While Jeff was experiencing the cultural phenomenon that is Robert S. Kelly, I was doing pretty much the exact opposite. I was listening to thinkers and doers talk about thinking and doing at a TED event.
It was interesting and I’m glad I got to go. But it made me worry about myself, the people around me, and our collective future, and not for the right reasons.
The event took place at the art museum on campus. As we arrived, we were given these not-quite-necessary identification badges:
We felt important. We were identified not as attendees, but as participants. Which, of course, was the point: these talks are supposed to be about spreading ideas and inspiring people to change the world for the better. If we felt important, we could believe change was ours to enact. We also felt, for want of an adequately descriptive word, like intellectual people who went to TED talks. I suspect that this feeling was actually a bit stronger than the first.
We filed into a room that looked tailor-made for this kind of event. The lighting was noticeably adequate. Newspapers adorned the auditorium seats. There were articles about “global entrepreneurship week” and the future of music, and a fascinating piece about a prominent Tulsa public figure’s previously unknown ties to the KKK. I felt informed and avant-garde.
The event itself was clean and eye-opening. I felt like someone who could have a hand in shaping the city of the future. But still, I felt more like a person who was at a TED talk. I suspect, from the way they periodically glanced at their own name tags, that the people around me felt the same.
As I walked back, it was colder than it had been yesterday and warmer than it would be tomorrow. And as I momentarily forgot about the piece of paper that told me I was a participant, my body heat seemed very small. And as my hand found the paper, now in my pocket, I worried that I cared more about being a participant than about actually participating.
I was the kind of person that went to a TED talk, right? Wasn’t that worth something? Rubbing my hands together for warmth, the tag again forgotten in my pocket, I decided that it wasn’t. It wasn’t worth anything unless we actually participated, as much as we all wanted to believe it was.
So I’m worried that people like me want to be intellectual just for the sake of being. All the plaid button-downs and black plastic glasses in the world aren’t enough make it a better place. We have to act, and we need to recognize that being someone who could do things and being someone who actually does are worlds apart. We cannot afford to become a generation of really intelligent bystanders.
TED talks are great—these ideas are worth spreading. But ideas by themselves are just ideas.