Dispatch from TED: NSA responds to Edward Snowden
FORTUNE — An experienced “TEDster,” the cloying way repeat attendees of the TED conference refer to themselves, suggested to me that the best way to creative a narrative of the conference is to write down one thing from each session and see what emerges. In my judgment, some sessions from the eclectic and thought-provoking conference that wraps up Friday merit more than one sentence and others none at all. I’m also not at all sure I can tell one comprehensive story from my experiences this week in Vancouver. But here are some of the things I learned and observed and thought about.
Compelling defenses of one’s life work
Brain scientist Nancy Kanwisher presented breathtaking research on advances in understanding the function of specific regions of the brain. She said, for example, that one region is devoted solely to thinking about what someone else is thinking. Her field could lead to treatments for Alzheimer’s and autism, but she believes brain research is valuable “just for understanding who we are.” Wild Ones author Jon Mooallem explained that the Teddy Bear was named for Theodore Roosevelt (which is well known) because of a political cartoon that recounted his having decided not to shoot a maimed bear while on a hunting trip (the part I, at least, didn’t know). But there was more. Bears, which had been widely feared in the 19th century United States, quickly became thought of in the popular culture of the early 20th century as cute and cuddly, leading to a revival in bear populations. His point: “Storytelling matters. Our imaginations have become an ecological force.”
Inspirational tales of personal transformation
Peace activist Zak Ebrahim, whose real father is the 1990s World Trade Center bomber El Sayed Nosair, said the Jewish comedian Jon Stewart became a father figure to him for helping him understand prejudice by watching The Daily Show. Supermodel Geena Rocero was born in the Philippines with male genitalia. She has decided to publicize this to speak out against discrimination of transgender people. Spoken-word poet Sarah Kay’s life has been transformed by an earlier TED talk. The self-described potty-mouthed poet said she is constantly jet-lagged from her non-stop travels due to her TED notoriety, and she’s having the time of her life. The author of the megahit Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert, gave a wonderful talk on re-finding her creativity in the face of the incredible pressure to repeat her success. Then she had to do it all over again after her follow-up book bombed. “I had to get my ass back to work,” she said, noting that she loves writing, and that once she was able to understand that writing was what was most important to her — more than success — she knew she was going to be okay.
Stephen Friend, a biomedical researcher, presented the concept of a “resilient survivor,” a healthy adult who is a carrier of a disease who did not contract the disease, likely because of a genetic mutation at birth. His thesis is that researchers have focused too much on ill patients, rather than studying why the healthy stayed that way, which may yield more productive results. His Resilience Project seeks middle-aged adults to be tested to find out if they are “unexpected heroes” and therefore worthy research subjects.
Changing how we think about things
A Larry Page nugget I left out of my previous dispatch about his mission for self-driving cars: He said 20 million people are injured each year in auto accidents, which are the leading cause of death in the U.S. of people under the age of 34. The presumption is that autonomous vehicles will reduce these numbers dramatically. Freelance writer Ed Yong gave a delightful talk about an icky subject: parasitic manipulation in insects and mammals. Complete with gross photos, he showed how parasites take over the bodies of other life forms in order to do their bidding, not merely to live in their hosts. Scary spoiler alert: He talked about a parasite that may live in the brains of as many as a third of all humans. If you can’t wait for his talk to be posted, search his name and “emerald cockroach wasp” for a sample.
Hackers are people too, said cycbersecurity researcher Keren Elazari, who defended all the good done by virtuous hackers who expose dangerous flaws in various networks. Del Harvey, Twitter’s head of trust and safety, won my award for most winning deadpan delivery of a TED talk. She explained that her group at Twitter has to plan for worst-case scenarios of privacy and policy abuses, calling it “visualizing catastrophe,” and working backwards to acceptable behavior rather than the other way around.
More things I didn’t know
Ant researcher Rachel Gordon said no single ant is in control of an ant colony, including the queen. There are more than 12,000 species of ants. Continuing the bug education, and in one of the most lyrical science-related talks of the conference, firefly expert Sara Lewis explained that fireflies light up as part of the mating process. More precisely, the light male fireflies emit is “a silent love song,” said Lewis, and female fireflies covet longer-lasting flashes. This was just one of several double entendres that delighted the geeky yet literate audience.
Khan Academy’s 140 million users have now done 2 billion math problems, said founder Sal Khan, a repeat TED talker. Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, wants a new “Magna Charta for the web,” a series of rights and protections for Internet users. Legal scholar Larry Lessig is turning his attention to campaign-finance reform.
I learned from sports-science writer David Epstein that the flip turn in competitive swimming dates to 1956, one several technological or technique-oriented changes that accounts for vastly improved athletic improvement. Previous assumptions were that physiological changes in athletes deserve the credit. Futurist and Googler Ray Kurzweil postulated that just as today we can tap computing power in the cloud for the intermittent seconds we need it (such as for doing a web search), in the future the neo-cortex in our brains will be able to tap non-biological sources of brain power in the cloud. Whoa.
TED attracts big shots
The group of top executives TED draws for a non-business conference is impressive. As I was chatting with Netflix CEO Reed Hastings during a break, General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt wandered over, and the two chatted a bit about executive education. Neither was on the agenda. David Kenney, CEO of the Weather Company, told me over coffee that while “big data” is providing increasingly clear information — on subjects that include the weather — humans aren’t improving their resulting decision-making capabilities commensurately. For example, officials of the Daytona 500 car race didn’t evacuate despite accurate forecasts of a nearby tornado — which struck a mile away. TED’s Chris Anderson tweeted a photo of Google co-founder Sergey Brin with the robot carrying a video link with Edward Snowden. Billionaire Jeff Skoll, whom I profiled for Fortune in 2010, told me how busy he is these days with his film and TV company, Participant Media. Many of Silicon Valley’s top venture capitalists were in attendance, despite the dearth of investable entrepreneurs. TED rules prevent me from mentioning powerful Internet-company CEOs or movie stars who dutifully sat through many sessions. I highly recommend the Twitter stream of Grey’s Anatomy star Sara Ramirez, though.
On Edward Snowden
TED is such a draw that the deputy director of the National Security Agency, Richard Ledgett, agreed to appear by video after an earlier video appearance by Edward Snowden. Ledgett was less exciting and charismatic than Snowden, and TED’s Anderson was less crisp in interviewing him. For example Ledgett noted that multiple federal judges had approved an NSA intelligence-collection program flagged by Snowden. But the whistleblower — Ledgett frowned on that label for Snowden — asserted in his interview that the judges ruled in secret, a point on which Anderson failed to push Ledgett.
Still, for those who are for the NSA and against Snowden, Ledgett made his points just fine. He said Snowden could have brought his information to his supervisor, various inspectors general and congressional oversight committees — assertions met with understandable guffaws in the audience. He reiterated the NSA’s position that Snowden has put U.S. security assets in danger. And he took a jab at Congress, asserting that all the requisite oversight committees had been kept apprised of NSA programs and suggesting that not all members of Congress had taken advantage of opportunities available to them to become informed.
Interestingly, there was no monolithic opinion on the subject. Google CEO Page weighed in onstage, saying: “It is tremendously disappointing the government did all this without telling us. We need to know what the parameters are. I’m sad that Google is in the position of protecting you from the government.” I heard one theory that younger attendees support Snowden, while older ones side with the NSA. The Snowden supporters liken him to Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King: They too broke the law in acts of admirable civil disobedience. His opponents counter that the civil rights heroes didn’t seek the succor of a Russian strongman for protection. I’ll take heat for the following, I know, but I don’t think I know enough of the facts to join one camp or the other, and I don’t know if I ever will. I do know Snowden has exposed serious concerns and that the country likely will be better off for it. And maybe worse off too.
I’ve already written that TED is one of the most impressive conference productions I’ve ever seen. And I’ve seen many. Its organizers get the big things right—and the small things too. For example, at many conferences if speakers agree to talk to the audience at all after their appearances, they end up in the middle of a scrum, where the pushiest attendees are rewarded for their aggressiveness. TED assigns speakers to specific area during breaks, with their names on poles so they can be found easily and in an organized fashion. Smart.
TED also fosters an extraordinary culture of community, especially among attendees who have returned year after year for decades. This breeds goodwill and also galvanizes the group for action, such as support Global Witness, this year’s “TED Prize” winner. There is a downside to TED’s community. Too many talks and offhand comments were self-referential and self-congratulatory about the success of TED and the impact TED talks had on the lives of speakers. Part of this was due to this being the 30th anniversary of TED. But this newcomer, anyway, could have done with less back-patting.
And finally, there’s Vancouver itself.
A content- and party-filled conference is no way to experience a great city. Yet Vancouver was a splendid choice. Its soaring mountains, sparkling harbor, muscular architecture and even the float-plane terminal directly adjacent to the convention center all made for a fine location for a conference. Canada has just enough different-looking brand names to make the U.S. visitor feel the hint of a foreign adventure, with plenty of direct flights from the West Coast to make the trip an effortless jaunt along the Pacific Ocean for the many Californians in attendance.
I was asked over and over by veteran TEDsters, with all the fervor of the faithful wondering if they’d made a convert, if I’d return next year. I probably need a good night’s sleep before I can answer. I heard so many stories this week that I’m not sure yet sure of the narrative. The experienced call this “TED head.” It’s not a bad feeling.
In addition to writing for Fortune, Adam Lashinsky is co-chair of Fortune Brainstorm Tech, the magazine’s annual technology-industry conference in Aspen, Colo. Read his previous dispatches from TED