The Intellectual Particle Accelerator that was TEDxManchester

We are 3 talks into TEDxManchester and Tara Shears is giving us a crash course in advanced particle physics. On the screen is a giant animation of particles smashing together in the Hadron Collider at CERN, and she is talking and gesturing enthusiastically about how this is part of the scientific community’s ongoing quest to find that God(damn) Higgs-Boson particle and validate the notion that we might have some kind of a clue what the universe is all about. Because, as Tara explains, without Higgs our theories for the universe simply don’t work. We’re back to square one, or at least in need of a bloody good plan B.

Now I can’t say I completely understood everything that Tara was saying (what is a quark? Anyone?). But I love this. I love that some of the world’s greatest minds have spent decades (and several billion pounds) searching for something that might be nothing more than an idea, all so that we can understand the forces of the universe a little better. Yes, the technology used at CERN will undoubtedly have practical uses at some point down the line, but right now its primary purpose is just to turbo charge global knowledge and understanding about the world around us. It’s purely and simply an exercise in discovery.

Which is probably the same reason why TEDx appeals so much. Like some kind of giant intellectual particle accelerator, this Manchester based event has gathered together a collection of experts from fields ranging from arts, music and philosophy to science, digital technologies and architecture, put them on the stage in Cornerhouse cinema 2, wound them up and let them fly at us.

Mary Anne Hobbs on pursuing your passions

We had Tom Bloxham, standing against a slideshow of some of his massive architectural achievements, appealing to us to stop striving for perfection and make more mistakes. David Erasmus, social entrepreneur extraordinaire, who is intent on changing the world and for whom the word ‘can’t’ simply does not seem to have a place in his vocabulary. Brendan Dawes, whose playful approach to constant iteration and discovery resulted in the creation of his seminal work – Cinema Redux – which is now part of the permanent collection at New York’s MOMA. And Mary Anne Hobbs, reminding us that even living on a bus for a year with questionable sanitation surviving on a diet of chips is no hardship at all if it’s in pursuit of your passions and dreams.

TED might be about ideas worth spreading, but what struck me most about all the talks yesterday was the consistent theme of Action. Do something; even if it means making mistakes along the way. Do something; even if you don’t know if it will work. Do something; as it’s the only way you’ll achieve your dreams. Do something; as that next tiny step might result in greatness. Do something; because things are not ok the way they are, and we can do better.

And, as is the point of these kind of events, I for one left feeling a little more excited and inspired, and a little more ready to take some action of my own.

Thanks for reading. If you’re interested, you can read my reflections on TEDxManchester 2009 here.

Egypt: Why restricting the internet won’t stop this tide

In the 16th Century the Catholic Church faced arguably the greatest threat of its long history, not from armies or kings, but from the spread of ideas and information. The printing press was at this time becoming a common feature in cities and towns across Europe, and printers and writers were generally considered to be radicals and rebels intent on disturbing the status quo. A threat to stability. A threat to traditional notions of power.

Luther nail's his 95 theses to a church door

The church and state made various attempts to wrestle control of this new communications technology – printers had to apply for licences to operate their machines, while at the same time the Index Librorum Prohibitorum (Index of Prohibited Books) swelled in Italy, France and the Netherlands, banning the works of scientists, astronomers, theologians; anyone with ideas and evidence that might challenge traditional thought.

Of course, you know the rest. Efforts to restrict the flow of information might have slowed things down, but it couldn’t stop the tide. Lutherism and Calvinism charged on regardless, leading to the reformation and the birth of the Protestant church. Copernican theories of astronomy, such as Galileo’s findings that the Sun did not move around the Earth, eventually became considered scientific fact. Like many leaders after them, the Catholic Church found restrictions on ideas almost impossible to enforce, at least over the long term.

At this point, you might be wondering why I’ve started this post with a history 101 (one relating to religion at that). Well here it is. When I read this weekend’s article in the Scientific American about how the Egyptian government had systematically turned off the ISPs disabling the bulk of their country’s internet access, while millions of Egyptians continue to take to the streets demanding that their voices be heard, this story from my Year 9 history class suddenly came back to me. And I think this is why.

It seems to me that popular revolutions the world over have been slowed down by the efforts of the authorities to control and restrict the spread of information and means of communication. Slowed down. But not stopped. You cannot stop information, ideas and freedom of expression. Whether it takes days, weeks, months or even years, it seems that sharing ideas, developing our knowledge, gathering together, having our voices heard; these things are more than simply strange quirks of history but intrinsic aspects of human nature.

Egyptians march on Tahrir Square (Bloomberg)

We have an intrinsic need to learn. To develop our thinking. To improve our understanding. To express our ideas. And ultimately, to try to influence the world around us in a way that reflects these deeply held values. Freedom of opinion and expression, to receive and impart ideas and information are not arbitrarily enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights because they’re ‘nice to have’. They’re human rights because they are an intrinsic part of who we are, and to stifle them is to stifle our humanity.

So, while I was pleased to hear Barack Obama state in his remarks on Friday night that the Egyptian government must reinstate internet and mobile phone access on the basis that these are human rights which “do so much to connect people in the 21st Century”, I do not believe this revolution is going to be stopped by the restrictions on internet access any more than the Reformation was held back by restrictions on the printing press. Online technologies will help the Egyptians get their story out and make their voices heard, I grant you, but without these technologies, the people finding other ways to make their point, to share their ideas and experiences, to demand a better future. Whether that means getting around the restrictions by using dial-up modems or ignoring new technologies altogether and camping in their hundreds of thousands in Tahrir Square until their government finally listens to them, the people are finding a way. Yes, it might take a little longer. But history tells us you can’t stop the tide.

How the world changed in 2009

Perhaps it’s the end of a decade that gets you thinking about how things have changed, and are changing. This post just pulls together some of the articles and sites that I’ve enjoyed for giving a useful insight into the shifts happening in global economics and international relations, which you might find interesting too.

In global politics, Copenhagen cemented a seismic shift and global power and interplay, with Mark Lynas’ article in the Guardian; How do I know China wrecked the Copenhagen deal? I was in the room as essential reading.

Copenhagen was much worse than just another bad deal, because it illustrated a profound shift in global geopolitics. This is fast becoming China’s century, yet its leadership has displayed that multilateral environmental governance is not only not a priority, but is viewed as a hindrance to the new superpower’s freedom of action.

Meanwhile, whatever you might think about Gordon Brown, his TED talk on the web and our growing interconnectedness is, I think, a fantastic 15 mins on showing how the growing power of technology is strengthening global humanity to fight poverty and injustice.  At the same time, Evgeny Morozov‘s RSA talk warning of how the internet is being manipulated to, at best, influence popular opinion and, at worst, to find, target and destroy dissenting voices is both compelling and terrifying.

The economic crisis has caused many to question whether a debt-fuelled money system is really the best way for the future, reinvigorating economic thinking in the effort to try, test and prove what might make things better. The New Economics Foundation, among others, are doing a lot of research in this area, and argue:

Money and credit have become disconnected from the real economy, from productive investment and sustainable growth. New, more democratic forms of money are required in the transition to a low-carbon economy.

Amidst all the economic turmoil, some have looked at the paltry sums of money dedicated to development assistance and aid in the developing world and asked themselves what exactly is the point? Given no one any longer has much of a clue how to sustain growth in an unpredictable global economy, can development aid really make a difference? Yes, says development specialist and blogger Owen Barder in his excellent article on Open Democracy and on his blog:

Although the effect of aid on economic growth is uncertain, there can be no doubt that aid makes a huge difference to people’s lives.  Aid provides food, health care, education, clean water, financial services, and modest incomes which transform the lives of the people who receive them.

Finally, I loved the AP new’s picture of the decade. A picture is worth a thousand words.

Got any other interesting links, sites, pictures or articles that show us how the world is changing? Post them here.