When a friend asks if I am interested in a “staff ride”, not being a horse lady, I don’t quite know how to respond. But once informed it is an “exercise in tactics, strategy and leadership”, used to reimagine battlefield scenarios, I am intrigued. The technique is supposed to help leaders deal with subordinates and intense pressure, and make decisions amid incomplete information.
I receive a hefty briefing pack. I am assigned the role of Major General Franklin “Buster” Hagenbeck, commander of Task Force Mountain. We have to familiarise ourselves with our character and Operation Anaconda, an operation in Afghanistan in February 2002 to target al-Qaeda. As an army daughter, I feel relief that I am to channel my inner CO and not the feckless Pashtun warrior.
We gather in the Mayfair library of the Legatum Institute, a think-tank that promotes open economies and democracy. Amid croissants and Le Carré novels, it feels a long way from the Shah-i-Kot Valley (“place of kings”, in Pashto). We are armchair generals ready to navigate a historic fog of war, sifting valour from military rivalries, poor intelligence from personality clashes.
“Try to speak in the first person. It helps to have everyone angry at everyone else,” says Gary Schmitt, an official from the American Enterprise Institute, intelligence specialist and one of two moderators.
An American playwright is cast as General Tommy Franks. Setting the mood, she declares: “I am here to destroy an enemy and deliver a myth.” A Welshman invokes as research for his Pashtun character a dust-up with a local Afghan laundryman who stole his washing. Challenged on his battlefield errors, he deadpans: “It depends on what you mean by the word ‘organised’.”
I am nervous. I was shy of acting at school. In one unfortunate incident I read Macbeth’s mordant line, “He has kill’d me, mother” in such a rush it came out as a northern: “He’s killed me mother.” I know Hagenbeck only served in combat once, in 1983, so I decide he is impatient for “a piece of the action”. Soon, though, it’s clear I have missed my calling. I’m dropping military acronyms, pointing my finger accusingly at the air force leaders and opining on the morality of going back to save a soldier. It is tough to go from being a commander to the mundane politics of Operation Office Plan Strategy (OOPS). Now, what would “Buster” have done?
The Waitrose Summer party this year is at the British Museum. As we sip champagne, Paloma Faith belts out songs over the hall of retailers, a giant pile of asparagus and a greenly lit tyrannosaurus. I spy Stuart Rose, the former M&S chief executive, now chairman of Ocado. It is a chance to tease him about a text he sent me in which he mistook me for his chauffeur. “Bentley parked up. Would you be able to do the run up to xx in the BMW tues?”
Later that week, I’m across town in a whitewashed Clerkenwell basement for a royal visit. I am there to support my friend Charles Armstrong as he announces plans for a 9,000 sq ft Trampery in Old Street. This is the latest of his collaborative workplaces for start-ups, combining high-tech facilities with a cool retro aesthetic. Ahead of the visit by HRH Duke of York, Charles, who has a penchant for wildly dashing outfits – from silver shoes to 19th-century military jackets – has Instagrammed a picture of himself ironing a lilac shirt. A key guest is Rohan Silva, just in from Shanghai. As David Cameron’s architect of Tech City, he shyly receives a round of applause. HRH wades in: “The exciting thing is that you guys are getting on with it without reference to government.” Afterwards, I catch up with him talking to Rohan about entrepreneurship. Behind their heads is a deliciously incongruous lurid green sign saying: “Freak Out.”
Another museum party. This time I am in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh for the opening party of TEDGlobal, eating strawberry ice-cream with edible pansies. Outside this year’s Technology, Entertainment and Design conference the next morning are signs saying: “Up these stairs to TED. Nearly halfway to spectacular!” The first day starts with attendees summing up their lives in six words. It begins badly. One woman declares: “I’m not shy. I was woken this morning with a fire alarm.” She embarks on a rambling anecdote before being ushered off stage, admitting: “I can’t count!” Others opt for haiku-esque homilies. “Eliminate possessions daily. Uncover yourself daily,” and finally, “Oh. My. God. I’m. At. TED.”
After the first hour and a half I’m feeling slightly manipulated. We have veered from a man drawing “how to make toast” to participating in “massive multi-player thumb wrestling” (when a woman shouts, “Anyone got a spare thumb?”), to a tear-jerking story about a boy who had a stroke who then toddles on to the stage to embrace his father. It is emotionally vertiginous. Yet there is no getting off this ride. The next session starts with a reprieve – a man playing a mournfully moving carnyx, a Celtic horn used 1,800 years ago. But then we are into George Papandreou, the former Greek prime minister, recalling some of the worst hours of the Greek crisis: “We were depicted as ouzo-drinking, Zorba-dancing Greeks.” Now out of politics, he is putting his faith in the restoration of citizen-led democracy in Europe. “The ancient Greeks believed in the wisdom of crowds.”
Yes, but what can I say about the collective wisdom of this TED crowd? At the end of two days and 50 talks (impressively, 40 per cent are by women after a deliberate attempt to boost the gender balance), and with delegates from some 66 countries, I can barely recall a single anecdote. The knowledge is buried somewhere, laid down in strata that I can excavate later. There are the quirky animations of flying pigs, or of crazed jelly beans singing, “So many dumb ways to die”. Beneath that there are the first-person activist tales from the front line – from Saudi women drivers to organisers of Beirut marathons. Then there is a layer of mad factoids that I can exploit in pub quizzes – the number of neurons in a human brain (86bn), the 20,000 species of bees, how many years an average human spends asleep (32 years), and a new coinage for not being connected to the internet, “discomgoogolation”.
But perhaps the most instructive strata, especially for the audience of consulting partners, venture capitalists or innovation professors is TED futurism. A young man shows how to construct a 3D panoramic effect from 2D photographs. One professor shows off new gels that help to foster bone growth (in vivo bio-reactors). A man makes a live cockroach turn left or right by using a cockroach-sized, remote-controlled backpack. Finally, a slew of start-ups predicts drone-filled skies, delivering medicines to remote African villages or dropping packages on rooftops in urban centres. But, just as you are feeling comfortable with the concept of drones, TED drags you back with a talk full of apocalyptic warnings of an age of lethally autonomous robots. “I’m here to talk about real killer robots… we could see suicide drone attacks. They are hard to track and could lead to anonymous war and a landscape of rival warlords.”
It is sensory overload - squared. Once again, I want to lie down in a darkened room. After all the talks the musical interludes come as mental relief. Yet, this being TED, the music comes with a twist. A young man does a live piano composition on stage that involves enthusiastically plucking the strings of the open grand piano, transforming it into a giant guitar. A lady sings in a fairy outfit, a cross between Björk and Regina Spektor. But for me, the moment I felt most present amid the intellectual noise was a return to nature. It came from Bernie Krause, an academic who records wild soundscapes that he calls “biophanies”. His thousands of recordings include the diminishing sounds of songbirds in forests that have been selectively logged; the delicate chomp of a sea anemone encountering a microphone as it descends into its tentacles; and a mourning beaver whose partner has just been killed by an explosive. He turns up the volume to fill the room with his final sound – the roar of an Amazonian jaguar. It is a sound so primal and claustrophobically close that I feel like stalked prey.
On the train back from Edinburgh all that my mind is capable of is something simpler: turning the pages of a real book - The Invisible Man by HG Wells. (Although after what I witnessed at this event I wouldn’t rule out some future speaker talking about inventing invisibility suits.) I suspect it will take many months to sift the maddening from the meaningful of two days at TED.
The writer is editor of FT Weekend