October 24, 2014
George School Voices blog post by Ralph Lelii, TEDxGeorgeSchool coordinator
In his 1964 work, Understanding Media, Marshall McCluhan famously, and certainly prophetically, claims that the “medium is message” in modern industrial societies. By that phrase, he suggests that we find it difficult to separate the content of the message from the status conferred on it by its inclusion in powerful public media systems. One only has to glimpse the massive celebrity culture that has evolved since then to know how prescient he was, but there is a new wrinkle to his notion that is perhaps even more worrisome.
Because of the instantaneous nature of our web browsers, it is relatively safe bet to assume that we are all drawing on the same information when we search out a topic. For instance, if I Google “Syria”, one would reasonably expect to receive the same results as the person across the room who made the same virtual request. In fact, it is not only likely that you would receive different results, it is virtually certain. Google, Facebook, Yahoo and a host of other web services filter your responses according to a myriad of factors including age, gender, ethnicity, past browsing record, income, time of day and fifty others. The algorithms they use are so sophisticated, so subtle and infused with a bright artificial intelligence, that you can be relatively certain to receive results which conform in many ways to your past reading habits, and most certainly, to your past responses to advertisements. This is well documented by many researchers, and with each passing generation of software, it grows more precise, more restrictive. In simple terms, the more you surf the net for information, the less likely you are to receive a broad, representative search result. If your proclivities are liberal, you will get mostly liberal information. A conservative can expect the same treatment. Ultimately, the guiding force for this is commercial. Ideas are linked to ads which raise money.
My decision to seek a TEDx Conference here at George School was at least in part a response to this virtual conundrum. Our process for selecting TEDxGeorgeSchool speakers is collaborative. A committee of twenty-seven living souls has agreed to vet, however imperfectly, a series of speakers and to make them representative of a host of perspectives. No one who speaks will get paid; no money is made from TEDxGeorgeSchool, no advertisers are permitted here. In the truest sense, our mission for hosting this conference is the pure search for knowledge, a search guided by human hearts intentionally committed to working in a consensual, egalitarian process.
As a teacher, I often despair for our children when I see the left/right polarities that paralyze not only our political process in Washington, but our media sources, news outlets and state governments as well. People can choose, or more likely, have chosen for them information carefully tailored not to challenge or upset one’s ideological and political proclivities. Our natural tendency towards “confirmation bias” may have found its virtual corollary in the algorithmic ontology that governs the internet.
The beauty of TEDx, in my view, is that it brings us face to face with those who present new ideas. There are no commercial intrusions, no mandated inclusions, no centralized enforcer of ideas. We are free to choose whom we like, and it is up to us to open our hearts and our minds to those who would likely confirm and challenge what we already know, and bring us awareness of what we do not. It seems to me the rightful business of a school to pursue such a program.
About Our Sponsors
As we anticipate our first ever TEDxGeorgeSchool, it is important to recognize the crucial role that our TEDx Sponsors, Enterra and The Project for STEM Competitiveness, played in bringing this event to fruition. Without them, it is unlikely we could have gone forward, and we are very grateful for their willingness to fund this gathering of diverse intellectual and artistic exchange.
Enterra is bringing the promise and power of Big Data Analytics and Insights to industry, organizations, and governments. Through the Enterra Cognitive Reasoning Platform™, Enterra enables organizations to capture, curate and analyze vast amounts of complex and disparate data. This capability allows our clients to uncover and understand non-obvious relationships that lead to innovative new product development and innovation, heightened consumer understanding, enhanced supply chain execution, and more efficient and targeted consumer marketing. Enterra’s analytics and insights help the world’s leading brands and organizations operate smarter by finding higher meaning in data.
Project for STEM Competitiveness is committed to bring outcomes-measured STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) education to both underrepresented and private-school populations through exciting and inspiring project-based learning. Key is an integrated community approach involving individuals from corporations, national laboratories, other governmental agencies, and other non-profit and philanthropic organizations throughout the United States. The Project hopes to create experiential learning through hands-on programs and materials that enrich the academic curriculum of schools and can be adapted to diverse school environments (e.g., urban, suburban, or rural) while taking advantage of involved local community resources to support STEM education.
About TEDx, x = independently organized event
In the spirit of ideas worth spreading, TEDx is a program of local, self-organized events that bring people together to share a TED-like experience. At a TEDx event, TED Talks video and live speakers combine to spark deep discussion and connection. These local, self-organized events are branded TEDx, where x = independently organized TED event. The TED Conference provides general guidance for the TEDx program, but individual TEDx events are self-organized. (Subject to certain rules and regulations.)
TED (Technology, Education, Design) is a nonprofit organization devoted to Ideas Worth Spreading. Started as a four-day conference in California thirty years ago, TED has grown to support its mission with multiple initiatives. The two annual TED Conferences invite the world’s leading thinkers and doers to speak for eighteen minutes or less. Many of these talks are then made available, free, at TED.com. TED speakers have included Bill Gates, Jane Goodall, Elizabeth Gilbert, Sir Richard Branson, Nandan Nilekani, Philippe Starck, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Sal Khan, and Daniel Kahneman.