TEDx speakers bring ideas to campus



Feature Image
Matt London
Artist Joshua Harker showed this intricate skull to illustrate the use of 3-D printing in his art.

A balanced content diet is as essential as a balanced food diet, alumnus Alexander Macris ’97 said at the third annual TEDx Binghamton University conference on Feb. 24.

“Just as the nutritional value of food declined from healthy to unhealthy, so too has the nutritional value of content,” said Macris, general manager of The Escapist magazine and senior vice president of Alloy Digital. “Instead of a balanced diet that mixes great-tasting content with nutritious fare, we instead feed our minds with the equivalent of deep-fried donuts.

“If we care about the health of our minds as much as we care about the health of our bodies, we need to begin to balance a content diet as fervently as we balance our food diet,” he added. “We don’t need to give up video games or quit watching CSI, and we can keep listening to Beyonce. But it wouldn’t hurt us to read something really hard — like Edward Gibbon’s A History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire — or to watch something slow and methodical like The Godfather or listen to something sonorous and melodic like Mozart.”

Macris was one of eight speakers to participate in TEDx Binghamton University, which drew more than 1,200 people to a sold-out Osterhout Concert Theater in the Anderson Center. Organized by students Lenny Simmons and Jonathan and Stephen Prosperi and attended by President Harvey Stenger, students, faculty members and administrators, the conference promotes and stimulates conversation about how to put good ideas to work.

Other speakers for the “Sex, Tech & Rock ‘n’ Roll” theme were:

• Justin Garcia, a Binghamton alumnus, on dating in America.
• Kyle Cranmer, an experimental particle physicist, on the discovery of the “God particle.”
• Daniel Drezner, foreign policy expert, on zombies and the “metaphor of the living dead.”
• Joshua Harker, an artist/digital sculptor, on the “third Industrial Revolution.”
• John Boyer, a senior instructor at Virginia Tech, on Homo habilis and the university.
• David Ferrucci, artificial intelligence expert, on Watson the computer and Jeopardy.
• Michelle Thaller, NASA science communicator, on dark matter in the universe.

The conference also featured classic rock ‘n’ roll from the band Just Passin’ Thru. The quintet, which features alumnus Matt Telfer ‘78 on guitar and Geology Department Chair Bob Demicco on Hammond organ, played a set before and after intermission that featured covers of hits from Santana, the Rolling Stones, the Grass Roots and the Spencer Davis Group.

Macris began his talk (called “If People Are Getting Smarter, Why is Our Content Getting Dumber?”) by discussing the similarities between the consumption of content such as books, TV, movies and music, and the consumption of food.

“Like food, content has a taste to it,” he said. “The Avengers tastes different than The Dark Knight Rises. Which you prefer is a matter of taste. Never before has the content menu offered so many varied, excellent tastes. If you enjoy consuming content, the world is an amazing place.”

But this varied content also carries nutritional value, Macris said. As food feeds our bodies, content feeds our minds. Nutritious content will increase knowledge, expand vocabulary and improve critical thinking and problem solving. Unhealthy content will shorten attention span, damage concentration and weaken problem solving.

“If our mental menu is nutritious, we should see people getting smarter and sharper,” he said. “If our mental menu is not wholesome, we should expect to see a spreading epidemic of stupidity that would parallel the epidemic of obesity.”

Macris pointed out several deflating statistics about reading, which is “the most nutritious way to consume content.”

• The length of sentences in books has fallen from 40 words per sentence in 1710 to 14 in 2010. “It can’t decrease much further unless we start speaking in tweets,” he said to much laughter.

• The length of paragraphs in books plummeted when the television era begin in the 1950s.

• The reading levels of newspapers, magazines and textbooks have fallen.

• Only 42 percent of Americans ages 18-24 read literature in 2002, compared to 60 percent in 1982.

• The percentage of adults who read for pleasure drops by 7 percent each year.

“Not only are Americans reading simpler books, flipping through simpler magazines and learning from simpler textbooks, they are doing a lot less of the above,” Macris said.

More Americans could read at a 10th-grade level in 1949 than the number who can read at a sixth-grade level today with more than four years of extra education, he added.

The “dietary shift” to TV also has had consequences, as shorter “MTV editing” has made content more addictive and damaging to the attention span.

“How many of you find blockbusters from the old days to be too slow?” he asked. “Even 18 minutes (the length of TED talks) is probably too long in today’s world, so we are going to have a halftime show,” prompting a picture of singer Beyonce on the overhead screen.

The final content form — music — can be beneficial, Macris said. For example, classical music can increase cognitive recall and improve “performance and stressful tasks — like Ted talks!” he added.

But post-1950 music has veered toward an increased loudness and a reduction in the diversity of chords.

“The most nutritious music could be sedating, complex and unfamiliar, while the least nutritious music would be loud, simplistic and sound familiar,” Macris said.

Boyer also examined the strengthening of the mind in his talk, titled “Homo Habilis U: Reinventing the University Experience for a Changing World.” Boyer excitedly told the audience of how the Homo habilis species (whom he nicknamed “Handy Man”) lived more than 2 million years ago and was the first to use stone tools — “the first technology.”

Homo habilis eventually became the “evolutionary winner” of his era after starting out as a “scavenger” of the world, Boyer said. For 200,000 years, the world changed from desert to water and back and forth.

“A funny thing happened on the way to extinction,” he said. “The world changed — radically and rapidly. One by one, these species who had specialized in a very specific niche in the environment died. They faded away. Handy Man wins! Handy Man lives! Handy Man kept going!”

Homo habilis thrived because it was an early adapter of technology, worked with its brain and hands, and was curious and inquisitive.

Boyer used the anthropological story as a parallel to today’s world.

“I believe that we as a species are once again at the brink of radical and rapid change in our society and on this planet,” he said. “What’s changing? What’s not changing?” pointing to technology, jobs and the climate, among others.

The world has a place to bring people together, Boyer said. It is a place where the older generation can share knowledge with the younger generation and talk about the issues of today and tomorrow. The university, he said, is “one of the best inventions of the past 3 million years.”

But most people go to universities to “get a job,” Boyer said, and take specialized courses in a specialized field.

“The university is not well-equipped to get you a job,” he said. “That’s not what we are here for. We don’t crank out workers. We crank out thinkers.”

Boyer prefers that people go to college to adopt technology and innovate, work with their brain and hands, and be curious and inquisitive. They are characteristics that have worked for millions of years.

“You’ve got to have tools in your tool belt when you get out of college,” Boyer said. “You don’t know what your job will be. We don’t know what your job is going to be. Think about all of the technology. It didn’t exist 10 years ago. How can we prepare you for jobs that don’t exist yet? We can’t. But we can prepare you to think, act on your feet, build a skill set, innovate, and like Homo habilis, keep going.”

– Eric Coker