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The Big Idea Machine

TED

Building exterior photo by Bret Hartman; program books photo by Ryan Lash; Raffaello D'Andrea quadcopter demo at TEDGlobal 2013 photo by James Duncan Davidson.

Steve Marsh heads to TEDGlobal 2013 in Edinburgh, Scotland, where his MIND is sufficiently BLOWN by all manner of headset-sporting expert. Here, in his day-by-day account, he attempts to make sense of the world-famous tech, entertainment and design conference as well as the ever-expanding TED phenomenon itself.

I’m watching the third-most-famous Chris Anderson in the world at the TEDGlobal Conference in Scotland. Earlier, the Anderson in question said that during my week here inside the Edinburgh International Conference Centre, my brain will eventually reach a tipping point of illumination, and my lone tree of knowledge will find itself knit into a dendritic canopy of ideas. I’m already making connections, but they’re more of the party trick variety: I know this Chris Anderson isn’t Chris “Birdman” Andersen, the absurdly tattooed Miami Heat forward playing in the NBA playoffs on the other side of the ocean in the middle of these slivered Edinburgh nights, or Chris Anderson, the former editor in chief of WIRED magazine. It’s Chris Anderson, the 56-year-old TED curator—a title he’s self-selected—who presides over the set of technology, entertainment and design conferences he bought in 2001.

In the past decade, Anderson has taken a small tech conference (although a pioneering one; the inaugural 1984 gathering featured one of the first demos of the McIntosh computer) and grown it into a sexy global media brand. “TED Talks” are ubiquitous, popping up on YouTube clips swapped on Facebook, videos streamed on Netflix, even on in-flight seat monitors. But all of these “ideas worth spreading” (TED’s motto) make their debut at a TED conference—of which there are many—before they enter the boom tubes. More often than not, the ideas come from one of three big gatherings—TED, TEDActive and TEDGlobal.

       
TED's Orbit: Click to view the people, programs, conferences and initiatives that compose the TED brand. Illustration by Mike McQuade.        

On these stages, Mr. Anderson acts as TED’s shaman, and watching him is to consciously worry about how you’re going to describe him. He could resurrect Mike Myers’ career—Anderson is very much a sunny variation of Dr. Evil. Sometimes he wears a Chinese tunic, other times he’s partial to ’90s Silicon Valley casual—vests and turquoise—and it’s all conveyed in an imperial accent that could only be parroted if you, too, were raised by an eye surgeon working in the mountains of Pakistan before you were sent off to study at Oxford. Or if you actually are Mike Myers.

Even in his native British Isles, Anderson comes off as alien and exotic. It’s tempting to transfix on his sci-fi Gatsby vibe at the expense of the cult of characters in his circus, beginning with Bruno Giussani, the barrel-chested Swiss co-curator of TEDGlobal, and followed by the conga line of geniuses, scientists, economists, musicians and poets who will give 15-minute “talks” over five days here. I watch each one in the shadows of the conference center, filling up a TEDGlobal-branded Moleskine in a vain attempt to keep all the ideas straight.

Using Anderson as the fulcrum on which to leverage your brain feels like the path of least resistance amid such shiny, happy chaos in this multilevel conference center. The 900 TED acolytes, each of whom has paid $6K a pop to attend, refer to this sort of vertigo somewhat smugly as a “TEDache”—but your head is swimming in information while you consider how all this 4-1-1 will be disseminated, in awe of the potential reach of the TEDGlobal hive. Attributing its success to a latter-day Ozymandias who kicks off every TED conference by blaring the “Triumphal March” from Verdi’s Aida (pretty much the ancient Egyptian army’s “nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah!” to the conquered Ethiopians in the opera) is an easy mental leap. It’s a cult . . . for really smart, really skeptical scientist people! But Anderson warns against this simplification.

“We don’t need any more puff pieces on TED,” he goads the small group of reporters attending the midweek meet-Chris-and-Bruno media lunch. “People try to mischaracterize TED as being some weird California thing,” he says, “as opposed to a small group of people—100 employees [at their NYC headquarters]—on a journey in the Internet age, trying to figure out how to get ideas out there to work their magic. So I’d say, write about whatever really grabs you. And if there’s an idea worth spreading, spread it.”

 

Monday, June 10
The first morning of the conference, I wake up at The Scotsman Hotel and find that haggis isn’t as funny or as scary as it’s made out to be—it’s just breakfast sausage. More disconcerting is the front page story of the Scottish Times reporting the death of Iain Banks, the great Scottish sci-fi author whose books contain the saga of a hyperliberal utopia that TED would recognize, if not advocate. I thought about famous American authors whose death would hypothetically make the front page of The New York Times. Stephen King, maybe?

The official conference doesn’t start until Tuesday, but I’ve signed up for a field trip. Forager Robin Harford will be guiding us through a nature preserve on the north side of the city before we’ll be served lunch at a four-star Edinburgh restaurant. Before boarding the bus, I check in and pick up my gigantic TED badge. It’s license-plate big. Big enough to make everybody who wears one—and everybody here has to wear one—look like they’re about to run Flavor Flav’s Inaugural 5K.

The first thing I learn about my fellow conference-goers is that they’re front-of-the-bus people. They were probably the ones who flirted with their professors throughout class in college. And while their ages range from twentysomething to fiftysomething, everybody here looks as if they would be comfortable on campus—what with their cool boots and rain gear. More than a couple of people are wearing enviable glasses. Everybody’s iPhone is out. They’re all suspiciously friendly and suspiciously alert. I sit next to a guy from Suzhou, China, and attempt polite conversation. He tells me he has a family. “How many kids do you have?” I ask.

“We’re only allowed one child in China.”

Crash course in TEDGlobal etiquette.

Harford is an amazing little guy—a cross between Bilbo Baggins and Marty Feldman. I’ve never met anybody this enthusiastic about wild ramps. Despite TED’s Cali DNA—the conference was initially held in Monterey before moving to Long Beach—it doesn’t seem to be that granola of an organization. It’s geared more toward robots and laboratories than Swiss army knives and Birkenstocks. (Perhaps related: TEDGlobal is even further removed from the celeb culture of Southern California—it neither promises nor delivers the same variety of Bill Gates and Bono rubbernecking that Long Beach does.) Regardless, Harford’s backstory seems typically TED and perfectly illuminates TEDGlobal 2013’s theme: Think again. He was in Internet marketing before burning out and quitting, at which point he started taking his dogs for walks and investigating the weeds on the side of the road. He started experimenting, crushing up plants and touching them to his tongue. “We’re used to asking outside of ourselves instead of trusting ourselves,” he says. Eventually, he could forage for his own lunch “15 minutes down the lane.”

For two hours, we hobbit our way around a walled garden, following Harford on an ethno-botanical history of the United Kingdom. He tells us that food was more colorful in the Middle Ages—they served salad bowls of flowers at feast days—before the dour Protestants ruined everything. He tells us that the stinging nettle was eaten by the Romans and that it has more iron than soybeans have and more vitamin C than oranges. “This is über food,” he says, adding that plants are 4 million years old and we’re only 1.5 million. Turns out, the world is filled with long-forgotten pharmaceutical technologies—efficient mechanisms for vitamin delivery, cures for prostate cancer—that today are either ignored or ghettoized as weeds.

“Pay attention to life,” he says.

 

       
Steve Howard at TEDGlobal 2013. Photo by James Duncan Davidson.        

Tuesday, June 11
On the walk to the opening session of TEDGlobal, there are protesters. Not many—a few scruffy Scottish kids with signs excoriating the invitation of former Greek prime minister Georgios Papandreou. The kids are pissed because Papandreou was the first European leader to wave the white flag against the forces of austerity. But as I cross the meager picket line a block from the convention center, it feels like these outsiders are protesting TED in general. It’s not too difficult to see TED as the cool kids, a bunch of 1 percenters throwing a party to congratulate themselves on their 15-minute solutions to the hoi polloi’s problems. Eye-rolling about TED seems to be on the rise. I’d heard about bad-boy chef and TED fellow Eddie Huang getting thrown out of a TED conference because he went truant in the middle of the week to record a podcast in LA with Joe Rogan, on which he compared TED to a “Scientologist summer camp.” Before I showed up in Edinburgh, my own favorite talk was sympathetic to his “any group that would have me as a member” skepticism. I love Reggie Watts’ presentation from TED 2012. Using a looping pedal and his own vocal sampling abilities, he basically satirizes the tone of every TED talk while making music out of his own.

I get that TED rubs people the wrong way. Nobody likes to read about a party where you’re not good looking enough, rich enough or brilliant enough to get into. And TED seems to be proud of the significant barriers to entry. Not only does it cost between $6,000 and $7,500 to attend (unless you get a media pass), there’s an extremely competitive application process. Thousands of people are applying for the 1,500 slots at Long Beach and the 900 in Edinburgh.

As a result, when I hear Verdi’s march on my way into the hall, I do feel like a conquering pharaoh, if a somewhat guilty conquering pharaoh. Probably because I was rejected at first myself. After an initial “sorry, but we’re really busy” from the media people, I pulled every string possible in order to squeeze in, and now here I am with the smartest set.

       
Manal al-Sharif at TEDGlobal 2013. Photo by James Duncan Davidson.        

Papandreou’s lead-off talk—more of an apology, really—is kind of a dud, but most of the ones that follow are intelligent and riveting and feel important. In the first session, Steve Howard, the “sustainability officer” from IKEA, urges companies to take full responsibility for their supply chains. Journalist George Monbiot explains “re-wilding’s” positive effects on an ecosystem and the potential to reintroduce long-gone predators (elephants!) to Europe. Activist Manal al-Sharif recounts fighting for the right (and getting thrown in jail in the process) for women to drive a car in Saudi Arabia. From the start, it’s obvious that these talks have as much in common with dramatic or even musical performance as they do with academic lecture: They assiduously avoid jargon and they’re personal. By the way, one of the ingenious wrinkles of TED is to break up the 105-minute blocks—usually five speakers—with actual musical or dramatic performance artists. This gives your brain a break and provides a crucial reminder that you still have a body sitting there.

This strength of performance is absolutely attributable to TED’s process: Anderson, Giussani and TED’s various guest curators act as investigative editors, first searching the globe for the right speakers and then working with them (alongside talented designers and video producers) to find a presentation style that will connect to a general audience.

In the last session of the day, this process is tested. About halfway through her talk on discovering that everybody has a “set point” for body weight—not only an area of professional scientific expertise, but personal struggle—Sandra Aamodt loses her place. She makes jokes about it at first—“stress is supposed to help memory”—before she realizes, along with the audience, that she isn’t going to recover. The audience encourages her with warm applause, but it isn’t to be. Her mouth is dry, and when she brings her talk to a halting close she mutters, “that was terrible.” Anderson comes up to the stage to hug her and says, “With some editing magic, that’s going to be a powerful talk,” but it’s small consolation. Watching her memory fail, possibly due to the personal nature of the talk, seems to emphasize the high degree of difficulty faced by some, if not most, of the speakers. I’ll never forget Aamodt’s talk. It was like watching Game of Thrones kill off Eddard Stark in its first season. You were left with a terrifying but dramatic proposition: “Nobody’s safe up there.”

 

       
Marla Spivak at TEDGlobal 2013. Photo by James Duncan Davidson.        

Wednesday, June 12
Wednesday morning’s session, a group of presentations entitled “Money Talks,” reminds me of the previous day’s on drone technology, “Those Flying Things.” Both examined new ways of conducting business from multiple perspectives, more often than not taking angles that were pretty dark. The drone talks began with an engineer from Zürich, Raffaello D’Andrea, demonstrating how four copter drones could, as did the great athletes that inspired the technology, actually learn new skills from past mistakes. He was followed by Lian Pin Koh, who uses drones to count endangered orangutan families in Indonesia, followed by Daniel Suarez, a science fiction writer who argues that the age of automated robot war is already upon us, and with it, the rollback of 600 years of democratic thought. (At least this time technology actually beat the Hollywood predictions of films such as Elysium and Oblivion. But, yeah, dark.) Most of the TED talks that I’ve seen online have been of the rah-rah, up-with-people variety. After being here, I think this might be a self-selection bias: The TED talks that friends have sent me or the ones I’ve picked out myself have been more optimistic than not—Elizabeth Gilbert’s is among my favorites. At the convention, that wasn’t the case, because I saw all of them. For every talk by “bio-starlet” Carin Bondar, who spoke about the ingenuity of the sex life of animals, there was a serious talk by somebody such as Marla Spivak, an entomologist who urged us to plant flowers before we starve all the bees. But once we leave the friendly confines of the convention hall, would we find that balance on our own? If one of TED’s challenges is to find and spread ideas in a television age that’s hostile to anything more nuanced or complicated than a 30-second commercial, another is sharing ideas in an Internet era where everybody edits their own silo.

TED’s mission is to experiment with all sorts of media strategies in order to smash those silos. June Cohen, executive producer of TED media, says its website already provides virtual curatorial assistance, urging you to check out related or contrasting talks, and when the new site is rolled out in early 2014, these powers will be augmented. There’s also the TEDx initiative, which has launched thousands of smaller conferences in cities all over the world. There’s TED-Ed, which approaches these talks as a curriculum that can be used in and out of the classroom, as well as the TED Open Translation Project, for which more than 10,000 volunteer translators have published 45,000 translations in more than 100 languages.

But, ultimately, don’t people always gravitate toward their level of expertise or interest? Won’t everybody at home, or even the TEDsters who return home, pass around the content they’re most excited about? Won’t the “no drones” crowd pass around the Suarez speech, while the people who can actually afford drone armies gravitate toward the Austrian engineer’s demonstration?

Probably. So unless you’re at the conference itself, wired on a neverending supply of complimentary CLIF bars, vitaminwater and catered Scottish salmon, you’re probably going to watch whatever you want to watch in whatever order you want to watch it, and those media habits will apply to TED talks, of course. They’ve helped identify ideas worth spreading, but we ultimately don’t have much control over to whom they’re being spread. I guess we still have to bank on the right millionaire genius meeting the right billionaire genius at the right time.

 

       
Eric X. Li at TEDGlobal 2013. Photo by James Duncan Davidson.        

Thursday, June 13
“By day four, there will be more connective tissues between talks than you might expect,” Anderson warned us. In Thursday’s morning session, as ideas started to rub against each other in sometimes turbulent ways, there’s a bit of intellectual crossfire. Eric X. Li argues that China’s efficient if autocratic political and economic system is unfairly maligned by an imperfectly democratic West. He receives a standing ovation. Two talks later, in a bit about the rising importance of the pragmatic city mayor, Benjamin Barber credits the public square as the “cradle of democracy,” listing some famous ones, before sniping, “and a place that wasn’t mentioned [earlier], Tiananmen Square.”

I love the smell of irreconcilable differences in the morning!

TED society is polite and open. Everybody is so friendly and curious that it can provoke irrational fears about upsetting somebody by arguing. It’s a culture of cool—and with apologies to Anderson’s attempt to head off any Cali critique, the prevailing attitude reminds me of David Shields’ theory that the “West Coast seems somehow to give people the freedom to focus on information and its conduits, its messengers; the East Coast by contrast . . . is still so much about the old-fashioned minutia of social strata.”

TED’s sangfroid is ultimately a good thing. Case in point is my favorite talk of the week, given by Lesley Hazleton, a 68-year-old Jewish atheist from Britain who settled in Seattle. A self-described “accidental theologist,” she examines the essential role doubt plays in any faith, making an example of the divine revelation of the Koran to the prophet Muhammad on a mountain outside of Mecca in 610. “ ‘Doubt,’ as Graham Greene once put it, ‘is the heart of the matter,’ ” she says. “Abolish all doubt, and what’s left is not faith, but absolute, heartless conviction.” Between sessions on Thursday, I buy Hazleton’s book, The First Muslim, and tell her that her talk reminded me of the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard’s concept of despair. She uses the index in her book to find the passage that acknowledges the connection and signs my copy, To Stephen—Knowing you’ll love a bio of Muhammad that bows in passing to Kierkegaard! Lesley Hazleton is cool.

That afternoon, my brain is well past the day-four connective tissue tipping point—it’s acting like a kleptomaniacal octopus. There are two talks on clouds, one by Gavin Pretor-Pinney, the head of the Cloud Appreciation Society in London, who advocates taking time to look up and pay attention to the literal collections of water vapor suspended in the sky, and another by biologist Uri Alon, who uses the cloud as a metaphor for the threshold of the known and the unknown in scientific discovery.

Later in the day, North Korean refugee Joseph Kim gives a presentation on crossing thresholds, relaying his harrowing experience of being orphaned at age 12 before risking his life to cross the border to China and eventually making his way to America. After that talk, the week’s most emotionally wrenching, I leave the convention center with a Russian software manufacturer to find the nearest pub. A gin and tonic and a cigarette can provide a sort of cloud cover, too.

 

Friday, June 14
Edinburgh had blue skies all week, but inside the convention center for the finale it’s yet another shade of gray. Edward Snowden’s NSA scandal is starting to break, and Alessandro Acquisti, a privacy economist from Carnegie Mellon University, is giving an arresting talk about a future that’s looking more and more like the scene in Minority Report where Tom Cruise’s character runs through a mall and has a digitized spokesmodel appeal directly to him. Turns out the future is even worse than Philip K. Dick had imagined it. “They will be able to use facial recognition software to go into a cloud of personal information,” Acquisti says, “pull your two top friends off your social networks and make a composite of their face.” You won’t know quite why, but you’ll feel warm fuzzies about the hologram trying to sell you a can of Coke.

After another tense exchange (by TED standards) onstage, this time between Harvard professors Michael Porter and Michael Sandel over the ability of the free market (or lack thereof) to solve social issues, the final talk is given by David Steindel-Rast, a Benedictine monk. It’s an eloquent and gentle riff on gratitude, but it couldn’t prevent a snicker from my new French buddy. “They’re closing with a monk? I can’t believe it.”

The talks are over, but there’s a closing picnic at Holyrood Park, a huge open lawn next to the queen’s residence and Scottish Parliament and across the street from Edinburgh’s trademark craggy old hill, Arthur’s Seat. My girlfriend has just arrived in town, and we sit in the back in one of the TED coaches that takes us from the convention center to the park. When we get there, we end up walking with Stephen Burt, an occasionally cross-dressing Harvard poetry critic who gave a wonderful talk on the continued relevance of poetry. Both he and his wife are huge fans of the WNBA team I follow back in Minneapolis, so we sit on beanbags and eat sandwiches and gaze at the TEDsters we met over the past week—the astrophysicist from South Africa, the French video artist, the Russian popera singer. Behind me, I hear a beautiful woman squeal as if in the presence of a rock star when Pretor-Pinney, the Cloud Appreciation Society founder, walks up to her group. “You’re the cloud guy?!” //

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