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Ideas worth sharing?

A critical look at TEDxMcGill’s attempt to “redefine reality”

TED is a non-profit organization devoted to “ideas worth spreading”. It has grown vastly since its first conference in 1986, and continues to bring together the “world’s most fascinating thinkers and doers, who are challenged to give the talk of their lives (in 18 minutes or less).” The success of TED has given birth to TEDx – a series of locally held and independently organized events – to deliver the inspiration and innovation that characterizes TED to communities around the world. Although TEDxMcGill is still a relatively new event – it was first created in 2009 – the show on Sunday, November 13 did not fail to inspire.

The atmosphere at Bain Mathieu, where this year’s event was held, was one of excitement, anticipation, and free intellectual thought and discussion. Bain Mathieu is not the typical venue for many events associated with McGill. After all, the converted pool is a far cry from Leacock 132 or Adams Auditorium. And for a conference with the theme of “Redefining Reality”, it was perfect. With an art display and photo shoot at one end, and a live painted visual representation of the event at the other, this location was no conference hall.

Many of the speakers were McGill students: Christian Elliot, Tabia Lau, Joshua Kyle, and Alex Pritz, just to name a few. These students were joined by others, including: world-renowned neuroscientist Dr. Brenda Milner and Ubisoft co-founder Alain Tascan. Though all speakers were diverse – both in their experiences and in their passions – they shared a common connection. June Lam, the curator of TEDxMcGill, who, along with the Speakers Team, carefully selected and coordinated the talks, shares that connection: “I wanted people I had a personal connection to,” Lam told The Daily. He asserted that it was “more important to get people who wanted to work with [them] than big names.” One of the speakers, Marc Rowland, an improvisational drama teacher, concurred: “Louise (a member of the Speakers Team) sent me an email, and then we just talked about what was possible.” It was this developmental process, Rowland said, that “shaped the talks.”

According to Lam, the theme of “Redefining Reality” sprang from this same process. “It’s about turning passion into action,” he explained. “We thought a lot about where the fifteen speakers fit into the arc of the story.” This arc manifested itself in three acts. First, the inspiration of new ideas; then the importance of connecting ideas; and finally, converting ideas into action.
Redefining an audience’s reality is a lofty goal. Though the speakers brought interesting ideas to the table, none of them were extremely original or hard-hitting. The goal of redefining our realities ultimately gave fruit to reaffirming a reality most of us in the audience were already aware of. Although the event may not have brought up any revolutionary ideas, there is still value in a reminder of what we already know, but may not always apply in our lives. The intricately organized event provoked thought and conversation between audience members who spoke as peers, even if they had never met before. While the theme of the event was not fully realized onstage, it was still borne out of a holistic interaction between members of the audience. New ideas were born, connections were made, and steps were taken towards making those ideas a reality. While the speakers may not have redefined our realities immediately, their talks provided us with the tools to redefine them ourselves.

It is unlikely that these connections could have been forged if TEDxMcGill had been your typical run-of-the-mill McGill event. Though TEDxMcGill’s ties to the University were evident in many regards, it was also distinct from other McGill talks and conferences: the venue, the atmosphere, and the speakers set TEDxMcGill apart.

But one thing that did not set TEDxMcGill apart from the plethora of other McGill events was its Anglo-centricity. The entire event was delivered in English, the website has only an English version, and videos of past and recent talks are also all in English. While, the cost of having live interpretation is likely too expensive, relatively feasible solutions, such as subtitling videos with French, had not been implemented. As an event that “needed to be relevant to Montreal”, according to Lam, this unilingual approach is a huge oversight.

The most notable thing about TEDxMcGill that isn’t usually seen at McGill talks was the focus on young speakers, students (almost all of whom were undergraduates), and people who do not hold some sort of prestigious credentials. However, the inclusion of students in an event, such as this, can be a double edged sword. On one hand, it creates a sense of comfort and connection because the speakers seem to be part of your world. Their accomplishments could be yours. On the other hand, this similarity can also work against them. When you listen to a TED talk you want to come away with a feeling of awe, inspiration, and the knowledge of having learned something new. However, because of our deep rooted and inherent similarities, as students, it is difficult to feel that your reality can be redefined by principles that you already know. Though it is commendable that the event chose so many relatable speakers, this might be a case of too much of a good thing. Indeed, the majority of speakers were students and, in fact, three of them worked on the same project.

Ultimately, the onus of redefining our realities is on us and we shouldn’t expect any event to take that step for us. “Thinking outside the box” or “walking off the beaten path” often requires an almost jarring and forcible removal from our comfort zones. This feeling is disagreeable, and, for that reason, many of us choose not to engage with it. Simply going into an event doesn’t necessarily challenge our comfort in a meaningful way.

At the end of the day, though my reality was far from redefined, the event provided me with the chance to interact with interesting people, and listen to what were ultimately “ideas worth spreading”.