Episode 212 - TEDx'ing Naperville-Style
Published October 8, 2015
SPECIAL GUEST: Arthur Zards (TEDxNaperville). TED videos have been a sensation on the Internet, and the conference that originated them has become a phenomenon. We've talked TED before quite a bit, and this time, we're joined by our own local TEDx organizer, Arthur Zards, of TEDxNaperville, to talk TED, the future, VR, parenting and a bunch of other topics about how society is changing. TED (and TEDx) has been at the forefront of a lot of recent changes, and we're super-excited about this year's TEDxNaperville 2015. Join us and find out more... Recorded 10/1/2015.
Mike & Matt's Recommended Reading:
TEDxNaperville on Twitter
Arthur on Twitter
Experiential Fuse site
More coming soon...
Alpha: Welcome to another episode of Robot Overlordz, episode #212. On the show we take a look at how society is changing, everything from pop culture reviews to political commentary, technology trends to social norms, all in about thirty minutes or less, every Tuesday and Thursday.
Mike Johnston: Greetings cyborgs, robots, and natural humans. I’m Mike Johnston.
Matt Bolton: And I’m Matt Bolton.
MJ: And joining us on this episode is Arthur Zards. Arthur, thanks for joining us.
Arthur Zards: No worries.
MJ: For the benefit of our listeners, could you, really quick, give us a little bit about your background?
AZ: Quickly: classically marketing trained from college; right after college, back in the early ‘90s, I helped co-found an internet service provider; an old school entrepreneur because we were selling internet access before the web browser even existed, so I’ve been through the whole up and down of everything that there is with the internet; and in the last couple of years, I’ve decided to take on the challenge of running TEDxNaperville, which is a license from TED to do a TED event; and I recently started an experiential design agency that is developing experiences; how to turn people’s boring events into experiences.
MJ: So, full disclosure for our listeners: I was actually one of the customers of Xnet starting in ‘95 through about 2008-2009, and I’ve been a huge fan of TEDxNaperville, went the last two years. How did you get into TED as an experience and actually become part of the TEDx program?
AZ: We had a customer years ago, this is like ten years ago, that had a folder, or actually a book with DVDs or CDs and it was explaining the TED concept. I was like, “Wow, that is so cool. Just listening to people talk about interesting things?” And then when TED talks came online, I followed them pretty religiously, watching TED talks whenever I could. And at that point, I ran a technology networking group at about 2000 people. I would get these groups together every quarter for 100-200 people, open bar, just to get people talking technology, because a lot of the technology stuff is in Chicago and people don’t want to go from the suburbs to Chicago and from Chicago to the suburbs. So, when the license came out, I thought, “Well, it’s probably difficult to get speakers, but I’ll give it a shot, but I have 2000 people to draw from that love technology, so it should be an easy fit.” And I started the process, it was actually the opposite: it was difficult at first to get people to understand what TED was. I still run into people even today that still think TED is a United Airlines failed startup.
AZ: It blows my mind. But getting speakers was actually fairly easy. I found out that—I challenged myself that everybody either has an idea worth spreading or they know somebody who has an idea worth spreading, and it’s pretty much been true.
MJ: Yeah. Well, and even more full disclosure: I went to a number of those technology meetups that you put together; I actually dragged Matt to one with me one time.
MJ: You know, I was always wondering what happened to those. So when is the TEDxNaperville 2015 for people that don’t know, or that maybe are in the area that might be interested in attending?
AZ: Friday, November 6th at the Yellow Box in Naperville.
MJ: Okay. For you, being part of the TEDx program, do you go to other TEDx events, or the big TED event at all?
AZ: Yeah, I do. I go to other TEDx events, I do a lot of mentoring in the TED community. And I don’t go to the big TED, I go to something called TEDActive, which is, you know, the big TED is like $8,000, extremely expensive, and they used to run a program where they simulcast the TED program for significantly cheaper, and I went to that for the last six or seven years.
MJ: Is that something that they still do?
AZ: You know, just this year they actually put it on hold, which really stinks because it was a great time. It’s just hanging out with 500 people for a week, watching them livestream the TED conference. It was great.
MJ: What are some of the technologies maybe, or the things that you’ve been exposed to via TED that you think that most people are just unaware of but that are right on the cusp of really changing how society works?
AZ: Technology-wise, the 3D printing is one, and I don’t mean the 3D printing like everybody has seen a thousand of those at the Home Depot, just creating little knick knacks or keychain FOBs, but the 3D printing from the perspective of—TED just showed the liquid…you guys might’ve seen that one, where it’s just out of the “Terminator” movies, where they pull in this liquid and some photo-laser-something pulls the image directly out of this fluid, vs. actually layering like a cake type of 3D printing. That’s pretty fascinating. Virtual reality is a big one. I haven’t seen a lot of TED talks regarding that, but I’ve been watching what’s going on with that. That’s a game changer. That’s probably the biggest thing. You know, self-driving cars, a lot of the typical things people know about. But I really think that the VR is the biggest thing, the game changer, because I talk to people about VR these days, and people that are even technical, friends of mine that are techies, they don’t fully grasp what that is, or they don’t know what augmented reality is, and that kind of blows my mind.
MJ: Yeah. I think VR is something that you really have to experience to really even start to grasp it.
MB: I think one of the other things with VR is in the ‘90s and stuff, people have been toying with VR for quite a few years, and it’s never really done very much and it’s not been very good. But I think this time around it looks like it’s actually going to take off and be everything that we’d always hoped that it would be, and I’m wondering if people think that, “You know what? I’ve seen it before, it wasn’t very good,” and maybe that’s why they’re not really paying that much of attention to it.
AZ: Yeah, and we’re hoping to have an Oculus that people can demo at TEDxNaperville. There’s a group out here that has one and I was able to try it for the first time. And you said it really well Matt, that you kind of have to experience it, because the guy told me, he goes, “You’ll want to take a picture, because you’re never going to forget the first time you played with an Oculus.” And he was absolutely right: it’s just mind-blowing how surreal it is to put that thing on your head.
MJ: Sidenote, I guess: If you’re looking for one and can’t find anyone else, I actually have one.
AZ: Let’s follow-up on this, let’s work out something if you want to do that.
MJ: Okay. So, Arthur, you’ve run a lot of events, and obviously TEDxNaperville is a pretty big one. You mentioned that you’re getting more now into designing experiences. Could you tell us a little bit about that?
AZ: Yeah, I’m a big believer that the future’s economy is going more towards an experiential or experience economy. So many people are looking inward with their devices, your phones; even the Oculus, it’s a very inward approach to life. But I think there’s going to be a rebound, where—I hate saying the millennials—but the younger generation is going to crave actual experiences. And it could be a dinner experience, it could be doing something that they’re not used to doing, or somebody curating an experience for them. And I started an agency that helps, consults and does strategies for people to create experiences. This is something that I’ve naturally done my whole life, by using psychological techniques or selling techniques to, instead of sell, actually make people be more authentic. I’ve just noticed that, thanks to technology and Facebook, and I hate to pick on them, but people are just kind of devolving and they’re really looking into themselves, looking inward, and they’re really not being their true selves. I don’t think anybody has ever been their true selves on Facebook. And I design experiences now and consult with companies to create these moments where people can just be real people again.
MJ: Is that something that companies then book? Or do you also work with, like, individuals or groups, or things like that?
AZ: I’ve done both. I did one at the last TED conference, the TEDActive conference, I did an experiential dinner. And the interesting story is I did it because Barbara Corcoran from “Shark Tank” was there, and I’m like, “Well, what a great way to try to meet her. I’ll put on one of these dinners,” and I actually got her to show up. For people that are familiar with Chicago liqueur, Malört—have you guys ever had that?
MJ: I haven’t.
MB: I actually have, yeah.
AZ: I’m sorry to hear that.
MB: [laughs] Oh, it’s terrible.
AZ: It is, it is. You can only get it in Chicago, it’s a Chicago tradition, but I was able to get Barbara Corcoran to do a shot of Malört, and she agreed that it was the worst thing she’s ever had. [laughs]
MB: [laughs] Tastes kind of like paint remover, really.
AZ: Yeah. And I did another experience for Transamerica Financial, where I took 50 independent brokers… Transamerica understands that the way that the industry is moving more experiential, people don’t care so much about branding and showing the logo a thousand times, they wanted to take people through an experience and show them how Transamerica is actually being forward-thinking and how they look at risk differently. So I developed a whole full-day experience in San Francisco all about risk. It’s interesting, it’s a good TEDx tie-in. I brought in some of my previous TEDx speakers to talk about risk, and Nicholas Percoco, who spoke a couple years ago, was one of the speakers. Everybody went through the Transamerica Financial Tower, they went inside the spire, and then they had an experiential dinner with TEDx speakers talking to them about risks from different perspectives.
MJ: One of our previous guests actually runs Chicago distillery tours, so it sounds like there are a couple other entrepreneurs in this space. But certainly I think that you’re certainly getting in on the ground floor again.
AZ: Yeah, I think it’s going to be big, because even these distilleries and these microbreweries, people just want to feel special and they want to experience what’s happening. They don’t want to open a mass-produced can of beer. You want to actually go to the brewery, sit down, see where it’s made, smell the malts, just experience things differently.
MJ: Yeah. Well, and you mentioned Facebook. That’s one of our, I’ve got to admit, favorite punching bags because of all the things that you mentioned: people disappearing into their devices and… It seems like there is a lot of press sometimes on that. Do you think that that’s still understated, that impact of the devices and just people kind of checking out of what’s going on around them?
AZ: I don’t think people really pay attention and I think they kind of laugh, that, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, whatever, it doesn’t affect me.” But I think we’re going to see the result of that over the next couple years. As a good segue: one of our speakers, Dr. Michelle Drouin, she’s a psychologist at Indiana University, and she’s become an expert on infidelity and sexting and technology in the sexual realm. She’s come up with some interesting studies just recently of how Facebook is changing the dynamics of sexual relations, and not necessarily in a good way. She’s going to be talking about that, which is kind of interesting. They’re seeing scientific studies of the effect it’s having on people, on marriage and relationships.
MJ: Yeah. Well, it seems like online dating in general has made it a lot harder to be in that space at all, that everybody has this attitude of, “Well, if I don’t like the one that I happen to get at this moment, I’ll just go browse another one,” the same way, you know, you’d get a new toothbrush.
AZ: And you hit it on the head. That’s part of the problem, that people are looking for this exact 100% has to fit every single thing that they want. And on Facebook, if you’re not lying, which everybody is, but you’re only putting on your best, and it’s creating a disaster, and the final outcome is just disastrous.
MJ: Yeah, yeah. Well, that’s another area that we’ve talked about quite a bit, that everybody puts their best foot forward, you see everybody’s fancy vacation photos. Every once in a while the drama bubbles up, you see people yelling at each other back and forth, or there will be flame war, or people de-friend each other or things like that. But for the most part, it only really seems to be the high notes that everybody presents. And then, too, one of the interesting things that we talked about Facebook specifically was that—I don’t know if you’re familiar with that contagion experiment they ran, where they actually tried to actively influence people’s mood. Some people they showed more positive things and they wanted to see if it made them more positive.
AZ: Oh yeah. Yeah, yeah.
MJ: And they actually did this as an official study, but most of the things I’ve read said they hugely violated ethical standards by doing it under sort of the rubric of Facebook rather than the university that they sort of worked with. Like, they handed them the data, “We’ve already done this, here you go.” I know—well, Matt knows this already and I’ve talked about it a little—I went through sort of a difficult period myself right as they were running that experiment, and not to say that that particular thing influenced me, but it was hugely creepy to read about that and then to think, “Well, I wonder if it did.”
AZ: That stuff actually works. A side hobby of mine is psychology and social psychology, and there’s a lot of science to back that up, and that’s what creeps me out: it really was an experiment on you. It’s a grey area. You know, is it marketing, is it ad tracking, is it behavior modification? And that’s kind of the future. And you guys are tech-heads. I use that app, Ghostery, on your web browser. Do you guys use that at all?
MJ: I haven’t used that one specifically, but I’m a big fan of ad tracking and ad blocking, and I have all that stuff turned on.
AZ: Yeah, when you see the crap that they’re tracking… It’s like one website had like 20 things, and I’m like, “C’mon…” That’s scary.
MB: Well, and now with Windows 10 too, where they’re tracking literally, if you don’t turn off all the nanny mods, they’re tracking everything that you do, including files that you upload on your computer and stuff like that.
AZ: Yeah, I’ve got to fix that. Thanks for the reminder. [laughs]
MB: [laughs] Advice for everybody out there: if you are installing Windows 10, during the setup, it asks you if you want to turn all that stuff off. It’s much, much easier if you do it during setup than it is if you forget. Because on one of my computers, I forgot, and it’s a huge pain to go through and find all the stuff that you have to turn off.
MJ: Well, and that brings up—Arthur, you’ve worked in technology. What do you think about the ethics of this, for companies? You’ve been in this space. Do you think that there’s a real ethical challenge that these companies are going to kind of go for where the short-term profit is and they’re going to ignore this stuff until there’s like a “personal data Pearl Harbor,” or some of the terms that people throw around?
AZ: Yeah, unfortunately it’s probably going to get much worse before it gets better. Because there’s enough critical mass of companies doing it, where, finally when it blows up, they’re like, “Oh okay, we’re sorry. Okay, we’ll change it now.” And it’s really unfortunate, because I’ve fallen into the same trap, where you go to a website and you open some software, nobody reads the terms and conditions, you just click yes and they bury stuff in there. But something really significant is going to have to happen, either somebody’s car is going to—I don’t even know if that’s going to fix it, with people dying in cars and nothing happens. I don’t know, people are kind of getting dumbed down by this, and it’s a concern.
MJ: Do you think part of that is just sheer information overload, that people have so much to deal with? I work in tech during the day, I’m a systems engineer, so a lot of times the stuff that really excites me—I was talking with someone the other day about everyone in my department puts a binder clip over the webcam on their laptop, like when we’re not using them. So we were talking back and forth, and this guy was saying how people were giving him a little bit of static for—he puts a Post-it note over his, and then he came into our room and saw everybody had binder clips on theirs, and one of the people standing nearby kind of turned around and was like, “That’s just silly and paranoid. Why would you want to do something like that?” To try to explain it to this person was just….neither one of us made much progress. So, I guess what I’m wondering is do you think that most people are so overloaded with information that they don’t even want to think about the implications of some of that? I guess, also, am I way too paranoid about that stuff?
AZ: That’s a good question. I think you can say overload, I’d say laziness. It’s like, throw a frog in boiling water, it’ll jump out, but slowly heat the water up… I think these people are just kind of oblivious and they’re just kind of dumbed down by it. “It’s not going to affect me,” it’s that attitude, and that’s why it’s going to take something really significant to happen. I mean, there’s been enough examples of things that have happened and people just go right back to their day-to-day. I don’t know. It’s a good question. I don’t know what the answer is on that one. I just want to make sure—I just try to train my children; that’s my job, is to make sure that they don’t fall into that trap and be a little bit more paranoid than you think you should be.
MJ: Well, I guess here’s a question: for you as a parent then, how do you look at the things that you should teach your kids, maybe? As someone who has been in technology and is looking at the way that the business world is changing and being entrepreneurial, how do you prepare your kids for the world that maybe you see in 10, 15, 20 years, even?
AZ: Good lord. [laughs] You know, it scares the crap out of me. My son is 10, and the main thing that I want to instill in him is to question authority, and that’s my big push: question anyone online, question them; somebody in person; always question authority; don’t ever take what somebody says as gospel and always question. That’s the only thing I can really think of strongly right now, because I want to protect them from chatting, from somebody saying something, from somebody saying, “You should do this.” That’s all I can think of, is to question authority. If you have any good tips, please let me know.
MB: [laughs] I actually saw a post today that said, “Why is it that April Fool’s Day the only day that we question the legitimacy of the news?”
AZ: Oh, that’s a good one. [laughs]
AZ: That’s really good, yeah. But I’m actually scared, because I was developing internet solutions before the web browser existed, I was right at the front of it, and now that I’m a parent, it’s like I don’t even know where to start, you know? It’s scary stuff.
MJ: Well, and it seems like sometimes that fear gets people making quick panicky decisions. One of our guests that we’ve had on was Lenore Skenazy, who wrote “Free Range Kids.” I don’t know if you’re familiar with her work at all.
MJ: She was a fantastic guest. We talked a bit about how childhood has changed since Matt and I were kids… Not to rip on parents, but as non-parents, both Matt and I are without that currently, I guess sometimes some of our friends seem downright crazy with the lengths they go to to protect their kids from almost anything, or that they’re so involved. And, you know, there’s become this term, “Helicopter Parenting.” Some of it seems almost not quite in reaction to real fears but panics that are almost manufactured online—as an observer, anyway. I mean, there obviously are a huge amount of things to actually worry about, but sometimes those are the things that get no attention, and these things that maybe are a little sillier seem to get a lot of attention.
AZ: There’s a lot of truth to that, and I talk to a lot of other peer group people that have kids, and the helicopter thing is real, it’s really disturbing what’s happening, and it’s a concern for me. Yeah, I have a friend who’s a recruiter, and parents are calling him up and asking him why the kid didn’t get the job. He’s like, “Well, there you go.”
MB: [laughs] I’ve actually heard about people who bring their parents to the job interviews and stuff. You just wonder, what goes through your head? And the parents should know better than that.
AZ: You have a whole new podcast just on that. Yeah, that’s scary, what’s happening there.
MJ: Yeah, not that either of us are parents, but it’s still a concern. I mean, somewhat our friends have disappeared into their lives as parents… Also, these are the kids that are going to be adults when we’re old, so if they’re not able to handle things, that somewhat seems disturbing. One of the things—I think, Matt, you’ve latched onto this particularly, that Lenore talked about: one of the ways that kids develop independence and the ability to do things is not being monitored all the time.
MB: Well yeah, there have been a lot of studies. When you leave kids alone, they learn negotiating skills, they learn all these things. I mean, just think about it. Even if you think about it from an adult perspective, if you’re married or you have a girlfriend, when you’re out with your friends and your girlfriend is there, you act differently than you do when she’s not there, or your significant other or whatever. Even if your parents are around and you’re hanging out with a group of people, you’re going to act differently. It’s the same way with kids. And the other example was playground equipment—and this is going a little bit weird—but we’ve made playgrounds so safe now that kids don’t take risks the way that they used to. A lot of kids got over their fear of heights by climbing up playground equipment and braving going up the highest part of the jungle gym or whatever. And now, you couldn’t hurt yourself on a playground if you dove off of some of that stuff. So you kind of see where it’s coming from and why people are just so afraid, “Oh my god, if Timmy skins his knee, there’s going to be a lawsuit or he’ll never recover, we’re going to have to send him to the doctor AND a psychiatrist to have him get over his fear of falling down.” I think we’ve gone way too far the other way.
AZ: We have. What’s interesting—and this ties into one of our speakers this year—we have George Carey, who runs a think tank on the East coast for predicting the future of families, and their customers are large insurance companies, big fund managers, because they need to predict how families are going to interact 10-20 years down the road. He’s going to be talking a little bit about just over the last I think 5-10 years, the family dynamic has been the same for thousands of years, and only 10 years ago has it changed drastically, where 20 years ago parents would make all the decisions, and now children have an equal vote on many of the family decisions, where they’re going to go on vacation, what they’re going to have for dinner, that a 10-year-old, an 8-year-old, a 6-year-old has an equal vote in deciding what the family is going to do. And it’s fascinating, because on one hand, there’s some benefits where the kids learn about recycling or sustainability and they take that home and that’s affecting the family decision on that matter. But then they look at what about politics? In the future, are we going to see politicians going towards 10-year-olds to influence their parents to make decisions since they have that equal vote? And what’s amazing about this talk is they don’t even know. It’s like, “We don’t know what’s going to happen. We just know that we have the data, that it has changed, and some family’s kids have veto power.” It’s like, “Where are we going to go on vacation, kids? Well, little Susan doesn’t want to do that. Okay, well let’s not go.” I mean, that’s unheard of 10 years ago, 20 years ago.
MB: [laughs] Yeah, I don’t know about Mike’s house, or your house, but I didn’t get a vote.
AZ: My kids are doing the same thing. I’m like, “Wait a minute…” I catch myself. “Hold on, I’m the parent here. You don’t have a say in this.”
MB: “When you want to pick up the check for the vacation, then we’ll go where you want to.”
MJ: [laughs] Yeah, we didn’t get a vote at all. It was just, “This is where we’re going.” At most, there were a couple times that I didn’t eat the food that my family served for dinner, so I ate nothing, and I got sent to my room usually. And there were also a couple times where we went places that I pulled the, “I’m not getting out of the car,” so I just sat in the car and read. And actually, now as an adult, I have to say that both of those things rate up there as some of my best memories of my family actually, even.
AZ: [laughs] Absolutely.
MJ: Arthur, to tie back a little bit to TEDxNaperville, how do you guys pick the speakers nowadays?
AZ: We have a process where people can submit their ideas, but only about 3% to 5% of those make it through. It’s really through the contacts that I have, because once you do one event, I have a dozen speakers who I can refer more speakers and more speakers from there. And that’s where most of them come from, just my connections. It’s actually quite easy, believe it or not. We get too many speakers, and we have to turn a lot away.
MJ: Yeah, I’d actually believe that. As we’ve been doing the podcast, we’ve actually started getting some people as guests that I would’ve been surprised actually when we first started, that they’d be willing to get on with us.
MJ: Is there anything you want to make sure we cover that we haven’t?
AZ: Just that since you guys are futurists, one of our speakers is Kurt Melcher, who started Robert Morris University. He started the United States’ very first collegiate athletic video game league team. When you talk about the future, this is amazing, because I got to visit their campus, and they have a whole training room where these kids come in from, like, 3PM until 9PM and they train playing I think it’s League of Legends. But they have coaches, they have a trainer, they have a sports psychologist all in the athletic department for video game playing, which is amazing.
AZ: I didn’t know it was that big, but it’s a global phenomenon now, and that’s really fascinating. Since you guys are futurists, you’ll get a kick out of that. It’s amazing where things are—they have uniforms. You walk b
MB: Holy cow.
AZ: You walk by this athletic department and all these lockers for the football players and different sports, and here they are, the video game guys. It’s just fascinating.
MJ: Yeah, I can’t wait for that talk. That sounds amazing. And really, the list of speakers this year, that I’ve seen anyway, the ones you guys have announced on Twitter or the webpage or on Facebook, they all sound interesting. But I loved the 2013 and the 2014 speakers, too.
AZ: Oh good, glad to hear that. That’s good feedback.
MJ: Yeah, I can’t wait. And I’m actually—well, Matt has finally signed up to attend the TEDxNaperville meetup group that I’ve been talking about for quite a while.
AZ: I’ll be there Tuesday. I’m going to go next week. It’s been a while since I’ve been to it.
MB: Well, I will see you there.
MJ: Okay, well, Arthur, thanks so much for joining us tonight.
AZ: Yeah, thanks for your time, and yeah, I hope more people in the audience come out to TEDxNaperville, because when you’re talking about the future, all the speakers, depending on their discipline, they’re all talking about the future in their own special way. And I didn’t cover a bunch of the other speakers, but they all have that twinge of what’s about to happen, what’s about to come down the pike, so it’s really fun to see that.
MJ: Yeah, and highly recommended to anyone that can make it.
A: That’s all for this episode of Robot Overlordz. Are you interested in the future and how society is changing? We’d love to have you join our community. Visit our website to learn more and to connect with others that share that interest. You can find us at RobotOverlordz.FM. The site includes all of the show’s old episodes along with complete transcripts, links to more information about the topics and guests in each episode, and our mailing list and forums. We’d also love to hear what you think about the show. You can review us on iTunes or email us.
A: We hope to see you again in the future…
MJ: Thanks everyone for listening.
Image Credit: By Mike Johnston (Robot Overlordz, 2014) [CC BY 2.0]