Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Talking TED: Technology good, media bad

I'm pleased and honoured to announce that I'll be a speaker at the TEDx conference at Ryerson University here in Toronto on Nov. 27.

What is TED? It stands for "technology, entertainment and design" and it's a conference that has been running every year in California since 1990. The event, run by the non-profit Sapling Foundation, is devoted to "ideas worth spreading" and has featured such luminaries as Bill Gates, Al Gore and Richard Branson. Over the years, TED events have spread around the world and those with an "x" designation are run independently, with the main organization's blessing.

The organizers of TEDxRyersonU, whom you on Twitter, recently shot a little intro video wherein I talk about the stuff that interests me and what I plan to discuss at the event:

To expand on that a bit, I'm planning to talk about how the media often blows concerns about technology out of proportion, which thereby feeds people's paranoia about it.

I had a front-row seat to a great example the other day. You may remember that earlier in the summer, some concerns emerged over Wi-Fi use at public schools here in Ontario. The issue was blown up by newspapers and TV, but ultimately (and thankfully) died a relatively quick death. Until, of course, it was resurrected this week. Some parents in small-town Ontario had, apparently, voted to shut off Wi-Fi at their local school.

I got the order from on high to write the story, and immediately cringed. No credible evidence that Wi-Fi is harmful to anyone's health has ever been found - indeed, health authorities dispelled the issue back in August - so why bother doing a story? If anything, more media coverage of the issue only encourages the people behind this campaign of misinformation and scare-mongering to keep doing it. But alas... that's how the media works. If it gets eyeballs, regardless of how stupid, it gets covered.

I ended up contributing to the problem and writing a story, but I took some comfort in correcting what other media were woefully misreporting. Pretty much everyone reported that the school had banned Wi-Fi (examples here, here and here), when in fact all that had happened is a group of parents had voted to do so. The decision to unplug the Wi-Fi or not lays with the school board, and they're not even close to voting on it.

The damage, though, has been done. The seeds of doubt about Wi-Fi have been sown over the past few months and it's reasonable to expect the public's trepidation will grow.

On the flip side, absolutely no one has reported the deep societal benefits of Wi-Fi, besides the simple cosmetic fact that it eliminates a large number of wires from our homes and businesses. Two quick ones sprung to mind yesterday while I was mulling the issue. One: when I'm over in the UK next month, I'll be using the Wi-Fi on my phone to check email and make Skype calls. If I used a standard cellular connection, I'd rack up a bill in the hundreds of dollars, which is then money I wouldn't have for other things. Two: again, while travelling, I almost always choose to stay in hotels and frequent cafes that offer free Wi-Fi. It's therefore an important competitive advantage and differentiator for businesses.

I wonder if anyone will ever write that story? I would, but I suspect it wouldn't get quite the same front-page treatment as a headline about parents running around scared.

Getting back to TED, the talks are intended as fora for ideas. Ultimately, the idea I want to share is that if there are any ill effects from our society's technological advancement, it's that it has created too much media, which we need to step back and get away from. We need to better recognize scare-mongering, especially when it comes to technology, and remember how to think logically and critically. The alternative will - and does - hold us back from further advancement and evolution.

There will, of course, be many more speakers announced for the event - I know of a few unofficially and I'm looking forward to hearing them. If you're interested in attending TEDxRyersonU, you'll have to fill out an application on the event's website. But even if you can't make it, I'm told the talks will be live-streamed. I'll post more info on that as it becomes available.


Margaret Antkowski said...

Congratulations on the great opportunity Peter. I will certainly be tuning into your speech as it's a topic that I've always been interested in - i.e. the power of the media and accuracy in reporting.

Justin Mohareb said...

That's a very stylish shirt, Pete.

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