Post-conference kerfuffle

After TED (and a tiny bit of BIL), I got about as far from my computer as I could get. My friends Nate and Ari were launching their new business – Scream Sorbet – and I spent Sunday hauling coolers full of organic frozen treats and washing out sorbet containers in an industrial kitchen in Emeryville…

As a result, I missed some of the blogospheric kerfuffle re: TED. Sarah Lacey published a piece on a BusinessWeek blog titled “Why I’m fed up with TED” – it’s been quite widely linked and provoked a variety of reactions, many of which she seems to have anticipated in her introductory sentence: “Maybe it’s sour grapes because I wasn’t invited, but I’m irked by the conference’s smugness and the nearly unqualified show of support from Silicon Valley.”

There’s a lot of sour grapes in Lacey’s piece, but some truth as well. It’s pretty hard to build an egalitarian, inclusive conference with such a high price tag. In fairness to TED, it’s not cheap to run a conference that has such high production values, that puts most of its content on the web for free, and that invests hundreds of thousands of dollars, plus thousands of hours of staff time in supporting people like Jehane Noujaim in launching Pangea Day or Neil Turok in building science academies across the African continent.

I have the opposite of sour grapes about TED. I’m very grateful for the fact that I’ve been able to attend these past few years. I’ve tried to pay my way by opening the conference, to the extent I can with text and the occasional photo, to the wider world. (And I greatly appreciate the kind words from everyone who appreciated the blogging.) I can understand why it seems like something of a closed world – closed events are like that. But I remember going to Davos for the first time and expecting it to be filled with world leaders chatting in corners to conspire and set world zinc prices. It was a little disappointing to discover that it was a bunch of guys in suits having panels about big issues and drinking too much. TED’s more fun, but there’s even less global conspiracy taking place.

There was a conspiracy at TED Africa in Arusha last year, but it was largely one founded by the 100+ young African activists and bloggers the TED conference invited to attend the event free of charge. Not the sort of thing that makes it into Valleywag, but there are several major collaborations that began in Arusha that have a good chance of transforming African business and people’s understanding of the continent. I would guess that TED lost a lot of money on the event. It’s to their great credit that they’re continuing involvement with African conferences and helping produce one later this year.

Tom Guarriello, who blogs and videoblogs from TED, has a fierce response to Lacey’s piece:

I am a nobody.

I am not a star.

I am not a celebrity.

I am not rich.

I am not famous.

Nobody knows who I am.

I have just returned home from my eighth TED Conference.

Now, according to the extraordinary number of snarky blogs, bitter Twitter tweets and downright cheesiness surrounding this year’s conference, those statements are supposed to be mutually exclusive. If you listen to these people, TED is a place where rich, famous stars go to listen to a stream of feel-good talks in an “aren’t-we-special?” atmosphere.

As an eight-time attendee: Bull.

I’m with Tom, up to a point. I’m not a star, a celebrity, and not especially rich. But lots of folks here are. And it does get a little surreal sometimes. John Moltz’s Twitter feed parodying the conference was especially spot on:

– At TED: My balloon animal presentation went really well. Great feedback from Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Stephen Hawking and Frank Chu. 12:36 PM February 28, 2008 from web Icon_star_empty

– At TED: Prediction: David Gallo’s 2-man baking soda-powered submarine will do more for third world development than the OLPC. 10:37 AM February 28, 2008 from Hahlo Icon_star_empty

– At TED: Larry Flynt to demonstrate his World Wide Colonoscope later today. I think I’m going to give that one a pass. 07:38 AM February 28, 2008 from twitterrific Icon_star_empty

– At TED: Up early to do yoga with Jennifer fricking Connelly. Then I.M. Pei is hosting an ironic breakfast featuring “Dadaist waffles”. Yum! 06:05 AM February 28, 2008 from Hahlo Icon_star_empty

– At TED: Five words – Jello shooters with Maya Angelou. 09:48 PM February 27, 2008 from twitterrific Icon_star_empty

– At TED: Lech Walesa is helping me prep for my presentation tomorrow. He knows almost as much about balloon animals as I do. 06:58 PM February 27, 2008 from twitterrific

But here’s the thing. I’m an idea junkie. There’s really nothing I enjoy more than being awash in provocative ideas for four days. One of the reasons I blog the damned thing is that it lets me make mental notes on ideas I want to explore at more length – Paul Collier’s ideas for saving nations from the resource curse, Neil Turok’s moving vision for Africa, Joshua Klein’s fascination with animals that evolve to live with humans, Paul Stamets and his belief that mushrooms can solve many of humanity’s problems. (Oh, and I plan to read every word Chris Abani ever wrote.) I’m a grouchy, anti-social bastard at TED because I’m fascinated by the ideas, not because I’m blogging – the blogging is a defense mechanism so people leave me alone and I can pay attention to the talks.

Do people come to TED so they can brush shoulders with Al Gore or Sergey Brin? Yes. Do most? I doubt it. Most people are riveted to the stage, paying attention to the ideas, the personalities, the passion of the people on stage. In other words, what they’re getting out of the event is what hundreds of thousands of people get from seeing TED talks on the web, only more concentrated, and in less comfortable seats.

I hope Sarah Lacey gets the chance to come at some point in the future – her colleage from Businessweek Helen Walters did, and it looks like she had a pretty good time. So did I.

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4 Responses to Post-conference kerfuffle

  1. ismael says:

    Honestly, I don’t care who TED attendants are or who TED was targeted to.

    The point is that I can access most content from their website and lots of interesting comments (thanks, Ethan) from attending bloggers.

    There were people and ideas I liked and people I didn’t: just like it happens in most conferences and dinners I attend. But I did like the philosophy of disclosing ideas, whatever they were.

    Would the event had focused on the “Al Gore’s and Sergey Brin’s shoulder brushers” it woulnd’t have been really different from any stinky morning TV talk show with fading stars. But it did not look to me this way.

    Ain’t we looking at the finger and not at the Moon?

  2. lilalia says:

    As someone who could not aspire to attending a TED conference, but possessing a generous enough spirit to wish those attending a good time, I can’t help but think that Sarah Lacey, and other such like-minded people, are behaving somewhat childishly.

    How many such events share so whole-heartedly, as TED Talks website does? Even this somewhat static transportation of ideas (i.e., only film and not dialog) has often been inspirational to me.

    Your blogging the event is very entertaining and interesting. I love the mixture of recounting the facts of the presenters, inter dispersed with your personal observations or opinions. You always find a good balance. Thank you very much for doing this for your readers.

  3. Andrew says:

    I attended TED@Aspen, which is essentially TED on TV for the junior varsity set. As a skeptical journalist type (and with my organization paying the way) I was a little skittish at first about embarking on this high-fallutin junket to the land of the full-length, fur-lined coats, all to watch TED on TV.

    But within an hour or two I was scheming of ways to attend next year’s TED. Yes, it was simulcast, so I couldn’t brush shoulders with the Sergey Brin’s or Cameron Diaz’s of the world. And yes, I could catch many of the presentations on TED.com later.

    But it was an amazing chance to bask in great and transformative ideas with really remarkable people who want to change the world. Everywhere I turned there was a new person, open to new thinking, eager for new ideas.

    How often do you get to be in that kind of environment? I am brimming with new thoughts and new connections … and understand why TED is such a phenomenon.

    I do hope, however, that Chris finds a way to keep the event intimate and authentic … and not make it the sole province of the well-heeled and deep-pocketed. That’s going to be tough … even at TED@Aspen’s lower price, $3,000 is a lot of clams for anyone without a great deal of discretionary dollars sitting around.

    But maybe, just maybe I’m inflating my esteem for the event because of the price tag (studies show that exacting a high social cost for entrance into an exclusive club heightens one’s value of membership … think frats and gangs). We’ll see how I feel once the buzz has worn off, if indeed it does.

  4. betsy says:

    Just wanted to say thanks so much for the blogging. I enjoyed TED all the way from my office computer!

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