Conversations can be revelations, as Dave Isay knows very well. When he was 22, as he was beginning to make radio documentaries, he was shocked to find out that his father was gay. In a strained conversation, his father told him about the Stonewall Riots, which led Mr. Isay to make an eye-opening radio documentary about Stonewall, which he dedicated to his father.
"It changed my relationship with him and it changed my life."
In the years he spent making documentaries for public radio, Mr. Isay witnessed repeatedly firsthand the power of the interview. "I saw that when I recorded people who maybe hadn't been listened to before in this way that it could be a really important moment in their life; sometimes a transformative moment in their life," he says.
Recognizing this, in 2003, he started a new venture: StoryCorps, aimed at recording the stories of everyday Americans. Two people – friends, family members, sometimes just acquaintances – enter a booth where one interviews the other about their life, with the help of a facilitator, generally for about 40 minutes. It is free, and each conversation is recorded on a CD and archived at the U.S. Library of Congress.
Business was slow initially. One woman returned repeatedly, ultimately interviewing 150 people. "She'd pull people off the subway," Mr. Isay said.
But it's now much harder to get even a second appointment. As word spread, StoryCorps caught fire and time slots in the booths are now coveted. The project has grown; there's a podcast and a weekly excerpt on public radio in the United States. "It's now the largest single collection of human voices ever gathered," Mr. Isay said.
But the acclaimed oral history project has been available in the United States only.
Now, StoryCorps is going global. Mr. Isay is the winner of this year's TED Prize – $1-million (U.S.) to fulfill a wish. On Tuesday, he announced at the TED conference in Vancouver that he is using his prize to launch an app and create a global archive of stories. The app, available internationally, will allow people to record conversations on their mobile device and upload the audio to the Library of Congress and the StoryCorps website, where they will be archived.
"You do an interview with a loved one anywhere, any time, any place anywhere around the globe, and one click and it uploads to the Library of Congress," Mr. Isay said. "So the kind of big wish is that together we're going to collect the wisdom of humanity."
Mr. Isay recorded his first StoryCorps interview in a temporary set-up in New York's Chinatown with his great-uncle Sandy, who told the story of his first date with his wife, Mr. Isay's great-aunt Birdie (who insisted she had invented fruit salad), who was no longer alive.
"It was an incredible interview. He was 88 at the time … and he used to drive around listening to the CD over and over again, which was a good sign. And, of course, when he died, the only record of his voice was this CD."
Mr. Isay saw immediately the power of his project.
To date, more than 100,000 people have recorded some 65,000 interviews. They include a recent high-profile exchange: U.S. President Barack Obama interviewing an 18-year-old White House mentee who has been arrested multiple times and spent time in juvenile detention, and is now part of a White House program for young men of colour called My Brother's Keeper.
"Growing up, I didn't have a stable household," Noah McQueen begins.
"Did you know your dad?" Mr. Obama asks. Mr. McQueen did not have much of a relationship with his father – and Mr. Obama notes that they have that in common. "As I get older, I start reflecting on how that affected me," the President says. "How do you think that affected you?"
The archive is full of both everyday and amazing stories: a police officer interviews the man he stopped from ending his life at the Golden Gate Bridge; two guys talk about their three-decade friendship; a father and son locksmith team in New York discuss the family business.
Mr. Isay says it's "about communication and creating a world that listens a little better. And really I think that the core idea of StoryCorps is that every life matters equally. … What's interesting to me is that you can have this conversation with someone who matters to you, and that 100 years from now, 200 years from now and 500 years from now, your great-great-great grandkids will get to understand a little bit about where they come from."
Mr. Isay's father died unexpectedly just a few days after a cancer diagnosis. It was June 28, 2012, the anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. Mr. Isay listened to the StoryCorps interview he had conducted with his father for the first time late that night. "I have a couple of young kids at home and I knew that the only way they were going to get to know this person who was such a towering person in my life would be through that session. ... It was at that moment that I fully and viscerally grasped the importance of making these recordings."
Also at TED on Tuesday:
The umwelt is a German word for the part of our environment that we usually perceive. But there is so much more, neuroscientist David Eagleman said in a mind-blowing talk about his work to expand our umwelt. On video, he demonstrated a vest that converts sound into dynamic patterns of vibration, allowing people who are deaf to understand spoken words. Then he tore off his shirt to reveal that he was wearing the vest – which also has applications beyond sensory substitution. The wearer can use it to receive real-time information about the stock market, or gauge the mood by plugging into the aggregate emotion of thousands of people, which he did using the hashtag #TED2015. You didn't need to be wearing that buzzing white vest to know that the feeling in the room was wow.
"We're going to Mars," Stephen Petranek told the audience with confidence. Not just a few astronauts, he continued – but thousands of people will colonize the planet, and soon. "I guarantee that some of your children will end up living there." The award-winning writer and technology forecaster predicts this colonization will begin in 2027, thanks to the efforts of Elon Musk, head of SpaceX and Tesla, who believes that, by 2050, some 50,000 humans will be on Mars. Mr. Petranek, author of the upcoming How We'll Live on Mars, says that could be a conservative number. "Children who now go to elementary school are going to choose to live there." It will be like life on Earth: with restaurants, hotels. Someone will build an iron foundry, someone will start a software company. It will be the most disruptive event in our lifetimes and the most inspiring, Mr. Petranek predicts, and it means humans will survive no matter what happens on Earth.