TEDActive 2012: Atul Gawande, Jonathan Haidt

Though I was a bit distracted by the Hackathon, I still managed to listen to and watch several talks from TED while out in Palm Springs.  Here are a couple of brief notes and opinions, and links to the talks themselves from TED.com when available.

Atul Gawande: So I probably took the dramatically wrong message from this talk.  He was talking about improving healthcare, and where I ended up was: what happens when the problems at the upper right just become too expensive to solve?  Given my chosen field, I spend most of my time thinking about interventions like Gawande’s lists: simple, small things that make big differences by changing environments and systems.  And while I think there will always be optimizations (especially as technology advances so that the tools available change and our behaviors change right along with it), there comes some point at which it just gets harder and more expensive to keep continuing.

As Gawande points out, in the 30s, medicine meant getting people someplace warm, feeding them, and some very basic holistic health practices.  And while people still die because medical professionals (and everyone else) forget to wash their hands, we’re moving up and to the right on the graph: doing better medicine and keeping more people alive, longer.  But how long can we keep that up?  When we nail lists, when we’ve got people washing their hands and built machines that automatically kill bacteria anyway, and people still die…then what?  What happens when progress slows down?

It doesn’t have to just be health.  When we look at the human graph for the last hundred years, we’ve seen some huge increases in basically every measure of human prosperity.  But what about when that slows down?  We’ll still be moving forward, but if we can’t maintain the same rate, can we handle that as a society?

Jonathan Haidt: I really wanted to like Jonathan’s talk, because his work on morals is truly great.  But he seems to be building a rather shaky bridge between transcendent mental experiences and our evolutionary development of cooperation giving rise to our ascendance as a species, ultimately saying that we’re all searching for “more” than we currently have in the moral/spiritual/belonging sense.

The first part is utterly uninteresting to me.  The second is mildly interesting, though not in the sense of evolution, but only in that it mimics what I think the next great psychological question is: the need for people to both be individuals and part of a group, which seem to be competing desires but that both require satisfaction.  He’s nodding to the “part of a group” bit, and I do think we need more investigation there, as what we think of as “being part of a group” doesn’t seem to be honored by Facebook or the sort of solutions that seem like they would matter.  I think it is actually about purpose and accomplishment, but that’s another blog post.