Ascending the escalator after emerging from yet another body-crushing, dignity-challenging Monday morning SkyTrain ride, I noted two young men standing on the escalator's right, deep in discussion, while I walked left. As I passed, I overheard one say to the other with some urgency and in accented English, "You come to Canada to dream" – emphasis on "dream." A five-minute walk west, I arrived at the TED conference, where $8,500 (U.S.) buys you access to a lot of dreams – and the results thereof.
Monday was the first day of the TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conference: a high-profile, high-priced event that attracts A-list speakers and attendees (a rule prevents me from revealing the names of any attendees I see here, unless they give me permission). The U.S.-based organization, which has made the term "TED talk" ubiquitous, moved its flagship conference from Long Beach to Vancouver last year.
Approaching the Vancouver Convention Centre on Monday, I noted that the city was showing off for the rich and curious, with float planes landing on shimmering sunlit-water, wispy clouds providing some drama above.
Inside, more drama. This year's theme is "Truth and Dare," and speakers include a former prime minister (Kevin Rudd, Australia), one of last year's Nobel Peace Prize winners (children's rights advocate Kailash Satyarthi) and a superstar performance artist (Marina Abramovic).
Perhaps the most anticipated talk will be delivered on Thursday by Monica Lewinsky, whose reputation was demolished by the truth, and who has dared to re-emerge in the age of social media, billing herself as patient zero in our culture of shaming.
There are all kinds of technological and artistic innovations to be outlined in the maximum 18-minute talks this week, such as a one on Monday evening about a breakthrough technology that uses oxygen and light to make 3-D prints. On Tuesday, the director of Google's self-driving car program is scheduled to speak. Other talkers are identified with titles such as "stratospheric explorer" and "exoplanet expert." A recipient of a TED fellowship outlined on Monday afternoon why colonizing Mars is not the answer to Earth's problems. Another discussed building a quantum computer. A third took on the matter of black holes. The place is thick with deep thinkers.
TED has attracted its share of criticism; detractors have suggested speakers can provide only a surface-level treatment of an issue in 18 minutes. Accusations of censorship have been levelled. TED has been called cultish and elitist.
Creature comforts certainly abound here. The gift bag offerings include a brain-sensing headband and $100 worth of Bitcoin. There are snack stations where you can grab feel-good munchies such as Quinoa Chips and beverages such as unsweetened crisp apple water. Lush has teamed with a local juice truck to create specialty juices for TED made with the same ingredients that go into Lush's cosmetics – that's how natural they are! – including concoctions such as the Tropical Hipster (which I am sipping as I write this).
The hallways are animated with sleek, comfy furniture and meet-up stations with names such as the Daring Truth Café. Tête-a-têtes have never been easier to set up, because this year's conference badges come equipped with a "whereabouts tag" that connects to an app that allows you to pin-point the location of attendees you want to meet, and help others find you. (You can turn it off if this creeps you out.)
And there's art. Artist Dustin Yellin, who recently made headlines by putting $10,000 in cash through a wood chipper to create eight paintings (for charity), is a TED speaker this year and has a four-piece installation here.
There's also the Delta Stillness in Motion interactive installation, where you enter a room of jagged mirrors, sit down and control the lights with your heartbeat. Your lowest recorded heart rate is then programmed into a little white ball that you take with you. (It is inspired by the work of former TED speaker Pico Iyer. There's a quote of his on the wall beside the door as you enter: "In an age of constant movement, nothing is more urgent than sitting still.")
Inside the specially constructed theatre (which is spelled the American way, "theater") where the TED talks are held, a new innovation this year: a Spidercam, a camera rig that captures the talks from the air (along with six other cameras). TED, which bills itself as offering "ideas worth spreading," posts many of the talks online at a later date so you can watch them at home, eventually, for free.
The conference will return to Vancouver in 2016 – from Feb. 15 to 19. The theme will be "Dream."