BANG BANG, or Bits Atoms Neurons Genes. That was the theme of TEDxBrussels 2012, the biggest TEDx event ever with about 2,000 attendees and some equally big names on the programme. Here a selection of some of the many, many highlights during the long day in Bozar.
Steve Wozniak on technology and social revolutions
The packed day started off in Bozar with a big hero. Apple co-founder Steve ‘Woz’ Wozniak spoke about technology and social revolution. He started by telling how he built the Apple I for the guys in his computer club. Then came the Apple II, the first affordable computer. All information was openly available, so everybody could change the code and improve it. Though a lot has changed since those days, openness is still a factor in the success of some recent Apple products. Take iTunes: there are only about 5% Mac users, so it doesn’t make sense to produce iTunes and iPods only for them. Apple has greatly profited from designing iTunes for Windows and opening up its products to users with other systems than Mac.
Concluding his talk, Wozniak revealed he is not too positive about all technological developments. He is skeptical about cloud computing and says he doesn’t want to store data in the cloud until he trusts companies more. Now he wants to regulate the companies that are regulating our lives. That is the only way to allow humans to be the masters of technology.
Greg Gage and his dancing cockroach leg
Greg Gage is a neuroscientist and the founder of Backyard Brains. He possibly gave one of the most bizarre demonstrations of what science can do nowadays. He developed a tool to ‘read’ the spikes in the neurons’ activity and translate this into sound. By taking off the leg of a cockroach and connecting it to a little sound system, Greg could make the cockroach’s leg dance to the music. It sounds so absurd the only way to understand it is to check his demonstration.
Alexander Asseily: technology for cultural explosions
Alexander Asseily spoke about the three technological advancements in the past that have facilitated communication between people across the world and in this way contributed to ‘explosions of culture’, as he calls it. To start, he takes us back to the days of the Phoenicians, who conceived the idea of conveying meaning with simple visual symbols. The alphabet was born. Not to everybody’s contentment, though: “why would you write these simple squiggles? They’re not beautiful”, Asseily theorises a possible reaction at the time. A cultural explosion followed: the alphabet permitted Homer and the Greek philosophers to write down their ideas and stories.
Many centuries later, the invention of the printing press and the Internet were equally important innovations. The emergence of the press facilitated production and distribution of content, and the Internet dramatically changed access to information. The easier access to information, in turn, facilitates the connection of people and dramatically increases the speed at which culture spreads. But we have come a long way from the moment when someone in Phoenicia decided an ‘A’ was an easier symbol than a ram.
Zoe Laughlin and the joy of bending metals
Zoe Laughlin is a material scientist and an artist. Or just a maker, as she prefers to say herself. She works with different types of materials and uses them for art exhibitions and scientific discovery. In her passionate talk, she discusses the wonderful qualities of metals. Metals ‘grow’ into crystals, and as such their shapes can be bent. And in the end, she shows what amazing tricks can be done with cooled down ceramics and a magnet.
Stuart Firestein: ignorance is the virtue of academia
Stuart Firestein is a professor of neuroscience and has been teaching for many years. He spoke about the academic virtue of ignorance – not stupidity, not disinterest, but being genuinely aware you simply don’t know something. He compares science to looking for a black cat in a dark room. And sometimes there is no cat.
Often, science gives the illusion that everything that can be known is already known. There is a 1,414 pages handbook about neuroscience, good for twice the weight of a human brain, but does that mean we know everything? Absolutely not. In Marie Curies’ words, “One cannot see what has been done. One can only see what has not been done yet.” Indeed, when scientists are having beers amongst themselves, they discuss about the questions that are still unanswered. Often, the answer to one question begs ten more questions. The curiosity to answer those, and replace ignorance with doubt is the key to all scientific progress.
Irene van Peer: playing with pigs
The Dutch TEDx community can be proud to have Irene van Peer on the speaker list for TEDxBrussels. Irene is a designer teaching at the Utrecht School for Arts and Technology. She spoke about the ‘Pig Chase’ game that she designed with her team. Irene believes people and pigs can play together. Pigs are highly intelligent creatures and are easily bored when they’re locked up in small spaces. In the Pig Chase game, people and pigs ‘connect’: through a tablet, the human can move a dot, which the pigs follow with their snouts. The Pig Chase game entertains the pig, and even allows the farmer to ‘connect’ with his animals by being the most attractive dot for his pigs.
Xavier Damman: Revolution starts with a smartphone
Xavier Damman is an entrepreneur of Walloon origin who’s now amongst the big shots in Silicon Valley. He is the founder of Storify, a tool that creates stories building on online coverage of events (such as the different sessions of TEDxBrussels 2012). Xavier’s talk demonstrated how new technology and social media are revolutionising the world around us. The arms of a revolution nowadays aren’t guns, he argued: the smartphone is the most powerful weapon to change the world. He concluded his talk by asking the audience to hold up their smartphones and stand up for online freedom. With our smartphones, we can hold our governments accountable. Revolution starts with a smartphone.