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.”
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.”