TEDxSwarthmore set to bring alumni speakers in spring

Courtesy of facebook.com

From Nepal to New York to India to England, activists, entrepreneurs and scientists flock to Long Beach, California each year to present their most powerful ideas. All are gathered for one conference — TED.

TED stands for Technology, Information and Design. It has hosted speakers such as Al Gore, Jane Goodall and Bill Gates as well as Professor Barry Schwartz.

On March 31, a group called TEDxSwarthmore will bring the experience of aTED Conference to the Swarthmore bubble. The “x” indicates that its an independently organized event, which means a local group organizes an event that uses the TED format in their own community.

The conference will work around the theme “What Makes a Good Society” — a theme particularly important to Swarthmore’s history of social justice. Twelve alumni and faculty speakers will engage in a discussion with Swarthmore students, staff, faculty and guests in the Lang Performing Arts Center.

Professor of Psychology Barry Schwartz, the faculty advisor for the group, said, “There’s no special reason to have a TEDx at Swarthmore, but there’s no reason not to. TED is a gift to the world, I think, so why not enlarge the gift?”

It began in 1984 as a non-profit directed by Richard Saul Wurman, an architect and designer, that attempted to bring together leaders from the three industries to discuss their newest ideas. The first conference included speakers on the Macintosh computer and the mapping of coastlines, but since 1984, TED has expanded to include a TED Global conference held in Edinburgh the United Kingdom as well as conferences on specific topics, like the role of women in the future in Washington, D.C. in 2010 and a talk on the future of India in Mysore in 2009.

The conferences themselves consist of a series of invited speakers who lecture on topics ranging from neuroscience to Buddhist meditation and everything in between. Speakers are given only about 18 minutes for their lecture — a format that is intended for speakers to distill their ideas into a speech that gets to the point and leaves auditors with a memorable impression. A wide variety of authors, scientists, thinkers and businessmen are represented. “It was incredible. I had a wonderful time and met a thousand interesting people,” said Malcolm Gladwell, the author of psychology best-sellers like “Blink” and “Outliers,” in a review after being invited to the conference.

At national and global TED conferences, the seats are limited to around a thousand attendees to ensure a level of personal connection with the speaker. The attendees are limited to invitation only, which requires a donation of at least $6,000, which goes to supporting the conference as well as offering the annual TED prize for an annual idea. Although this is mitigated by the fact that the lectures are posted for free online in a program that is wildly successful, with over 900 videos posted and 50 million views, the conference at Swarthmore will be free to the public in the spirit of the original TED idea of Ideas Worth Sharing — creating a community of thinkers — with the world.

One member of the Swarthmore community, at least, already has experience with TED. Professor Schwartz has spoken three times at TEDconferences about his ideas and books, including a lecture entitled “The Paradox of Choice” which has been viewed more than a million times. “Was it beneficial for me to do the TED talks? Absolutely it was,” Schwartz said. “First, preparing the talks forced me to think hard about what was essential to what I wanted to say, since I had only 18 minutes, and also forced me to think about how to say it best to a smart, interested, but naive audience. Teachers have to do that all the time in their classes, but since we have lots more time, and can always make up for mistakes or confusions in the next class, there’s a bit less pressure to get it right. Beyond that, being at TEDand hearing the other talks and interacting with the audience is just an indescribable treat.”

The event appeals to faculty and students alike. “I watch TED videos all the time for inspiration, so it’s fair to say I’m excited [for TEDxSwat],” Riana Shah ’14 said. “It’s great that we’re using the resources we have — our brilliant alumni — [bringing them] to Swarthmore to increase student engagement.”

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