TED (technology-entertainment-design) has been running 26 years but in the last couple of years it has morphed from a conference to a movement. Like Burning Man there are those in attendance and those wishing they were there. Unlike Burning Man there are many ways to participate other than going to the physical location. Two-way live webcast venues have sprung up all over the world from a packed theater in London from which the prime ministerial candidate of Britain, Robert Cameron, gave the opening speech to a parking lot in South Africa with a tremulous connection powered by a car battery.
What characterizes this movement? It’s liberal for sure. It’s intellectual. It’s save the worldly. And it’s elitist in the best Obama sense. Many of the attendees are the leaders of industry and education and several are post political such as Al Gore and Bill Clinton. George Bush was not at TED because he was the keynote at the United Grocers Convention in Las Vegas at the same time. Nothing wrong with groceries but really, GB.
Over four days there are about 100 speakers who speak for 3 to 18 minutes on topics ranging from Lego fantasies to the sweet song of Robert Gupta’s violin (youngest ever member of the LA Philharmonic) to Bill Gate’s giving us the lowdown on his latest passion: TerraPower, a subterranean nuclear candle that once buried is never opened and runs for 60 years consuming it’s own waste as it generates power.
So much has been written about this gathering that I, like Blaze Pascal, who famously said, “If I had more time I would have written you a shorter letter”, will hit a few points that stood out for me and give you a sense of what it’s like but my real message is that you go online and see the videos of the presentations. ted.com
A lot of what goes on a TED is challenge to this grim reaper fellow we have heard so much about. Microbiologists, antislavery activists, farmers and ecologists tell of their very clever tools to beat cancer, social injustice, environmental degradation and boredom. Temple Graydon spoke eloquently about her campaign to create more humane slaughterhouses. I know, oxymoronic, but these enterprises do exist and this woman’s autism has made it possible for her to see things from the animals’ perspective. Her redesigns are now the industry standard.
A few of the presenters are crackpots and present completely unworkable ideas. Take Nathan Myhrvold’s bug zapper. This Gyro Gearloosian inventor demonstrated a laser cannon engineered to analyze every bug that passes a perimeter for bee or not beeness then incinerates just the malaria carrying female mosquito. Yes, it can tell the sex (must be the high heels). He delighted in showing us a slow-mo film of the little buggers being sent sizzling to their makers as he talked about plans to deploy this in Africa. This possible nutter is the ex chief scientist at Microsoft. They called Einstein crazy…well they actually didn’t but Myhrvold’s idea is probably unworkable. Still, he is still rightly called a genius. And speaking of Einstein, Stephen Wolfram is running for that position. The mathematician has a large and probably appropriately sized ego with his creation of Mathmatica and Wolfram Alpha. One of my interests is studying the history of mathematicians and this guy is the real thing. He claims to have invented a whole new kind of science and I for one believe him.
TED is held in the Long Beach Convention Center and for a week owns the town. Poor Long Beach, this is no Vegas but it sure feels great with us TEdsters spread out all over the lawns, in pavilions and scattered about the hotels and restaurants. We must have looked like the Eloi from H. G. Wells Time Machine but make no mistake the Morlocks are riding fast horses as many doomsayers at the conference remind.
Ironically, we fly in, flip on the lights and discuss alternative energy. We enter the lavish hall settling into the cushy seats and discuss poverty. We eat hamburgers while discussing the methane contribution of cattle and guzzle water as we lament the plastic in the oceans. Sure the cynical possibilities are endless at TED, but one could be motoring on Steven Forbes yacht Highlander with Glenn Beck. Instead, many at TED are putting themselves literally on the line by committing their lives to making the world a more graceful and just place.
No one typifies this better than Ken Robinson. This international thinker/educator laments the plight of education, his wife’s bizarre cooking and the unexplainable propensity of people to download videos of him. Delivered with humor Ken’s message is serious as he feels that we are educating the creativity out of children. On one hand he asks how it is that in ultracompetitive pre-K schools in the U.S. three-year olds show up with no resumes (“Is this all you have? You’ve had 36 months and you have done nothing!”), while in other places school’s not even an option. But TED is more than just the ivory tower observations of a bunch of fuzzyheaded intellectuals. Most folks who speak up at TED bring solutions.
One fellow, a lawyer, is vigorously trying to simplify insurance, tax, credit card and all sorts of official forms. Practical good stuff we all agree on. Nearly all, except for the lobbyists who strangle progress because many in business feel the best way to conduct business is to trick the customer. Glenn loves this idea, he does this for a living. Much of modern commercial life is based on sleight of hand. Supersizing, opt out instead of in, and deceptive marketplace herding.
TED is a patrician population peopled by protagonists. It is a multi-act play with thousands of key players. At one point I saw Meg Ryan talking to Ariana Huffington flanked by Al Gore and Matt Groening.
The movie star thing at TED is a really interesting. At one point I was in the on campus bookstore when Will Smith walked by. Now my son Tyler was in a critical scene in Pursuit of Happiness and I felt comfortable bringing up the connection. Smith is a very gracious guy and we had a nice exchange. Later I was hanging with a dance troop who had just performed. This team of dancers was the highlight. LXD, The Legion of Extraordinary Dancers (you might have seen them on the Academy Award show) redefined dance for me. I am not a fan of ballet or modern or the twist, but these folks have something new with inspiration from classic, modern dance, street, break and gymnastics. The choreographer also does the show Glee and some of the cast members came on the last day. As we were talking Will Smith walked by and I said you should go say hi to Will. They were instantly shy so I called “Will, come say hi to these great people.” He came over and introduced himself, effusive with goodwill. As he left he cuffed me on the shoulder like we were old friends. At another point I found myself at a party. It was the cool kids’ party. I never got to go to the cool kids’ party in high school but here I was speaking to Larry Page. I told him I really liked his map system. He told me he likes my crab sandwich.
Sergi Brin told about Google’s travails with China. He said that Google pulled out because the situation had been getting worse. It seems there is a booming cottage industry hacking Google from China. That, and the censorship became untenable. He did speak about the future with the hope that things might turn around.
Jane McGonigal had an interesting take on the games we play. She directs game R & D with The Institute for The Future on Sand Hill. She claims that games make the players better people; that they go on epic journeys and with their urgent optimism they experience blissful productivity. These happy people have been playing World of WarCraft for over three million collective years so far and ahhh well, the truth probably lies somewhere between a spiral-eyed army of brain fried zombies and blissful nirvana.
Blaise Aruera y Arcas brought us virtual telepresence a few years back with Sea Dragon. Now he has laid AR on top of that and mashed it with maps to the edge of time. Makes sense right? No? No wonder. His presentation is simply mind-bending. You have to see it. Go to TED.com. There he takes us zooming to planet earth. We have all done it. As you enter Seattle you see the 3D buildings pop up, then they morph into street view but with real photos. Old news right? But then he takes you inside the Pike Street Fish Market with a 360×360 interior with the tagged photos all scraped from the internet laid on the previously banked photographics. During his talk Blaze phoned some friends who were videoing the interior of the market and this was merged, live, into the static collection of shots. This is AR or Augmented Reality. Then he zoomed out the back door and skyward rushing into outer space with MS’s World Wide Telescope and took us to the edge of the mapped universe. Over to you Google.
At TED there are two Chris Anderson’s. One is the imminent curator who has taken TED from an interesting conference and made it a kind of international university accessible to anyone with a connection. Then there is Chris Anderson the editor of Wired Magazine. Chris of Wired told us of his delight in envisioning the reduction of his print edition by, perhaps, 10-fold in the near future. He envisions the print version as a lush, tactile and collectable production for those of us who treasure such things as well as a computerized edition with embedded vid, elegant search and providing all the wiz that we expect from Wired. A mile deep, a mile wide and with a very long tale/tail.
Being on the scene at TED allows one to ask major players questions and get answers. I had read that Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, anonymously bought the 10th Century Archimedes Codex (not to be confused with the Leonardo Codex). So I asked him. He said he had not. Cool. “…Hey, Bill did you buy…?”
This year’s TED Prizewinner was Jamie Oliver. This energetic chef has a scheme to teach food awareness and cooking to young children. I would hate to be a kid today trying to get healthy food to eat. The packaged stuff is so-o-o tasty! There are people in white coats staying up late to trick kids into liking food that is clearly going to kill them. Jamie says that nutrition classes are ineffective but actually putting the good food in young hands is key. His approach gives many kids their first opportunity to hold unprepared food. Simple, inexpensive and an idea that can change the world.
Michael Spector discussed aspects of his new book Denialism. He says that everyone is entitled to his own opinion but no one is entitled to his own facts. And we heard from Mandelbrot and Sarah Silverman; David Byrne, James Cameron and Svitak Adora. Have you heard her name? Well if not there is a lot about this remarkable girl online. She is a many times published author from poetry to pets. She speaks with authority and humor on many subjects and shows once again that each year the geniuses are getting younger. She’s 12.
At TED we discussed the issues big and smaller and ways to make the world more interesting; more beautiful and, in the end, even possible. From sea life to life on other planets and everything in between, TED is a good place to pick a passion. Ted.com