Shortly before giving his TED talk about British Columbia’s sacred headwaters last year, Wade Davis learned that Shell Oil president Marvin Odum was in the audience. Davis, a B.C.-born anthropologist and prolific author, got a message to the oil executive: The talk was not meant to be aggressive, or political, but a love letter to the Northern B.C. alpine basin.
Davis got on stage, wowed the audience with his environmental rhapsody, and afterward sought out Odum and his wife. He gave them a copy of his book; they talked about Shell and Canada. A few months later, Shell announced it had abandoned its plans for drilling in the region.
“I’m not trying to take credit for that in any kind of exclusive way,” said Davis from Washington, where he is explorer-in-residence for National Geographic, “but that’s the kind of magic that can happen at TED.”
Members of the TED (Technology, Education, Design) community, as it’s often called, speak about it with reverence – in rapturous, even religious terms. “The whole experience of TED is electrifying. And not simply because of the exclusivity or the renown of the people who come, but there’s just a kind of magic and energy in the air,” said Davis, who has given four TED talks and sits on its brain trust (the equivalent of a board). Later in the conversation, he described the people who attend as a “congregation.”
But one person’s religion is another’s cult, and there are signs that faith in TED’s mission may be waning.
It started out as an annual conference almost 30 years ago, and since 2006, when it started posting videos online, has grown into a global phenomenon. Here you will find deep thinkers – some famous (Bill Clinton, Stephen Hawking), many not – presenting often extraordinary ideas in signature TED form: the geeky walk-and-talk, the headset microphone, the absence (usually) of a podium. There is a time limit: 18 minutes, period. With its “Ideas Worth Spreading” slogan, TED’s content is wide-ranging, addressing technology, the economy, education. You can listen to Colin Powell explain why kids need structure, or watch a woman go deep-sea diving in a wheelchair. The talks are often powerful and the conference curation has been remarkably prescient.
“They have very, very good intuition about where trends are headed so they capture those trends very well,” says Ron Burnett, president of Vancouver’s Emily Carr University of Art + Design, who has attended the conference six times. “They’re kind of anthropologists in a funny kind of way.”
But even with the intellectual heft of a Bill Gates or an Al Gore as TED staples, the evangelical vibe of the event makes some people uncomfortable. Others grumble about its repetitiveness. After almost 30 years, has the market of innovative ideas been saturated? Can we really stand another PowerPoint presentation from an American intellectual on how to change the world in 18 minutes or less?
So when TED announced last week it was moving its main conference from Long Beach to Vancouver (in 2014 and 2015, with an option to stay beyond that) – and the simultaneous TEDActive (where the TED talks happening down the highway are live-streamed) from Palm Springs to Whistler – a debate erupted anew: Had Vancouver managed to land “the holy grail,” as one local headline screamed, or was TED’s move north an attempt to shake things up at an organization that has jumped the shark?
Politicians and tourism officials appeared ecstatic over attracting the event. In a news release, a consortium of tourism groups called it “one of the world’s most prestigious events” and declared: “In hosting TED 2014 in Vancouver, Canada can highlight the country’s innovation and intellectual capital. The arrival of the conference reiterates the extended power of tourism and confirms Canada globally as a great place to visit, to do business and to invest.”
But increasingly, TED – and its carefully-controlled offshoots such as TEDx (where locals license and follow the TED format and organize their own event) – is attracting criticism, too. The format has made TED a fun target for The Onion, but also for other, more serious, detractors who declare it idealistic, middlebrow and repetitive, and who scoff at its self-importance (TED is a public conference – but carries a $7,500 attendance fee – and would-be TEDsters need to submit an application essay). There have been critical essays on Salon, in The New Republic and what some took to be a snarky profile in The New Yorker. There have been charges of censorship related to talks by comedian Sarah Silverman and venture capitalist Nick Hanauer.
“TED has a PR problem; it’s now sort of a joke,” says Nathan Jurgenson, who wrote an essay, “Against TED,” for The New Inquiry. “They’re not really reaching the audience they want to reach and I would imagine they want to do things to shake it up and perhaps moving to Vancouver will do that.”