Steven Johnson wants to know how enlightenment happens (Transcript)

Listen along

The TED Interview
Steven Johnson wants to know how enlightenment happens
June 23, 2022

[00:00:00] Chris Anderson:
Well, hello there. Uh, welcome to The TED Interview. This is Chris Anderson. Now then, uh, this episode may start out sounding a bit like bad news, but it really, it really isn't. By the time it's over, it's going to sound like very, very good news indeed, ‘cause this is the handover episode where I am in conversation with Steven Johnson, who is the incoming host of The TED Interview, and so I think what's gonna happen to this show is it is about to get more interesting, because he's an intellectual soulmate who's actually done years and years of historical research in two thousands of different amazing things in a way that I have never had time to do.

Steve Johnson has written more than a dozen books. Um, even more importantly than that, he's given five incredible TED Talks and, um, the, that there's a unifying spirit to his work, which is viewing the world through the lens of ideas, through, through the lens that actually, really, truly: it’s ideas that shape history more than anything else. And the way that he does that, the way that he draws together events, inventions, sparks from different areas and shows how they connect. I mean, it's, it's, it's mind-boggling and, and thrilling.

So during, during the next hour or so, we're gonna be talking with each other. I'm asking lots of questions of him. Uh, rumor has it, he's threatening to ask questions of me as well. Look out for that. You can switch off at that point, honestly.


Um, so, um, Steve, uh, welcome to the TED interview.

[00:01:55] Steven Johnson:
Chris, I'm so honored to be here and so excited about this new adventure. Um, huge shoes to fill. Uh, this has been an amazing podcast these last few seasons. Uh, but, uh, I think we're gonna be on a, on a fun ride going forward.

[00:02:11] Chris Anderson:
Steve, why, why don’t you start by giving us a sense of just your background, who you are, where did this weird and wonderful multidisciplinary mind come from?

[00:02:24] Steven Johnson:
Yeah, I mean, my actual kind of training in terms of my academic background was, um, really in history and media theory and science. And then I went to grad school studying the relationship between literature and technology, particularly industrialization.

Um, at some point, in the nineties, I, I kind of went on this dual track where I was writing about the impact of technology, but I also, um, was starting a, a couple of companies. I started reading a lot of science, and I just kind of looked at my bookshelf one day and said, “Hey, you know, I'm, I seemed to be, you know, spending 90 percent of my time thinking about these new scientific ideas coming into the world.”

And so I slowly started integrating that into what actually wrote about in public, but I, I think the, the common thread that runs through all these different topics. I mean, the books technically have been on, you know… I wrote about video games. I wrote about neuroscience. I, I wrote about ant colonies. I, you know, I wrote about the history of cities and cholera.

You know, it's a, it's a really broad range of topics, but what I think unites it all is this re—this interest in new ideas coming into the world. And how they come into the world and, and the forces that enable them or that block them. Um, and, and trying to understand that, that process as, as best we can.

[00:03:48] Chris Anderson:
Right. So 20 years ago, um, just at the time that I was taking over TED, um, you published a book called Emergence, um, that I found absolutely fascinating. Riveting, actually. And so I invited you to, to come and talk at the, at the very first TED conference that I organized. And uh, and you did indeed speak about ant colonies, but somehow showed that there was a connection there with several other things. Talk, talk, just talk a bit about that idea of emergence.

[00:04:19] Steven Johnson:
I, I look back on that TED Talk and I really think, I did not understand what the format of a TED talk was when I was doing that. It was, it was a little scattered. I think I, I think my, my TED speaking abilities have have improved over time, hopefully.

[00:04:33] Chris Anderson:
We can, we can, We can agree on that, I think, but, but, but the idea behind it was, was nonetheless potent.

[00:04:41] Steven Johnson:
Well, you know, the. The, the subtitle of that book was, um, the Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software, uh, which I think for book browsers, uh, just looking at the cover, probably confused more people than had actually sold them on the idea of the book.

But the idea was that that, that that was a book about a kind of a shared structure that, um, all of these that was kind of evident in all these different forms and that, and it was basically a, a decentralized or a bottom-up intelligence rather than a top-down intelligence. Um, so ant colonies are a great example of this.

For years, people thought that the, you know, the, the, the ant queen was somehow in charge of the colony. And that's why we have this metaphor of, you know, kind of a mon—you know, an ant-based monarchy. Um, but, if you actually look at how ant colonies work, they, they can collectively solve very complicated problems.

They can solve kind of engineering problems, resource management problems, um, figuring out how to kind of build their nest collectively or put their nest in the right location that's most efficient. They do all these very complicated things and yet no individual aunt understands the big picture, including the queen.

The queen is just a reproductive unit that the queen has no kind of control over the whole thing. And so, over time, people studying the colonies began to realize that there was this kind of distributed intelligence that was happening there—that out of these local actions by individual ants, they were able to solve these very complicated problems.

And so, I started musing on what that meant. Like how did that relate to the way that, for instance, our brains work? No individual neuron is thinking, but somehow collectively, all of our neurons come together to form something like intelligence or sentience. Um, and I also was thinking about the way that cities work, right?

That the, the cities that we love, the things that we love about cities, um, the cities that have the most character, are often the ones that evolved organically without some master planner. I mean, generally when we talk about cities and master planners, it's like Robert Moses who's destroying a city, who's building highways through parts of the city.

And, and the things that we love, the feel of a neighborhood, the identity of a neighborhood, um, are things that actually evolve kind of organically out of a million isolated decisions that individuals make without the goal of creating a great neighborhood. So all, they all seem to share this property of, of, of kind, of order or intelligence coming from below, not from above.

And it was, you know, I was coming up with this idea in the late nineties, and so there were these interesting things happening with the web and the internet. Um, Wikipedia was about to launch and it seemed like we were headed towards a world where more and more of this decentralized organization was gonna be central.

[00:07:25] Chris Anderson:
And that really wonderful things were capable of emerging from it. Things that no one could really have necessarily predicted just by looking at the elements that went into it.

[00:07:36] Steven Johnson:
Yeah, that's, and, and that continues to be, um, a fascination of mine.

[00:07:40] Chris Anderson:
I mean, that idea, that book, that talk, um, are, are a great example of the importance of multidisciplinary thinking that, you know, if, if all you were interested in was ant colonies, you wouldn't necessarily get the bigger picture that, that this is a phenomenon that applies, you know, across the board and can really maybe teach us something.

And so, and in fact you are a, an, an expert at thinking about this bigger picture of where, where do “a-ha” moments come from. In fact, are a-ha moments really overrated, actually? Where do ideas come from? This was a book you wrote. It was a fantastic TED Talk you gave in 2010. It was the same year that I gave a TED talk.

Yours was much better. Damn you, but not damn you ‘cause it was awesome. So share some of the, the, the, the, the thinking that you shared with the TED audience back then.

[00:08:30] Steven Johnson:
Well, you know, I, first off, I, I think you, you're absolutely right that that multidisciplinary focus. It, that's one of the reasons why you and I are, are soulmates.

I, I think that, you know, whenever I have the opportunity to, to speak to kids, particularly college kids, um, you know, one of the things that I say to them is like the, you have this opportunity for these four years to dabble in a lot of different fields. When you leave here, all, all the forces in the world are gonna be trying to get you to specialize.

And, and, you know, and, and that's fine. Focus is important. Um, it's, it's good to have specialists in the world, but if you look at the, the history of ideas, um, the, the, the most powerful ones, the ones that are really transformative, the ones that are really hard to have, um, almost always come out of the collision between at least two or three or four different intellectual worlds or traditions or fields or disciplines.

Um, that the, that kind of the borders between disciplines is where the exciting stuff happens. And that's just a very, it's a powerful way to think about the world and it… And where good ideas come from, you know, the part of the thesis there was that innovation generally often happens by kind of borrowing an idea from another field and, and repurposing it in a new context.

So there's like the great example, this is, um, Gutenberg, right? So Gutenberg in inventing the printing press, you know, arguably with the internet, you know, the… was one of the two most important information revolutions in, in the history of our species. Um, he had done all this really impressive work, um, with the metallurgy of kind of making the type and also, um, getting, developing inks—the kind of chemistry of the inks to, so that they would, um, set properly on, on paper. But what he didn't have was a printing mechanism. He didn't have a, a way of pressing, um, imprinting. Uh, and so he was kind of stuck and he ended up just deciding to take some time off and go and drink some wine in a vineyard and you know, somewhere in Bavaria or wherever he was.

And he gets up there and he sees this ancient technology, literally like thousand-year-old technology. The screw press, which was used by vinters to press grapes to make wine. And he looked at it and he was like, “Oh, there we go. That's what I'm missing.” And so he takes this technology, adapts it for a new use in a completely different field.

He basically takes the technology designed to press grapes and turns it into a technology to print Bibles. And it was that migration of an idea from one place to another that, um, that was so powerful and. And, and the, the metaphor that I, that I used in that book, which, which I actually borrowed from Stuart Kaufman, the great, um, complexity theorist, is this idea of the adjacent possible. Um, which, uh, Kaufman's idea was that this, this was a way of thinking about change and how the world evolves over time in both biological systems and, and cultural systems.

And, and the idea is that basically at any given moment in time, um, whether you're looking at you know, the, the evolution of life or whether you're looking at the evolution of a technology at any given moment in time, there's a finite set of ways that this system and its current state can change. Um, and so when you're back in, in the early days of the primordial soup, um, there's no way, you know, these early proto-life forms can suddenly, spontaneously turn into a chimpanzee, right?

They can’t… That’s not part of the adjacent possible at that. Or if you think about it in terms of technology, however smart you are, there is no way in 1650 to invent a microwave oven. Like it's just not thinkable as an idea. There are too many building blocks that haven't come along. Um, but at some point in history, in the history of life or the history of, uh, of civilization or of technology, new ideas do become possible.

They become part of this adjacent possible at this moment. And so the work of being a creative person or being a, you know, an innovator is to figure out what new doors have just opened at that particular moment and, and explore them. And I think one way to do that is to look at what's happening in the fields around you that often those doors are gonna come from, from other seemingly unrelated disciplines.

[00:12:50] Chris Anderson:
I absolutely love that idea of the adjacent possible. Um, in fact, I, I actually think of it now as almost the number one goal of TED is to help create or certainly amplify news about what the adjacent possible looks like. You know, I, I remember back in the day when, um, when Jeff Han gave his, his a demo of TED.

It was like a multitouch. Uh, showing a multitouch interface for the first time. And the moment that he moved two fingers on the screen and expanded a photograph in, in real-time, the audience went and gasped. Like you, you heard that intake of breath, and in that moment you knew that suddenly 500 or 800 people in the room were suddenly thinking, “Wait a sec, this could lead to something incredible.”

And other people at the same time were having the same thoughts. One of them being Steve Jobs and, and you know, because of that multitouch technology, it created the adjacent possible of the iPhone. And then the iPhone has created a million other adjacent possibles. You know, we've had, in the last few years at TED, we've had numerous stories of people solving really hard problems by imagining people equipped with smartphones, doing amazing things that they couldn't do before.

And, um, and so this, this view of how, how the world changes is, is, is completely thrilling to me and, uh, and I, I I love that, you know. You know, it was right, right there back then that where ideas come from, part of it is that they come from an exploration of the adjacent possible at any one time. But you also, you said something else then as well.

You, you, you described ideas that… where to think about ideas is kind of as a network. Talk, Talk about that for a minute.

[00:14:35] Steven Johnson:
Yeah. If you try and figure out where, what, what physical space made the, the enlightenment happen, um, in the, you know, 1600s, 1700s, you know, this, this great flowering of ideas and multidisciplinary flowering of ideas in, in many different fields.

Um, if you're trying to figure out like, where did it happen? What kind of room did it happen in? Um, it really wasn't so much the university. It wasn't so much, certainly wasn't the church. It, it was, it was this, these kind of interesting semi-public spaces of coffee houses, um, and tea rooms and salons, and almost every idea in, in, in, in that period has a coffee house in the story somewhere.

I mean, the, kinda the roots of the stock market are in coffee houses. The roots of, um, the insurance business are in coffee houses. The roots of magazine publishing are in coffee houses. The first public museums evolved out of coffee houses.

I mean, just go on and on and on and on. And I think that's because there was something, partially, I think that's because people were drinking coffee for the first time. So as, as I mentioned to the doc, up until that point, the default beverage of people in Europe was beer during the day to--

[00:15:45] Chris Anderson:
--try and avoid getting sick from, from uncleaned water.

[00:15:49] Steven Johnson:
Yeah, it was not a bad health choice actually given the alternatives. But all of a sudden this boiled water that was caffeinated comes into the culture, both in the form of tea and coffee, really in a very short amount of time, and all of a sudden the culture shifts from being, you know, mildly intoxicated all the time to being slightly caffeinated all the time and their behave…

There's a giant flowering of intellectual activity that happens. Um, you know, I think that's related to this, but, but more to the point to, to, to your idea of the network here is that there was something about the coffee house space where people would come together and think in a network, um, and trade ideas.

And they, by definition, it was kind of a multidisciplinary space. Um, it was not people organized in an office or a, a, you know, an academic department. Um, it was people with an eclectic set of interests, um, who were getting together and hanging out and, you know, sharing ideas. And that is just a very powerful model for, for where, you know, good ideas come from.

And where innovation comes from is when you get people together in an open-ended way, having a conversation that maybe doesn't have a clear objective to it, but through kind of bantering and through building those kinds of networks that, that, that is where the most interesting things start to emerge.

And so what is the 21st-century equivalent of the coffeehouse? And part of it is happening, I think, you know, on the web and in social media. Um, but you know, it's also… there are parts of social media where that is not happening. Um, and so a lot, a lot of what I write about is trying to take that ethos and think about, you know, how do we update it for, for the, for the current day.

[00:17:29] Chris Anderson:
You mentioned how possibly your, um, art of giving a TED Talk had improved. Yeah, so that's, that's really interesting and important I think because, you know, there's a problem that most important ideas actually struggle to find their hook into people's attention. So, talk a bit how you can make that work. ‘Cause I think this could be incredibly useful for anyone who cares about something of how, how do you turn it into a story that will command people's attention?

[00:18:03] Steven Johnson:
You know, what it gets to, um, it… You know, so much of what I try to do in my work, um, whether it's in, in a talk like that or, or through the books, is to try and figure out a way narratively through storytelling. To create environments or, or stories where in some ways the idea is the protagonist, right? That, that what you're really excited about… You, you're gonna meet interesting people along the way and you're gonna follow their arcs. And, and that'll, that'll be great and that'll be part of the appeal of it. But ultimately, you're watching this idea as it kind of develops and, and spreads around the world, or someone improves it and it ends up being useful in all these surprising, um, interesting ways. And the, and the plot twists are watching that idea in motion, and that… that is, that's challenging because people's natural orientation is towards other human beings and their personal struggles and things like that.

Um, but if you do it right, I think it can be really powerful. The tr—the tricky part about it is because of the network theory of innovation that we talked about before, a lot of times the greatest, most powerful ideas like the internet, for instance, they don't have a single inventor. You know, um, and it's very hard.

Or, or, you know, in my last book, Extra Life, which is about longevity and, and the extension of, of human lifespan. You know, you think about something like this, the, you know, the eradication of smallpox, one of our greatest achievements. Well, who did that? Well, it was thousands of people, right? And so you wanna celebrate those achievements.

You wanna celebrate when people do these amazing things and, and thus tell stories about it. But it's tricky to tell a story where there are a thousand heroes. Um, it's just not an easy thing to do from a narrative form. So a lot of what I do in thinking about these things just as a, a craftsman at this stuff, um, is trying to figure out a way to make the, the, the story resonate or rhyme in some way, even though you don't have a clear protagonist.

I think in the early books, like Emergence for instance, I think the ideas were almost too dominant. Um, and what I kind of learned over time is that if you can figure out a way to anchor the ideas in some kind of recognizable narrative form, um, you can actually, you can really pull people in what is essentially an intellectual journey.

Um, but you can make them feel like they're reading something or engaging with something that is, that is closer to a traditional, you know, kind of thrilling narrative.

[00:20:33] Chris Anderson:
The Ghost Map, right?

[00:20:35] Steven Johnson:
I, I, So the Ghost Map is, that book is a story of John Snow, not the Jon Snow from Game of Thrones, but the, the wonderful 19th-century doctor and epidemiologist, um, who basically solved the mystery of what was causing cholera, which was one of the great killers of the 19th century.

And he did it through this amazing kind of shoe-leather detective work in the middle of a terrible outbreak in SoHo in London in 1854. And, and he did it through kind of information design, building this map of the outbreak that convinced people that the, the, the cholera was coming from contaminated water and not from the air, which is really one of the most important ideas in, in public health in the 19th century.

Um, and what drew me into that story was it connected to a lot of things that I was already interested in, right? The history of cities, particularly the history of London, which I had specialized on in, in my graduate school years. Um, the emergence of new ideas and, and revolutions and science and so on.

But what made it such a compelling project, I thought from the beginning was that you could structure it like a thriller, right? That it's, it's literally a story of a detective in the streets of Victorian London hunting for a killer, except the killer is not Jack the Ripper. The killer is, you know, a bacterium, and so by taking what was really a story of kind of scientific discovery and, you know, overcoming the orthodoxies of the day with a radical new proposition that ends up changing people's lives for the better but, but dropping that into the structure that people already recognize of detective fiction effectively, um, that that was what, you know, such a, such a, I, I think, um, powerful formula and, and certainly what drew me to it intellectually.

[00:22:21] Chris Anderson:
In your latest talk, uh, at TED, which was based on the Extra Life book and thinking that you've done, you were trying to argue what, what to some years would've seemed like the world's most boring idea, which was that actually for real public health, innovation, we, you know, big bureaucracies, government, et cetera, can actually play a crucial role. And so you didn't start by saying that. You started if, if I recall by saying, “Yeah. So there was this, this, this thing that caused millions of deaths, you know, in the 18th century, 19th century, 19th century. Um, and the way we solved it was milk.”

These, these were words that had not been uttered before in a TED Talk And, and, uh, so, so just talk, talk, talk through the rest of that story quickly.

[00:23:14] Steven Johnson:
Yeah. Well, I mean, milk was a major public health threat in the 19th century in, in big cities. I mean, you know, in London and, and particularly in New York, um, where you had, uh, all these people, you know, the problem with the 19th century is that the cities, um, just grew so fast and they, they had not yet developed kind of modern infrastructure. They had to kind of invent that stuff on the fly. And so cholera was part of that problem and, and milk was part of that problem. And so when you had cities that went from 500,000 people to 1.5 million people in, in 30 years, it was just an enormous problem.

And getting people, you know, there was no mechanical refrigeration at that point. Um, and so getting milk, um, to people, particularly to young kids, for them to drink, uh, particularly with a lot of women going to work in the industrial workforce in that period was a, was a major problem. And so in the mid-1850s, something like 50% of all the deaths recorded in New York City were kids under five years old.

And many of them were killed by contaminated milk. So it was just a major problem. And what I was trying to argue, both in the book and in, um, in that TED Talk, um, was that, you know, the traditional way that we think about how we solve this problem is that we solved it with science, right? Uh, you know, we made milk safe to drink because of a technique that was invented by a scientist named Louis Pasteur.

And that technique is so famous that it is lit—his name is literally printed on every carton of milk that is sold to practically today: pasteurization. But, in fact, the story of milk is, is a story about the limits of science to solve problems in the sense that Pasteur came up with the technique of pasteurization in the middle of the 1860s, but it didn't become a, a standard for milk sold in the United States until around 1915, until like half a century later.

And that is because on, on its own, the technique is, is insufficient to actually change the world. You need people to get the idea into circulation. And that took a whole other set of characters. That took activists, that took reformers, that took, you know, legislation that was passed, um, mandating that people sell pasteurized milk.

And there were, there were a whole generation of, you know, pasteurization advocates. It was like a social movement back then, um, which sounds strange that people were fighting over milk, but, but it was a fight that had to happen and, and it took institutions like, you know, what became the FDA and things like that to, to mandate that, um, that pasteurized milk was on the shelves.

And so when we think about innovations that drive progress, right? Part of it is you have to come up with scientific breakthroughs like pasteurization, but you also have to invent things like the FDA, right? These are things that didn't exist before, and that now, for the most part, make life better. We don't think of them as innovations because they're not a flashy startup or a cool new gadget, but they're, they're a part of our history of progress as well.

[00:26:10] Chris Anderson:
So it's, it's really another case of where it's a story that wants to be told with one hero, but that is, that is actually wrong. There are, there are thousands of heroes, um, over a half-century process for, for this thing actually to become real at scale.

We're going to take a quick break and we'll be right back with our conversation.


[00:26:57] Chris Anderson:
Steve, I, I wanna shift direction a bit and, and think about the sort of, um, I'm gonna say that the optimism trajectory that you have been on over the last 20 years. Um, I think of you as a deeply, like, naturally sort of optimistic person. I think you once wrote a book called Everything Bad is Good for You, or something like that.

And, you know, you, you, you, you look like, I think like me, look for the story that can point a maybe hopeful way forward despite appearances to the contrary. Um, we, it, you know, in those early years, the late 90s, up to maybe 2010, 2012, there was, it was very easy, I would say, to tell a super compelling, optimistic story about technology, for example, and, and where it would take us all.

It's really seemed like, um, at a first level of approximation, the planet was growing a brain. The brain was called the internet. The brain was going to connect people together and make life better for the whole world, just in the way that our own brains look after our bodies and, um, and that it would allow people to see each other who'd never seen each other before. The truth would be one click away. Our circles of empathy would expand. Yeah. Et cetera, etc. And et cetera.

[00:28:15] Steven Johnson:
It sounds so good when you say it, doesn't it?

[00:28:16] Chris Anderson:
Uh, did, did you share those—that, that sort of feeling as intensely as I did back then? And what, what, what is your trajectory through, you know, through the years since? How do you think about optimism?

[00:28:33] Steven Johnson:
Well, it, you know, it's a great question and maybe this is a great way to um, turn the tables a little bit and start asking you a few questions here, which I would like to do as a, as a kind of exit interview.

[00:28:46] Chris Anderson:
Um, you’ve gotta start, and then maybe I’ll chip in.

[00:28:47] Steven Johnson:
Yeah. But, but in terms of my trajectory on this front, I, I think you're right that I am kind of tuned to be optimistic, um. With the internet, you know, I was definitely drawn into it and very, um, excited about it. But even in Emergence, I talk a lot about in, in decentralized communities online, that there was, you know, there were dangers of, you know, of all sorts.

I didn't talk so much about things like polarization, but, you know, misinformation and, and trolls and things like that. I mean, I was writing about that stuff in 99 and 2000. And I, and I think the, the metaphor I always… that was explicit in Emergence is to think about the internet in terms of the history of cities. Um, that, you know, we saw with the history of cities in the 19th century and 20th century, uh, that these massive metropolitan spaces were built and were ultimately, I think, a force for good in the world. Um, and they've become kind of icons of, of health and prosperity and, you know, big drivers of innovation. Um, they're better for the planet. To, to pack people into big cities and not have them sprawl out. So there are lots of reasons why cities are, are ultimately good things, but boy did they have a lot of problems, um, when they were getting developed.

And you know, obviously, that's a central part of the story of Ghost Map is just how awful it was on some level to live in London in 1854 before we'd solved a whole host of problems about how to, how to live in, you know, in that scale of a human settlement. And so I think in the internet the same way, that it has great promise, um, and could deliver on that promise and does in, in, in places with something like Wikipedia, it does kind of wonderfully deliver on that promise.

But we're building the ship as we're sailing in it, to switch to another metaphor. Right? And it's, it's hard and there are unanticipated consequences all the time with new technologies is powerful. And so, the, the work of being an optimist is not to say “Everything's fine, you know, no problem here.” Um, it's to say, “There are gonna be problems. But if we learn from our history and if we, you know, apply ourselves to these problems, and we think about them seriously, and we work together in a kind of networked way with a diverse group of people trying to solve the problem, we often will be able to.”

Um, and you know, that that was one of the reasons why I wrote Extra Life, which is, you know, about an incredibly optimistic story of us doubling human life expectancy in over the last hundred years, maybe the, the most exciting, positive thing that's ever happened to us is a species, but I didn't write it to, you know, have us like rest on our laurels. I wrote it to say, “Look, these… we can do these things if we listen to science and if we build global institutions that are responsive to these kinds of needs. But we gotta keep doing them and we, we've gotta keep figuring out ways to build new institutions.”

We'll come up with new innovations that will solve the problems that we have now. Um, and so, you know, optimism is not about being passive. It's about inspiring us to kind of keep doing these things. But, but how has your thinking about it changed? I mean, let, let's, let's shift the, the spotlight here.

Enough about me, Chris. I think I agree that when we first met, you know, we both kind of shared a sense that these were exciting times and largely we were gonna be, you know, the internet was gonna be a force for good. What, where, where have you landed?

[00:32:22] Chris Anderson:
So I definitely was shocked by, depressed by a lot of the developments that happened, um, to the internet since about 2015, 2016. Um, primarily it's the, it's the social media story. It's the, it's the discovery that, with no one intending it, the, the connecting everyone, giving everyone an opinion platform. Um, but, but gaming it so that the best prize went to the people who got the most attention. You know, we, we inadvertently created this world of, um, much, much greater, I think, partisan divide, and I didn’t like it at all.

I was, I was really, really sad by it. Um, but optimism, you know, it's, it's a… it’s a funny word. It's a, it's a nuanced word. Most people use it to mean either a feeling of hope for the future or a prediction that, um, things will be better. And, um, um, and I, I don't think that's the best use of the term.

I think the best use of the term is an optimist is someone who takes the stance that there is a pathway forward that could be good, and to push for that pathway to open up and to sort of, you know, to go down it. And that, that's, that, that fundamental belief, which, which, which requires a shift from being a spectator to being an agent, um, is important.

It's, you know, Craig Bennett said at one of the TEDs in Oxford, um, he didn't know whether the optimistic or pessimistic view of the future was the correct one. But what he did know was that it's the optimist who get things done. I choose the optimistic stance and, um, you know, and, and then try and ask, “Well, what, what could I actually do to contribute that in some way?”

[00:34:08] Steven Johnson:
Well, I wanna talk a little bit more about what you are doing to contribute to that. I wanted to ask you, just looking back over your tenure, um, which is obviously your role at TED is continuing. You’re just stepping down as a host of this show. Um, thinking about surprising things and unanticipated consequences, you know, if, if Chris from 2002 was suddenly brought forward to 2022, what would he be most surprised at in terms of what TED ultimately became? Like, what would be the most kind of shocking development given your vision of what it was gonna be back then?

[00:34:44] Chris Anderson:
I mean, in 2002, you know, TED was an annual conference in, in California and it was, it was an inspiring conference. I mean, the reason I, I bought it with a nonprofit, um, was because incredible people told me that this was their most meaningful week of the year.

It's something that people who, whose only experience of TED is TED Talks don't necessarily see, which is that when you are in one place for several days and um, see a sequence of them, you know, the, the, the power of that experience is, um, very different from watching a, a single talk. Like it really can be transformative over that period of time.

At any rate, tt, it, you know, it was, it was an annual conference and I, I, when I first took it over with a nonprofit, the idea was simply to think: “What could be done with the inspiration that happens at the end of four days from this group of people?” Like it kind of… people would have the most amazing time, then they'd go and nothing happened.

And so some of the early ideas were just to do things like apply all the profits from the conference to a couple of like good causes or whatever. Um, a year after that, we came up with the TED Prize, which invited people to come to TED and, um, gave them a wish. Um, actually three wishes initially, which was two too many.

Um, um, the, uh, uh, and, and we, we would seek to make those wishes come, come true. Um, It wasn't so… so the, the biggest single piece of actually letting the ideas that were there out into the world, we couldn't crack in 2002 or 2003 or 2004. We, we would, we tried to get TED onto television, um, because we thought it was interesting.

But, but television companies didn't think that lectures, thank you very much, were that interesting. Go away. Um, and um, and so it wasn't until online video came along in 2005, 2006.

[00:36:36] Steven Johnson:
I mean, talk about the adjacent possible, right? I mean, that was what. you, you needed.

[00:36:39] Chris Anderson:
Well, exactly.

[00:36:40] Steven Johnson:
You needed YouTube to open, open the possibilities space.

[00:36:43] Chris Anderson:
In 2005, when we first started… in sort of early 2006 by online video was typically a little shaky video in the top right-hand corner of your screen with, with a kitten playing tricks in it. Like, it, it, it like the notion that a lecture or a talk could actually work, and that you could capture the sort of, um, you know, the power and the, the, um, persuasion and the inspiration that was in the room seemed, seemed uncertain to say the least.

Um, I was actually persuaded to do it in part by TED talks by, by people who came and said on the internet, information wants to be free. And, and, and seeing all these amazing models like Wikipedia emerge where collaborations of people get, you know, sharing things could achieve something remarkable. Um, and so, so yeah, so, so we tried the experiment in 2006 and, and then everything changed because the, the, the, the emotional response to the first six talks we put out was so strong that it felt like we had no choice.

It's like, you've gotta take a risk, put the whole content up there. And some people thought that would blow up the, the, the business as it were, and that no one would come to the conference. Why would you if the talks were free online? Uh, of course it, you know, it did the opposite and, um, increased demand. And, um, and then one thing led to another, and having discovered the power of giving stuff away and the amazingness of what resulted from that, we, you know, decided to give away the brand in the form of TEDx.

And, um, again, with some careful rules and thought about it, but it led to 3000 curation teams emerging around the world who put on events for us on their time, at their financial risk, and so forth. Did not see that coming at all. Would've been amazed by that. Initially, when I bought TED, it was almost sheltering from the pain of the dot-com crash.

It had been so painful seeing a company of 2000 people kind of get slashed in half, and, and, um, you know, the growth story over and whatever. And I was, I was licking wounds by, by wanting to immerse myself in the world of ideas. And I was so excited by some of what I was reading and I thought, “You know what? That's gonna be a lot more fun than, than, uh, than trying to build a company.” Um, but, um, but yeah, a few years later, it took on a life of its own. And it was, it was, it was actually really beautiful to see.

[00:39:08] Steven Johnson:
They were really bold decisions, right? The, the video release and, and the TEDx, um, opening up. They were not, you know… They, they seem with hindsight to be obvious because it's been such a huge part of the success of, of TED and, and spreading these ideas around the world.

But I could imagine when you're trying to get people to, you know, uh, pay money to attend a, an, an exclusive conference, and you're like, also, we're gonna give all this information to the rest of the world the second you leave. You know that that would've been daunting. But, but it worked. So I'm glad you did it.

Now what, what would you, um, say your experience has been like with this particular show, this part of the TED experience, the TED interview, and, and you know, any, any highlights from the last four years?

[00:39:51] Chris Anderson:
Oh, many. So the TED interview was, was launched in part, probably mainly to try to, um, fill the gaps that, um, TED Talks don't deliver on. So, you know, TED Talks are designed to be short, accessible pieces of communication. You know, the idea is that someone can understand a speaker who's in a different field. And can learn enough to know whether they want to dig deeper. You know, here's an exciting piece of knowledge explained in a, in a, you know, compelling way that I can relate to.

Um, but, um, ideas, actually as your, as your work demonstrates. I mean, they don't come neatly packaged, you know. It’s not like “Here is an idea delivered from, from heaven. Boom. It is a pure and complete thing.” Ideas are complicated and, um, and, and sometimes controversial. And so…You can get a much deeper understanding of an idea if you can open up time and ask questions of a speaker and say, “You said that, What do you actually mean by that?” Or can you, can you go a bit deeper into the genesis of this and you can get all these sort of additional layers of nuance by just by taking the time to go deeper. So that was, that was why, and, and, I, I've, I mean, I've loved it. I've absolutely loved it.

I mean, the very first one was with, um, the author Elizabeth Gilbert. We actually recorded it in my, my home in New York. Um, it was supposed to be a conversation about creativity mainly, you know. She had, she'd given this talk on where does creative genius come from? And she's got a, a book about that and so forth.

And we, we dug in there and got lots of great stuff there. But then it turned into a conversation about grief. You know, she had lost someone special in her life and the way she spoke about grief. I mean, I was in tears during that. People listening to it were in tears. It was, uh, it ended up that sort of, um, mind-blowing, “I did not see this coming” kind of, kind of thing that you, you want.

[00:41:58] Steven Johnson:
One thing that, that we wanted to discuss here, which is to point out, you know, curation is a really important part of the, the TED experience, and hosting a, a podcast is, is a bit like being a curator. And we are, you know, we should not fail to acknowledge that we are one white guy talking to another white guy.

But I, I think, you know, you know, in terms of the history of the podcast is something that we're really committed to going forward, which is this show's really about the guests, right? And…

[00:42:29] Chris Anderson:
That's an important conversation of, for some people. It's, it's almost like, um, one of the most important conversations is to, is to pay attention to, not just to what is being spoken about, but who is speaking and, uh, I think that’s right. I think there's, there's two things that are profoundly true: One is that the whole thing about ideas is that they, they can spread from mind to mind. I mean, that's, that's certainly TED's whole belief, you know, this is about spreading ideas. So, so on the, the one profound truth is that this, this, you know, both TED and, and this podcast needs to be absolutely anchored in the desire to share ideas that really matter.

The second truth that is really profound though, is that, is that, voices do matter. It's a fact about humans that we hear from different people differently. Um, it's much easier to hear from someone who shares your lived experience, for example. What they say will seem more relevant to you and amazing ideas sometimes are much more likely to come from other lived experiences than, than from yours.

[00:43:41] Steven Johnson:
I wanna make sure that we, we point out, I alluded to this before, that, you know, you're stepping down as a host of this podcast, but continuing on, um, at TED in many capacities. One of the things you're trying to focus on a bit more is something that perhaps the listeners don't know enough about, which is the Audacious Project, which is truly audacious, and a long list of audacious things that you've done at TED. Um, tell us about that and, and what it means and, and some of the achievements from that.

[00:44:06] Chris Anderson:
I've, I've thought more and more about what it, what it takes to actually turn a good idea into action. Um, and, um, often what it takes is, is funding. Funding at scale. It's as simple as that. You know, you need, um, you need to build something, and, um, you know, it can cost money.

And the world of philanthropy, I’ve long been a bit frustrated by on, really on two sides. One is just seeing the awful experience that leading social entrepreneurs have to go through. Where they spend, many of them spend more than 50% of their time trying to raise money. Um, and they do it by having one meeting at a time with, with donors.

There's no equivalent to the sort of fundraising, um, magic that can happen in, in the for-profit world of, you know, armies of venture capitalists and investors, and, um, an IPO for example; there's no equivalent to an IPO. Um, and, and then the, the, the second thing that's frustrating to me is that, is that a lot of philanthropic pictures that, that are created often seem, to be blunt, um, boring to the people, best positioned to fund them.

Um, they are asking typically for incremental, you know, support for, for, for something that's being done. And, um, and, and a lot of the people with the most resources are used to thinking in sort of, um, you know, bigger. Bigger, bolder ways almost. That's how they, that's how they got to, to where they are. I was really taken by, um, a comment on a trip I went on once by the late Richard Rockefeller, who was talking about this issue, about the struggle to raise money.

And he said what he'd noticed is that there's a tendency when people are trying to raise money and, and failing, to cut back their dreams a bit and ask for something more affordable. He said, “I think that's probably a mistake. You know I think most of the donors that really have resources to spend aren't interested in small dreams. Uh, we should be not less bold. We should be more audacious.”

And, um, and so that's where the name of the Audacious Project came from. And it was a, it was basically, it was an attempt to almost to try to create an IPO moment for, for um, nonprofits. So you'd go out, we'd go out to nonprofits and say, “What actually is your biggest dream? Suppose funding wasn’t an object. What could you and your team actually achieve? You know, what can you tell us that will make the hair on the back of our necks stand up?”

Um, and then from those ideas, you, you try and it takes like a year basically of, of sort of due diligence and invest—investigation and so forth to make a compelling investment case that is capable of persuading someone who wants to put a large amount of money down.

Um, and so it's, it's basically turning a dream into a five-year plan. Um, and so, We take 8 or 10 of those plans culled down from probably hundreds of, of applicants, and then present them to groups of donors. And you know, you have a moment now here, here is the plan. The clock is ticking. You've got a moment to come together and support some of these plans.

Will you do it or not? And um, and because these are exciting plans and because there's a moment, and because people can see each other around the table, you, you, you, what, it works. You can have this amazing thing happen where spectacular amounts of money are raised in a very short period of time. In the last round of this, we focused on nine projects and, and, um, about $900 million was raised for them, which was kind of, kind of wild.

They were, they were basically fully funded, and the people who were funding them were in tears with, with, with happiness at that whole process. So I think there's something to grow here. Like I think we've, I think…I want, I want to grow it. Philanthropy is, has bad press right now. Um, people hate the fact that there's so much private capital piled up.

And I, I think that they're probably right to in, like, like if I was designing the world from scratch, you wouldn't necessarily do it that way. But there's not an easy pathway to see how you get to a world of, I don't know, fair taxation or whatever. So given that we're in the world that we're in, what, what can we do to let philanthropy play a bigger role and to to create philanthropic projects that aren't the whim of rich people? They are independently sourced, curated, made amazing, and for me in five years’ time, what I'd love the Audacious Project to be is one where millions of people around the world, uh, await with excitement, you know, the, the sort of unveiling of, of a new batch of absolutely incredible philanthropic dreams.

And, um, and, and they're supported by donors of, of all, you know, of all scale. So to do that, it's, you know, it's about building a kind of critical mass. And certainly it, it takes some time, but it's a, it's a, it's, it's a really thrilling project.

[00:49:11] Steven Johnson:
So two more questions for you, Chris, and then I'll let you go. This is a show about big ideas, right? Um, and we've talked about the adjacent possible. Uh, what is out there right now that you're most interested in? You know, what is, what is the door in, in the adjacent possible that's open that you are most interested in, in walking through?

[00:49:33] Chris Anderson:
I think it's probably the pathway to, um, a sustainable planet. Um, everyone who believes in science is worried a bit about the climate crisis or worried a lot about the climate crisis.

And, um, again, this is maybe my optimistic lens speaking, but, um, we've done a lot of work at TED over the last year putting on this conference called Countdown and trying to find what the pathway forward looks like. I think that pathway exists. You know, most greenhouse gas emissions in the world come from companies.

The only way that we're going to solve the problem is by companies changing what they do. Government plays an important role in that, but the companies themselves have to change. I really think there's been a tipping point in what businesses believe they have to do, partly caused by the incredible efforts of, you know, the youth movement over the last few years.

Um, it's changed how business leaders think, and many of them are now ready to do the right thing. And the fact is that the technologies are there. The ideas are there to have an absolutely spectacular transformation of what our economies look like over the next 20 to 30 years. And that's, that's all we've got really to, to, to, to figure this out.

Um, core among that is an absolutely massive scale-up of clean energy. Um, and, um, you know, the grid of 2050 will probably have to be five times bigger than the grid we have today, which means that sustainable energy has to grow by 12 or 30. Next, there's a wonderful TED Talk by Solomon Goldstein Rose explaining these numbers.

Um, the scale-up is incredible, but it's also… that’s what's exciting to me. That's where I think the, the, the ideas will emerge of what will that, what will that be? There are new solutions in nuclear energy, in geothermal, in other forms of sustainable energy, and in other parts of the economic transformation and the way that we make cement and, and steel, and so forth.

Um, the way that we treat our oceans. Um, there, there are giant ideas here that I think are going to explode and be, uh, transformative. And, it's almost as if, um, you know, the mindset we all need to be in is, this is the second World War. We need to dramatically scale up our manufacturing, our whole industrial effort to fight this, this, uh, issue.

And um, and I think as just as happened then when, when people come together for a shared cause, and their sense of urgency dials up, and their willingness to go big dials up, truly amazing things can happen. And, and all kinds of innovation and stuff will, um, come out of it as a result. I mean, I, I really think there's a scenario where in 2050 we find ourselves with a, a clean energy grid and the lowest cost energy humanity’s ever had.

Um, and that, that in itself creates a whole new adjacent possible of looking after the planet. Um, so that's, that's, that's where I think the, the biggest news will come from.

[00:52:42] Steven Johnson:
Well, we will be covering that extensively in future episodes of the TED Interview. Um, and speaking of the future of the TED Interview, uh, what advice do you have for me? What, what do I need to know?

[00:52:57] Chris Anderson:
The funny thing is, I, I don't think I have advice for you, Steve. I, I, I, I, I think you're the right person. ‘Cause I think you have this. I mean, you have spent your life following your curiosity, and really, that is all that's needed here. Bring in, bring in amazing people and talk with them, with your curiosity dialed up full. And, um, the result's gonna be spectacular. And I, I can't wait to tune in.

[00:53:24] Steven Johnson:
We're gonna turn the curiosity up to 11 here on this interview. It's gonna be good. Well, Chris, uh, thank you so much for the honor of taking this over and, uh, this has been a great conversation. Thanks again.

[00:53:36] Chris Anderson:
Thank you, and thank you, everyone.

[00:53:43] Steven Johnson:
That's it for the show today. The TED interview is part of the TED Audio Collective. This episode was produced by Wilson Sayre, who's also our managing producer. The show is brought to you by TED and Transmitter Media. Sammy Case is our story editor. Fact-checking by Paul Durbin. Farrah Desgranges is our project manager, and Gretta Cohn is our executive producer.

Special thanks to Michelle Quint, Anna Phelan, and Allie Graham. I'm your host, Steven Johnson.

For more info on my other projects, including my latest book, Extra Life: a Short History of Living Longer. You can follow me on Twitter at @stevenbjohnson, or you can sign up for my Substack newsletter—Adjacent Possible.