Twelve great talks to watch, and no excuses for being bored. (Or boring.)

I spent the last four days at a series of meetings for the Open Society Institute, a foundation I advise and serve on a sub-board for. The meetings were off-blog, but I can share one comment on the challenges facing newspapers, from the brilliant Thai journalist Kavi Chongkittavorn from Mr. Soros himself: “Journalists and prostitutes face the same challege: competition from amateurs.” (Friends who were in the meeting with me tell me I’m misremembering – Kavi had most of the good quips in the meeting, but Mr. Soros used this as his parting line…) I can’t wait for the next opportunity to use that quote in a speech…

One of my friends from OSI’s Information Program mentioned his excitement that the TED conference had started putting videos of talks from the last two conferences online, and asked me to recommend my favorites. By the time I got home and online, my twinblogger (a reference to our tendency to blog conferences in tandem) Bruno Giussani had posted a comprehensive guide to great talks, not just on the TED website, but from Pop!Tech and LIFT as well. He correctly identifies this is a new trend in operating conferences, an important one. Very, very few people are able to attend these gatherings – putting the talks online lets thousands of times as many people hear the ideas these remarkable speakers have to share.

So here are some of my top picks from TED and Pop!Tech, the two conferences I’ve been attending and blogging the past two years:

Hans Rosling is probably the best speaker on international development issues I’ve ever seen. He’s done remarkable work with statistics, helping people visualize long-term changes in international development in a historical and global context. He’s given two TED talks – the first is available here. I’m waiting patiently for this year’s talk, which concluded with Rosling swallowing a sword.

On the subject of development economics, Emily Oster stole this year’s TED (for me, at least) with a virtuoso talk on new research she’s done on the effectiveness of AIDS prevention strategies in Uganda. She ends up arguing that the “success” of the abstinence-focused strategies of the Ugandan government had far more to do with external factors – a temporary decrease in international trade – than to these prevention efforts. Her talk – or at least my notes on it – have generated some very critical comments over at Worldchanging.com. (The talk’s not up yet. Sorry about that – I’ll add a link when it’s available.)

Giving a much more personal story of the impact of HIV in an African context was Zinhle Thabethe’s speech at Pop!Tech in October 2006. She’s the director of the Sinikithemba Choir, a group of HIV-positive singers based in Durban who use music to educate communities about AIDS. Her story makes clear the agonizing choices individuals face when local health systems can’t provide anti-retroviral drugs for everyone in a nation – she’s surviving AIDS, but watches her brother die, unable to share her drugs and save him.

If it were socially acceptable to follow scientists around the world, hanging on their every word, as some people follow rock bands around the world, I’d be an Amy Smith groupie. Dr. Smith’s TED talk focuses on “carbon macrotubes” – charcoal, in other words – and the tremendous health importance of producing sustainable, clean-burning cooking fuel for the developing world.

I missed Iqbal Qadir’s talk at TED last year, but I’ve had the pleasure of sharing the stage with him at the PUSH conference two years back. His realization that mobile phones could be income-generating devices for the very poor in Bangladesh is the sort of big idea that can transform entire economies. Iqbal is one of the very best people to listen to in sorting fact from fiction in the whole “fortune at the bottom of the pyramid” set of ideas.

I didn’t expect to like Tom Barnett when I heard him speak at Pop!Tech. He’s got the bearing and delivery of a military man, the product of years of briefing generals in the Pentagon on the importance of transforming the US military. But he’s got an incredibly broad understanding of global security issues, failed and failing states, and the role that humanitarians and aid workers have to play in conflict situations. I came away from his first talk at Pop!Tech with dozens of questions and ideas, and his second talk opened as many new questions for me as it answered.

If you care about free speech, you need to listen to my friend Sasa Vucinic, the founder of the Media Loan Development Fund. Sasa’s firm finances newspapers, radio, television and interactive media in places that wouldn’t otherwise have access to a free press. He does it well enough that MDLF has been able to list on an european stock exchange, a remarkable achievement for a social venturing organization. The secret is his realization that for media to be truly independent, it needs to be fiscally sustainable… something I keep reminding myself as I write endless grant requests for Global Voices.

James Nachtwey was one of this year’s TED prize recipients, and bloggers are already buzzing about the “secret project” he’s planning on taking on with TED’s support. His images of conflict areas were some of the most arresting I’ve ever seen. His talk is almost too intense to watch – there’s simply too many searing images to digest in a very short period of time. the only other photographer who’s affected me this way in recent memory is my friend Ed Burtynsky, whose images of human impact on the earth also sear their way into your head. (Ed recieved the TED prize a year before Nachtwey and has used the prize to help support Worldchanging.com, where I serve on the board of directors.)

To end this top ten on a positive, hopeful note: Majora Carter, the director of Sustainable South Bronx, brought the house down last year at TED when she talked about greening the ghetto, coining the phrase “Green is the new black“. Her group has done remarkable work demonstrating that environmental and social justice are tightly linked, and in challenging the good and the great (including Al Gore) to focus closer to home in their attempts to heal and transform the world.

If that top ten leaves you hungry for more, there’s lots more on both sites. Or if you just need something to clear your head, let me point you to two of the smartest and funniest men on the Internet, Ze Frank and Jonathan Coulton. Both have taken the radical step of putting their work directly onto the web at an alarming pace, Ze with a year-long daily podcast, and Jonathan with a new song written and recorded every week over the course of a year. They’re two of the bravest and funniest guys I know, and two guys I’m very happy to have discovered through the moving circus of the conference scene.

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5 Responses to Twelve great talks to watch, and no excuses for being bored. (Or boring.)

  1. how open is the open society institute? says:

    Why can’t you blog about the OSI meeting? How open is the Open Society Institute?

  2. Ethan says:

    I don’t know of any foundations that would allow discussions of the grants they make to be discussed on blogs. I don’t think that limitation on discussions is unique to Open Society Institute.

  3. how open is the open society institute? says:

    Right. I know of no other foundations with the name “Open Society” either. Perhaps it is up to OSI to lead the way for foundations in openness, transparency and accountability to the open society it espouses. Not by blogging all the detailed discussions about individual grant applications but by blogging about the principles underlying the discussions, the grant process, and by allowing comments about the grants already made …

  4. Claire says:

    I can share one comment on the challenges facing newspapers, from Mr. Soros himself: “Journalists and prostitutes face the same challege: competition from amateurs.” […](I can’t wait for the next opportunity to use that quote in a speech…

    Don’t. Not your happiest moment.

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