First a definition. TED is real, virtual, exclusive, inclusionary, site specific and global. TED started 25 years ago as a convocation of explorers examining the universe of Technology, Entertainment and Design.
Today it is still about all this and more. TED is quickly becoming a big part of the world brain. I have attended for several years and TED has grown, as have I. Much like a space probe using the gravitation of the planets they pass to slingshot for more speed I am using TED as a pivotal point for my own life as I move forward to the challenges ahead.
In fact it was at TED in 2008 that I made a commitment to myself to whip myself into the best shape of my life. Happily I stuck to it. My commitment to myself for this coming year is to…well, you will have to watch this space same time next year.
TED has two major aspects, the formal stage presentations and the socializing during the intervals. At one point I found myself chatting with Bill Gates, Al Gore and Robin Williams. Robin asked me, “Aren’t you the Buck’s guy?” I admitted I was and Al said, “I go there.” I realized that Bill was a Buck’s customer as well. Just like you.
The generally serious academic presentations are broken up with dance troupes, piano jockeys, comedians, singers and even a live, remote youth orchestra from Venezuela. We have all heard youth orchestras and they are generally enthusiastic but a little raw. José Antonio Abreu’s (a TED prize winner) Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra draws from 250,000 young musicians, many from impoverished areas and it was, to my ear, the equal of any big city orchestra. These kids made me feel that the future was in very capable hands. Much of the conference is about the future, transcending shorter term problems like the economy. Where are we going as a people on this beautiful blue ball? Big notions and individual personal achievements are presented like the man who walked, not skied or sledded, to the South Pole. We swooped with Uli Gegenschatz the inventor of the winged flying suit as he showed us a film of him zooming through the Alps. He is actually working on a new suit where he jumps, flies and lands without a parachute.
Bill Gates filled us in on his world plan for fighting disease and his teacher training programs. At one point he pretended to release malaria infected mosquitoes into the crowd from a small jar saying, “Why should the poor be the only ones who get malaria?” When the anticipated laugh line didn’t materialize he added that the mosquitoes really didn’t have malaria. For some reason this was interpreted by the press as dangerous or the rich had it coming and other unkind kind things. Hey, press folks, it was a joke! In fact Bill has a very good sense of humor and if you don’t believe it, look up his retirement video on line. Chris Anderson, the Curator and host of TED, said as the pretend mosquitoes flew off that here was Bill releasing more bugs into the world (a line that did get the laugh). Bill Gates is a hero for the ages and to be in his presence is a tremendous honor. Later in the week I stepped into an elevator which held him and a service person with a cart on which rested a fruit plate. Behind the waiter’s back I mugged a snatch at the fruit. Bill gave me a conspiratorially permissive wink and I grabbed a strawberry. A small exchange, and for me indicative of the good will and mutual respect the very famous show the less so at the conference.
On TED.com you can see all the talks so I will mention a very few of them. P. W. Singer updated us on the burgeoning world of remote warfare. Combat robots in the water, on the ground and in the air. Compassionless killing machines. Very cinematic stuff and not in a good way. This was followed by a group of vocalists called Natural 7 who have taken hip-hop, jazz, R & B and rock and come up with a truly original sound using voice and electronic modulation to rock the house.
At one point I found myself at a table with a small group of Tedsters both typical and extraordinary. We were discussing the survival of the oceans with Silvia Earl the eminent oceanographer who was one of the winners of the TED prize. Next to me was the director of Stanford’s design school, Banny Banerjee. Next to him was Ram Shriram and his wife Vijay. Ram was an early investor in Netscape and helped launch Google. There was also Glenn Close and her husband the biotech exec David Shaw. I am a bit conflicted about Hollywood celebrities. We know who they are and they don’t necessarily know us. This imbalance can make striking up a conversation strained. There are those of them who exhibit a kind of a grace that says, “It’s OK, you can talk to me” and Glenn one of these people. She was not wearing makeup, exhibited no movie star spin and she looked you in the eye. I was bold enough to ask her about her current TV show and she was very happy to talk about it. Well, I don’t mind discussing my work and so why should she? Folks are cool at TED and even I forbore from blazing away with my camera. Also at the table was Dan McClellan who is completing Oceans, which we had seen rushes of earlier in the day. I have never seen such an intimate look at the lives of ocean creatures. Easily the most costly and possibly the grandest documentary to date.Tim Berners-Lee led the audience in a chant, “raw data now!” After singlehandedly inventing the World Wide Web Tim now wants to have free flowing raw data which he sees as more like human thought than the gigantic encyclopedia the Internet has become. Ray Anderson invented the mundane seeming carpet tile. But here is a manufacturer who isn’t content to just make a product. His company is approaching a zero % carbon footprint. This segued into a presentation about the mummies of the Capuchin monastery in Palermo, Sicily. There we were looking inside an Italian tomb which spoke to culture, religion and taxidermy over the last four centuries. I have for many years been a big fan of the Capuchins who had the curious habit of turning the bones of their followers into furniture.
Willie Smits is Dutch Indonesian and he was a tremendous hit. Willie was in a village marketplace one day and found a sick orangutan dying in a trash heap. He nursed it back to health, gathered more of them and eventually established a sanctuary where there are now over a 1,000, but this isn’t the whole story. From his husbandry of the apes he found creative ways to reforest vast stretches of jungle which have been laid to waste. Now years later his Masarang Foundation has reestablished agricultural people living in harmony with the natural environment.
Margaret Wertheim enchanted us with an unlikely topic.
Margaret crochets coral reefs
Margaret observed that coral, cactus and many other living creatures grow with hyperbolic geometry. This potato chip shape yields high surface areas. She began crocheting in wool a representation of a coral because of her passion for traditional female handcraft combined with a love of natural physics and concern for the threatened reefs. Hundreds heard her message and contributed wool coral for a vast exhibition presently on exhibit in L.A. I learned a fact that had thus far escaped me. Coral reefs grow atop extinct volcanoes at the same rate as the volcano’s cone degrades into the sea. A delicate balance indeed. Margaret and her sister Christine have established The Institute for Figuring to celebrate this and other arts. The reef is part AID’s quilt, part Bayeux Tapestry with shades of general relativity and sitting at Grandma’s knee.
Another presenter, Dale Chihuly, has made a reef too with his sexy, scintillating glass art; opposite yet complimentary to crocheted wool.
Another expression is the monumental architecture of Daniel Libeskind. His controversial (could it have been any other way?) design for the rebuilding of the World Trade Center is all angles and sharp corners. In fierce opposition to the work of Frank Ghery. Daniel wants to struggle against improbabilities and sees his designs as a triumph of optimism over pessimism. A bold vocabulary for big ideas.
Shai Agassi presented his Better World electric car program. He wants to provide all the new cars for entire countries with replaceable batteries and projects a 2 cent a mile future. A charismatic speaker with a big following, but his numbers don’t add up even as his investors get in line to prove the critics wrong. Thank heavens for the big thinkers even those with unlikely ideas. They said man couldn’t fly too. At least one speaker was just plain wrong. Take respected Columbia professor Dickson Despommier’s scheme to build practical food farms in 30 story buildings in places like midtown Manhattan. I am very familiar with the costs and problems inherant in tall buildings and I can find no way into this idea. He gets very good press but like other technical schemes with crippling debilities the desire to make it so is not enough.
Jill founder of SETI was another TED prize winner. She and her team are scrubbing the cosmos for signs of life. Intended or unintended she is pursuing global harmony. A simple formula. Find intelligent life elsewhere and we feel as one here on Earth. Bonnie Bassler talked about bacterial communication. Those little buggers are communicating using a system called quorum sensing. They chemically twitter each other and we are beginning to understand their language. Nicholas Negroponte of MIT brought out his little green laptop that was a twinkly eye mote 3 years ago and now accounts for about half the laptops in the world. Talk about an idea worth spreading.
Elizabeth Gilbert wrote Eat Pray Love to huge acclaim and asked us to ponder what it might be like to be a creative person who might have her best work behind her. Elizabeth, no way kid! Jay Walker sang the phrases of the very flexible English language and showed us a video of 5,000 Chinese students learning to speak it in a single gigantic classroom. Scary and lovely. Other presenters included Sarah Jones who with her 14 NYC characters had us dying with laughter.
Small ideas, big ones, bigger ones and 1300 of my close friends. This is TED to me.