteric and curious presentations were given by John Gaughan, seemingly a modern day Drosselmeyer. Best known is his recreation of The Turk, a mechanical automaton created by Wolfgang von Kempelen for the court of Maria Theresa in 1769. This object was programmed to play key chess games near check mate and became a sensation in Vienna. The Turk was destroyed in an 1854 fire and no working drawings were recorded. Gaughan spent years reviewing books and first hand accounts to create a near replica of the automaton. While the mechanics of The Turk were impressive, we actually preferred a small, trapeze-artist automaton from the 1850’s who performed with jaw dropping accuracy. This presentation tied-in very well with those of Selznick and Coronel.

As for the actual event, a significant challenge facing any telecast is that the meaning of a conference is different than physically being at it. Social networking during the breaks at these events is where much of the energy actually happens. The Field Museum focused on the factual transmission of EG6 without much thought to creating a parallel experience for local participants. Little interaction was encouraged between attendees, which seemed like a lost opportunity.

Overall, Entertainment Gathering 6 felt like a homegrown, informal parlor of conviviality. Experiencing it even at a distance was informative and met the goal of increasing my curiosity through other people’s world views.

 

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