Tedx Talks, Space Junk, and Archaeology

In this post I will be giving an overview of a conference-style presentation given by a researcher in anthropology. The purpose is to learn about their particular approach and through an analysis begin to decipher what works and perhaps what doesn’t work to engage a particular audience. For this exercise I am looking at a talk given at a TEDx event titled “Space Archaeology: Alice Gorman at TedxSydney”. The youtube video for this talk can be viewed above. The presenter is Alice Gorman, she works as a lecturer in the Department of Archaeology at Flinders University, and an Adjunct Fellow at the Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics at ANU. She is also a member of the Space Industry Association of Australia.

As many are already aware, a TEDx conference is an independently organized event that is “created in the spirit of TED’s mission, “ideas worth spreading,” . . . [that is] designed to give communities, organizations and individuals the opportunity to stimulate dialogue through TED-like experiences at the local level.” As you can see in the video when it pans out, it is open to a large audience. As such, the researcher is presenting to a broad range of people with varying interests. This type of venue along with the mission statement makes it essential to appeal to many different people. This is very different than a presentation given at a conference devoted to scholars of a particular discipline where esoteric knowledge is more expected because the scholar is speaking to individuals that share a common background of expertise. That is not to suggest TEDx talks are less intellectual, but they are created with the goal of making their research and ideas relevant outside their discipline. In an archaeology conference like the Society for American Archaeology, the researcher needs to appeal to other archaeologists and relate their research to issues within the discipline. What becomes important at a TEDx talk is relating their research to broader socially relevant issues that as a society, culture, or as part of humanity we can all appreciate its significance to us. Interestingly, it is also these types of presentations that are widely accessible to a broader public outside of the conference.

Although Alice Gorman studies the material culture of space exploration and its history, with a focus on orbital debris and working to reduce the problem of “space junk” by collaboration with international agencies, her talk does not focus specifically on the problems of clutter in space. Instead, her talk is aimed at making the audience feel a connection to some of the space debris by describing the cultural heritage and stories of its connection to our own histories behind some of these objects.

Unlike many academic presentations, she does not begin with a description of her “thesis question”. The talk is designed to feel more organic and less structured despite the clear intentions of her presentation design. The style of her presentation is relaxed and semi-formal. By this I mean she is looking out into the audience at all times and engaging with them creating a more relaxed environment where her ideas appear to just flow out as if she is having a conversation. She even includes many little side notes designed to engage the audiences attention through humour. But, it is still a structured talk that has been purposively organized to carry the audience with her through a particularly constructed journey.

Her talk begins with an anecdotal account of the experience that brought her to this “light bulb moment” where her interest in the topic of space exploration from a cultural heritage perspective took shape. She pondered to herself if, given the long history of the space exploration and age of some of the satellites in the sky, was it possible to do an archaeology of space? This story gives life to the creation of the idea behind her research by pulling back the curtain for people outside of archaeology to see just how relatable their process is to everyone else. Often, people will ask archaeologists how they know what to look for. While many follow a well-trodden path it’s clear that archaeology has expanded well past its initial boundaries and new avenues to explore open up through much the same sparks of inspiration we all have experienced and can relate to. She then describes the process behind her research. What steps did she take in the pursuit of her interests? And finally how she was able to get the opportunity to do this research full-time with her new academic position.

This is where the talk really starts to take shape. The “journey” aspect of her talk becomes more clear when she actually describes a journey she wants to take the audience with her on. In this way, she draws the audience in and captivates their imaginations in the same way that she was drawn to her own research. Of course, it is accompanied with many beautiful photographs of space that never fail to amaze. Buried in there is her stated goal of the presentation: “before we actually start trying to get rid of some of this stuff does any of it actually have cultural significance for us, does it have heritage value, and do we want to do something sensible about that instead of just destroy it all without thinking?” She is able to create a connection between these objects and our own histories by describing their creation and significance. She also is able to make it relevant to present day concerns over the space exploration programs around the world. And she ends by describing a satellite that has recordings of human cultures in various languages around the world, showing that there is a real piece of humanity that is part of space, we are in a very tangible way connected to it and should therefore care about it.

I think what makes this presentation so well done is her flawless ability to flow through many different sections of ideas seamlessly, all while adding details, descriptions, and personal anecdotes that, rather than take away from the main ideas, contribute by breathing life into the talk. She clearly knows her audience and has done a great job of relating the significance of her research to broader concerns and present day issues, all while teaching the public about some of her work. One problem I had was a lack of “well what now?” she created a very strong appeal to keep these objects for their connection to our history and the human experience, but what other value can we get from keeping them in space? Given that there is no room for Q&A after the talk these types of questions cannot be addressed through a dialogue with the audience. Finally, I think for her specific audience it was very well done. If she were speaking at a more formal conference her stated objective would need to be more upfront and clear, with a description of her methods, results, and interpretations/conclusions. None of these were particularly necessary when trying to simply engage a broad public about the significance of a particular area of study.



Obligatory gif for getting through the blog post with me! 🙂