TED Grows UP

08 Mar 2005|Christoper Ireland

I’ve been attending the TED conference since 1992. That means I’ve watched it grow from an unruly toddler, barely able to function, to what it is today: a mature, sophisticated “adult” with fully developed values, personality and lifestyle. This has given me an unusual vantage point to study how a successful conference evolves.

As usual for TED, this year’s event was spectacular in many ways. Most notable for me were the number of brilliant and confident women presenters, including an amazing 20 year old girl, Eva Vertes. In its earlier years, women rarely graced the TED stage and when they did, it was usually to sing.

Another highnote of this year’s event was the diversity of presentations. Within the first couple of days, we’d learned from biologists, photographers, mathematicians, physicists and musicians covering topics as distinct as string theory, biomimicry and the sexual proclivities of insects and ancient Greeks (the TED blog has a good review of each presenter). In earlier years, the presenters were more homogeneous; in fact, several were “repeat performers” coming back year after year.

Although the conference is ridiculously expensive (especially if you take 6 people as we did), at least they throw some mean parties. This year’s were the best in every aspect–the food, the conversation, the music, the environment. But there’s a thousand people attending now, so you either have to be very outgoing or you pick your niche early and concentrate on a few people. In past years, the parties weren’t as fun, but they were much smaller and more intimate.

While this latest TED was wonderful, I do miss some aspects of the younger, wilder TED. I miss the live debates between the presenter and the audience, some of which resulted in passionate shouting matches. I miss the frequent “out there” concepts, such as one audience member who suggested all cybercitizens join together and secede from the US, or the presenter who explained he had created a virtual farm where code was running free and breeding. I miss the glimpses of real personality on stage, like when Denise Caruso poked John Perry Barlow in the chest and challenged him to “come up with something new to talk about.”

I know TED can’t recapture its youth, and I wouldn’t want it to. It remains a fabulous experience, especially for newcomers. But, it’s no longer the emergent, chaotic event that ricocheted between brilliant and bizarre, and I miss that. But my guess is that somewhere a new TED-like conference is germinating, struggling to combine bold ambitions and bright ideas with human values and connections. If you know of a conference with good genes and lots of potential, I’d love to hear about it (so much so that I’m willing to endure the reams of spam comments I will undoubtedly get by opening this to comments…).

prev next