TED versus Davos. Screwdrivers versus herring?

Apologies for the comparative quiet, dear readers. January was a quiet month – I didn’t stray beyond New York and New England, and I spent a lot of my time writing, working on some longer pieces that didn’t appear on the blog. If you missed having your aggregators filled with posts from me, never fear – I head to California tonight for the TED conference which begins tomorrow morning.

I’ve blogged from TED since 2006, reporting on four conferences (including TED Global in Arusha), and appear to have developed something of a reputation – in one of the documents sent to attendees, there’s a note that suggests that you shouldn’t feel compelled to liveblog unless your name is Ethan Zuckerman. No pressure, huh. Unfortunately, I can’t provide commentary for all of TED this year – I’ve got a previous commitment on Thursday, so I’ll be blogging tomorrow, then Friday and Saturday. I’ll be linking to friends who are blogging so you can follow through their eyes on Thursday.

There are a couple of articles comparing TED to the World Economic Forum at Davos, a comparison that’s interesting, but strained, in my opinion. Bruce Nussbaum asks which conference has the answers to today’s crisis, while Steve Rosenbaum sees big ideas championed at past TEDs that were thwarted in a Bush administration and likely to be embraced in the era of Obama. And certainly the back-to-back scheduling of the conferences invites comparisons and speculation about who’s flying directly from one to the other.

From a blogger’s perspective, they’re incredibly different events. Davos is all about panels – five important, powerful and/or fascinating people take the stage, and they’ve all got a few minutes to make their points before the next person takes the microphone. It’s virtually impossible to blog, and that would miss the point anyway, as the interesting conversations take place in hallways, over dinner, over drinks, and I’m not privy to most of them.

TED’s a different beast entirely. Sure, there’s lots of conversation between the folks in the audience between the sessions. But people actually pay attention to what’s transpiring on stage. The folks on the TED stage are frequently less well known than the people in the audience, but they’re almost uniformly fascinating, and the folks in the audience are, generally speaking, spending their time and money to hear what they have to say, not to talk with each other.

This helps explain why making TED talks available on video was such a brilliant move (and one for which June Cohen deserves to be widely celebrated.) Watching most panels from Davos wouldn’t be especially interesting to anyone but a conspiracy theorist – watching the vast majority of TED talks is worth your time. I try to make it to TED and Pop!Tech every year because they provide a great amount of raw material for thinking, ideas to mull over for the rest of the year. It’s possible Davos might do the same if I were more a finance junkie and less a big idea guy, but I suspect I’d still find the format frustrating.

I tend to group TED in my mind with other events that provide me food for thought for the rest of the year: Pop!Tech, O’Reilly’s ETech conference, Idea Festival, PUSH, PICNIC and others, all of which put extremely smart speakers on stage in a format conducive to getting big ideas across. Comparing TED and Davos feels like comparing screwdrivers and herring – they’re both things I like, things that can be extremely useful… and the comparisons get somewhat tricky from there.

I’m very glad that TED has instituted a fellows program this year, inviting in some of the brightest lights of the TED Global conference in Arusha and a wide set of global innovators. I’m especially glad that a good percentage of these folks are bloggers, so we should have a chance to get TED through different people’s eyes. And many of the folks involved are good friends, so I’m looking forward to the chance to reconnect. This is a place where Davos deserves some real credit – WEF has worked very hard over the years to make their conferences accessible to NGO folks as well as global bankers. Big conferences like TED and Pop!Tech have been realizing a similar need and opportunity, and I’m thrilled TED is doing well enough that it can make it possible for this impressive group of forty to attend the conference.

I am curious to see what the mood is at TED. Friends who attended Davos report the mood was pretty somber, which makes sense, as virtually everyone there is acutely focused on the current fiscal crisis. TED’s focus tends to be on much larger, longer-range problems, which might lead to a more hopeful point of view, one that sees the current crisis as a short-term one. I suspect that won’t be entirely true – it’s awfully hard to look a hundred years ahead when you’re worried about laying people off next month. I have high hopes that the folks on the TED stage will be looking decades in the future, but I’m not especially confident that everyone in the audience will be.

Okay, liveblogging tomorrow, packing today. See you from Long Beach.

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One Response to TED versus Davos. Screwdrivers versus herring?

  1. Pingback: Missing the TED Party | Bankelele

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