TEDxGreenville: Shamanic interfaces and how emojis are shaping our minds

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Photo by Marie Bobin

Genetics, hackers, futuristic computer interfaces, and brain-altering emojis were just some of the topics that attracted hundreds of Upstate residents to the Peace Center’s Gunter Theatre on Friday for the eighth annual TEDxGreenville conference.

The conference, which presents a series of discussions and performances that aim to inspire conversation about ideas and issues, featured 17 speakers and performers from across the Southeast who discussed a wide variety of topics, ranging from domestic abuse to urban photography to fitness psychology.

TEDxGreenville organizer Russell Stall opened the conference by telling the audience, “You may hear some things today that challenge you, that make you feel uncomfortable. You may hear some things that inspire you.”

“Make today a springboard for making Greenville better,” Stall added.

This year’s presenters were tasked with embodying a specific theme: Imprint.

“We’re using it as a noun and verb,” said Caroline Caldwell-Richmond, curator and director of the TEDxGreenville presenter selection team. “The noun speaking to the imprints we leave in and on our world both collectively and individually, and imprint as the verb speaking to our humanity and our interconnectedness.”

Several talks stood out from the rest, as being notably enlightening.

Greer’s Jim Sevier, owner of technology consulting firm CNVRG Inc., headlined the day-long conference and delivered a talk titled “Bridging the Digital Divide,” during which he discussed the country’s growing technology gap. “In the U.S., there are over 34 million people who do not have access to the digital world,” Sevier said.

“If you do not have access to technology, you’re going to be left in the digital Dark Ages,” he added. 

Sevier urged the audience to “support global, federal, and local projects that offer affordable access to the digital world.” He also presented his own theoretical solution to the problem: The shamanic interface, a concept proposed in Daniel Suarez’s 2014 science fiction novel, “Freedom.”

The idea behind the shamanic interface, according to Sevier, is creating a gestural computer interface that can be used by people with different cultures through meaningful gestures, such has hand gestures or emblems.

Sevier wasn’t the only presenter to discuss the future.

Atlanta entrepreneur Tracy Pickett, founder of the popular media design company Eboticon, discussed the importance of the emoji and emoticon – digital images or icons used to express an idea or emotion – to human communication. “We have stumbled onto a whole new way to communicate in the Digital Age,” Pickett said.

Pickett highlighted research studies that show emojis and emoticons can alter a person’s mood. More specifically, some studies show that when people look at a smiley face emoji, the same parts of their brain are activated as when they look at a real human face. Some people might even alter their facial expressions to match the emotion of the emoji.

But this behavior isn’t natural, according to Pickett. It’s something our brains have developed in recent years with the emergence of emojis and emoticons. Essentially, social media culture has created a new brain pattern within us.

Other speakers such as Luigi Boccuto, a research scientist at the J.C. Self Research Institute of the Greenwood Genetic Center, discussed recent advances in medicine and how they’re helping doctors understand the molecular and metabolic bases of various genetic conditions.

“Technology has provided us the opportunity to look at all genes at once,” Boccuto said. 

Boccuto is currently focused on characterizing the metabolic profiles of cells from patients with autism, intellectual disability, cancer, and overgrowth syndromes. In 2013, for example, Boccuto and other researchers found that individuals with autism spectrum disorders showed significantly decreased metabolism of the amino acid L-tryptophan when compared to both typical controls and individuals with other neurodevelopmental disorders.

L-tryptophan is one of 20 amino acids used by cells to make protein. It plays an important role in brain development and function as it is the precursor of key neurochemicals such as serotonin and melatonin which have already been linked to behavioral and neurodevelopmental problems.

Speaker Adam Anderson, a cyber security specialist, delivered a talk titled “Cyber Crime Isn’t about Computers: It’s about Behavior,” during which he discussed misconceptions about cyber security that often make ordinary people high priority targets for hackers. For instance, about 48 percent of American workers are employed by small businesses, and 70 percent of cybercrime is directed at small businesses, according to Anderson, founder of the Palmetto Security Group.

Anderson also shared various cyber security tips with the audience.

“Your soap and water for cyber hygiene are having good backups and good cyber security insurance policy,” Anderson said. “You want to have a cyber security insurance policy so that a professional can help respond to your disaster … get the stuff off the local machine, put it in the cloud, get it onto a service that someone else can handle, and allow automatic patching on your machines.”

Other presenters included relationship coach Lori Rose, spoken word artist Crystal Irby, folk band Friction Farm, federal prosecutor Joe Brewer, artist Janine Monroe, singer Taina Asili, radical educator George Austin, urban photographer Alrinthea Carter, dancer Vaughn Newman, ethnics consultant Rashmi Airan, fitness psychologist Kate Hendricks Thomas, business consultant Zachary Brewster, and Glow Lyric Theatre.

Next year’s conference will be titled “Express,” according to organizers.

For more information, visit tedxgreenville.com.

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