Q&A with TED Curator Cyndi Stivers

Doha Debates
December 12, 2018
Cyndi Stivers, Director of TED Residency

TED and Doha Debates have joined forces to explore the power of civic discourse in an increasingly polarized world. As political tensions rise and passions erupt on the world stage, TED is building thoughtful conversations across differences to find common ground on new ideas. As part of our partnership and programming throughout 2019, we spoke with Cyndi Stivers, director of TED Residency, to hear what drives the partnership and what excitement is in store, including our partnered Salon, “Up for Debate,” in New York.

Q: Cyndi, what lies at the heart of TED’s partnership with Doha Debates and how do our visions and missions connect?

A: TED is always looking for new ways to spread ideas and new perspectives, and more ways to come at them. If you’re interested in finding out how people feel in the world from a completely different background and different opinion, this is one fine way to do it. In the Salon that kicks off this partnership, we’ll be demonstrating how this works: We’ll be bringing people in from other parts of the world by projecting them in, as if they’re in the room with us, and we’ll hear them talk about the primary issues they’re obsessed with. I hope we’ll get to hear them tell us, What’s the most thorny topic in your part of the world?

The more we can do to help one another in the world, in whatever medium, the better. Anything that works against otherizing people, which is not a word, and it’s horribly jargony, but it absolutely exists! The phenomenon does seem to demand that verb: To other someone is to make people feel excluded, ostracized from your own sphere. Civic discourse is part of working against otherizing people.

Q: Why civic discourse right now, and why is it urgently needed today?

A: To me, the reason why civic discourse matters and why it’s become incredibly critical is that global culture, and particularly American culture, is so polarized at this point. Civic discourse is something we specifically discussed at TED ever since the 2016 election, trying to figure out how to parse and tease apart all the threads of what has resulted in polarization in this country. But it’s global, not just an American problem.

It’s a combination of factors that mostly have to do with technological advances: As bandwidth has increased, the internet has connected everybody, and we get more information streaming down at us, so we have way too much coming at us. And we don’t know how to sift it, or we just get overwhelmed. There’s part of human nature that tends to retreat into the safe “This is what I know, this is what I already know I care about.”

As recently as the ’90s, you’d get your basis for public conversation from a finite, modest list of media outlets — the places you trusted to set the table for any reasonable conversation of civic importance. But as bandwidth increased, more people could become publishers, which was great, on the one hand. Everybody was excited: “Oh great! This is gonna democratize discourse. We’ll all have more points of view available to us.”

But there was so much available that a lot of people shut down. And algorithms were built to maximize efficiency of computer-based communication, so companies were feeding us more of what we already clicked on. And that traffic is what keeps media companies in business: “Wait! I want you to look over here, so let me spam you with more stuff.”

We live in this weird spiral of noise. I think that’s what makes civic discourse much more critical today.

“If you’re interested in finding out how people feel in the world from a completely different background and different opinion, this is one fine way to do it.”

Q: Do you think we should all agree on some ground rules of engagement in public conversations, like respecting each other even when hard criticism is needed? How can that be accomplished?

A: Yes, you have to be ready to be criticized, to be open to being criticized and open to learning. But to me, that’s what we should all do every day anyway! Fundamentally, that’s what is required: respect for other human beings. To the extent possible, if you keep things grounded in respecting the other person, as long as they are respectful to you and you really try to get at what is true, it’s a pretty safe bet it’ll work.

One of the speakers in the Salon is going to tackle exactly this. Eve Pearlman has started something called Spaceship Media, and they do what they call “dialogue journalism,” which brings together two opposing sides and gets them talking. They bring them to the table already armed with the topics they disagree about, and the facts are reported out ahead of time, with ample sourcing so that everyone agrees on what the starting point of truth is. And then they talk about it. Eve is going to explain a little about how that works.

Q: The lineup of speakers at our upcoming Salon is incredibly diverse, and there’s a musical performance. What’s the role of music in advancing difficult conversations?

A: Music is one of the universal languages where we can’t get ourselves into trouble — and where mutual respect is still assumed. Beauty transports everybody, no matter what their background. The particular people who are performing are past TED Residents. One of them has performed with the Silk Road Ensemble, which has the same spirit and message, spreading ideas and beauty across cultures. For example, teaching Middle Eastern music in China and learning Chinese instruments in return. Musicians are cultural ambassadors. It’s this spirit of openness.

“Fundamentally, that’s what is required: respect for other human beings.”

Q: The Salon will beam in participants around the world. How will that happen and how can it enhance the conversation?

A: We’ll be streaming in different groups from around the globe through Portal technology. It’s essentially a shipping container with a mini-studio in it, and there’s a camera at one end, thanks to Shared_Studios, whose team created the Portals. It’s really magical. It’s like a much fancier, intentional chatroom. We want to get a sense of what the burning issues are across the world and build on that conversation.