TEDx Houses of Parliament – a gonzo report

TEDx Houses of Parliament

Since the whole controversy around TEDxWhitechapel and the talks given by Graham Hancock and Rupert Sheldrake, TEDx events, or more specifically TEDx events in London, have a certain air of danger and excitement – the ‘x’ standing for sexy, not even requiring the usual additional two xs. So when I was invited to TEDxHousesofParliament I couldn’t resist. Would any of the speakers take advantage of the ancient rights of free speech associated with Broad Sanctuary to fall foul of the mysterious TED ethics and standards committee that had censored the Hancock and Sheldrake talks?

On the way in to the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre I chatted with a member of the Unite Trade Union picketing the meeting of Tesco shareholders taking place in the same venue. He is one the 184 drivers from Doncaster made redundant by Tesco. I try to explain what TED is and stumble a bit, eventually resorting to spelling out Technology Entertainment Design but then adding that I think the theme today is Democracy and Representation, but wasn’t sure.


The event was hosted by Steve Richards – ubiquitous political pundit who sofa hops around Westminster TV studios when not penning commentary for the Independent. First up is Julian Treasure talking around a previous TED Talk he did on ‘Conscious Listening’. He warns that we are losing our listening, that we are ‘addicted to outrage’ and love to prove that we are right by blaming people and proving they are wrong. He suggests political ‘talks’ should be renamed ‘political listens’.
His Powerpoint looks nice. Very slick with a slight corporate feel. The programme tells us his company provides advice on sound to ‘clients such as Harrods, Nokia, BP and many shopping malls across Europe.’

I’m regretting not having second breakfast.

Conrad Wolfram was good value. He believes that we need a ‘societal data challenge’, computation for everyone where each person becomes an expert. He called for a Computational Knowledge Economy and then did some coding live on stage – geek performance art.

Jonathan Driori pondered on whether technology helps tyrannical regimes and introduced the very touching and relevant personal background to his talk (how the Nazis used technology for the Holocaust in which members of his family were murdered).

The introduction of a personal connection became a recurring part of many of the talks that followed, as if we would be unable to take the speaker seriously unless somehow they had been touched on a personal level at some point. BBC News  Editor and Reporter Shaimaa Khalil says she ‘touched herself’ in the newsroom when covering the protests broke out in Egypt in 2011. I allowed myself a snigger at the double entendre but then thought it still sounded odd when taken as intended. I thought News was meant to be objective.

Brook Jazz Lawrence uplifted us with her belting vocals – this wouldn’t be all powerpoints and well crafted hand gestures – they’d be tunes too.

Unfortunately the soaring melodies were followed by a Tory MP (Penny Mordaunt). All I could think was ‘why does anyone become a Tory MP?’ She was talking about the use of Smart Power and shoehorned in anecdotes about her aid work in a Romanian orphanage (how could we not see her as a compassionate empathetic person once we had that image of her helping those poor little orphans). Oh, she doesn’t think defence spending should be cut – but remember the orphans.

There was a woman from the City who started off with the personal stuff including family photos of her Mum and Dad in the good ol homespun Canadian backwoods. I don’t really know what her talk was about but at the end it seemed to have something to do with Entrepreneurs going into schools preaching that Greed is Good, or maybe that was what I heard through the filter of my prejudice. Julian Treasure had warned of this at the beginning of the day.

Guy Browning from the Guardian did a funny talk about Outrageous Optimism, funny and also a bit pointless. He got the people of his village in Oxfordshire together to make a rom-com. Why? I don’t know. The world already has far too many rom-coms. He needs to engage more with his pessimistic side.

I was unimpressed, lunch had better be good or there might not be any point hanging around.


Lunch was decent. Chicken and bacon + coronation chicken sandwiches. The vegetable wrap was a bit disappointing but you can’t have it all.

‘Wobbly’ comedian, Francesca Martinez got the afternoon underway in the best possible way and was solely responsible for me seeing out the rest of the event. She talked about how we should eradicate inequality rather than disability and how consumerism only works if we don’t like ourselves. ‘Accepting yourself as you are is an act of civil disobedience’ she told us. And she was very funny. Very funny and with a powerful point to make.

Academic, Matt Flinders did an impassioned and provocative talk about democracy and how we perhaps have too much of it, or rather too much of the wrong sort of democracy. He complained about our attack politics, a click and collect politics – how we all love democracy but hate politics but you can’t have one without the other. ‘Even if you aren’t interested in politics, politics is interested in you’, he rounded off. Good stuff and he didn’t tells us any personal anecdotes. I was already forgetting the morning.

Meera Vijayann talked about sexual violence in India, advocated using citizen journalist platforms such as iReport and Guardian Witness and received a standing ovation.

Steve Richards talked about politics, adopted a patronising mockney accent when playing the character of the person who thinks politics is boring. If I’d had a rotten tomato I would have lobbed it at his smug mug.



Pepstar gave the stand-out performance of the day – sampling the sounds of the houses of Parliament, mixing with samples that he played live onstage on drums, piano and violin, then brought on a string section and opera singer and MC’d over the top. It was sensational, effortless talent.

It was as well this was followed by a brilliant short film by Mads Damsbo of an orchestra playing a surprise performance on a train in Denmark. He then did a great, simple to the point talk about democratising classical music and demo’d the online orchestra.

Anthea Lawson spoke about the role of London in global corruption. How the London property market is fuelled by corrupt money from around the world – our whole financial sector being built around the proceeds of corruption. Over 44,000 properties in London have been bought by off-shore companies owned by nameless investors.

Rick Edwards did a talk because he’s on the Telly.

Actor Femi Oyeniran talked about his work with young offenders and the success of Prison Youth Council in Cookham Wood prison and how the disengagement of young people should be reframed as disapproval. He said the young men he’d worked with learnt more about democracy on the inside than they would have on the outside.

There were other speakers including a video by that nice Burmese lady who we like because her English is so good and she went to Oxford – but I won’t go into them all, this blog post is getting a bit long and you can watch them all online.

It had been a odd day – started badly but found its way in the afternoon once the speakers came from more diverse backgrounds and points of view. It was beautifully rounded off by spoken word artist Suli Breaks, emitting humility and impish wisdom. He worked through the theme of leadership and how we are taught to follow from a young age rather than lead – rounding off that we don’t need leaders we need ideas.

So there was no Graham Hancock or Rupert Sheldrake moment, but there were some great tunes and some nice sandwiches.

Oh, the coffee and biscuits were above average as well.

TED’s Dead (or ayahuasca vs Stella Artois)

A confession. I had a ticket for the TEDx Bow event on Saturday and I didn’t go. I really meant to, it looked brilliant, but I’m trying to finish a book at the moment, had a radio show to produce on the Monday, it was raining, and I got involved playing on the XBox with my kids. That’s a good list of excuses.
Profound public apology to the organisers of TEDx Bow for taking a ticket and not turning up. Sorry.

The reason I wanted to go was because of the talk given by Graham Hancock at the TEDx Whitechapel event earlier in the year.  Hancock is a great speaker, a passionate man with interesting, if unconventional ideas. I liked his theories about how the Pyramids represent a star map. I found similar evidence that the sphinxes in Richmond Avenue, Barnsbury are also aligned with the Belt of Orion if you scrunch up a fold-out A-Z (that’s in my book).
I’ve always been scared of hallucinogenics so am not tempted to visit the ‘mother ayahuasca’ that Hancock talks about to access another plain of reality. My preferred method for expanding my consciousness is to head out on a long walk into the Thames Marshes slurping down a couple of cans of Stella. So I wouldn’t count myself amongst his supposed ‘army of supporters’ that the TED blogs mention.

I’ve also watched some great TEDTalks in previous years – the Happiness one was good. There was a brilliant one about Windowfarms. A strange one where an academic advocated doing a Wonder Woman pose for 2 mins-a-day to improve self-confidence. She had some research to back this up and was so passionate about it that she cried.

But now my faint idealism about TED looks a bit foolish. They’ve pulled the Graham Hancock talk about tripping from their Youtube channel because it fell foul of their ominous sounding ‘scientific’ committee. You could have challenged Hancock’s presentation for the goddam awful art that people create under the influence of psychedelics – if that’s what the parallel universe looks like I’m definitely sticking to the Stella and long walks. But the underlying message of what he is talking about is provocative, positive and progressive. Exactly the values I had assumed TED was sharing.

There was something chilling in the censorial language used in their reasoning for the removal of the video (the one linked above is an ‘unofficial’ upload). There is a cultish tinge to it and the comments by TED staffers and organisers. Then I found this video of a TED Fellow, Eddie Huang, exposing what goes on at the official big TED events.

There is now a feisty debate raging over on the TED blogs about the whys and wherefores of pulling the Hancock video – it’s bloody brilliant, have a look, it’s really kicking off.

I’ve also come across other banned TED Talks like this one called ‘Rich People Don’t Create Jobs’.

Oh well, it was good while it lasted. I won’t be able to watch a TED Talk with the same wide-eyes anymore.

I’m still sorry for not going to TEDx Bow though, it was bad form – forgive me.