“Out of sight, out of mind”: TEDxCambridgeUniversity’s 1st Salon

Darren Wong 28 October 2019
Image Credit: TEDxCambridgeUniversity

“How does it feel like to be standing in front of the veil and trying to lift it for others?”  Our very own Union Interviews Editor Darren Wong reports on the TEDxCambridgeUniversity event, “Beyond the Veil”, which took place on 16th October 2019.

TEDxCambridgeUniversity, a local, independently organised programme of TED, organises a series of highly anticipated events each year, including a main Conference and several smaller, dinner-party style Salon events, seeking to bring the community in Cambridge together to talk about new, important and often little-heard ideas and perspectives.

Through looking “Beyond the Veil”, the team hoped to explore the discrepancies between expectations and reality at our first event of the year. Out of sight, out of mind? What have we forgotten, misconstrued, neglected, or actively forgotten? Each of our four speakers spoke on different critical and pertinent issues in today’s world, shedding light that what we see, or choose to see, might not be what there is.

Image Credit: TEDxCambridgeUniversity

As the Industry Inclusion Executive at the British Film Institute, our first speaker, Melanie Hoyes, delves into archived data to monitor diversity and inclusion in the UK film industry, beyond the “glitz and glamour, paparazzi and red carpet”. Her research has been particularly “sobering” — 59% of UK films do not feature a single black actor in any named character role and that even if there is black representation, the films are usually relegated to the stereotypical tropes of African culture, hip hop, crime or civil rights. Calling out the widespread and erroneous assumption that the film industry has seen considerable improvements in inclusivity over the years, Melanie asserted that “data does not let us off the hook” and it promises accountability “after years of persistent neglect”. After all, Melanie highlighted that anyone is “capable of connecting with another human and their stories”, so what is stopping us from removing the barriers to greater diversity and representation?

“I can lie five times faster than you can fact-check”, joked Jon Rozenbeek, researcher at the University’s Social Decision-Making Lab, as he discusses how insidious fake news can be.

He cautioned the audience to be wary of individuals or groups framing information in a deliberately misleading manner, but sighed at humanity’s inherent inclination for sensationalistic information – otherwise known as fake news. Therefore, he is currently working on a game that builds pre-emptive resilience to fake news by exposing people to weaker forms of misinformation — through what he calls the “inoculation theory”. Jon believes that “people already have the tools in place” and I guess what is needed is a seed of cynicism to be planted in people so greater attention is channelled towards discerning the veracity of information.

The only speaker sharing a more scientific and technical idea, Andrew Salmon, a postdoctoral nanotechnology researcher at the University’s Nanophotonics Centre, discussed how common intuitions developed in the macroscale world are broken at the nanoscale level. Referring to his clicker on hand, Andrew pointed out that while this surface is smooth, it is actually rough on the nanoscale and that the “tiniest bumps will look like mountains”. Altering surfaces on the nanoscale will change the colour of light we see and isn’t it mind-blowing to consider that when we put two items together, much of it might not actually be in physical contact?

Our last speaker was the first Bard of Cambridge, Marion Leeper, who narrated the popular tale “Fairy Ointment”. To Marion, although stories have different versions, they are just two sides of the same coin — through the lens of stories, we are better able to make sense of the world; “if you can name the story, you can see the world more clearly.” Stories are grounded in perspectives as well: our TEDx event was held at Baroosh along Market Passage, and Marion wistfully talked about how it used to be the location of the old arts cinema. Our personal experiences shape the stories we share and our interpretation of stories we hear, and make everyday life more exciting.

At the end of the TEDx event, I spoke to each speaker individually and posed just one question to them: “How does it feel like to be standing in front of the veil and trying to lift it for others?”

We organised this TEDx event with the aim of demonstrating to our audience a hidden world that we hardly think about or are unaware of.

Some of it might be inconsequential while others are more critical, like the undercurrents of race, gender, and sexual bias in society. I drew a comparison between our theme, “Beyond the Veil”, and the hyperreal simulated world depicted in the movie “The Matrix”. Our four speakers are privileged with the knowledge of specific issues, and I wanted to find out their emotions and experiences when they communicate this to a public that is not aware of or indifferent to such ideas.

“I’m not teaching any magic trick” — Jon’s optimism shone through as he asserts that identifying fake news is not difficult or at least, not meant to be complicated. “The switch is fast, you just need to put it out there for people to change the way they think.” There are broad steps towards greater media literacy and critical thinking today, and Jon believes that it would not be long before people begin to say “I can make up my own mind” and “I don’t like that”. I think the issue then would be to educate the public to evaluate information and reach a reasonable judgement by themselves.

Image Credit: TEDxCambridge

Melanie, on the other hand, expressed some exasperation. “Representation comes not just in the form of images, but the stories of real people” — it is personal for her as well, having to navigate a confusing world to figure out her place as a half Chinese-Malaysian who grew up in Britain. Nonetheless, she believes that weaving data and personal stories together would provide a sufficiently strong impetus and justification for creating change, and that this change is usually best driven by the younger generation. I jokingly quipped, “Before we get sucked into the system?” And her reply: “Exactly why I love speaking to students!”

Andrew laughed as when I asked the question, exclaiming that “it’s also me!” He cites another scientific example: we often think of sight as casting or projecting outwards, but it is actually light entering our eyes. It is interesting that Andrew felt this way, that even someone who is aware of certain dimensions of the real world can forget about it, and this was frustrating for him. Certainly, it is easy to get carried away in the hustle and bustle of life and pay less attention to what is not readily visible, especially as the lines between reality, simulations and the artificial become increasingly blurred due to technology. How much attention should we be paying to such divides? It could even be a futile effort, and a painstaking one, to keep thinking about the reality behind the images, rhetoric, narratives and science around us.

Marion picked up on this strand in her response that hints a little of poststructuralist theory. “In contemporary Western stories, you let the reader freely interpret the story.” But she points out that “traditionally, stories were meant to tell people something”, such as morals in our favourite childhood fables. Stories today are employed all around us in discourses and Marion warns, “don’t think too much about the agendas of stories — it’s scary.” Indeed, unveiling the hidden world is to seek clarity, reframe perspectives and ground oneself in today’s world, and should never come at the expense of losing hope.

What did you think? Let us know at editor@tcs.cam.ac.uk with the subject ‘Letter to the Editor’!