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TEDxWarwick 2018: Dare to Defy

TEDxWarwick hosted a wide array of speakers on campus this March. Speaking about issues ranging from climate change and artificial intelligence to street violence and body image, the event made clear what it means to defy.

In a post-truth, post-Trump, post-Brexit world it is perhaps comforting to know that at our own university, a team of experts in fields ranging from fusion energy to AI to body image to data mining gathered in an auditorium during the midst of the ‘beast from the east’ came to address students and locals, shielded from the freezing snow. Science, arts, politics, society, the environment; though the topics of discussion varied across an almost unimaginable variety of fields, all came with mixtures of suspicion and optimism to question what they had been told and what had been assumed. They came to dare to defy.

Dr Jamie Whyte – Fake News

Dr. Jamie Whyte

Perhaps the most controversial speaker of the day, Jamie Whyte took to the stage first. Whyte was the leader of the New Zealand ACT party, avidly supporting such student favourites as the free-market, personal responsibility and libertarianism. Garnering such support within his home country that the party holds one seat in New Zealand’s House of Representatives. He began his talk by telling us of the time Newshub, a news division in New Zealand, ran a story saying that Whyte had stated that drinking from straws was worth destroying the ocean. Without going into such words he was essentially declaring that he himself, had been a victim of 2017’s phrase of the year, ‘fake news’. And yet, he still insisted that fake news was something that needed to be protected. Because, in essence fake news was but free speech.

There is, Whyte stated, no such thing as ‘the truth’, and to impose such an ideal was simply censorship, imposed on us by governments with their own agendas. It disturbed him, that much of the pressure coming to contain this ‘fake news’, was coming from the left, especially from students, making a brief allusion to the no platforming enacted on many campuses across the country. Indeed, it was the ‘victims of the white patriarchy’ who suffer most from these attempts at censorship, and so such calls should be avoided at all cost. Finally, he applied his economic policies to the issue of fake news, declaring that a monopoly on ideas is never beneficial to the general progress of society, and that a free-market was essential to our continual development.

Melanie Windridge – Nuclear fusion energy

There is, apparently, an old joke that exists in scientist circles. Nuclear fusion is 30 years away, and it always will be. This is the pessimistic situation that Windridge presented us with at the beginning of her talk. I sat in my seat terrified that her words would go completely over my head, but she was able to explain something, I think is probably extraordinarily complicated, yet Windridge was able to explain it very well to me, a mere humanities student. Fusion energy, something that produces no greenhouse gases or radioactive waste, has already been successfully generated. However, we are yet to have generated an amount more than the energy it took to produce it.

Melanie Windridge

Superconductors were proposed by her as a means by which we could manufacture fusion energy generators that for one produced more energy than they used up and two were of a size that could make them economically viable in an industrial context. Her company’s machine, the TOCAMAC, was not the only attempt of achieving this vision, and Windridge described a market in which a number of private companies were working towards the goal of making fusion energy viable. She concluded by stating that over the course of our lifetime technology had changed at an unbelievable rate, and declared her optimism for a brighter, cleaner and fusion powered future.

Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, women in the workforce

According to Wittenberg-Cox, there have been four w’s that have shaped the 21st century. Web, weather, world and of course, women. Across three generations the world has changed dramatically under the actions of women. Our grandmothers attained the vote, our mothers got the pill, and we have entered the workforce. Indeed as of 2010, women made up the majority of the American workforce. Countries such as Canada and France have a gender balanced government, while Finland and, get this, Rwanda, have a female majority within their government. Women now represent 60% of the globe’s university graduates. Yet, Wittenberg-Cox went on to say that in Saudi Arabia women have only just been given the power to drive. When women become politicians they are always asked about the husband and the kids, while their male counterparts are never asked about their work and private life balance. America remains one of only three countries in the world to still have no form of compulsory maternity leave. Women clearly have a long way to go.What perhaps made Wittenberg-Cox’s talk unique however was that she argued for equality not simply for the sake of its moral impetuity, but also for its wide-reaching economic necessity. Japan, she said, is suffering a demographic crisis, suffering under an ageing population without the workforce necessary to support it. This would be the fate of all of our societies, if we continued to keep women from the workforce. And so the issue turned from why women needed to enter the workforce, to how.

Avivah Wittenberg-Cox

On the whole, Wittenberg-Cox stated, companies were not opposed to women entering their workforce. They were however, unequipped to overcome the subconscious obstacles that lie in women’s way. Gender is usually framed as a women’s issue, and companies assume that this issue needs to be addressed from the outside. In reality, Wittenberg-Cox stated that this was something that companies needed to address from within. It is assumed that women should adapt to act more masculine, while instead companies need to appreciate and value the diversity that women bring to the workforce. This is not a fight between men and women, but between the progressive and the regressive. After all, she said, it was men that voted on women’s suffrage in the end. Change was in the works, but it would come from within these institutions, not from outside.

Kriti Sharma – Artificial Intelligence

Can a robot be sexist? Racist? Classist? These are questions that none of us have probably thought of but, according the Sharma, the answer is a definitive yes. She looked first to the algorithms that already shape our online lives. These algorithms acquire data and use it to advertise to selected groups of whom the AI has calculated will be most relevant to. Therefore, an AI may take the very real information that the programming industry is dominated by men, and use this to apply to a sexist myth that therefore men are more likely to be interested in entering this field of work. Thus, the male dominance within this field is perpetuated. The AI that already surrounds us adopts stereotypes as part of its programming because it is usually designed and manufactured by straight, white men.

Kriti Sharma

And this discrimination within AI technology doesn’t stop at these algorithms. Sharma pointed out that the AI that surrounds us in our daily lives, on our smartphones, all had female personalities. Siri, Cortana and Alexa are all what we bark orders at. Male AI personalities tend to be used in more high-tech and more highly-powered technologies. The only way we can change these assumptions and stereotypes that are shaping the future of AI is to encourage more women to enter the field, and yet they are deterred from doing so. Sharma found that code written by female engineers was rejected 30% more than code written my men. Yet, when women hide their gender on coding forums their codes are accepted 4% more than their male counterparts. She herself found that when she did the same her codes were accepted without question by others on the forum, but while she had an avatar of her profile and her real name for all to see she was met with suspicion and disagreement. AI is shaping up to be an essential element in women’s futures. AI tutors help girls in developing countries to learn, women are able to find diagnoses on their phones without making long and dangerous journeys to hospitals, domestic violence sufferers could get an AI to raise the alarm and use it to acquire get financial and legal advice. Yet, AI will continue to work against women for as long as they are pushed from the industry.

Mike Morel – Net neutrality

Mike Morell

According to Morel, there are few things within the American political system less controversial and most bi-partisan than net neutrality. Yet, under the Trump administration net neutrality laws have been repealed. 53% of Americans in favour of re-instating net neutrality rules struck down and 88% of Trump voters are in favour of net neutrality protections, so this move is not just unpopular among the American public but also among those who voted and support Trump. Net neutrality, is simply the idea that all information and data is treated equally. From the largest agglomeration to the smallest business, all are treated equality. This equality is under threat and also lies in accordance with the rest of America’s record. The country lies at 115th globally on internet affordability, with many across America being given the ‘choice’ of only one internet provider.

No one, Morel declared, believes that big companies being able to control what we do online, and yet public opinion is failing to move into government policy. Although he handled the question of why this may be with caution, he alluded the fact that when this anomaly happens, corruption is often not far behind. This ‘betrayal of democracy’, as he put it was not however without some optimistic points that we should remember. In India regulators struck down Facebook’s programme, arguing it was against net neutrality. And, in America, despite the recent repeal, demise of net neutrality not certain and the democratic will of the people may very well still win out. The threat of Net neutrality, such a simple and uncontroversial topic, does however demonstrate what uncertain and unstable times we live in.

Hernaam Kaur – Body image

Harnaam Kaur

Hernaam Kaur is the first known woman to have ever grown a full beard. She recalled the moment, twelve years old, when a girl in her year walked up to her and declared that ‘oh my god, Hernaam has a moustache’. And so the years of bullying began. Yet, Kaur stood before an auditorium of hundreds, full beard intact, a model, body positivist and anti-bullying activist, to tell us to love ourselves and love our appearance. So much around us however, works to fight against this embracing on ourselves. The NHS, Kaur said, goes into schools to weigh and measure 10 and 11 year olds. Social Media works to constantly enforce an ideal that few can meet, nor should they have to. Our own relatives and friends, often without realising it, plant these concepts within our heads on a regular basis. Yet, social media can also act as a great way of mobilising body positive activists. The people surrounding us are capable of great acts of support and solidarity. Education has great potential to halt these ridiculous assumptions surrounding beauty and appearance. Kaur stated that this was the time for inclusivity and that the body positivist movement needed to be a universal one if it was to succeed. Self-love, she said, is a ‘joint movement’.

Tim Flach – Animal emotion

On the topic of defiance, animal photography may appear a non-issue. This is an assumption that Tim Flach very much wants to change. His photographs exist to do more than lighten up a boring living room. Flach aims to capture emotion, something we often place solely within the human domain, in his models. From the image of a lemur, holding its legs to its chest like a child would or a gorilla looking thoughtfully into the background, inspiring a connection within his photographs may very well be key to these animal’s survival. Flach is essentially presenting himself as the PR for all the animal kingdom, and it’s not a bad idea. He displayed another one of his photographs, an image of a number of Madagascan tortoises, the rarest breed of tortoise in the world. A recent attack by a group of poachers on one of the main breeding centres for these tortoise had led to 10% of the entire species being kidnapped with the aim of selling them off as pets. The poachers were stopped at the airport, but the fact remains that human selfishness nearly led to an already critically endangered species taking a huge dip in the population.

Tim Flach

Human connection with these animals and our viewing of them, not as products to use but as beautiful creatures to respect, could be the solution to stopping these acts of selfishness and cruelty. Of course, the disruption of these ecosystems has a direct detrimental effect on us. Flach mentioned that the decline of Indian vultures has means that wild dogs have replaced them as the regional scavengers, leading to an increase in their population and an outbreak of rabies in these areas. Humans need to become kinder to the animal kingdom, for their sake as well as the animals themselves. And Flach believes photography is the way to do this.

Matthew Johnson – Air Pollution

Matthew Johnson

Johnson declared that he had but one goal for us. To produce air for us to breath that doesn’t kill us. This is a more difficult task than it might immediately appear. Traffic accidents, diabetes, and aids, each kill about 1million a year. Air pollution however is killing 7 million a year. Strokes, heart disease and chronic lung disease. As well as the loss to human life, the damage air pollution brings with it economic costs. The World Bank has predicted that 8% of Indian economy decreased by pollution every year, as well as 10% of China’s and a total cost of £5 billion in the UK and $5 billion in America. In India the worst polluted regions wheat fields were reduced by 1/3 and rice field by ½ of their yield. There have been recent efforts to combat this massive problem. Johnson pointed vaguely to the so called ‘smart cities’, though he said that they may be trendy at the moment but certainly not cheap or convenient. His company’s solution was to use the architecture of the city landscape to establish clean air filters around the current infrastructure.

For too long Johnson said, companies have focused only on areas in which the pollution is initially produced and ignored the regions of the city where people stand. In bus shelters, on benches and in front of advertising. It is in these spaces that he said we should be focusing on. These bubbles of clean air could be key to our health and perhaps even to our survival.

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz – Data mining

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

If you ask people if they voted in the American election, 50% of those who didn’t vote would say they voted. Women say they use 1.1 billion condoms a year while men they claim to be using 1.6 billion condoms being, in heterosexual sex. Yet, fewer than 600 million condoms are sold every year. People are not honest. This makes data collection difficult and it is this that is the main issue that Stephens-Davidowitz has to face. The solution? Data mining using google searches. It may feel intrusive, but it is damn effective. For example, data mining using google reveals that in America there are more searches for pornography than for the weather. Something few would admit to. This was however the moment that Seth declared to the audience at Warwick University that in Britain however, we do in fact search more for the weather than for pornography, a fact met with a wave of applause and cheering.

It was at this point however when Stephens-Davidowitz turned to a more serious matter, the question of suicide. Data mining can be used to better understand the mentalities behind hate crime. People search for 40% of suicidal searches search for some health reason, number one unsurprisingly being depression. Yet, an unexpected condition also lay near the top, herpes. Data mining also revealed that those who searched both for herpes and means by which to commit suicide, also searched for ‘celebrities with herpes’. Long story short there are no celebrities who have publically announced that they have herpes. Stephens-Davidowitz’s work found that there is real benefit to celebrities going public with things society has stigmatised. The data also revealed much about hate crime. An increase in hate related searches, he found, did in fact correlate with an increase in real world hate crime. So the question turned to how we stop these mentalities. Seth’s team researched Obama’s speech after the San Bernardino attack in which two Muslim Americans killed 14 people. The speech aimed to calm the American people especially in the light of the increased attacks on Muslim-Americans. The speech was considered by media a great speech and yet there was a marked rise in Islamophobic searches. The only moment in which these hate filled searches slowed, was when Obama turned to a more optimistic tone and away from preaching tolerance and compassion. Obama said that Muslim Americans were sports heroes and that they were those who had fought and died in their military. After this, searches for Muslim athletes and soldiers increased. Obama was able to take this data to his next speech, in which he spoke in a similarly optimistic tone of the benefit Muslims bring to America. Perhaps the idea that someone can trace our every search is a little scary, but it is also comforting that it is being used to make the world a better place.

Tim Edwards – Bhopal gas tragedy

Tim Edwards

Edwards’ talk began with a simple task for the audience – we were all asked to close our eyes, and imagine ourselves with our loved ones, ensconced in the safety of our homes. We were then asked to imagine how we would react if suddenly the air around us turned poisonous, causing us to run out and seek shelter only to find children crying and dying in front of our eyes – and if we were separated from our loved ones, forever. After that, we opened our eyes. Edwards’ true aim, however, was to open our eyes to the gas tragedy that took place in Bhopal, a city in central India, in 1984. Considered to be one of the worst industrial disasters of all time, the gas leak at the town’s Union Carbide factory exposed over 500,000 people to lethal gasses. There are no precise estimates of the number of lives claimed by the gas leak; however, the effect certainly persists to this day, with families trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty and chronic disease caused by the disaster.

The families affected by the gas leak haven’t only faced the deadly consequences of being exposed to poisonous gases; they have also experiences gross injustice. When Union Carbide was first brought to trial in the United States, its lawyers argued it would be better to have the trial take place in India: this would not only make it easier to collect victim testimony, but would be legally appropriate as Indian laws should apply to Union Carbide’s conduct in India, not American ones. As soon as the trial shifted, however, Union Carbide stopped showing up in court and eventually struck a deal with the Indian government to settle for a much lower amount than it had initially been sued for. To be sure, Union Carbide is technically under trial in India today as well, even though its presence in the country is almost non-existent. While the gas leak was a hugely reprehensible crime, Union Carbide (and the Indian government)’s handling of the legal side of things also constitutes a serious offence.

Come late 2018, Union Carbide will merge with another firm in the industry, having already been purchased by the Dow Chemical Company in 2001. After the merger, Union Carbide will cease to exist – at least in legal terms ­­­– and with it, so will any hope of justice for the hundreds of affected families in Bhopal. In other, more humane, terms, it would be hard to eliminate Union Carbide’s spectre from the global imagination of Western, corporate greed trumping the interests of ordinary citizens in the global South. At the same time, Edwards’ involvement in the Bhopal situation might give us some hope: the Bhopal Medical Appeal and its Sambhavna Clinic, exist to provide much-needed financial and medical aid to the affected families. By donating to or supporting these organisations in other ways, ordinary citizens can help out in their own ways.

Temi Mwale – street violence

Temi Mwale

Street violence, like most social issues, is merely a symptom of other, more insidious, problems plaguing society. Mwale’s organisation, the youth-led 4Front Project, recognises this in its efforts to solve street violence targeted at young people. 4Front aims to reduce gun violence by empowering the youth and the communities they come from. The organisation is built on the idea of channeling personal pain to bring about change in society – and it does so in a systematic manner.

Mwale recognises that to effectively deal with violence – i.e. the symptom, one needs to transform or even destroy the systems causing it. Acknowledging our over-reliance on the criminal ‘justice’ system is a key step towards making that happen. Judging purely on the basis of numbers and the extent of violence, we know that in many regions the police and military are more harmful than drug traffickers. The youth on the streets do not feel safe in the presence of police forces – this is particularly true for Brazil, which has one of the deadliest police forces in the world. Many cultural depictions of Black boys and men play their role in perpetuating cycles of violence and driving a wedge between the police and ordinary citizens, only serving to reinforce violent, harmful realities.

In this context, it is imperative, Mwale claims, to deal with violence through compassion and community-led intervention programs. Moreover, high community exposure to violence only causes suffering that in turn perpetuates violence even further. 4Front aims to challenge this perpetual community trauma and desensitisation by proving communities the proper tools to deal with their suffering and by channeling their compassion.

Corrine Le Quere – climate change         

What can data achieve? It can tell us what’s working (and what isn’t), what needs to be changed, what has changed, what the pace of change is, and what the effects of that change might be: in effect, it can tell us what’s going on. What data can’t do, however, is change things by itself. Data cannot reduce our carbon emissions, increase our forest cover, or stop global warming. The responsibility to deal with these challenges is on us, and the data can only acquaint us with the extent of these changes and consequent challenges.

Corinne Le Quéré

Le Quere’s talk on the TEDxWarwick stage focused on an anomaly she identified in global carbon cycles while working in East Germany. The drastic change she identified convinced her that something different was going on: human activity had altered traditional carbon cycles. While carbon levels have been rising since time immemorial, humans have accelerated this rise to a significant extent. Despite the mountains of data documenting this shift, however, doubts are raised about the veracity of climate change claims every few years.

These claims, says Le Quere, prove that data by itself cannot change anything. It is up to those of us who understand and appreciate the gravity of the data to act on it, and even more importantly, to broadcast it. It is only by increasing awareness and changing our behaviour and consumption patterns that we can do justice to the data. That is also the only way we will be able achieve Le Quere’s aim of seeing a pollution-free world within her lifetime.

Michael McGrath – expeditions to the North and South poles

Michael McGrath

As the last speaker of the day, McGrath left his audience with copious amounts of inspiration: inspiration required to make use of and act on the information and experiences shared by other speakers throughout the event. He spoke of his expeditions to the North and South poles as a person suffering from Muscular Dystrophy, with his trekking boots by his side on the stage. McGrath powerfully beseeched the audience to identify their untapped power so that they are able to transform themselves and achieve their true potential. McGrath’s experiences prove that the path to successfully doing so is marked by teamwork, resilience and an almost obsessive focus on achieving desired outcomes.

McGrath ended by asking the audience to imagine the power of a hug, only to say that because of his condition he is unable to hug his family without assistance. It is his love for them, however, that keeps him going and encourages him to try his best in all aspects of life. Through the Muscle Help Foundation, he has been able to use his self-leadership skills to delivery highly personalised experiences for young people with Muscular Dystrophy. His achievements are a testament to the strength and endurance of the human spirit; they are a reminder of the innate power of our wills. By recognising and channeling this strength, we will certainly be able to defy.

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