There is a paradox in the world of technology and design: we spend our time imagining "more" (more features, more gadgets, more stuff crammed into smaller sizes), but at the same time we crave simplicity. John Maeda is a graphic designer and visual artist, and computer scientist at MIT's MediaLab and a strong advocate of digital simplicity (he wrote a book called "The Laws of Simplicity"). His speech is a run through a series of examples of simplicity vs complexity in daily life (from street signs to Paris Hilton's "Simple life" show to job titles to food), science, and art (he has his work exhibited at MoMA). "Simplicity is about living a life with more enjoyment and less pain". Here are the ten laws of simplicity according to him (his book):
- Reduce: The simplest way to achieve simplicity is through thoughtful reduction
- Organize: Organization makes a system of many appear fewer
- Time: Savings in time feel like simplicity
- Learn: Knowledge makes everything simpler
- Differences: Simplicity and complexity need each other
- Context: What lies in the periphery of simplicity is definitely not peripheral
- Emotions: More emotions are better than less.
- Trust: In simplicity we trust
- Failure: Some things can never be made simple.
- The one: simplicity is about subtracting the obvious, and adding the meaningful
The next speaker has said -- many years ago -- one of the best quotes ever, which encapsulates a whole philosophy: "The best way to predict the future, is to invent it". Computer scientist Alan Kay is the father of object-oriented computer programming and one of the creators (when he was at Xerox PARC) of networking computers and of the windowing graphical user interface. The world is not as it seems, he says. We don't see things as they are, but as we are
. So reality is a kind of allucination happening in our brain, a "waking dream".
We cannot learn to see until we admit that we are blind. What's happened over the last 400 years is that human beings have invented "brainlets" made of powerful ideas that help us see the world in different ways: sensory apparatuses (telescopes, microscopes, etc), reasoning apparatuses (computers, logic, math, etc) and a change in perspective (science and its process, etc). "We confuse sophistication with understanding".
Kay is now working on the software for Nicholas Negroponte's "100 dollars laptop" (see these previous posts). He shows the laptop and a couple of the applications for kids that will be built into the laptop, one for drawing and a science "game" that explains gravity (the image above left is a version of the interface that's being developed).
Two TEDsters who work for Microsoft come on stage next. Stephen Lawler is a general manager there and an expert on 3D mapping. He shows a tour of Virtual Earth, which is somehow MS' response to GoogleEarth. He describes Virtual Earth as a digital and comprehensive representation of the entire world, mixing all kind of data, tagging them, etc. VE is a pretty cool tool, capable of oblique images (45-degrees angles, so that you see the buildings in 3D, like in the image from San Francisco here at right) and has the same capacity as GoogleEarth to add layers of data. He describes how they capture images by flying camera-equipped airplanes over cities and driving camera-equipped ground vehicle, and explains the difficulty in composing multiple images into realistic 3D landscapes that can be navigated. It is still lab stuff, but on the surface it looks much better than GoogleEarth.
He is followed by Blaise Aguera, a software architect, who gives a preview of Photosynth, and THIS is totally cool. The software takes collections of photos of a same place or object and combines them in a reconstructed three-dimensional space, showing how each one relates to the next, mapping the position of people when they took the picture, etc. The software basically creates structured hyperlinks between all the pictures. Which allows to view scenes from different angles, zoom in and out to unimaginable depths (from a one-image full-text of a book down to the single word and back), etc.
(Both of these software developments are absolutely stunning. Unfortunately, this being Microsoft, both only run on XP and/or Vista and/or the Explorer browser…)
I am amazed at the amount of research that's going into developing new computer interfaces and ways of navigating through information. We've had a good cross-section of the work currently being done in labs yesterday (Jeff Han) and today (Anand Agarawala in this morning's session, and the three previous speakers): we're clearly getting close to the point where the 30-years-old computer user interfaces made of windows and icons and folders will finally give way to something new and way more powerful and usable.
Artist Maira Kalman is the author of many New Yorker covers like the one at left ("Newyorkistan", December 2001) and of children books, and the illustrator of the book "The elements of Style". Her illustrations evoke humor and beauty. She describes how the ideas for some of them came to her.
And she reads from "artistic columns" (basically, a series of illustrated short stories) that she "wrote" for the New York Times during the last year. And she is funny.
TEDster Richard St. John is an author and founder of the StJohn Group. At TED2005 he gave a 3-minute slideshow on the real secrets of success (video). This time he uses his three minutes on stage to demonstrate his "stop and look back" technique to make sure not to forget (or lose) something -- just stop for a fraction of a second and look behind when you leave (a place, a taxi, a table, your apartment). Step one: stop; step two: look back.
(If you are wondering, yes, this is the kind of interludes that happen during TED, funny and oddly insightful).
Michael Pollan is an author, journalism professor at Berkeley, and specialist on the "food chain": where does our food come from? Why are we so unaware of it (and of how it can affect our health)? He is famous for an article published in 2002 in the New York Times magazine called "Power Steer", where he bought a steer (a castrated male cattle) and followed him all the way "from insemination to steak", chronicling the production of modern meat. He applied this same approach to his book "The omnivore's dilemma: a natural history of four meals", following the various food chains (industrial farming, organic and alternative agriculture, and hunting and gathering) from the source to the final meal (Read the first chapter here - PDF).
He talks about looking at us (humans) from the point of view of the other species. As an intellectual matter, looking at the world from other species' point of view helps us deal with a big anomaly: even though Darwin told us 150 years ago that we are only one species among others, we have not absorbed this lesson. We still believe that subjectivity and consciousness set us apart, that there is nature and there is culture. Looking at the world from other species' point of view is a cure for human self-importance. Human consciousness is just another set of tools to get along in the world. It's kind of unnatural that we consider it a better tool than others. When you look at the plants, you realize that there are other tools that are just as good (biochemistry, for example).
He used this idea to develop his understanding of the food system. What he learned is that "we are all now being manipulated by corn", he says half-jokingly. "It's the final triumph of corn over good sense. Corn's scheme for world domination. The amount of corn grown this year will be up dramatically, because we have decided for ethanol".
He describes permaculture -- an agricultural approach by which a systemic thinking is applied to food production and land use. He describes his visit to a farm that applies this design to its activities, pointing for example at the relationship between cattle and chickens. It's a different way to think about nature. One day, cattle is in a pen, grazing. They are then moved to another pen. The farmer waits three days. Then he tows in an "egg mobile", which houses 350 chickens. The hens make a rush for the cow patties, for the maggots (the larvae) that have been growing in them (three days is the right time before the larvae become flies). Which are the chickens favorite form of proteines. In the process, the chickens spread the manure out. And defecating themselves, fertilize the field. They are then moved out to the next enclosure, and in the course of the next few weeks the grass grows back, and within a few weeks the farmer can do it again. It's a very productive system.
Look at it from the point of view of the grass, Pollan says. When a ruminant grazes, grass is cut short. Plants tend to keep a balance between roots and green. So when they are grazed, they shed roots. The roots die, the species in the soil go to work, and the result is new soil. "So food comes out of the farm, and at the end of the season there is more soil, more fertility, and more biodiversity".
If you begin to take account of other species, of the soil, this simple change in perspective (there is no hi-tech involved here, except maybe electric fences) allows us to take food from the Earth, and heal the Earth in the process.