TED India: The RoundUp
November 11th 2009
Some of you will have read the five days of live blogs from TED and been fascinated by the speakers and the excitement I described. The high points of technology, the bursting pride of India in the auditorium, the wonderful opportunity to realise that India and Pakistan are finding common cause through friendship, the truly astonishing causes which some of the Fellows, in particular, were working with and developping.
Some of you will also have remarked on the conscious decision, whilst I was in Mysore, to focus only on the positive and leave the ponderings and criticisms until later. That was a good decision because I wanted to allow myself only to be infected with positive energy and willing it on, I was able to take a huge amount every day away from the conference.
I have taken away some new perspectives, some confirmation of old ones and a plethora of new friendships in the making.
Time now for critical thought
But, as the dust settles and the delirium from no sleep or food for days also settles, I begin to have time to reflect on the TED India conference more objectively and think critically about what I took away from it.
Perplexing choice of speakers at times
There is little doubt that, whilst some of the speakers were excellent, others were less inspiring and the choice of speakers left me at times perplexed. The days seemed to be themed, so that the big focus on Day One was corporate India, whilst Day Two muddled into a mix of botany and women and developmental rights.
A real issue was that the speakers on those matters broadly failed to cut the mustard that one expects from TED. If you want to hear about women’s rights in India, there are many people more qualified than those who spoke and it was grating to those of us who work in these issues to hear them being tackled like popular sports. A particular bugbear was the use of individual stories which, far from spreading original ideas, simply allowed easy acclaim despite the existence of actually quite radical organisations in India bringing significant social change, in education, law and development, such as Pratham, or the Lawyers Collective. Perhaps the reason for this was that the organisers were not actually in touch with some of these hugely influential organisations within India. Perhaps the other problem was that the conference is, in many ways, attempting to be apolitical. Dealing with rights-based issues, it is impossible to avoid the down and dirty. You have to confront squarely the controvery of the challenges laid out. That may be one reason why some of the people whose ideas are most radical and influential in the developmental world – whether through NGOs, the law, journalism and activism – were at least as conspicuous by their absence.
Soft power and State complicity in genocide – how do they sit alongside each other?
On the last day, Shashi Tharoor talked about India’s soft power. This was a theme that had been lurking under my skin since before the conference, since the date also clashed with the 25th anniversary of the 1984 pogroms in Delhi in which thousands of Sikhs were massacred and whose lives were destroyed. There had been little coverage in the Indian newspapers I had read, nor on the plethora of television channels, and I had arrived in Mysore ruminating on India’s ability to forget (although grievances over 500 year old mosques and temples litter the popular consciousness from time to time). Where was India’s soft power, I was wondering, when all it wanted to talk about was its corporate self? Where would India lose herself when she was unable to acknowledge the atrocities being carried out daily in her midst? Why, when there were current battles with the Maoists in the east of the country, and whose land was being carved up and given away every day, did corporate India, into which a large section of her media can be condemned, why was this just passing by unnoticed? Did India just want to become America, I wondered, and if so, what about those thousands of voters who had joined the massive protests against Bush when he had visited in 2006? What would happen to the people in India who didn’t want to do things the corporate- American way? Was there a place, I asked myself for the millionth time, for an India who could learn and lead simultaneously using her own tools? I am not really sure the conference tried to tackle these questions, again perhaps because the big questions are simply too controversial. Perhaps they are seen to take away rather than add to the pot, I simpy don’t know.
Those thoughts were in my head as I listened to the corporate talks, and they whirred more loudly when much of the music strummed just for western ears, which was a real shame because I think it would have been wonderful to allow a real vision of the diversity of India. A qawwali played would have been far more illustrative of India’s holistic musical culture than the Sindhi-African dance troupe whose entertainment value was, at best, dubious. The Bollywood party on the last night, replete with buses filled with TED fellows and westerners dancing on the seats and off the rails was testament to the desire of people to learn about the sides of India about which they knew nothing. Yet the organisation of the conference seemed to look west rather than east at times, missing a real trick along the way.
That was, I think, the “Californisation” of the conference, an India that blended well with America and, in the end, was perhaps where the let-down simmered throughout. Easy applause was abundant and standing ovations proffered to individuals who, in all reality, were small fry in the scale of the battle which India faces, and which some incredibly worthy individuals and organisations are tackling on a far more impressive scale. Nice, but not excellent and TED is in the business of excellence.
Back to the strong stuff
Which is why a speaker like Sunita Krishnan(who is mentioned on Day Four of my earlier blogs) struck the audience with such force. Her frankness, devoid of any emotion, was a welcome attribute to a day in which there had been a little too much melodrama at times. A broken voice is not always the most effective way to tell a story, much less to propagate an idea, and again, it was an aspect of the conference which perhaps catered excessively to American tastes. Which is why Eve Ensler’s passion, told from the heart and without the need to soften her blows for an unquestioning audience, met such rapturous applause. Which is why Ryan Lobo, with his heartfelt take on photojournalism, was rightly popular. Which is why some of the Indian innovators whom I described in my earlier blogs infused energy to their ideas.
The freakishly cultish world of TED
It is hard to know what impression people with no experience of India would have come away with from TED India. Some of the speakers I have mentioned in my earlier blogs were certainly impressive, and it was inspiring to learn about the different energies which India is using in different ways. But it struck me at times that the organisers sought to reinforce certain stereotypes about India, whilst leaving out some of the whole story. It was my first TED conference, a TED Virgin as we were called, so I cannot speak for any other event. But it is important, amongst all the deserved plaudits, to remember that this is an unquestioning audience. This is an audience and atmosphere given over to praise rather than criticism, where eighteen minute lectures are not ended with argument or debate. I wondered, a fair few times, how many people noticed the women sweeping the lawns with back-breaking brooms, or how many people smiled and spoke to the women waiting to clean the loos in the Infosys campus, where no one is allowed to drink, have sex or walk on the lawn (Did anyone actually read those House Rules). In the freakishly cultish world of TED, there is little space for questioning.
Will you change my life?
But this is sounding a negative that, in real terms, is not really a negative. There was so much positive about TED India that fills my last five blog entries that it was important for me to reflect on what could have been different. After all, someone asked me at the end, tongue in cheek, whether I could change his life. Does TED do that, I wonder? Does TED change your life?
The real genius of TED, as I have said before, lies in its ability to gather together people who are hugely talented and successful in a diverse range of fields. Some of my best TED moments were little breaks when a randomly struck conversation brought nuggets of new thought –talking literature with A who worked in microfinance with the Acumen Fund and discovering our common heritage; discussing whether Urdu should be written in Hindi script in order to preserve the language in India with T; clashing head-on with J over Cuban politics at lunch; understanding from A why someone would want to put a boutique hotel in Ahmedabad; learning from B how designers can source organic materials; always always bumping into T and talking football, Punjabi and why lawyers are perceived as emptying rather than filling; dancing with a stranger; drinking coffee with an artist; discussing with C how to put Shashi Tharoor on the spot with a question about Indian state accountability over genocide, or attempted genocide, after his pedestrian cliché about India’s pluralist democracy, which was true but missed some extremely important political points and was as smooth as Tony Blair in 1997.
The genius in TED lay in those moments where nobody knew what would come next, and could then be blown away by what did come next. At times, those were the speakers, and often, those moments came in the all too brief meetings we had with people who already seem to have become friends. Just as we were all getting to know each other, we had to walk away. It would have been wonderful to have had a few more days with new friends and the hundreds of people we still would not have met.
Thank Goodness for the technology of Facebook which has seen an exponential rise in Indian-related friendships over the last few days.
Technology, Entertainment, Design – Bring it On
There was a moment on stage when a speaker introduced a fifteenth century Hampi royal to the stage through 3D. It was quite incredible. I don’t begin to understand how he did it. If I could do TED India all over again, I would have brought the Gods of all the major religions on stage and asked them how they viewed India. Then I would have asked the Chief Beliefs Officer to create a new politics where they could sing, dance, work and pray together. Finally, I would have asked Jinnah, Gandhi and Mountbatten to get up on stage and discuss discuss and discuss some more. Then I would have asked for audience participation. And then, we might all have seen what soft power can achieve.
TED Withdrawal Baby
The delirium in which we all lived is passing. I have got some sleep, got over the jet lag and eaten some salad (I guess nobody ate greens for days in India, under strict instructions no doubt from Infosys so as to keep the place sanitised). But, notwithstanding some of the reflections above, I am definitely encountering TED withdrawal. It was the energy, the people, the place. Above all, it was the Idea that the world was committed to re-shaping itself and that there were people who cared enough to begin that process. The Future Does Beckon, with carrots and with sticks. How India chooses to wield them is still TBD.