TED@Cannes Speakers Describe Social Changes Wrought by Tech

Cannes, France– Speaker after speaker at the TED@Cannes mini-conference here yesterday predicted a future in which the fusion of technology with human ingenuity will alter the fabric of society and change what it means to be human.

naveen.jpg The exclusive event, hosted by Microsoft and Starcom MediaVest Group, featured presenters such as scientist Stefana Broadbent, design legend Stefan Sagmeister, Internet theorist Clay Shirky, and Foursquare co-founder Naveen Selvadurai (pictured).

Work And Home Life

Scientist Stefana Broadbent says fundamental shifts are underway in how we think of communication in the workplace and at home. She noted social communications have insinuated themselves into our working lives, “subverting the notion that to be productive we have to be isolated.”

Simultaneously, and less obviously, her research has found that family households – relatively tight-sealed since the onset of the industrial revolution – have begun to open to community interactions, which she says were the norm before the Victorian era. For instance, she has observed families that hold open Skype video calls for hours at a stretch, making the home visible to relatives and friends for extended periods while parents go about their routines.

“Massive communication in the workplace and the widening of external communication in the home [amounts to] enormous social innovation,” Broadbent said.

One remarkable thing about these changes is that they’re bottom-up. She said, “Nothing in these technologies was designed with social innovation in mind.”

Crowd Sourcing for Civic Good

Speaking of bottom-up, Clay Shirky cited the sudden global adoption of a crowd-sourced reporting platform – Ushahidi – that was built to chart reports of violence in Kenya during the 2008 post-election fall-out. Since its development two years ago, Ushahidi has been used to map snow clean-up efforts after Washington D.C.’s recent winter storms, emergency conditions in post-earthquake Haiti, and other crises in Mexico and the Netherlands.

Shirky, author of the new book “Cognitive Surplus,” argued the creative energy underlying Ushahidi comes from the same human drive that fueled the much sillier LOLcats phenomenon.

If that drive can be harnessed for global benefit as much as for humor, he said, “Civic value is going to be a side effect of what we collectively make of this [trend].”

Life-Improving Games

Foursquare co-founder Naveen Selvadurai began his talk with a question: “How can we get better at living in our cities?” According to Selvadurai, the place-based social network has more to offer than Starbucks discounts and bowling alley mayorships; it can also get its users to embrace healthier lifestyles.

For example, he said a desire for Foursquare’s “Gym rat” badge had led many users to increase their workout sessions. Hence, Selvadurai posed, games can improve our lives.

Personal Data Extremism

Gary Wolf, a journalist for Wired and author of an upcoming book “The Quantified Self,” described the new extremes of data gathering people are applying to their own bodies.

He talked about some of the products that are making personal data fetishes possible: An asthma inhaler with a GPS transreceiver that records when and where a person suffers an attack; the Fitbit sensor, which measures a person’s calories burned, steps taken, distance traveled and sleep quality; and the Zeo “personal sleep coach,” a wireless headband and bedside display that records information about how much – and how well – the wearer sleeps.

Follow Zachary Rodgers on Twitter at @zachrodgers.


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