Conference of cool

Image of Peter Aspden

The stage of the Oxford Playhouse is littered with the debris of the old information age, as if a director from the outer edge of the counter-culture had been commissioned to make an opera about the death of the mass media. On one side, there is a pile of discarded televisions, on the other a dusty newsagent’s stall. A couple of stuffed carrier pigeons sit at the back of the stage, overshadowed by an old printing press that looks like it last saw action in the days of Martin Luther. It is a bleak vision of pathos and cosmic irrelevance.

And then the lights dim, and we are stirred from our sense of loss by Verdi’s “Triumphal March” from Aida. In the middle of the stage, a giant video screen and a red, neon-lit “TED” sign draw us into the day’s events. This is the opening session of this year’s TEDGlobal conference – the cosy acronym stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design – and we are not being allowed to wallow in gloom or nostalgia. The theme of this year’s conference, held for the second successive year in Oxford, is “And Now the Good News”. The organisation’s imposing, silver-haired European director Bruno Giussani takes the stage. He asks us to put our pessimism to one side and consider the case for “rational optimism”.

Sixty speakers, over four days, will deliver a series of lectures to this end, to an invited audience of 750 figures from the worlds of business, technology and academia who have paid nearly $5,000 each to attend. The format is precise and strictly controlled: each speaker has 18 minutes to put their point across. There are no questions, no pauses. After the briefest of introductions, we are on to the next lecture.

The first speaker is a safe bet: Joseph Nye, the Harvard professor best known for his promotion of “soft power”, the paradigm-breaking concept that eschews the traditional carrot-stick approach to political power, and asks “smart” nations to develop their persuasive abilities to get the world to do what they want.

He gives a polished and fluent performance, lamenting the prevalence of the “fear” factor in contemporary international relations, and giving a compelling account of why the rise of China is an opportunity, rather than a threat, to the west. His presentation lasts 18 minutes, on the button. There is a wave of warm applause, and even a couple of whoops. We are up and running.

TED was founded in 1984, the brainchild of US architect and designer Richard Saul Wurman, who had noticed the convergence of themes in the worlds that would constitute the organisation’s title. At that first conference, held in California, there were demos of the newly released Macintosh computer and Sony compact disc. It was attended by many of the world’s leading IT thinkers, including Nicholas Negroponte, a professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the cognitive scientist Marvin Minsky.

The conference didn’t pay its way, and was not held again for another six years, by which time the idea behind it – to promulgate “ideas worth spreading” – had found its time. Since then the conference has been held every year in California and attracted a stellar, and sometimes unexpected, line-up of speakers: Bill Gates, Frank Gehry, Al Gore, Billy Graham, Peter Gabriel, Quincy Jones, Bono. In 2001, the conference was acquired by Chris Anderson, a British computer magazine publisher and entrepreneur, via his Sapling Foundation and has cemented its status as a non-profit venture that is gradually spreading its message, most notably through its website, which freely posts TED talks from the conferences online.

Such is the appeal of TED, which is routinely described as a cross between Glastonbury and Davos, that it even attracts improbable celebrities: actresses Cameron Diaz and Meg Ryan and basketball star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar have been spotted in its audiences in recent years, forcing the implementation of one of the conference’s strictest rules, banning the reporting of attendees: “It is not cool to tweet that you are sitting next to a celebrity,” explains Giussani at one point between sessions, to nervous laughter and furtive sidelong glances.

TEDGlobal is the original’s sister conference and has now settled into its Oxford home to nurture its internationalist ambitions. There is a strong streak of idealism behind the conference: a fundamental belief that the free and promiscuous flow of ideas has the potential to make the world a better place. At this particular conference, there is a raft of concrete, uplifting, practicable proposals suggesting that our planet can be saved by the apparently simple process of its most brilliant thinkers connecting with each other. Matt Ridley, a British author and self-styled “rational optimist”, puts it more colourfully in his 18 minutes on the first day: ideas are at their best “when they have sex” and procreate younger, fitter ideas in their place. The audience loves this talk, because it makes ideas sound sexy, and possibly because it has the side-effect of making sex sound profound. Steven Berlin Johnson, author of the bestseller Everything Bad Is Good For You, which argues that popular culture and video games have made us smarter, continues the theme with another memorable slogan later that afternoon, in his talk on how ideas are produced: “Chance favours the connected mind.”

These slick homilies may sound glib but it occurs to me that they may turn out to herald something of an intellectual revolution. As I slope back to my bedroom at my old Oxford college where I have chosen to stay for the week, I am taken back to my undergraduate days, studying philosophy in a room in this very quadrangle, where I am once more bumping my head against intransigent wooden beams.

I recall that we spent an entire term on Descartes’ Meditations, the work that led the French philosopher to his famous declaration: “I think, therefore I am.” It was a slim volume, yet we micro-analysed every last semi-colon of its tortured arguments. To do well, we had to find flaws in the philosopher’s reasoning. Our adolescent critiques spoke to no one outside our precious circle. To be a successful scholar was to regard inwards, and wade into an ever-denser intellectual world that made scant connection with contemporary realities.

Thirty years on, in the very same venue, TED is doing the precise opposite. It regards ideas as a kind of currency that has not been circulating freely enough to achieve its full potential. The most important thing about them is not that they should withstand the obsessive scrutiny of guileless teenage minds, but that they should be original, inspiring, accessible, and that they should do good. They are catering, in Giusanni’s words, for an “incredible thirst” for knowledge and information, and projecting a “new sense of possibility in a world that is becoming submerged by bad news”.

TED talks are a clever mix of the light-hearted, the analytical, and the rawly emotional. There is a high tolerance for the last category that is perhaps difficult for the notoriously sceptical British sensibility to swallow. When Annie Lennox, the singer and humanitarian activist, gives her talk on HIV/Aids in Africa, she chooses to concentrate on a positive story, showing before and after pictures of a little girl who received life-saving treatment for her condition. She is visibly moved as she recounts the transformation: “I don’t know if you can see the hairs on my arms ... ” We can’t, but pretend that we do. Giussani says there is a “lower intensity of cynicism” in a TED audience than in the outside world.

The show-stopper of day one is Naif Al-Mutawa, a bearded, bespectacled clinical psychologist and creator of The 99, a comic book project that showcases enlightened Muslim values in the guise of superheroes. They are shortly about to interact, thanks to some cross-cultural co-operation between publishers, with DC Comics’ Justice League of America in an ultimate act of pop culture détente. Al-Mutawa’s talk is fast-moving, touching and witty (he describes recently manning a food stall advertising “Free Falafel”, only for an earnest would-be protester to ask him: “Who’s Falafel?”) He gets an ovation and his talk is among the first to be made available from this conference on the TED website.

The quality of TED talks is frequently astonishing, word-perfect, immaculately-timed, shuffling potentially dense information in the lightest of ways. The time slot, 18 minutes, shorter than a Pink Floyd tune-up, seems perfectly prescribed for the average attention span, given that you have to listen to five in succession. You can take a break from the intense atmosphere of the Playhouse by watching a simulcast at the nearby Randolph hotel, where there is a more social vibe, and what seems to be the highest incidence of hugs and iPads per square metre in the western world.

Lewis Pugh sets a bracing tone for the second day. He is an extreme swimmer, who recently attempted to swim in a Himalayan lake near Mount Everest at a height of 5,300m. It was so cold, he tells us, that his first effort floundered within minutes. So he was forced to rethink, undergoing a “radical, tactical shift” that made him swim with “humility rather than aggression”. It worked. Here was the perfect TED talk: a little bit of action, some thinking outside the box, humbling words on the need to respect nature, a happy ending. A Hollywood scriptwriter could not have structured it better.

Giussani takes the stage again. Tickets for next year’s TEDGlobal, which cost $5,200, went on offer two weeks ago and are half sold, he tells the audience. “No pressure!” He tells me later that all TED conferences are sold out before the list of speakers is announced. “I really find that amazing,” he says.

One criticism that may be made of TED is that there is a certain uniformity of view – broadly liberal and occasionally self-congratulatory – that makes the proceedings too cosy. Ideas here don’t really rub up against each other in any proper adversarial sense; but maybe that, too, is a flawed legacy of our political and intellectual systems. Perhaps 2,500 years of Socratic inquiry, in which debaters duel dialectically to arrive at a higher form of “truth”, have ill-served us, and we are ripe for a new approach.

One sour note, notable for its rarity, was struck earlier this year when the US comedian Sarah Silverman gave a TED talk. She riffed on a joke about her desire to adopt a “mentally retarded” child that apparently upset some of her audience (the talk has not been released on Chris Anderson tweeted his own reaction: “I know I shouldn’t say this about one of my own speakers, but I thought Sarah Silverman was god-awful.” Silverman tweeted back: “Kudos to Chris for making TED an unsafe haven for all! You’re a barnacle of mediocrity on Bill Gates’ asshole.” Anderson drew a gracious veil over the spat: “I gotta say: you’re a way more eloquent insulter than I am ... Sarah, I wish you well.”

It struck me as a welcome note of friction. Ideas have the power to bite, to be misunderstood, to cause inadvertent offence. An awful lot of the world’s problems are down to precisely that, a fact that is easy to forget in the balmy TED world.

I have to miss the third day of the conference to travel to London, and it is disorienting. Listening to the news on the car radio, it seems suddenly full of flimsy, trivial stories. Giussani believes that part of TED’s success can be ascribed to the failures of the media. “They are less and less relevant in most of their daily coverage. The news cycle is dominated by bad news, cynicism and looking backward instead of forward. I am constantly amazed by how much space is taken by what has happened in the past.”

Back in Oxford, the final morning opens with something of a coup: a surprise and rare interview with Julian Assange, founder of Wikileaks, the website responsible for disseminating information that various authorities would rather you did not see. The Australian-born Assange, softly-spoken, ashen-haired, decries the cult of personality and has an ascetic and rigorous approach to the gathering of hard facts, which he describes as the only true form of journalism. This makes him, paradoxically, extremely charismatic. The audience is rapt as we are shown the famous leaked video of an American air strike on Baghdad that is Wikileaks’ most significant triumph.

Assange is asked by Anderson to explain what motivates his hounding of errant governments and corporations, and he gives a haiku-like response: “Capable, generous men do not create victims, they nurture them.” The audience silently processes the reply, a little too absorbed to whoop or cheer.

A few hours later, TED wraps up. Anderson warns the audience of the dangers of “TED-crash”, the feeling of deflation that follows a short, sharp period of intellectual intensity. To help offset it, there is a barbecue and punting expedition. I watch with amusement as a physicist struggles to master his pole, zigzagging from one bank of the river to the other. But we are all, perhaps, too far gone in the realm of ideas to handle such prosaic matters.

The physical occurrence of the TED conference is almost the least important thing about it, because now comes the more serious matter of spreading the word. We have all networked, exchanged e-mail addresses, connected. We have been reminded that some of the world’s most brilliant and dynamic thinkers are busying themselves to find new solutions to the world’s awesome problems.

It is not as if we don’t need their help. New times need new ideas. “I think, therefore I am” didn’t take us as far as we might have hoped after all. Our thoughts should begin to veer away from plunging ever more pointlessly into the human psyche, and spread outwards, via the miracles of technology and communication, to mix, to mingle, to have sex. Call it the techno-Enlightenment, a new Age of Reason that doesn’t draw its boundaries at the steadfast walls of an Oxford college. It is a deeply idealistic, even romantic, ambition. But it might just work. Annie Lennox, giving a familiar encore to a rollicking performance at the Playhouse, captured the TED spirit best of all: sweet dreams are made of this.

TEDGlobal 2011 ran from July 11-15 in Oxford,

TED’s excellent ventures

TEDx events are big TED’s international mini-me: they follow the TED “ideas worth spreading” ethos but, unlike the main conference, they are rarely for more than 100 attendees, and are coordinated and tailor-made locally, writes Victoria Maw.

Recent TEDx events have included “TEDxYouthInspire” in Accra, Ghana, and, last month, ‘TEDxOilSpill’ in Washington, DC.

Though each TEDx event will be different, there are some fairly strict guidelines to ensure the TED brand retains its integrity. If you are interested in hosting your own TEDx, here’s how to do it:

Get a licence: Nobody can host a TEDx event without a licence (see for details). Licences are awarded on a case-by-case basis. Previous hosts include a strategic planner at Nasa and an African reforestation activist.

Embrace the spirit of TED : Hosts must show that the event is in the spirit of TED: “focused on the power of ideas to change attitudes, lives and ultimately, the world.”

Follow the correct format: Just as at big TED, TEDx talks need to be succinct (18 minutes) and carefully prepared. They should “foster learning, inspiration and wonder”. You will also have to show two pre-recorded talks from the TEDTalks video series – choices range from mycologist Paul Stamets on six ways mushrooms can save the world to Bill Gates on mosquitos, malaria and education.

Do not profit from TED: TEDx events are not for profit. Admission should usually be free and where there is a charge to cover the cost of the event, it should be minimal and cleared with TED. However, see next point.

Curate your audience: Free does not translate as free-for-all. Each TEDx event can have no more than 100 attendees and TED recommends that hosts “carefully curate their audience, selecting diverse attendees who can contribute to the conversation”.

Go forth and promulgate: All original content from each TEDx event must be recorded on video and posted on TED’s YouTube site. Content can also be streamed live from the event.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.