In Defense of Relentless Optimism
This week, the TED Conference convened for the first time in Vancouver. As most people know, these conferences have become a global phenomenon, known for offering unique, uplifting talks from people who are actively engaged in trying to solve the most pressing of the world’s problems. With TED’s success, there has also been some inevitable TED backlash: glib ideas, form over substance, elite.
TED, however, is not really vulnerable to such critiques because its brand of visionary optimism simply speaks to too many people at a basic level. It is to the cup-half-full crowd what prophets in the wilderness warning of the end of days are to the cup half empty. The question for all of us, ultimately, is which crowd do we walk with?
The rise of TED has not exactly been linear. Thirty years ago, an eclectic eccentric named Richard Saul Wurman convened a small conference call “Technology, Education Design” or TED for short. It was a quirky gathering of scientists, designers, mathematicians, artists, writers, and of course others.
The conference lost money and wasn’t held again until 1990, and it became an annual fixture in Monterey, Calif. for the world’s creative and techno-elite. In 2001, Wurman sold TED to Chris Anderson, who took what had been a selective event and helped turn it into a global phenomenon largely by curating highly-produced short talks and then posting them on-line, to the point where the most successful recent TED talk has generated more than 16 million views.
That’s a lot of views, though to be fair, it pales in comparison to YouTube hits of Gagnam Style or Justin Bieber. But still, this is a mass elite phenomenon, curious and hungry but not of the size of pop music and movies, to be sure.
The criticisms also come from within the very circles that celebrate TED. The Onion has done a series of pitch-perfect spoofs of a TED talk, full of wide-eyed earnest optimism and mixing ideas and metaphors with a smorgasbord disdain for what ends up on the plate.
Yet with all respect to the Onion, you can only get so far with snark and cynicism. The parody is funny, but in the case of relentless optimism, only if that being parodied is fundamentally powerful. Little of worth is constructed on a foundation of end-of-days or unremitting cynicism, save perhaps for a well-stocked bunker, an omnipresent security state, or a late night show.
TED is clearly tapping into a growing hunger for stories of solving problems and, for lack of a better phrase, making the world a better place. Said one speaker, an odd, deeply engaging singer songwriter named Jason Webley, “the world is magic.” Maybe that is why interspersed with scientists unlocking the nature of the universe, doctors tackling disease, entrepreneurs building, thinkers thinking, there are so many magicians and conjurors at TED as well.
And it isn’t just TED. There is – drumroll for a word du jour – an epiphenomenon of optimism, not exactly mainstream but gathering steam. The drumbeat of looming crisis continues loud on Wall Street, Main Street and K Street. Yet juxtaposed to that is the sudden surge of the web site Upworthy, which recently passed 45 million users a month and is almost certainly larger than that as you read this. Upworthy describes itself as “a mission-driven media company. We're not a newspaper — we'd rather speak truth than appear unbiased. And we're not a political campaign — we're more interested in the powerless versus the powerful than in Democrats versus Republicans.” While the stories do not sing one amen chorus, there is a deliberate tone of constructive criticism and stories that inspire rather than depress. Their target audience? “People who care about what's going on in the world but don't want to be boring about it.”
Two potent examples do not a trend make of course. But there are other hints that these are not isolated. In the noise of endless survey data, it appears that the emerging generation of twenty- and thirty-somethings (the Millennials) are simultaneously less trusting of the world around them and more upbeat about their future. According to a recent Pew survey of nearly 2000 in this age cohort, this group is more optimistic about the future than their Boomer parents were in the 1970s. A significant majority believes that the economic future is bright. Yet they are also distrustful of other people and believe that government guarantees such as Social Security are unlikely to be there for them when they reach retirement.
These attitudes are manifest in TED and Upworthy. It may, of course, be true that these pockets of optimism are just elite bubbles that belie that challenges of the many. But then what? Are we left with the black swan hunting of Wall Street today, and the grim cynicism of Washington? What future can be possibly be constructed from those communities of despair?
About six months ago, I was at a conference in Detroit. It’s hard to imagine a more benighted city. It is as desolate in places as any slum in the world, bleeding population, unable to even replace the bulbs in streetlights. Detroit, in short, has failed as city. But there are still hundreds of thousands of people there, and the hundreds of the conference exuded not despair but determination. Inertia and inaction had a certain outcome: collapse. Even with creativity and passion and the dedication of business such as Quicken Loans and Twitter and young entrepreneurs taking advantage of cheap housing and office space, collapse is a distinct possibility. Absent those efforts, however, it is a certainty. The optimism evident there was anything but rose-tinted. It was born of awareness that it was the only possible way forward.
TED represents passionate solutions to problems. At one of the more compelling presentations, Hugh Herr discussed his work on bionics, the next generation of prostheses. Herr has been innovating in this area for decades, after he lost his own legs in a mountain climbing accident. He and his team recently spent 200 days constructing a bionic limb that allows a woman who lost her leg in the Boston marathon bombing to continue her career as a dancer. As the end of his talk, he brought her on stage where she performed briefly with her partner. It was profoundly moving to see.
Given a choice between the numbing cynicism and pessimism that greets us daily and that animates so many of us, I’ll take the relentless optimism – excesses and all – Hugh Herr and bionic innovation that makes it possible for a woman to dance again any day, any time.