TED: Spectacle in the City

TED circus | BCBusiness

The Internet’s idea machine on all things Technology, Entertainment and Design has always taken risks to remain relevant. Coming to Vancouver may be TED’s biggest gamble yet

By now, most of us have a favourite. Maybe it’s Sir Ken Robinson describing, in his wry British accent, how our outdated school system smothers kids’ creativity (20 million views and counting). Or maybe it’s Dan Pink, Al Gore’s former speech writer, exposing the gap between what psychologists know about human motivation and what businesses mistakenly think (6.7 million-plus views). Or perhaps it’s Susan Cain arguing that prejudice against introverts buries too many good ideas (5.4 million-plus).

We’re talking TED, of course. Over the past 30 years, the annual Technology, Entertainment and Design conference has grown into a media juggernaut, fuelled by “ideas worth spreading” (as its tag line promises) and the most effective marketing on the social web. Today, this brand without borders aspires to reprogram our entire global operating system for the greater good.

Every day, a new TED Talk is beamed through our screens. Apps let us watch talks on tablets or smartphones. Friends share links to the online videos on Facebook walls, Twitter feeds and LinkedIn pages. Last spring, Telus added TED as a digital app for Optik TV subscribers. You can view TED-themed playlists on Netflix or download podcasts via iTunes. In cities around the world, franchised TEDx events—upwards of five a day—preach TED’s gospel, from Yellowknife to Yemen, and add to a vast online archive of upbeat speechifying.

This March, as TED celebrates its 30th anniversary under the banner “The Next Chapter,” the Internet’s biggest idea machine will descend on Vancouver’s waterfront Convention Centre (simulcast in Whistler as TEDActive) for five days of high-intensity presentations and high-net-worth networking (the $7,500-per-person tickets sold out long ago).

TED’s move from Long Beach to the Great Wet North—a test run of at least three years—surprised many observers. If organizers imagine TED2014 as a turning point in the event’s three-decade history, why walk away from its California home, in area codes that have already cornered the market in high-tech creativity? Then again, TED has always taken risks to remain relevant. And coming to Vancouver may be its biggest gamble yet.

TED2014 may be a big deal online, but the event itself—capped at 1,200 attendees—won’t exactly rock the Richter scale of economic impact. Local TED fans nevertheless hope the conference will jolt the city out of its coastal complacency and establish the Lower Mainland as a hub for innovation.

Over the past few years, Leah Costello, former director of events at the Fraser Institute, has sensed fellow citizens basking in the afterglow of the Winter Olympics. “We can’t just ride that wave,” she warns. “It’s like a guy in his sixties saying, ‘I’m still in good shape, I used to play ball in college!’ We’re not as hungry as other cultures and cities.”

To whet a civic appetite for big ideas, she launched the Bon Mot Book Club. Since 2010, the club has hosted major writers (Malcolm Gladwell of The New Yorker, Michael Lewis, author of The Big Short) and world leaders (Kofi Annan, Dick Cheney), plus 200 locals at $500 a pop for a signed book, hot dinner and lively postprandial discussion. Costello hopes TED’s move north will complement her own efforts to connect the city’s business and community leaders with serious thinkers and global bigwigs.

“Look at what the World Economic Forum has done for Davos in putting the city on the map as a place that is all about ideas,” says Costello, who paid the $15,000 “donor” fee to attend TED2014. “Branding Vancouver as that type of place is exciting.”

Alexandra Samuel, vice-president of social media at Vision Critical Communications Inc., agrees the city ought to seize its TED moment. “Vancouver is more of a doing city than a thinking city,” says Samuel, who moved to the West Coast 15 years ago, after completing her PhD at Harvard. She has aired her own ideas about online engagement at TEDxVictoria and TEDxSFU events. “One of the opportunities—especially for the business community, which is starved for really innovative thinkers—is for a valuable injection of intellectual life into our city.” 

Selling enlightenment to the masses, one speech at a time, has a long and lucrative tradition south of the border. You could argue that the TED concept started not in 1984, with the first conference in Monterey, California, but 110 years earlier, along the shores of Chautauqua Lake, in New York state. There, a summer camp to train Sunday school teachers morphed into a travelling circus of live entertainment and adult education that ran for half a century.

America had embraced lecture fads before. In the mid-19th-century, the Lyceum Movement toured minstrel shows and moral speeches from noted orators (such as Abe Lincoln), while novelist Charles Dickens generated Beatlemania-level hype during two U.S. reading tours, as he recouped profits lost to publishers who wouldn’t honour his British copyrights.

The Chautauqua movement was especially TED-like in its Utopian vision of self-improvement (a popular lecture titled “Acres of Diamonds” insisted riches awaited any man willing to dig beneath his boots) and its viral reach in a not-yet-globalized village. The original lakeside gathering (called the “Mother Chautauqua”) begat independent events, known as “daughters” (like TEDx mini-conferences), and mobile “circuit Chautauquas” (like the online videos of today). These week-long events relayed inspirational soliloquies and reformist gospels to 10,000 towns throughout the U.S. and Canada. Thirty million people attended at the peak—in 1925. Then an entertainment tax and the distractions of radio and cinema killed Chautauqua’s appeal.

Like TED, Chautauqua embodied a Manifest Destiny of the human imagination, a faith that ideas really were worth spreading. Teddy Roosevelt called Chautauqua “the most American thing in America,” while Woodrow Wilson dubbed it an “integral part of our national defence.” Critics pooh-poohed Chautauqua’s dumbed-down mass appeal. Psychologist William James called it “depressing from its mediocrity,” while novelist Sinclair Lewis dismissed it as “nothing but wind and chaff.” The same barbs are now hurled at TED, of course. Nassim Taleb, former hedge-fund manager and author of The Black Swan, called TED a “monstrosity that turns scientists and thinkers into low-level entertainers, like circus performers.”

Richard Saul Wurman, the founding ringmaster of TED’s idea circus, had the alchemical ability to convince smart people to talk for free, rich people to pay to listen and corporate sponsors to foot the remaining bill. Wurman had pioneered the field of information architecture—what today we might call data mapping—and applied to his conference the same insight that Steve Jobs (who demo’d the first Mac at the first TED) would bring to high-tech gadgetry: meticulous design must underlie successful innovation. While the Monterey, California, debut gathering of wealthy techno-futurists in 1984 didn’t break even, Wurman developed a profitable formula for an eclectic event that ran annually from 1990 onward.

The emotional punch of a memorized script amplified by high-tech stagecraft has pressured other conferences to compete. “It has upped people’s games,” says Richard Smith, director of the Centre for Digital Media, an academic collaboration involving four Lower Mainland post-secondary schools. “I come from the world of academia, where people read their papers for 20 minutes—it’s ghastly.” Now audiences expect a touch of pizzazz from every presenter.

TED the California conference only became TED the planetary phenomenon after Richard Wurman sold the enterprise, in 2001, to Chris Anderson, the British founder of Business 2.0 magazine and owner of publisher Future PLC. When the dot-com bubble burst, Anderson’s mid-life crisis found salvation in TED’s broad-minded mission. “No selling, no corporate bullshit,” he promised in an address to attendees in 2002. “Just the pursuit of interest wherever it lies across all the disciplines.”

As self-appointed curator, Anderson made the counterintuitive decisions to turn the company into a non-profit (run by his Sapling Foundation), to give digitized talks away for free (via a Creative Commons licence) and to let anyone host an independent TEDx event (once they agree to a catalogue of conditions). In 2006, TED Talks rode the early wave of YouTube’s popularity—to the tune of a billion views and counting. In 2009, Anderson moved the conference to Long Beach from Monterey to accommodate more attendees.

The pricey live experience works in harmony with the free videos to attract wealthy sponsors and Internet viewers under TED’s big top. Sponsoring “partners” include such major players as American Express Co., Pfizer Inc. and Samsung. “More than just about any event, it’s an offline event that has value because of its online footprints,” observes Alexandra Samuel. Global and local enterprises alike can learn from TED’s savvy social mediating, she adds: “It’s still hard for most businesses to move beyond content that’s about their products, to the idea that creating value and giving it away for free is the best way to build a brand.”

Shifting the main event to B.C. makes good sense, says Samuel, because Vancouver shares the cultural climate of North America’s West Coast—“We have that relaxed and progressive vibe”—yet remains apart from the groupthink of Silicon Valley. “It’s hard to be in San Francisco these days and not perceive technology as the be all and end all.” While tech plays a growing role in the local economy, Vancouver is still a port city driven by resources and real estate, with a complex multicultural and First Nations heritage. “As far as TED aspires to be international, being outside of the U.S. is an advantage,” says Samuel. “And it may be a while before people absorb that.”

Not everyone worships at the church of TED. “In the cult of TED,” complained Martin Robbins, in the New Statesman, “everything is awesome and inspirational, and ideas aren’t supposed to be challenged.” Other skeptics see an unsettling strand of Silicon Valley libertarianism. “TED is an insatiable kingpin of international meme laundering,” warned Evgeny Morozov, in a scathing review of TED’s e-book imprint for The New Republic, “a place where ideas, regardless of their quality, go to seek celebrity.” During the 2012 conference, #FiveWordTEDTalks trended on Twitter to spoof TED’s grandiose over-simplifications. (“How Pinterest Will Save Syria,” tweeted Morozov.)

In an attention economy dominated by LOLcats and BuzzFeed click bait, it can seem small-minded to complain about a non-profit that encourages viewers to sit still and listen to free 18-minute lectures. “In Internet time, it’s like reading Moby Dick,” marvels Brian Lamb, director of innovation at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, who balks at the “elitist” price of a TED conference but still bookmarks videos for future viewing.

As TED enters middle age, threats to its pre-eminence come less from critics than competitors, offline and online, in the “edutainment” business. The Khan Academy offers practical instruction via free YouTube videos. Massively open online courses—or MOOCs—enroll tens of thousands of students, for free or a small fee. Intellectual groupies can flock to the Aspen Ideas Festival, or Toronto’s ideacity, or the PopTech conference in Maine, dubbed by Wired magazine as “TED for real thinkers.”

“There is so much other stuff out there now,” says Richard Smith of the Centre for Digital Media, a Master of Digital Media program jointly operated by UBC, SFU, BCIT and Emily Carr University. “TED isn’t the icon it was at the beginning.”

For now, though, TED retains a unique power to turn obscure authors into bestsellers, scientists into celebrities and CEOs into oracles of the future.

Genevieve von Petzinger is one of only a handful of Canadians to crack the TED pantheon. As a first-year anthropology PhD student at UVic, she applied for a new fellowship program on TED.com and survived a rigorous filtering process. In 2010, she was named one of 20 TEDGlobal Fellows; last year, she got upgraded to a TED Senior Fellow.

“It was almost on a whim,” says von Petzinger, now 37, of her decision to apply, and how it changed her life. As a fellow, she gets free passes to two TED- Global and two TED conferences. “The biggest thing is the exposure to other disciplines,” says von Petzinger, whose research involves using digital tools to decode abstract symbols in prehistoric caves. At a TED in Long Beach, she met David Lang, who had open-sourced a remotely operated vehicle for exploring the ocean on the cheap. Now, the two TED senior fellows plan to use his OpenROV to chart caves in coastal Europe submerged since the last ice age.

“We get so siloed,” says von Petzinger. “TED gets you thinking in ways you hadn’t thought before.”

Recently, a colleague insisted I watch a talk by Sugata Mitra, a physicist and winner of the 2013 TED Prize. The $1-milllion annual award is meant to turn one big idea into a bigger reality. (Past winners include U2’s Bono and Edward Burtynsky, the Canadian photographer of industrial landscapes.) Mitra described his “hole in the wall” project (1,740,000-plus views) in which he installed computers in the sides of buildings so slum kids in India could surf the Internet to learn English and other topics. Mitra applied his findings to conventional classrooms to create “self-organized learning environments,” where “grannies in the cloud”—retired teachers in Britain—mentored students via Skype.

For skeptics, his “school in the cloud” embodies the techno-utopian naiveté at TED’s core. Like the blue-sky engineers behind Google Loon—the dream of delivering Wi-Fi to remote area codes via hot-air balloons—the project assumes poverty can be bootstrapped into oblivion with a better Internet connection. Forget public policy. Forget education funding. Forget global inequities or social prejudice: it’s the bandwidth, stupid.

I clicked on the video ready to disagree, but it was hard to resist Mitra’s charisma, his hopeful vision and the stories of his success. After 18 minutes, I was a convert.

A school in the cloud might be the best metaphor for TED, too. Next month, TED2014 will welcome a jet-setting entourage of 1,200 scientists, inventors, artists and entrepreneurs to the Vancouver Convention Centre for five days of big ideas. The rest of us will have to wait until the talks get uploaded into TED’s classroom in the sky. The value of the ideas, however, shouldn’t be measured in links shared or business cards exchanged. The true impact on Vancouver and Whistler will only emerge if we can download TED’s lessons out of the cloud, remix them in a network of local wisdom and apply the innovations to the next chapters we must write for our communities, our companies and our city.