Kevin Slavin

Entrepreneur, Provocateur, Raconteur
Assistant Professor & Founder, Playful Systems, MIT Media Lab

The complex interaction between computers and humans is shaping the physics of culture.

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#18 Best of TED 2011

Professor at the MIT Media Lab, and serial entrepreneur, Kevin has built renowned projects and companies at the intersections of entertainment, games, big data, next-generation technologies, and design.

As Co-founder of Area/Code in 2005, Kevin has been a consistent pioneer in rethinking game design and development around new technologies (like GPS and DNA testing) and new platforms (like Facebook and iOS). Working with MTV, Disney, Nokia, Nike, CBS, and many others, Area/Code was acquired by Zynga in 2011 to become Zynga New York. Prior to acquisition, their work served several billion pages, and more than 50 million users.

In 2013, MIT's Media Lab appointed Kevin to start and lead “Playful Systems,” a new division of the lab. A nascent group, they have worked with the Dalai Lama Center for Ethics and Transformative Values, chess grandmaster Maurice Ashley, and MIT’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences. Their work has attracted global attention, including every major news network and coverage from The Huffington Post, Discovery, Wired and the New Scientist.

In 2013, Kevin also co-founded Everybody at Once, a consultancy focused entirely on how online audiences and fans interact with TV, movies, and sports. The company currently works with BBC America, BBC News, Starz, American Public Media, and the European soccer team Roma.

Kevin spent 10 years as a creative director and planner at some of the largest agencies in the US, and has been named to most of the industry awards, including Creativity Magazine's Creativity 50.”

As a professor and teacher, he’s taught at NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program, Fabrica, MIT, and Cooper Union, where he is also an Alumni Trustee. His work has been exhibited in museums including MoMA, the New Museum, the Storefront for Art and Architecture, and the Frankfurt Museum für Moderne Kunst.

How Algorithms Shape the World (Big Data, Finance, New Technologies)

Kevin understands algorithms as nature — our world is subject to algorithmic optimisation, not just on Wall Street, but in our homes, our architecture, and in our cities. Math is shaping our environments, what he calls the ‘physics of culture.’ Years before “flash trading” was a household phrase, Kevin articulated its effects far beyond Wall Street; his work remains on the cutting edge of the world these technologies have unleashed.  

The Audience Has an Audience (Social Media, Entertainment, Television)

The nature of the “audience” has changed profoundly for contemporary entertainment. Kevin argues that the new forms of connectivity within the audience change what they watch, how they watch it, and what they expect from it. Giving concrete examples from the past, present and future, Kevin provides insight and strategy for how this new audience connects to what they love, and to each other.

The History and Future of Luck (Games, New Technologies, Entertainment)

An overview of the historical American conceptions of luck, relative to play, games, and gambling, and the ways that the introduction of computational processes changed the modern idea of what luck is. Thoughts on what luck will be, and mean, in the future.

As a Speaker:
Slavin is an excellent storyteller, weaving metaphors and anecdotes seamlessly together while giving audiences the big picture on where technology is going and how it’s shaping every aspect of our lives and business.

He frequently keynotes entertainment venues like MIP in Cannes, advertising industry events for agencies and networks (Ogilvy, WPP, Omnicom, Ad Age, the IAB) and entertainment (NBC, Cox, Fremantle Media, BBC). He has also keynoted tech conferences like O'Reilly's Web 2.0 and Where 2.0, and broader high-end conferences like the Aspen Ideas Festival, LIFT, DLD, and TED Global. He has also addressed civil, social and cultural institutions including the Knight Foundation, the Royal Society of Arts, and MoMA.

His TED talk has received over 3 million views to date, and was featured in Apple’s TV spots promoting "new ideas" on the iPad. In 2012, it was chosen as one of the Best of TED, in the top 18 groundbreaking ideas that can shape the future.


Kevin tailors each presentation to the needs of his audience and is not limited to the topics we have listed below. These are subjects that have proven valuable to customers in the past and are meant only to suggest his range and interests. Please ask us about any subject that interests you; we are sure that we can accommodate you.

How Algorithms Shape Our World

In their hearts, computers are simply quantifying information and sewing it together however we tell them to. But computers aren’t the objects that sit on our desks; they are the nervous system for a networked world. Their effects are broad, deep, and often quite difficult to discern, extending far off the desktop into our everyday lives.

Inside, they are simply algorithms that are trying to make the kinds of decisions that humans find difficult. The algorithms themselves might not be new. But their domain most certainly is: everything from the way that elevators arrive to the way that movies are made, and then, of course, there’s google, and the stock market. More and more of our everyday experiences have algorithms folded deep inside them. And fewer and fewer of those algorithms have human supervision integrated into their operations.

This is a tour, investigation, and interrogation of what these algorithms are, how they function, where they live, and raises questions about this new form of physics. Not just the physics of information, or of finance, but of culture at large. A review of the last few years, and a glimpse of what’s to come.

Laughter from Nowhere

The role of social media is often discussed in terms of the social graph, the cumulative effect of providing connections between friends and acquaintances. This talk addresses the aspects of social media that I believe are underexplored, which have to do with synchronous crowds and the meaning those crowds provide. It is the thing that "old media" — linear media like radio and television — did well, but invisibly: put everyone on the same page at the same time. But while everyone was doing the same thing at the same time, they were all doing it alone.

Technology has had two effects on that. The first is to delaminate media from distribution, so that everyone pursues "what they want where they want it when they want it." Ergo, Hulu and Netflix. But the second effect is to strengthen and deepen the role of synchronous broadcast, which is why the top trends on Twitter around primetime always include broadcast TV. We make meaning about what we experience based on the sense of other people's experiences of it, and this is now visible through Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, et al. One of the most common uses of Foursquare, even, is not to check into a place, but into a shared moment, like a snowstorm.

This talk talks about the human needs that are addressed in all this, how we constantly reinvent ways to address them, and understanding "social media" in that social and historical context.

Cities, Data, and Stories

In the 50s, MIT professor Kevin Lynch wrote of the "image of the city" as mental maps created by individuals around landmarks, routines (like commutes), and personal experiences. The history of cities is one of fractured, layered and disjointed experiences, with as many stories in them as people.

This is radically changing with the dawn of ambient informatics, everything from Foursquare to Instagram to Waze to banking data, all of which provide us with stories of the collaborative and collective use of cities. Sometimes these stories are visible to users, e.g., via the explore tab in Foursquare, and sometimes they are only visible backstage, e.g., network carrier data to visualise city traffic.

There is a history to this approach that goes back as far as the mid-19th century, with the discovery of cholera, and there is a future to this that is being actively built and explored right now. This is a survey of cities through this lens, and an approach to understanding cities as machines for interaction.

Big Data

One way to understand the great shifts underway is that there are two related, but distinct, trends:

1) ways of sensing and learning about the world around us that were unimaginable just a few years ago and

2) ways to understand and act upon the data produced by that. We are learning more, and the question is: are we smarter? So-called "big data" can influence our decisions, or it can replace them. A brief history of some of the key inflection points that got us here, and a few big questions about what comes next.

Design for the Rest of Us

The screen may or may not continue to be the dominant interface we use for computing. Perhaps "augmented reality" — giving the greatest priority to the eye — will affirm some collective dream for effortless interaction with the world. But maybe we should think about the rest of us, everything that comes before and after our eyesight. A version of the history, and a version of the future, in which the rest of us is fully considered.

Games and play

Broadcast media and social media

Ubiquitous computing and participatory urbanism


Second Brain for the Smart City | Innovative City Forum

Debunking Luck | Pop!Tech

How algorithms shape our world | TED

The Audience Has an Audience


A media communications association:
I would highly recommend Kevin to anyone who asked —

  • He is a joiner, he came to our VIP dinner and had lots of animated conversations
  • He wrote something new to present
  • He is a great presenter and has excellent material to stimulate an audience
  • He could easily have filled an hour, the audience did not want him to go

A global reinsurance and risk management services company:
Kevin, thank you for the fantastic job you did for us at e CEO Conference. The prevalence of algorithms in our daily lives was absolutely staggering, and frightening! I don't think we appreciated the degree to which this work was being done at every level. Your talk really brought home an important point that [we] also feels strongly about, and that is the danger of over reliance on models (or algorithms). We worry about that in our data driven business and you helped reinforce why. Your examples were great and you really engaged the group.

A world leading information technology research company:
Hi Kevin — You were mobbed after your talk today, so I didn’t get a chance to give you a proper thank you. All evening, I had people coming up to me and thanking me for selecting you. Comments were unanimously positive.

A major advertising publication webinar:
Kevin was fantastic, and we really loved his use of the images from the social graph that he pulled. It was very eye-opening, plus he really grabbed the audience with the letter he received.

The audience thoroughly enjoyed learning his personal interest in changing strangers to acquaintances by seeing how he might be associated with those around him — whether on the plane, in a restaurant or somewhere on the street.