In his essay, Jurgenson, who teaches sociology at the University of Maryland, famously called TED the Urban Outfitters of the ideas world. “The role of Urban Outfitters is to find what’s edgy, package it, label it and sell it to the masses and thereby extinguish what’s edgy about it,” Jurgenson explained from his Washington, D.C., home. “And so TED has sort of filled that role.”
More concerning, said Jurgenson, is what he calculates to be a homogeneity of speakers – who are overwhelmingly male, white, corporate, and who over-represent Silicon Valley. (This year, male speakers outnumber female speakers by about two to one.)
TED is closely associated with California (the conference started in Monterey in 1984), but it’s headquartered in New York, with an operations centre in North Vancouver. The North Van office, located in a business park across the street from a lumber supplier, employs more than 40 people at the moment. They were busy on Thursday, as tickets went on sale for next year’s B.C. events – and with Long Beach less than three weeks away. The main conference is expected to sell out in two weeks.
“It’s been a crazy morning,” said Katherine McCartney, director, operations for TED Conferences, who runs the place with her sister Janet McCartney, events director. Brought on board in 2002 when curator Chris Anderson bought TED, they are now tasked with the logistics of moving the event to Vancouver.
This includes designing a collapsible theatre, to be built into a ballroom at the Vancouver Convention Centre. The lack of an appropriate venue was a stumbling block, the women say, in bringing the event here, but the construction cost will be offset by seed money provided by a consortium of local tourism agencies – not unlike the funding provided to the IOC or FIFA, they say, to win the Olympics or World Cup Soccer.
When asked why TED is leaving Long Beach for Vancouver, the women offer vague responses.
“It’s time,” says Janet. “I think TED is a rolling stone; I think there’s always going to be change,” says Katherine.
TED fields calls weekly from jurisdictions eager to attract the event. Vancouver “moved its way to the No. 1 pole position,” says Katherine, because it had a lot to offer, not the least of which was a LEED-Platinum certified convention centre with stunning views through walls of glass. “It’s a great venue. It’s a great city. Why not?”
This year’s TED conference – the last in Long Beach, for now – is subtitled “The Young. The Wise. The Undiscovered.” Some of this undiscovered talent was found at auditions in select cities such as Vancouver, and includes architect Michael Green, who will have 12 minutes in Long Beach to speak about meeting worldwide housing needs sustainably by constructing tall buildings with wood instead of concrete and steel.
“It opens doors in a big way. There’s no doubt,” said Green this week. “It’s not really fair but being invited to this kind of thing … creates a sort of seal of approval for new ideas, and I think that is the power of TED.”
One of the criticisms levelled at TED is that it has become so powerful (so powerful, incidentally, that some people critical of the conference were not willing to speak about their concerns on the record) that it has essentially become a corporate tool: a gold notch on a résumé, an undeniably cool calling card.
But Green chalks up this beef – and all the criticism – to the tall poppy syndrome. “Anybody who kind of pops their head up above the other poppies, people want to lop it off. I think that’s kind of human nature. We want to kind of cut down things that are successful.”
Green, who has never attended a TED conference before, has an appointment to work on his talk with Anderson next week via Skype, and has signed up for a number of conference activities, including yoga with Elle Macpherson’s personal instructor, and an intimate, multi-session problem-solving exercise to end extreme poverty, led by Bono. This is a conference where intellectual rock stars meet the real deal.
So this could be a very big moment for Vancouver indeed – with the exposure that comes during the actual event, and the millions of online views that follow it – even if comparisons to the city hosting the Winter Olympics may seem a bit overblown.
“If any of us as Canadians have doubts about going home again,” says Davis, who is about to return to B.C. to take up a position at the University of British Columbia, “this was sort of the signature moment for me that said my home is as intellectually charged and exciting as any place in the world.”