What sounds like the beginning of a terrible joke or an amateur attempt at surrealism is, in fact, the line-up for an hour-long panel taking place Wednesday night at this year’s TED conference in Monterey, California. All of the above characters are due to be together on stage to contemplate the question “How true is your world view?” in a session chaired by BBC correspondent, Matt Frei.
Such eclecticism is classic TED. Even though the acronym officially stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design, organizers have reveled in broadening their horizons in recent years, welcoming big thinkers from every facet of life to take their 18-minute moment in the spotlight (while sessions are themed around topics, speakers are generally solo – the hour-long panel discussion is a first for the conference, which runs through Saturday 1 March).
Last year, for instance, John Doerr, partner in venture firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, caused a stir when he choked up on stage when contemplating the realities of global warming. "I don't think we're going to make it," he had proclaimed, in an emotional talk remembered by those who were there as moving, inspiring – and practical, as Doerr outlined details of the $200 million bets KPCB was laying on green tech.
So who will tear up this year? Possibly many of the attendees, who might feel somewhat over-awed at the ambition of some of the session topic titles. Thursday morning, for instance, sees geneticist Craig Venter, DNA specialist Paul Rothemund, psychologist and memeticist Susan Blackmore and historian Doris Kearns Goodwin tackle the question, What Is Life?
That afternoon, president of the Children’s Health Fund, Irwin Redlener, investigative journalist Steven Emerson, Philip Zimbardo, he of the controversial Stanford Prison Experiments of the 1960s, which cast average Joes as prison guards or prisoners, with terrible consequences, and human rights expert, Samantha Power, consider Will Evil Prevail?
Friday afternoon brings together Nassim Nicholas Taleb, former trader and bestselling author, business futurist Peter Schwartz, public health scientist Sue Goldie and CEO of the Aspen Institute, Walter Isaacson to tackle What Will Tomorrow Bring? Saturday, meanwhile, rounds off with eco-evangelist Al Gore, economist Paul Collier and singer Nellie McKay asking, How Dare We Be Optimistic?
“We do have some unlikely session topics,” acknowledges curator Chris Anderson, whose former ventures include Future Publishing and Business 2.0 magazine (and who is not to be confused with Wired's current editor-in-chief of the same name). Anderson's Sapling Foundation has owned and run TED since 2001, though the conference itself has existed in some shape or form since 1984.
“But that’s the charm of TED," Anderson continues. "People don’t come to dig deeper into their normal routines. They come to think deeper, to see how what they do is connected to the broader world of knowledge, to be inspired and to renew a sense of possibility.” In other words, those looking for practical advice on how to run a mobile marketing campaign or wanting to learn best new business practices need not apply.
In fact, most people need not apply, regardless. Demand for the $6,000 tickets is huge. This year's event has been sold out for months. Pre-registration for 2009 is already closed, despite plans to move to a larger location in Long Beach, Calif.
In order to tackle the demand and yet grow without losing the spirit of the event, this year sees the introduction of an experiment: a satellite event in Aspen, Co. For $3,000, 300 attendees get to watch the goings-on in Monterey live via satellite while some speakers (such as the above-mentioned Isaacson) will repay the favor and broadcast from Aspen to Monterey. Given the audience of high profile tech-heads, the pressure’s on for it all to work seamlessly.
Remote simulcasts are one way to scale TED (TED Global -- an entirely separate conference held in a different city around the world every two years has also been taking place since 2005.) TED's own Web site is another. For the past year and a half, TED.com has been streaming videos of various talks from over the years (full disclosure: I wrote some of the blurbs for some of the design-related talks). All of the presentations are available for free, for viewers to watch online or to download.
The philosophy is in stark contrast with other successful online video strategies. Here are no short snippets of exploding soft drinks, laughing babies or cats cleaning windows. Instead, it’s very straightforward: the 18 minute talk, as it happened. And while some presenters certainly have an eye for the amateur dramatics, even swallowing a sword on stage can’t totally detract from the fact that Gapminder CEO Hans Rosling’s topic is dire global health trends. (As an aside, Google bought Gapminder after Sergey Brin and Larry Page met Rosling at TED; its networking opportunities are legendary.)
To date, 30 million TED Talks have been watched by 15 million people worldwide.
“The effect has been to transform TED from being a collection of 1,000 people once a year to [a group of] 100,000 people a day,” says Anderson. “But what has motivated us has been seeing not just the numbers, but also the intensity of the reactions… Seeing that kind of passion got me excited. In the magazine business, the circulation number isn’t nearly as important as the passion that a magazine instills in its readership.”
Rather smartly, the highbrow nature of TED’s content also acts as its own filter. Those with short attention spans won’t bother watching; those who do seem inclined to join the community. “If you’re someone who is excited by ideas and believes you don’t know it all, the talks become this wonderful playground,” claims Anderson.
As of now, the playground of TED 2008 is open for business.
What comes next? The Bloomberg Businessweek Innovation and Design blog chronicles new tools for creativity and collaboration, innovation case studies in both the corporate and social sectors, and the new ideas that have the power to change the way things have always been done.