Michael Green stood on a cubic metre of wood on a Vancouver stage Thursday afternoon and explained his plan to save the world: wooden skyscrapers. “I’m here to talk to you about tall wood buildings, but I’m really here to talk to you about climate change.” Green, an architect, revealed his proposal to build the world’s tallest wooden building in Vancouver, 16 to 20 storeys high. “This race for height,” he said, “is happening all around the world.”
This was a TED talk: an audition, essentially, for next year’s main TED – Technology, Entertainment, Design – conference in California, whose theme will be “the young, the wise, the undiscovered.” And a TED team is travelling the globe looking for speakers who fit the bill.
On Thursday, they were in Vancouver (where TED has an operations office) auditioning, among others, a Grade 8 science-fair champ who has designed a “weather harvester” that turns rain and wind into usable energy; a professor who boiled down 15 years of research regarding the benefits of stress on the immune system into an eight-minute presentation; and the CEO of AdParlor, which studies the psychology behind successful Facebook ads. “The big taco performed extremely well,” said Hussein Fazal, presenting a photo of a giant taco. “People clicked on that taco for no apparent reason.”
The dark stage, the headset mic, the big screen, the big idea: The TED Talk is instantly recognizable. It has become a go-to information source/guilt-free distraction for the wired set, and has bled over into the world beyond: academics, the conference circuit, Hollywood. A promotional trailer for Ridley Scott’s highly anticipated Alien prequel, Prometheus (opening next week), imagines a 2023 TED talk by the fictional Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce), who explains his “intent to build the first convincingly humanoid robotic system by the end of the decade,” according to the movie’s online true-to-TED talk description.
TED has earned a lot of mainstream ink lately, following a high-profile dustup that involved charges of censorship. But this is not simply a case of the geekfest getting its 15 minutes of fame (or make that 18 minutes, the maximum length of a TED timeslot). For an increasingly frenzied population that demands cutting-edge information but doesn’t have the time (or maybe the attention span) to bone up, the TED talk has become a staple, offering a much-desired quick hit of deepthink.
“It’s like smart is the new cool, and TED is very good at making smart the new cool,” says Alfred Hermida, currently on sabbatical from the University of British Columbia School of Journalism, and at work on the book Tell Everyone: How Social Media is Rewriting the News as We Know It. “This is somewhere where you can get smart in 16 minutes.”
TED talks are supposed to highlight “ideas worth spreading,” and speakers generally perform without notes or a podium, and with passion and humour. They’re meant to be entertaining, dynamic. The point is to inspire as much as teach.
The Silicon Valley darling demands an almost cult-like devotion. At the always sold-out annual conference in Long Beach, the cross-pollination of ideas extends beyond the stage. One envisions Steve Jobs acolytes wandering the hallways with their lanyards and lattes, rubbing shoulders with the intellectual elite, chitchatting about astrophysics or Archimedes.
TED has grown exponentially since its birth in 1984 – a conference that was meant to be a one-off. Now owned and operated by Chris Anderson’s non-profit Sapling Foundation, TED boasts annual “mothership” conferences, plus a whole bunch of affiliated spinoffs, including local TEDx events that follow the format but are independently planned and co-ordinated. TED’s ascendance into nerd superstardom followed Anderson’s 2006 move to put the talks online, for free. They’ve been viewed by millions.
“We haven’t really done advertising or anything like that, so the way that people have come to know about TED is just because of others who are sharing the videos,” says Kelly Stoetzel, who is responsible for speaker acquisition. On this global talent search, she’s seen it all: the possibilities for biogas in Kenya; in London, a guy who can catch a cabbage on his head.
“They’ve hit on a model of presenting the human experience that really engages people,” says Allen Sens, a political-science professor who co-founded UBC’s TEDx Terry talks series for student speakers. “You don’t have to read a 400-page book by Malcolm Gladwell. You don’t have to sit and listen to a long lecture. You have this 18-minute moment, and it kind of captures a big idea and I think it makes people go ‘wow.’ ”
The rise of the TED talk has earned it a place in the popular culture. Hollywood celebrities attend to listen to such celebrity thinkers as Al Gore, Bill Clinton or Bill Gates. There are TED-made stars (brain researcher/stroke victim Jill Bolte Taylor, SixthSense inventor Pranav Mistry, Wii-remote genius Johnny Lee); stars who do TED talks (Annie Lennox, Tony Robbins, David Blaine); and big thinkers whose fame has extended to the mainstream as a result of the TED platform, most notably the charismatic British educator Sir Ken Robinson.
Students quote TED talks in university papers. You can find TED-based continuing-education courses. The success of online sites such as SlideShare (recently bought by LinkedIn for a reported $119-million U.S.) no doubt owes much to the TED phenomenon.
The impact on the wider lecture circuit has been particularly profound. “TED has elevated the game for presentations across the board,” says David Spark, the San Francisco-based owner of Spark Media Solutions. “Now, everyone has to step up their game. ‘Is it TED-like? Is it TED-worthy?’ People will ask things like that.”
TED is not without its detractors. It has been criticized for being elitist (cost to attend Long Beach: $7,500), male-dominated, too left-leaning, too cozy with corporate sponsors. Salon recently called it “a massive, money-soaked orgy of self-congratulatory futurism.”
The Salon rant followed apparent censorship of a talk by wealthy Seattle-based venture capitalist Nick Hanauer, who questioned the conventional wisdom that increasing taxes for the rich will be detrimental to job creation. “I can say with confidence that rich people don’t create jobs, nor do businesses, large or small,” he said in his talk.
That was deemed an idea not worth spreading: Anderson decided not to post the video – too partisan, and flawed, he wrote on his blog. (The talk was ultimately posted to YouTube, but not on Ted.com.)
While an ardent admirer of the TED concept, Hermida says the organization needs to be careful about controversies such as that. “It needs to consider how its actions might affect how people perceive the editorial integrity of TED as an organization,” Hermida said from Toronto this week. “If we need to talk about the editorial integrity of an organization, then we’re calling it into question, we’re discussing it; it becomes an issue. And what TED has going for it is its reputation.”