Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Redefining the Way We Think at TEDxToronto

What does the word "Redefinition" mean to you?

This was one of the questions posed to me on the not-so-simple application to attend TEDxToronto - a local spin-off of the famous ideas conference. Here was my answer:
To me, "Redefinition" is all about changing the way that people perceive things or the way in which they interact with things - ultimately influencing the way that they live their lives. Perception alone can be profoundly impactful: heroes can quickly become villains (Obama), a great resource can quickly become a national embarrassment (the oil sands). Changing how people interact with things takes more work, but can be just as influential: for example, the X-box Kinect has redefined how people interact with technology by removing the need for buttons or a touch screen. Either way, "redefinition" = change.

Not bad, huh? What about you - still thinking? Good. Because I've got some inspiration for you. Lucky for me, I passed my TEDxToronto test and was able to score a ticket to the event (woohooo!). It was an amazing day of hearing from thought-leaders, trading ideas with like-minded people, and generally getting my mind blown every few hours or so. Below are different takes on how we can "redefine" the way we think about the world - enjoy!

Never Accept "No"

Think about when you were just a little child, Bilaal Rajen (who I've written about previously), implored us. You never accepted the word "no" when it came to your bedtime, bath time, or eating the vegetables on your plate. But now that you're older, and supposedly wiser, you say "no" to a lot of things. Maybe it's because the nature of the things that we now have to face - global warming, Third-world hunger, a fragile economy - and their broad, overarching implications, that makes us accept them as they are. But a redefinition of social activism means we say "no" to the things that we know must change. Funnily enough, it's the youth of the world that have continued to say "no", even into early adulthood. As Bilaal cannily put it, "The youth of today aren’t the leaders of tomorrow, they’re the leaders of today!”

When Something Doesn't Exist, Create It

Brandon Hay spent most of his childhood with a father who was barely there. Then one day, he became a father himself. Looking to learn about what it takes to be a father from other members of the community, he headed to his nearest community centre to sign up for a parenting program. What he found - or didn't find - surprised him: not only was there no program for black fathers, there was no program for fathers, period. Nothing existed. Determined to combat the "normalization of crises" in black communities (much of which is the result of absent male role models), Brandon decided to take things into his own hands. He created Black Daddies, a support group and meetup for fathers to share their experiences and learn from each other. Where there was nothing, Brandon Hay created it. As a result, he's redefining fatherhood in the black community.

"Know Thyself"

What do you typically do when you need a break - "some time with yourself". If you're like most people, you retreat from the world and escape from the reality of life by travelling to a different country, going camping, or simply getting away from normality. But, as Ariel Garten of Interaxon implored, understanding yourself isn't about getting away from the real world, it's about understanding yourself in the here and now. Her organization's pet project - "thought-controlled computing" - allows people to tap into their inner thought patterns, feelings, and states of mind in order to give them a better awareness of themselves... inside. She calls this new paradigm of self-feedback "Intra-active" - building a relationship with yourself through an increased awareness and understanding. By understanding the world inside of you, you can then make more sense of the world outside of you. “If you could think it, you could discover it, you could bring it to life.”

Using Your Head and Your Heart

How do you define your relationship with those in need - say children in Third-world Africa? You might feel sad that "we" have a lot while "they" have to suffer. But as George Roter of Engineers Without Borders puts it, "There is no 'us' and 'them', there's really just 'us'!" How then, to approach improving the situation for "us"? He proposes using both our heads and our hearts. Typically, our hearts rule: we see poverty in Africa as an immediate, personal problem - and so we send them bed kits and build them schools so that we can see the immediate impact of what we're doing. But if we used our heads a bit more, and think of the problem as something that's long-term and impersonal, we can end up with solutions - driven by geo-mapping data and technology - that ultimately do a better job of helping "us".

Semantic Baggage

Finally, we can even redefine the way we think about things as simple as words. Nicholas Schiefer aimed to move beyond the convention, which defines a word as a distinct element with its own meaning. This is the definition that Google Search depends on: its "independence assumption" assumes that each word typed into the search box is distinct. But, as Nicholas points out, words don't exist in a vacuum - they have "semantic baggage", connections and relationships to other words. His search engine, Apodoro, operates by exploiting this network of words and their inherent relationships, so that the key words alone don't determine which documents are retrieved during a search. This redefinition of the word, in fact, won't just help us get to better search - it will help us understand our own language.

Inspired yet? Had enough time to think? Then I'll ask again: what does "Redefinition" mean to you? ;)

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