Ideas Worth Spreading
Imagine sitting in an audience of one thousand people, a large majority of which have names such as Peter Gabriel, Bill Clinton, or Bono. A simple stage with a screen and some Macs awaits the next 18-minute speech from the likes of Al Gore (who did not actually invent the internet) or Larry Page from Google (who actually did reinvent it.) At the end of a long day of speeches, you wander the halls discussing things like poverty in Africa with attendees such as famed linguist Steven Pinker, one of the members of Pilobolus, or maybe Cameron Diaz.
The conference circuit can be a dull, lifeless landscape. Rich, cultural elitists jet to exotic locales such as Davos, Switzerland for a week of hobnobbing with other business and political giants. Fancy dinners, self-important speeches and a general aura of snobbery tends to fill the air. In the tech world, a wide ranging series of conferences of this nature only lack the allure of the bold-named political figures, making them even more droll and lifeless. In general, the international conference circuit has taken a huge financial hit in recent years, as people find that more pressing matters fill their time and fewer institutions have the budget to participate in these back-slapping festivities.
Yet one conference continues to shine a powerful light into this wilderness. Eschewing stuffy attitudes for heady dialogs, eager participants shell out $6,000 more than a year in advance to attend this meeting of powerful minds. Everyone knows one another by first name, the most powerful of which may be the meeting’s name itself: TED. The annual Technology, Entertainment, and Design conference, held in Monterey, CA each February, has been drawing a fascinating mix of global leaders in their respective fields with the purpose of creating a dialogue between those with the ideas that could reshape the world and those who have the means and celebrity to make them happen.
Created in 1984 by Richard Saul Wurman and Harry Marks, the conference had a slow start and didn’t become annual until 1990. Designed to bring together the best and brightest minds from the design and tech sectors, it didn’t achieve the stature it now has until it was taken over in 2002 by Chris Anderson’s Sapling Foundation. Anderson made his millions launching one of the most successful tech publishing companies in the world, putting out titles such as MacAddict, PC Gamer and Business 2.0. He left the publishing world to take on TED full time, quickly developing it into the star-studded event of the year. Attendees come with a passion for being ahead of the curve when it comes to ideas that could change the world. Its massive star-power allows TED to charge an outrageous fee, and important people from all over the globe wait breathlessly for the much-coveted invite each year.
Recently, the TED organizers decided that these ideas deserved an even wider audience – one that doesn’t necessarily deserve an invitation, but could benefit from the insights and ideas that the conference covers. TED.com was launched in 2007 and is easy to get lost in for hours at a time. Intuitive navigation leads you to videos of Peter Gabriel discussing important work documenting human rights abuses. Theo Jansen displays his “Strandbeests” (graceful tubular machines that lope across the beaches of Holland using only solar and wind power to evolve their survival instincts independent of human interference). Steven Pinker gives an eye-opening talk about how humanity is actually less violent now than ever before, despite popular perception to the contrary. Each talk is compact and originally delivered to an audience of powerful peers, so you never feel as if you are being talked down to.
“A mind once stretched by a new idea never regains its original dimension.”
Oliver Wendel Holmes, Jr.
One soon gets the idea that these people are not only interested in world-changing ideas, they have the power, creativity, and money to actually bring them to life. This realization led to the 2005 addition of the TED Prize. Consisting of an initial monetary award of $100,000, the Prize more importantly grants each recipient “one wish.” One idea that might change the world, along with the connections and resources to give it a fighting chance. Bono, one of the first winners, led the charge with a wish to “empower Americans to fight stupid, crushing poverty in Africa and AIDS by making a big noise.” This led to the One campaign, which signed up more than two million people online in less than a year. An anonymous TED donor gave $10 million to the organization, and more than a billion press impressions have made the cause of Africa top priority on a global scale. Not a bad way to launch the Prize.
TED clearly involves more than rubber chicken dinners and celebrity sightings. Growing stronger and more influential each year, with a wide swath of international heavyweights granting it a cult-like status, this is one conference that puts action and results behind its lofty rhetoric. The website continues to grow in popularity, with a blog and active comments attached to each video presentation. A separate series of semi-annual meetings have been started in developing areas like Tanzania, drawing crowds of international do-gooders and generous donors. The idea, as TED would tell you, is certainly worth spreading.
D. Michael Taylor