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Concrete Playground Spends 18 Minutes with Curator of TED, Chris Anderson

TED's Curator answers a TED Talk's Worth of Questions.

By Zacha Rosen
May 28, 2012

Concrete Playground Spends 18 Minutes with Curator of TED, Chris Anderson

TED's Curator answers a TED Talk's Worth of Questions.

By Zacha Rosen
May 28, 2012

Talking to an audience, or one-to-one, former-billionaire Chris Anderson still comes across as pretty approachable. Anderson is curator — and owner — of the smart, global talk-fest, TED, where talks are notes-free and never more than 18 minutes long.

Anderson was in Australia last weekend for TEDxSydney's 2012 collection of talks about robots, quantum computing, imaginary friends and the durability of dirty words. After all but one of the other speakers had taken to the stage, Anderson spoke briefly about TED-Ed, which combines videos and mash-ups into a kind of "magic blackboard", and the Worldwide Talent Search for TED2013.

After he left the stage, Concrete Playground was lucky enough to sit down with Chris Anderson for almost exactly a TED Talk's worth of time.

You come across, from a distance, as very gentle. Do you find that helps you run a big conference like TED?
I don't think anyone's ever asked me that before. Interesting. I think I probably am gentle. Maybe I'm gentle. There's lots of ways to run a business. And I do many of them really badly: but I do have a great team. And TED has a life of its own. So, it's amazing to see it take off around the world. Every day is a surprise.

Teenagers get ignored a lot in public. Why did you pick teenagers as your target for TED-Ed?
Well, our existing talks are aimed at adults and are certainly devoured by a lot of university-age students. And a little bit in schools. But they're not optimised for school use. They're too long. They displace too much class time. They're aimed at adults. And so, given that ideas matter most for people whose world views are still being formed, and given how important education is to everyone's future, we kind of have no choice, but to do something for that age group. And we spent a lot of time thinking about it. And talking to teachers, and listening. And this is where we've ended up.

We've got a lot of interest among 18 and up. And we just wanted to move down. And maybe, if this is successful, we'll continue the trip down. Towards, you know, birth. [laughs]

What was school life like for you? You talk a lot about better ways of education. Is that informed from a bad experience or a good experience when you were younger?
I was brought up in an international school in the Himalayas in India. And it was a fabulous experience, actually. In fact, if I had a wish … if every kid could spend a few years in an international school, a lot of issues would go away. Because, without even trying, you end up a global soul.

And, you know, all the big problems in the world are essentially global problems. So, it would be nice if the people who were trying to solve them were taking a global perspective instead of a tribal perspective, which is why we can't solve a lot of what's out there. So, no — it was a wonderful experience. It was lots of time outdoors. Lots of time in nature. And an incredible cast of characters in the school. So, it was great.

I watched the TED-Ed talk 'Questions no one knows the answers to'. I really enjoyed that one. When do you think we might know the answers to some of those questions? You're in a good position to have an idea.
There was a bunch of different questions thrown into there. I mean, one of the questions — about 'Why aren't we seeing alien life?' — I think there really is chance that in the next fifteen years that we learn a lot on the question. There's a lot of technologies coming online that will allow real spectroscopic information from nearby planets. We might be able to detect vegetation. There's a lot of things that might show up. And we're involved in this project right now to open up, crowd-source, the search as well. To get millions of people looking for signals, not just a few scientists. I would die happy, if we found real contact with another intelligent species out there. It would be totally thrilling.

What do you think might be some of the new questions, once we get rid of the old ones?
I certainly think it's right that the more we know, the more questions we have. Reality is infinitely complex. And you have to just view it as: each step of the journey is interesting, exciting and useful. I think I've said before that learning something is a different psychological process to consuming something. That most things we do have a law of diminishing returns. You eat ice-cream, and the fourth and fifth taste aren't quite as nice as the first taste.

Knowledge — it actually works the other way. The more you know about the world, the more your sense of wonder explodes. And that's actually really cool. That gives me a lot of hope for the future of TED for one thing.

You've said before that there's always one talk that really surprises you. What really surprised you today?
I thought the talk on quantum computing was mind-blowing. And if quantum computers come along, all bets are off as to what that means for technology.

Charles C Mann wrote a great book called 1491 updating America's pre-Colombian history with things he thought every kid should know. What do you think that grown-ups, kids, should know at the moment, much more generally?
I think one of the things is how flawed and quirky human nature is. We don't yet have that mental model. A lot of kids are brought up to believe that they're special snowflakes, or [that] their only job in life is to find their passion and it'll all be okay. And the truth is we're really complex biological machines. And we do a lot of things amazingly, and we do a lot of things really badly, actually. Because we evolved for a different era, and a different set of environmental requirements. And so, knowing that, and learning to navigate around that is a really important part of education.

What are you reading right now? Do you have time to read?
Less time. I think that's probably true of everyone. We're launching this TED Books initiative, based on shorter books. On the idea that most ideas don't have to be expressed at 80,000 or 100,000 words. They can actually be expressed in maybe 20,000 words. So, TED Talk: 2,500 words. TED book: 20,000 words. Then, non-fiction book: 80,000 words. So, there's a sort of niche there. And it means that you can sit down and read in an hour and a half. I think that's actually a great length. So that's what I'm reading right now: we're going to be publishing these new TED books, one every two weeks. And I'm reading a lot of those. And they're pretty cool.

Are you happy?
I am happy. Most of my life I've been happy. They say it's seventy percent hard-wired, and the rest is magic. I'm unbelievably lucky —I've got one of the world's most enjoyable jobs, surely. And you know I get to see this thing growing in a way I couldn't have imagined. I'm married to an amazing woman who's a much better impacter of the world than I am. [laughs] So, yeah. I'm a lucky person.

Photo by the amazing Enzo Amato, and additional assistance by Tully Rosen.

Published on May 28, 2012 by Zacha Rosen

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