TED 2011

TED, begun in 1984, is an idea whose time has definitely come. It has evolved beyond anyone’s predictions. Still rooted in its presentations-driven structure—think extreme power point—the talks showcased new developments in technology, entertainment and design. Many attendees here have been coming for years—from the early Monterey days, through to the current incarnation in Long Beach, which has been engineered by Chris Anderson and his team.

At TEDLong Beach, 1000+ people pay a fee in the high four figures for four days of, well, ideas. (Full disclosure—I have been fortunate to be given a rare non-profit rate for this TED). Here, though, the people who generally present the ideas are the people that thought of them or implemented them, usually to global effect, people like Jane Goodall, Madeline Albright and General Stanley McChrystal. The line-up is a well-researched mix of science, technology, architecture, with culture, corporate efforts and celebrity interspersed.

I came specifically to engage with the inspiring TEDFellows Program run by TED Community Director Tom Rielly, and more generally to better understand the role of storytelling in conveying new ideas to stakeholder audiences. As only a two-time TEDster, the rituals of TED are still unfamiliar, even as I participated in them, and one takeaway is that many of the normal rules of social engagement go out the window here, and you have to adapt quickly.

Immediately it is clear that the atmosphere is charged with an unusual combination of focus and happenstance. Everyone is both seeker and doer. Most are CEOs or founders of organizations, with clusters of scientists, self-starters, philanthropists, inventors and investors. Everyone is curious, and extremely directed, but it is not appropriate to aggressively pitch unless invited.

Opening day begins the daily ritual of what I called the ‘A-rush,’ a moment that resembles the bull-run in Pamplona, only with humans. This goes on at the beginning of every session. As theatre doors open in the Long Beach Convention Center for the first main stage series of talks, hundreds of normally self-possessed people crush forward with well-honed primal instinct to get good seats near the front of the stage. The wave of eager humans flowing in is accompanied by a selection of high volume orchestral music, making the whole moment seem slightly cult-like. And a cult it is—TED is no doubt addictive and for good reason. It’s a heightened state of cognitive stimulation that you want to repeat. Again and again.

This bolstered my theory that experiences like Sundance Institute and its Sundance Film Festival, where I work, and TED, at base have a simple attraction—they provide a runner’s high for what are mostly non-runners—its days of immersion into the world of story and experiences, which in turn creates a new kind of community. Which brings up another TED ritual.

Photo by James Duncan Davidson.

In TED world, it is more appropriate to engage overtly with everyone, upending the usual tendency towards silence and restraint when in the company of strangers. Elevators and lines show the tendency to its extreme. In the real world elevators are quiet. At TED, if you aren't chatting with the person next to you and shaking the hand of the person across, you are kind of a loser—these are strange new social conventions that have to be absorbed instantaneously.  If you don’t introduce yourself and your companions immediately and enthusiastically, you are not only being rude in TEDville, you are committing a worse offense—you are missing an opportunity to make a connection; one that may have real outcomes. TED, like Davos, Sundance, Popech, BioTech and so many other of the new real-time community-focused gathering zones, have perfected the art of reducing the rule of six degrees of separation down to two—me and you. And at TED, you are guaranteed that there will be a connection with anyone, usually made in under 60 seconds, and they are often a real-life connection through work, friends or family. At self-curating gatherings like these, you really can’t miss, so why not talk to everyone around you?

TEDsters are people that aggressively love ideas and specialize in turning them into reality with some success. Here is where you will see a welcome message from the international space station, (which is also getting a live feed of TED), learn about clothes that you can grow, see forensics on astonishing computer bugs that are designed to be virtual warheads, see the unveiling of new interactive mapping interfaces, publishing tools, the world’s most extensive museum tour database, new medical and renewable energy advances, and we wave to Ai Wei Wei, a world-renowned Chinese artist under house arrest for dissident opinions watching us silently, live, at 3 a.m. Beijing-time on Skype, as Long Beach TED gives his recorded talk a standing ovation. Under surveillance, he could say nothing in reply.

Interlaced throughout TED are the rapidly multiplying evolutions; TEDFellows, TEDx, TEDActive and now TEDEd. These initiatives harness the capacity of TED to foster new ideas, and are some of the most interesting parts of the experience. And everyone’s experience is unique—it is very much what you make of it. For my part, it is often the musical experiences and talks about the effect of music on human brains that give some of the most satisfying and surprising moments. This year was not different. Main stage and impromptu musical performances were interwoven throughout the days and nights. New findings in neuroscience continue to explore the ways in which music has a profound and deep connection to all parts of the human brain. And so while discussion with the world’s greatest thinkers, artists and change-makers punctuated the entire experience, continuing work on partnerships and resources was successful, it was the simplest of things—first violinist Robert Gupta’s generous invitation to attend a rehearsal of the LA Philharmonic—that made my TED unforgettable. 

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