TED2008: Geldolf asks for help

Three hundred TED attendees haven’t been with us in Monterey – they’re in Apsen, Colorado, where they’ve watched most of the sessions on simulcast. But there are some amazing performers there as well – Jill Sobule, Ze Frank, Rives, and a pair of jugglers whose names I didn’t catch. They perform as “The Kid’s Table Collective”, offering the Aspen perspective on TED.

It sounds like Aspen involved a lot of drinking. Ze Frank offers a spot-on parody of some of the quantum mechanics talks, called “The Dark Bottle Theory.” There are a lot of jokes about the cost differential between the two events, and a spirited singalong to “The Whole World in his Hands”. Sounds like lots of the cool kids were having fun in Colorado.


Chris Anderson introduces the last speaker of the conference, admitting, “I actually liked the Boomtown Rats.”

Bob Geldof doesn’t have slides or A/V and he says “fuck” a lot. But he’s someone who tries to make things happen, and whether or not you agree with all he’s tried to do, he’s tried to do a lot. (I spent almost an hour arguing African politics with him last night, and I found him incredibly passionate and thoughtful, despite the fact that I disagree with him on a lot of issues.)

He tells us that this conference probably wouldn’t work in England, but welcomes us anyway to next year’s conference in Oxford: “You’re all rich fuckers, you can spend $6000, let’s face it.” He makes it clear that his job here isn’t to be reasonable, quoting George Bernard Shaw: “All human progress demands on unreasonable people.”

“Rreasonable accept the world as they meet it, unreasonable people persist in trying to change it. Well, I’m Bob and I’m an unreasonable person. And if TED is anything, it is the olympics of unreasonable people.”

Geldof takes us back to his childhood, trying to explain his trajectory from rock star to humanitarian. “Ireland was planet Ireland – in our inferiority complex, we locked ourselves away.” He wasn’t a student or an athlete – “I read, I listened to the radio, to those whispering, siren voices.” Radio Luxembourg introduced him to Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger and John Lennon, “telling of other possibilities, whole parallel universes of possibilities.”

He couldn’t get into college. “I had no exams and I was worried I’d have to wear one of those fucking awful Simon and Garfunkel scarves.” So he tried to get a job in Canada and got thrown out by the Mounties. And so he founded a band. “Those of us who’d left school tore up the symbols of that authority, stuck it back together with safetypins and cellotape.” And that was punk. It’s hard to imagine how punk has become mainstream – it’s like how Ireland has moved from the poorest to richest country in the world. “Punk pre-empted Thatcher. We didn’t expect thatcher to be a punk – it just turned out that the revolution was on the right.”

The Boomtown Rats did well. “We did the drugs, did the girls – and thanks to the girls for coming tonight – Hi Cameron! Hi Noor!”

“And then we didn’t. In late October 1984, I was sitting at home. Rock stars don’t sit at home – they tour, they record.” He knew his career was at an end, and he was depressed. And then he saw images of the Ethiopian famine and was overwhelmed. “The Eighties were about surplus. The Common Agricultural Policy, your farm bill here. We pay taxes to produce food we would never eat, to store it, and shamefully, to destroy it.”

Geldof knew that he could write a pop song and record it, “but not having hits any longer”, he asked his mates to do it for him. He went on TV and told peple that “to die of want in a world of surplus is not only intellectually absurd, but morally repulsive.” He put together Band Aid and inspired the USA for Africa project, as well as dozens of others. “I would like to personally apologize for two of the worst fucking pop songs in history.”

He reminds us that these movements predated cellphones – “We did LiveAid through the telex.” The percolation of computers around the planet brought the Soviet empire down, he argues. “With 24/7 trading, we all discovered the Soviets had nothing to trade with us.”

Turning to the TED audience, he thanks them for implementing Bono’s wishes:
– Supporting the One campaign website, which has now received a billion impressions. “We’re going to be bigger than the NRA in a couple of years.”
– Helping to wire up Rwanda
– Helping to bring technology to the continent via mobile phones.

Now, he has another Africa-focused project, and he wants some help. He tells us of a trip to Niger, talking to an elder, who tell him “18 months ago, there were 300 languages here.”

“Separate, complete cultures. They’re gone. I never heard those languages, but I already miss them. It’s in these ways that the lights of human genius wink out.”

So Geldof is proposing “a great mapping to be undertaken. I’m going to log all of us. I’m going to take a snapshot of now.” He proposes making 900 half-hour films of 900 different cultural groups. He wants to see a screen with 6.8 billion pixels – “You don’t have to join, just activate yourself.” He sees a moment of human history slipping away and asks the TED community to help him build a Dictionary of Man: “You must have a million ideas fizzing in your head. I need your help.”

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2 Responses to TED2008: Geldolf asks for help

  1. Ethan, thank you so much for your live coverage of TED. Me and wy wide had twins six weeks ago so I was unable to go this year (but will be back in Long Beach next year). Your blog has been an invaluable, amusing and enlightening company for me when I’ve had the night shift with the kids for the past week (Living in Sweden, TED is on between five in the afternoon and four in the morning my time). Keep up the great work!

  2. Pingback: …My heart’s in Accra » From protest to collaboration: Paul Simon’s “Graceland” and lessons for xenophiles

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