My first TED

I just got back from attending my first TED conference. I know there’s a lot of curiosity (and some misplaced antipathy) for TED, so I thought I’d share my experience.

TED is easily the premier conference experience I’ve ever had. Spending $6,000, you’d definitely hope so.

The level of production is stellar… In the main hall, in the Simulcast Lounge (more people sit in a closed-circuit television lounge than in the main hall), at the parties. Expenses aren’t spared, and it shows.

Content

In talking to other attendees who had been before, the consensus was that this year provided the most consistently good content in recent memory. There was a remarkable balance of information and inspiration, so you’re head didn’t simply get too full of stuff. This is a challenge, considering the conference began at 8:15a and lasted until 7pm.

Highlight presentations:

  • Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor
  • Don’t let her website fool you. During the first session, she gave what proved to be the most profoundly touching talk of the entire event. Dr. Taylor is a neuroanatomist who suffered a stroke, and in her talk she depicted her experience, which was both funny and moving. Also, she held up a human brain with spinal cord attached.

  • Kaki King
  • Does amazing guitar work. And is 5’1″, so her guitar looks giant in her hands. She also has a remarkably low-key, easygoing, self-deprecating stage presence.

  • Doris Kearns Goodwin
  • The renowned historian spoke about Lincoln and LBJ, two figures she’s very familiar with. Goodwin is an amazing storyteller, and worth hearing speak if you get a chance.

  • Philip Zimbardo
  • The Stanford psychologist is something of a hero with his work. He regained some prominence after the Abu Ghraib atrocities became known, as his research over the last 30 years has been about how institutions and systems can lead to evil behavior.

  • Paul Stamets
  • Paul was a total surprise, and quite awesome. He’s a mycologist. He runs a fungi business, and he spoke about how mushrooms can save the earth. And he actually makes a good point.

  • Joshua Klein
  • Billed as a “technology hacker,” Joshua shared his experiments probing the intelligence of crows. It turns out crows are oddly brilliant. You’ve got to see this video. It made everyone in the audience gasp.

  • Benjamin Zander
  • A conductor of the Boston Philharmonic, a co-author of a book, and now a management guru, Benjamin had the audience beside itself with laughter, joy, and contemplation. He reminded me a bit of the great Victor Borge, though not as silly. If you ever get a chance to see him speak, do so.

For a conference whose name is derived from the words technology, entertainment, and design, there was surprisingly little of those three, and a whole hell of a lot of hard science. There were four physicists, two biogeneticists, psychologists, anthropologists, oceanagraphers, and I’m probably forgetting a few. It’s interesting to see how hard science is still the coin of the realm.

The Other People

I’ve never been to such a high-power, high-society confab. Famous actors (Forest Whitaker, Robin Williams, Cameron Diaz), songwriters (Paul Simon, Bob Geldof), billionaires (Sergey, Larry, Paul Allen, Jeff Bezos, probably others), and some personal idols (John Hodgman).

And you know what, it’s daunting. You can try very hard to play it cool, but if you have dorkish tendencies (like I do) you find yourself kind of staring dumbly. And wondering what on earth you have to say to John Hodgman, though you suspect you have a lot in common, only if you knew where to begin the conversation.

That said, I also found the attendees to be by-and-large warm and inviting. I was fortunate to know some folks going in, but I also met a ton of people, and pretty much everyone is open to a conversation. There’s a strangely high degree of warm fuzzies at TED (strange because it is such a power confab), but I think it speaks to the nature of the event Chris is putting on. When you have a woman share her story about her stroke, or you see the photos from Abu Ghraib that have never made it into the press because they are too shocking (Wired has posted some, and, really, don’t click that link if you’re not ready to be disturbed), or hear about detainment and torture in Nigeria from someone who suffered it, your jadedness breaks down and you become receptive.

Like any conference, one-on-one conversations are the true backbone. And I had a number of delightful and informative encounters. I was too chickenshit to talk to Forest Whitaker and some other folks I admire but have never met… Maybe next year. (I did talk to Matt Groening, which was pretty cool.)

It’s not all wine and roses

Overall, my experience at TED was remarkably positive. But everything can be improved. A few ideas…

  • keep the VC away from me
  • I just don’t like being around vult… err… venture capitalists.

  • TED needs younger people
  • One of the drawbacks of the high high registration price is that it aces out a lot of potentially interesting people. Particularly younger ones. I was definitely among the younger people at the event. TED is dominated by people in their late 40s and 50s. I fear it skews the conversations. I’d love for TED to be more representative. I think it would give the social times more life.

  • Security guards
  • Utterly impersonal uniformed security guards manned the doors, and they were quite a downer. They made everyone feel, I don’t know, suspicious. Security ought to be handled with a much much lighter touch.

  • Walter Isaacson
  • Just so you don’t think the presentations are all stellar, it’s worth noting there are quite a few duds. And none was dudsier that Ol’ Man Isaacson, blathering on about the opportunities for journalism and narrative in the digital age. “I love them wiki things!” (Well, not a direct quote, but a fair paraphrase). Walter is remarkably out of touch, and it didn’t make sense that he was speaking to this crowd.

  • Susan Blackmore
  • She’s become somewhat well-known thanks to her book The Meme Machine which posits that humans are subjects of selfish memes that desire to propagate. The thing is, she’s full of shit. She’s more a philosopher than a psychologist, and her arguments are remarkably reductive and essentially meaningless. Why people still listen to her, I don’t know.

There you have it

All in all, a great event. A valuable and worthwhile four days. I’m looking forward to next year.

8 thoughts on “My first TED

  1. I’ve followed TED as close as I could for the past four years, and I’ve long wanted to go. Not that I’ve contributed to a better world and deserve an invitation – at least a couple of years ago on the registration form you had to state what great things you had accomplished in your life to get a chance at an invitation (I think it’s still the case) -, but because I’ve long wished for a conference to invite me to deep dive into great thinking.

    From my standpoint – and again, I never been to the conference, so take it with a grain of salt -, TED is great because the barrier for speakers is so high that they all look to excel on stage, delivering mind-blowing and touching presentations.

    Would I, as a 25 year old european who’s never faced death, ultimate epiphany or grand wisdom, have anything to contribute? I don’t really think so. But the deep dive, that I would love. Luckily for us on the outside, Chris and the rest of the TED crew have been diligent in getting materials out on the site – it would be a shame if all that great thinking never left that niche of a little over 1.000 people.

    Anyway, I’m rambling – all this to say I’m envious of you Pete :-)

  2. A simple observation

    Finally, a little constructive criticism for this incredible event. I hope Chris reads this post.

    (Here’s one for you Peter. If the event was great for the most part don’t finish on two examples of bad presentations. It leaves the reader with a negative outlook on the event. I would suggest to come back with a highlight that really summarizes your experience.)

  3. “I’ve never been to such a high-power, high-society confab. Famous actors (Forest Whitaker, Robin Williams, Cameron Diaz), songwriters (Paul Simon, Bob Geldof), billionaires (Sergey, Larry, Paul Allen, Jeff Bezos, probably others), and some personal idols (John Hodgman).

    And you know what, it’s daunting. You can try very hard to play it cool, but if you have dorkish tendencies (like I do) you find yourself kind of staring dumbly. And wondering what on earth you have to say to John Hodgman, though you suspect you have a lot in common, only if you knew where to begin the conversation.”

    Peter – now that you’ve had some insight into how “first time attendees” feel towards the luminaries – do you think its possible for conference organizers to effectively assist newbie/luminary mingling or is it just too much social engineering?

  4. I fear it might be too much social engineering. For one thing, I wouldn’t want to put out the folks whom others find daunting — it’s not their fault that their wealth and fame makes others awkward. I also suspect that no matter how engineered, newbies will remain daunted, and you just have to accept that.

    I suppose you could have a newbie lunch or other meeting, and invite oldsters to come and mingle, and that might help break the ice a bit — let the newbies see that we’re all just human.

  5. I have to say that I am disappointed. I thought I raised you smarter than that. In that situation, you are not a fan, you are an equal to anybody there. And there is not a rich or famous person there that doesn’t know it.

  6. Well, Dad. Clearly you failed!

  7. I hang my head.

  8. [...] of Things, and ne’er-do-wells such as myself. I don’t have as much to say as I did last year, if only because the content wasn’t as dynamic (nothing matched the sublime heights of Jill [...]